US seeks to keep Haitian president assassination suspects’ FBI, DEA ties under wraps
McClatchy Washington Bureau April 28, 2022
MIAMI — The undercover work of former U.S. government informants suspected of plotting to kill Haiti’s president has compelled Miami federal prosecutors to seal off evidence about their past activities in the interest of U.S. national security, saying the information is classified and cannot be turned over to the defense in the widening investigation.
The decision means that the U.S. criminal case, which has run parallel to a faltering probe in Haiti, could become even more secretive in the United States and leave a trail of unanswered questions about how a group of Colombian commandos, a former FBI informant connected to a Miami-area security firm and two ex-Drug Enforcement Administration informants all came to be accused of participating in the deadly assault.
The U.S. move to protect classified evidence comes as the separate case in Haiti has stalled: the mandate of the fourth investigative judge expired on Monday with no formal charges brought against any of the roughly 40 suspects still jailed in Port-au-Prince months after the Haitian president’s murder last July.
But one suspect who is not in custody is Arcángel Pretel Ortiz, believed by Haiti National Police to be “one of the heads” of the presidential assassination plot. Pretel, a Colombian with reported links to his native country’s military dating back to the 1990s, is believed to be a former FBI informant — a potentially embarrassing relationship for U.S. authorities.
Meanwhile, a former Haitian senator is set to be extradited from Jamaica to Miami to face U.S. charges in the high-profile assassination case. John Joël Joseph was cleared for extradition last week when a Jamaican prosecutor opted not to pursue charges that he illegally entered the English-speaking Caribbean nation. He, his wife and their two sons were arrested in early January at a house in a rural parish.
Joseph’s extradition is expected to be followed by other suspects, including three U.S. citizens of Haitian descent with ties to South Florida who are currently jailed in Haiti.
The U.S. criminal investigation into the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, has turned into a national security case in Miami, one that has so far netted the arrests of about 20 Colombian commandos accused of participating in the deadly assault, a Haitian-American pastor with presidential ambitions who once filed for bankruptcy in Tampa, and a convicted Haitian drug trafficker who once double-crossed the DEA and now stands accused of providing housing and weapons to the killers.
Although no details were revealed in court papers, prosecutors in Miami recently notified a federal judge that they want to keep certain “classified information” connected to the Moïse assassination case under seal for the judge’s eyes only.
Sources familiar with the case say that prosecutors want to keep under wraps the past undercover work of former informants for the DEA and FBI who have been implicated in the assassination plot — along with other classified information shared between the U.S. and Haitian governments that pertains to national security interests. Prosecutors also want to keep secret any sensitive investigative methods, the sources said.
Judge says OK
Last week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Walter Norkin told U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez that prosecutors want to seal sensitive evidence in the Haiti president’s assassination case under the Classified Information Procedures Act. Norkin asked the judge to appoint a Justice Department security officer who would present the classified information in secret to Martinez. The judge approved that request.
Martinez’s decision could rub U.S. lawmakers the wrong way. Earlier this year, they approved a new Haiti policy that, among other things, requires the State Department to provide them with information on the ongoing U.S. investigation into the presidential slaying. President Biden signed the legislation into law last month as part of the omnibus spending bill.
While the protective order in the Miami case could help save U.S. law enforcement agencies from embarrassment or from revealing what they may have known about threats to Moïse’s life prior to his murder, it doesn’t help the United States’ image in Haiti, where questions persist about what American officials knew about the assassination plot. Some of the jailed suspects’ ties to the DEA and FBI continue to fuel suspicions about the agencies’ possible involvement, which the agencies have denied.
One legal observer familiar with the U.S. case said he believes federal prosecutors and agencies are hiding potentially embarrassing evidence in the name of “national security.”
“I think there are a can of worms here,” said the observer, who did not want to be identified.
