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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Big dreams and false claims: How Colombians got embroiled in Haiti assassination

Colombian officials have said that their investigation into their citizens’ involvement in the assassination plot is focused on Germán Alejandro Rivera, a retired captain, who they say appears to have been a primary contact for the US-based recruiters.

By: New York Times | Bogoto |
Updated: July 14, 2021 1:14:08 pm
Big dreams and false claims: How Colombians got embroiled in Haiti assassinationSecurity forces conduct an investigation as a soldier stands guard at the entrance to the residence of Haitian President Jovenel Moise, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (AP file photo)

Written by Julie Turkewitz and Anatoly Kurmanaev

“Gentlemen,” the text message from the recruiter began, “there is an American company that needs special forces, commandos with experience, for a job in Central America.”

The pay, the recruiter went on to explain, would be life-changing: between $2,500 and $3,500 a month, many times what the veterans earned as retired members of Colombia’s armed forces. And the mission was noble, the recruiter claimed.

“We are going to help in the recovery of the country, in terms of its security and democracy,” the recruiter went on, urging the men to get fit now. “We are going to be pioneers.”

Instead, 18 of the recruits are now in Haitian custody, suspected by Haitian officials of being linked to a plot to assassinate President Jovenel Moïse, who was killed last week in a nighttime assault on his residence.

Three of the recruits are dead.

Most appear to have been approached in the months before Moïse’s death by a group of businessmen, some based in the United States, who exaggerated their credentials and the scope of their companies. They misled some of the recruits about the project they were embarking on and broke promises to pay them thousands of dollars.

The New York Times reviewed time-stamped recruitment text messages and interviewed a dozen men who were approached to take part in the Haiti operation earlier this year but did not end up going in June — in some cases because they were supposed to be part of a second wave of recruits scheduled to land in Haiti at a later point, they said.

In interviews, the Colombian veterans said they had been told by recruiters — in person and through WhatsApp messages later shared with The Times — that they were going to fight gangs, improve security, protect dignitaries and democracy and help rebuild a long suffering country.

Behind the effort, the recruiters claimed, was an important American security company with US government funds to back them.

But CTU, the company that enlisted the Colombians and whose logo and name was emblazoned on the black Polo shirts the recruits wore as a uniform, was run from a small warehouse in Miami by Antonio Intriago, a Venezuelan-American with a history of debt, evictions and bankruptcies.

Colombian officials have said that their investigation into their citizens’ involvement in the assassination plot is focused on Germán Alejandro Rivera, a retired captain, who they say appears to have been a primary contact for the US-based recruiters.

Colombian consular officials still have not had access to their detained citizens, forcing them to rely on the information provided by Haitian authorities, Colombia’s deputy foreign minister, Francisco Echeverri, told reporters on Monday.

But according to reports in the Colombian media, citing the country’s intelligence officers, Rivera told Haitian prosecutors that he was among a group of seven retired Colombian soldiers who entered the presidential residence on the night of the assassination.

The reports do not mention what role he or other Colombians might have played in the assassination — but they add a layer of doubt to the already murky story and raise questions about how privy some members of the Colombian group might have been to the plot that unfolded in the first hours of July 7 and left Moïse dead and his wife injured, but no one else hurt.

The mystery is confounded by the frequent stopovers that the head of Moïse’s presidential palace guard, Dimitri Hérard, made in Bogotá in the months before the assassination. Hérard, who was trained in neighboring Ecuador, transited through the city six times this year on his way to other Latin American countries, spending at least two days in the Colombian capital on at least one occasion, Colombia’s defense minister said during a news conference on Monday.

The recruitment of Colombians for the mission appears to have begun when Duberney Capador, a former soldier with 20 years of experience on the force, got a call in April from a security company asking him to put together a group that would “protect important people in Haiti,” said his sister, Yenny Carolina Capador.

Duberney Capador, 40, had retired from the military in 2019 and was living with his mother on a family farm. He jumped at the opportunity, said his sister.

The text message addressed to the “gentlemen,” which described the project as an important nation-building effort, came from a phone number that belonged to Capador, according to his sister.

He soon became a chief recruiter for the operation and began messaging his former military buddies. Many of them in interviews said that they trusted him because he was one of them: an ex-soldier who had spent years traversing Colombia, fighting left-wing guerrillas and other enemies in rugged conditions.

Many were also in financial difficulties. The majority had retired not long before the pandemic, and some had been rejected from the most lucrative and desired private security jobs in the Middle East because of their relatively advanced age.

“I’ve been out of the military for four years and I’ve looked for work,” said Leodan Bolaños, 45, one of the recruits who never made it to Haiti. What he had found paid too little, he said.

“Señores,” Capador wrote in the April text message he sent to at least one ex-soldier. “We have spent a long time waiting for other projects and nothing, nothing.”

Capador organized the men in WhatsApp groups with names like “First Flight,” and urged them to buy dark polo shirts and boots and ready their passports.

The US government would be paying their salaries, he promised, and the job would open doors for work across Central America, he promised in at least one of the messages.

The US government has denied any role in the plot.

By mid-May Capador had flown to Haiti to find a home base for the men and gather supplies.

“All we know is that we were going to provide security in an exclusive area under the command of Mr. Capador,” said one recruit who asked that he not be named to protect his safety. “We weren’t interested in how long, or where, or the name of the person we were going to protect.”

But Capador, who was one of the Colombians killed in the aftermath of the attack on the president, appears to have been just one player in a bigger plot.

Colombian authorities say that Capador traveled to Haiti with another former ex-soldier: Rivera, the retired captain who is at the center of Colombian authorities’ investigation into the role their citizens may have played in the assassination. They also say that Rivera had contact with Intriago, the owner of the Florida-based security company, CTU, and with James Solages, a Haitian American detained in connection with the president’s death. Intriago did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Many of the recruits flew from Colombia to the Dominican Republic in early June, crossing into Haiti by land from the Dominican Republic. Their flights were paid for by a credit card registered in Miami, Colombian officials said.

The men stayed together at a cottage with a pool, and remained in constant contact with their relatives, several of whom spoke to The New York Times.

But rather than the nation-building they were expecting, their days were relatively mundane, full of exercise, English lessons and cooking.

On Monday, July 5 they held a barbecue at the compound and some sent pictures back home.

On Tuesday, July 6, the men believed they would receive their first paycheck. But that money never arrived, according to two of their relatives.

Then, on Wednesday, July 7, Haitian officials say that a group of attackers stormed Moïse’s residence on the outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, at 1 a.m. The gunmen shot him and wounded his wife, Martine Moïse, in what Haitian authorities called a well-planned operation that included “foreigners” who spoke Spanish.

As authorities investigate the former soldiers’ role, some of the recruits still in Colombia said they felt that they had been tricked.

“He assured us that it was a good job, that he was not going to get his hands dirty,” said Bolaños, a 15-year military veteran, of Capador. “Our colleagues who are there, all of them were deceived.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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