Crime

Onetime Haitian kingpin Jacques Ketant to be freed from prison after helping feds in Miami

Ketant lived in this mansion in Haiti before he went to prison in 2003.
Ketant lived in this mansion in Haiti before he went to prison in 2003. Miami Herald File

A onetime Haitian cocaine kingpin who had accused former President Jean Bertrand Aristide of accepting drug-related bribes will soon be released from a U.S. prison after helping prosecutors convict a dozen fellow traffickers, government officials and police officers in a long-running case that exposed Haiti as a “narco-state.”

Beaudouin “Jacques” Ketant saw his 27-year sentence chopped in half on Friday by a federal judge after the U.S. attorney's office in Miami recommended that reduction because of his “substantial assistance” as a witness in other successful prosecutions.

The one major exception: Aristide, though investigated for years, was never charged in connection with Ketant’s sprawling case.

Ketant, 52, has been held at a low-security federal correctional institution in Louisiana and will soon be transferred to immigration authorities. He plans to fight his deportation because of the potential danger that might await him if he returns to his homeland, where Aristide's former bodyguard was recently killed — possibly for cooperating with U.S. authorities after serving a three-year prison sentence in this country.

His defense attorneys, Ruben Oliva and Paul Petruzzi, said their client, who has been in prison since 2003, was “ecstatic” over U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno's decision to grant prosecutor Lynn Kirkpatrick’s recommendation to reduce his sentence by half: 13 1/2 years.

“He's been on a long, rough journey,” Oliva told the Miami Herald on Monday. “We’re very happy for him.”

“We expect he will be released from federal prison shortly,” Oliva added. “There are avenues that he could pursue to remain in the United States.”

Among them: The Convention Against Torture, a United Nations treaty signed by the United States.

Ketant’s lawyers and prosecutors had initially discussed his proposed sentence reduction three years ago. But it was dramatically delayed after the judge received a letter from a local Haitian man who claimed the drug trafficker had ordered the “assassination” of his mother — Ketant’s former mother-in-law — back in 1997. Claudie Adam was gunned down at a West Kendall shopping center.

At Friday’s hearing, however, Kirkpatrick told Moreno that the “cold” murder case was no longer relevant to Ketant’s proposed sentence reduction.

Before his expulsion by Aristide in 2003, the flamboyant Ketant had lived as a virtually untouchable kingpin in his hilltop mansion overlooking Port-au-Prince. Aristide bowed to U.S. pressure to expel him because Ketant's bodyguards beat up an official at a private school attended by children of U.S. Embassy personnel.

That extraordinary move by Aristide allowed federal authorities to put Ketant on a plane for Miami and charge him with conspiring to ship loads of Colombian cocaine through Haiti by paying off island officials and police officers.

“When he arrived in the United States, [Haiti] was probably the first true narco-state,” Oliva said during a previous hearing on Ketant’s proposed prison reduction. “He was cooperating not only against fellow drug traffickers but also government officials.”

Ketant, who pleaded guilty soon after his expulsion, grabbed center stage in the government's drug-trafficking investigation in the days leading up to Aristide's sudden departure as president in February 2004.

At his sentencing that month in Miami federal court, Ketant made a stunning allegation: He said he could not have directed his cocaine-smuggling network without paying millions in bribes to his friend Aristide. Ketant accused the president of turning Haiti into a “narco-country.”

Aristide's Miami attorney, Ira Kurzban, has repeatedly denied those allegations.

Drug Enforcement Administration and IRS agents focused for years on Ketant's allegation of paying off Aristide, but they struggled to uncover any evidence such as financial records to prove it, according to law enforcement sources familiar with the case.

In 2011, Aristide emerged from exile in South Africa and returned to Haiti.

But Ketant's inside information helped the feds gain momentum to prosecute many other defendants from Haiti, including Aristide's security chief at the presidential palace, Oriel Jean.

Jean, whose testimony in U.S. courts a decade ago helped take down key figures in Haiti's drug-trafficking underworld, was shot to death last month in Port-au-Prince.

A Haiti National Police Spokesman confirmed Jean's murder not far from the international airport. Garry Desrosiers said he was shot twice by three men on a motorcycle. News of Jean's death and photos of his bullet-riddled body lying face down in a pool of blood on the street quickly spread through social media.

A friend of Jean's who declined to be named for fear of reprisals told the Herald that Jean was riding with a Dominican co-worker when the vehicle was struck from behind by a motorcycle. Jean was gunned down after he stepped out to check the damage.

“Nothing happened to the Dominican guy. [Jean] was the main target,” the friend said.

In 2005, Jean was sentenced to three years in prison in a money-laundering plea deal after helping the U.S. attorney's office convict several Haitians and Colombians of moving tons of Colombian cocaine through Haiti to the U.S. Among those convicted were Haitian former top police officers — some of whom are back in Haiti after serving their sentences — and a powerful drug kingpin, Serge Edouard.

Edouard received a life sentence after Jean testified that the drug trafficker gave him and other law-enforcement officials hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect his cocaine shipments to the United States.

At Jean's November 2005 sentencing, U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez complimented him for his “good work.”

In his testimony, Jean indirectly implicated Aristide and testified against him before a grand jury. But Aristide was never charged and the statue of limitations ran out before U.S. law-enforcement officials could prove if he collected kickbacks from traffickers.

After his release from prison in September 2006, Jean was given a special visa that allowed him to legally live and work in the United States. After running into President Michel Martelly while he was campaigning, Jean decided to move back to Haiti where he had hoped to get a job in the administration, his friend said.

Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles contributed to this report.

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