In Haiti’s northwest region, which Moïse visited months before his murder, feelings of U.S. culpability in his killing are so strong that it is fueling anti-American sentiments. In other areas of the country, many Haitians, taking into account the U.S. government’s heavy presence in Haiti’s domestic affairs, refuse to believe that it was caught off guard by the killing.
At the moment, there is no Haitian judge assigned to move the case forward, and because of the potential involvement of high-profile Haitians, many are fearful of taking it on.
“I think it’s a problem,” a former Haitian investigative judge, who did not want to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the matter. The ex-judge said he fears the United States may be using the protective order “to give some people cover.”
“When you look at the report of the [Haitian investigative police], the obstacles in the case with gathering a series of information. ... I cringe to think there isn’t a group of people whom they are trying to protect when they made this decision,” the judge said. “There had to be international complicity; a president is dead.”
The Haiti National Police report, first obtained by the Miami Herald, details how former Colombian soldiers and two Haitian Americans stormed the president’s Port-au-Prince compound in the middle of the night on July 7, 2021, claiming a DEA, U.S. Army and U.S. Marshals operation was underway.
The report also said that several of the more than 40 suspects initially arrested in the country told Haitian authorities that they were informed in the weeks before the raid that the plan had the backing of U.S. law enforcement agencies.
Some of the suspects allegedly recounted a story about a U.S. government plan to arrest powerful Haitian politicians and businessmen for drug trafficking and money laundering. The supposed plan was allegedly laid out before Reynaldo Corvington, the owner of a security firm, a month before Moïse’s assassination. Corvington’s lawyer, Samuel Madistin, described the alleged meeting in a five-page letter last summer after his client was arrested in the plot along with his son-in-law.
The six-person delegation that purportedly visited Corvington and claimed to be representatives of the U.S. government allegedly included James Solages, a former maintenance worker in Palm Beach County who left his job to work for Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU), a Miami-area security firm; and Joseph Vincent. Also a Haitian American, Vincent was once a DEA informant with a reputation for impersonating U.S. federal agents in Haiti.
Madistin said that the decision by the U.S. judge to classify some of the information as secret is “anti-democratic.”
“Justice is a pillar of democracy and in the matter of justice, when a crime has been committed, the first obligation of the state is to reestablish the truth,” Madistin said. “That is the thing that is most important.”
Madistin, who revealed the story in the five-page letter soon after the arrest of his client, would like to know more about the relationship Vincent and other informants had with U.S. authorities, and what would be the impetus for such a seemingly outlandish tale. But under the U.S. protective order in the federal court case in Miami, he may never know.
“I want to know the entire truth about this case,” he said.
Madistin fears that the decision to seal off classified information in the Miami case will have negative repercussions in Haiti, where the United States carries considerable political pull and has been involved in trying to rebuild the dysfunctional justice system.
“Haiti always looks at a lot of things happening in the United States as a model,” Madistin said. “This is a negative model that Haitian governments will try to imitate. So it will make Haitian justice more beholden to the executive than the public than it already is today.”
In the United States, the Classified Information Procedures Act is designed to protect matters and methods of national security, allowing the government to present evidence directly to a judge without disclosing it to the defendant or public. According to Section 4, “The court, upon a sufficient showing, may authorize the United States to delete specified items of classified information from documents to be made available to the defendant through discovery.”
Similarity to Mar-a-lago case
Under this scenario, prosecutors would have to share classified evidence with defendants’ attorneys only if the information was deemed relevant and could help exonerate their clients, which is a customary legal obligation in all criminal cases.
The last time the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami used the classified information law was three years ago in the prosecution of a Chinese businesswoman charged with trespassing at President Donald Trump’s private club, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach. Prosecutors cited national security interests as they presented classified information on Yujing Zhang to the judge, but in the end her case did not rise to the level of an espionage indictment. She was convicted at trial of trespassing and lying to federal agents.
Miami lawyer Michael Sherwin, who prosecuted the Mar-a-Lago case in 2019 and later served as the acting U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C., said the classified information law is normally invoked in terrorism or espionage cases. But he said it could be employed in the assassination of Haiti’s president because certain former government informants have become suspects and their past undercover work is likely classified.
“The whole purpose of the law is about protecting classified information,” Sherwin told the Miami Herald. “The classified information could be about the current (assassination) case or past cases.”
“These [informants] could have participated in nefarious activities in the past,” including being recorded on wiretaps or stealing money from the government, he added.
“As a rule, all evidence after someone has been indicted must be turned over to the defense,” Sherwin said. “But by filing a CIPA notice, prosecutors are able to keep the classified information from the defense with a judge’s approval. ... They are going to fight tooth and nail before turning it over. What makes it so difficult for the defense is that they are not allowed to get on the same football field with the prosecution and the judge.”
While the CIPA notice was filed only in the prosecution of Colombian commando Mario Antonio Palacios Palacios for now, the classified information law would be used when other defendants are indicted for their alleged roles in the assassination.
Palacios’ defense attorney declined to comment about the prosecution’s plan to use the classified information law.
A criminal complaint, drafted by the FBI, accuses Palacios, 43, of conspiracy to commit murder or kidnapping outside the United States and providing material support resulting in death, knowing that such support would be used to carry out a plot to kill the Haitian president.
The FBI criminal complaint says that a group of Colombians, including Palacios, and another group of Haiti-based dual Haitian Americans participated in the plot to kidnap or kill the president. One alleged co-conspirator, a dual Haitian-American citizen, traveled to the Miami area on June 28, 2021, to provide other individuals with a written request for assistance to advance the plot, the complaint says. The Herald has learned the co-conspirator is Solages, who claimed to be a translator and is in custody in Haiti. The visit by Solages to the Miami area is considered key in the U.S. jurisdictional argument on why it has the authority to prosecute suspects in the murder of a foreign leader abroad — part of the planning allegedly took place in South Florida.
Another defendant brought to Miami, Rodolphe Jaar, is a former DEA informant and convicted cocaine smuggler. He is accused of playing a central role in providing housing, weapons and other support to the group.
The Haitian police investigation report doesn’t go into details about the suspects in custody but does identify one individual not in custody, Arcángel Pretel Ortiz, as a prime suspect.
A mysterious figure whose whereabouts remain unknown, Pretel is suspected of being a former FBI informant and boasted about his ties to the agency. He had contact with some of the Colombian commandos, Solages and Christian Emmanuel Sanon, the Haitian-American pastor in custody in Haiti who sought to replace Moïse as president with the help of CTU, the Miami-area security company. CTU is owned by Antonio Intriago, a Venezuelan émigré and Doral businessman.
Pretel is a business partner of Intriago, who had a second security firm, CTU Federal Academy LLC, that allegedly recruited the soldiers out of Colombia. CTU Federal Academy LLC lists Pretel as an officer. One of the soldiers with whom he had direct contact, Duberney Capador, was among the three Colombians killed by Haitian police after the president’s murder. Capador also was among the four Colombians who allegedly penetrated Moïse’s bedroom on the night of the assault, wounding Moïse’s wife along with killing the president, according to Haitian police.
A Colombian, Pretel lived in Miami, went by the name “Gabriel Perez” and bragged often about his U.S. government connections. According to Haitian police report, Pretel claimed to have made several trips to New York and Washington “where he met several executives of the American government with the aim of a political transition in Haiti with Christian Emmanuel Sanon.” In a 2015 letter about a U.S. extradition case out of Colombia, Pretel was identified as a confidential FBI informant in a 2015 New York federal drug indictment and accused of carrying out “a judicial set-up.”
Intriago’s defense attorney, Joseph Tesmond, said his client acted within the law when he assisted in a security plan to remove Haiti’s president from office but knew nothing about any conspiracy to kill him. “My client engaged in no criminal activity, and he was not aware of the plot to assassinate the Haitian president,” he said.
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