Haiti’s Philippe dropped his guard before his capture by U.S. agents

Former Haiti coup leader Guy Philippe boards plane to Miami escorted by U.S. federal agents

Former Haiti coup leader Guy Philippe, who has been wanted for more than a decade on drug charges in the United States, was arrested Thursday in Haiti and escorted to Miami by U.S. federal agents.
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Former Haiti coup leader Guy Philippe, who has been wanted for more than a decade on drug charges in the United States, was arrested Thursday in Haiti and escorted to Miami by U.S. federal agents.

Four days before his arrest, ex-rebel leader and newly elected Haitian Senator Guy Philippe swaggered through Haiti’s capital on a VIP tour.

Traveling with armed bodyguards, including Haiti National Police officers, he visited the chic Best Western and El Rancho hotels in Petionville, partied at Hotel Ibo Lele and dined on goat meat at a private home in the La Boule suburb.

Cocky and confident, Philippe, 48, even swung by a newly opened restaurant run by a close friend of interim President Jocelerme Privert. Afterward, thumbing his nose at the head of state, Philippe posed for a photo with heavily armed men in pink and white T-shirts. The photo would later explode on social media.

Philippe’s fate would be sealed when the Ninja-like figure, who always had a network of informants and seemed to be one step ahead of the feds, forgot the first rule of his military training: Always check your surroundings.

“You never knew where he slept,” said a high official inside the Haiti National Police with knowledge of the covert operation that eventually led to Philippe’s arrest Thursday and subsequent removal from Haiti by U.S. agents later that night.

As he showed up at the Provisional Electoral Council office in Petionville Thursday to collect his senatorial certificate, he vowed to be the kind of senator that “the people have never seen before,” while dismissing the criminal allegations against him.

“They can say what they want [about me],” he said. “I have a six year mandate.”

But as Philippe walked through the election headquarters, he had no idea he was under surveillance. A man wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase had infiltrated his circle. Posing as a newly elected member of parliament, the man was actually an undercover Haitian cop who listened to the senator-elect plan to drop in on Scoop FM during its popular afternoon political talk show. Soon, three undercover cops were dispatched to the station.

Back at the headquarter of Haiti’s Central Directorate of the Judicial Police (DPCJ), agents with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, which had been coordinating Philippe’s eventual arrest, were tracking every move as Philippe toured the capital under heavy security, often switching vehicles and riding with sirens and without license tags.

For more than a year, the DEA, State Department and U.S. Marshals had been working on a mission to seize Philippe, developing informants on the ground as well as collaborating with Haiti National Police’s anti-drug trafficking unit, La Brigade de Lutte contre le Trafic de Stupéfiants (BLTS). In all, 20 Haitian officers were involved in the operation, but only team leaders knew the target.

“We took him like a baby,” the officer said, describing the moment Philippe walked out of the radio station and into police hands. “He had become extremely arrogant.”

Sources familiar with the investigation say Philippe’s seizure was timed to prevent him from invoking sovereign immunity after being sworn in as a newly elected senator on Monday.

After a squad of Haiti National Police officers arrested him, DEA agents were already on standby to bring a plane from the neighboring Dominican Republic to pick him up and fly him to Miami. A video of his departure shows what a big catch the longtime fugitive was when agents allowed a picture to be taken of a handcuffed Philippe as he boarded the plane.

On Friday afternoon in U.S. federal court in Miami, Magistrate Judge Barry Garber ordered Philippe held without bond, declaring he was a flight risk, but not a danger to the community. His arraignment was scheduled for Jan. 13. Philippe, wearing a beige prison jumpsuit and cuffed at the ankles and wrists, said he “would follow whatever my attorney tells me.”

As a first step, Philippe might try to thwart his prosecution by claiming that he was a senator-elect at the time of his arrest and that status affords him sovereign immunity, according to his defense attorneys.

Attorney Richard Dansoh, joined by lawyer Zeljka Bozanic, said he planned to travel to Haiti next week to obtain some documents from the head of that country’s senate to support an immunity claim. The legal challenge, however, is that Philippe had not yet been sworn into office yet.

“I think I would be foolish if I didn’t preserve that option now,” Dansoh told a group of reporters outside the federal courtroom.

Senate President Ronald Lareche, who went to the judicial police to find out the motive of Philippe’s arrest, said that while the elections law afforded him certain protections as a candidate, as a senator-elect, “he doesn’t benefit from any parliamentary immunity.”

On Friday, an indictment — returned by a federal grand jury 12 years ago — was unsealed, charging Philippe with several cocaine trafficking and money laundering counts from 1997 to 2003.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Lynn Kirkpatrick, who has prosecuted numerous Haitian drug-importation cases, is seeking to recover a total of $1.5 million in drug profits from Philippe.

On Friday, U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer released a statement saying: “The passage of time does not thwart the unwavering commitment of [this] office and our local and international law enforcement partners to identify, apprehend and prosecute narcotics traffickers and money launderers who threaten the global community.”

Philippe’s arrest and its timing has rattled both elected officials and members of the business community in Haiti, where Philippe, a former top cop, rose to prominence in 2004 as he led the rebellion against then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

In the aftermath of his arrest, supporters set up fiery roadblocks in the Grand’ Anse region, where he lived and was elected to serve as a senator. They attacked police stations, set buildings ablaze and slashed the husband of a former candidate for the Lower Chamber of Deputies.

“Things are now more or less calm now,” Jérémie Mayor Claude Harry Milord said, noting that tensions were much worse in surrounding rural cities of Beaumont, Duchity and elsewhere where Philippe had implanted himself as a modern-day savior of the people.

A former candidate in Haiti's 2006 presidential elections, Philippe was allowed to run this time around despite having two warrants against him because of a loop hole in the country’s 2015 elections law.

For the first time, the law did not require potential candidates for elected office to present a police certificate indicating whether they had a criminal history. Signed by former President Michel Martelly, the law allowed dozens of accused kidnappers, drug dealers and others with criminal records to run for legislative office and get elected.

Philippe, who was previously rejected as a candidate for the Haitian Senate because of the sealed U.S. indictment, was among them winning a six-year term in office in the Nov. 20 legislative elections to represent the Grand’ Anse. His arrest came four days before he and other newly elected lawmakers were set to be sworn in. And as a senator, Philippe would have been entitled to immunity from arrest or prosecution during his term in office. He also had immunity as a candidate. This week, however, he was neither a candidate nor a full-fledged senator, making him vulnerable.

Philippe, whose coup led a coup in 2004 that toppled Arisitde and his government, has long proven elusive to both Haitian and U.S. authorities. Several attempts to arrest him over the years have failed, including a recent effort by Haiti National Police after he was accused of involvement in an attack on the police headquarters in the southern Haitian city of Les Cayes. At least six people were killed in the 2016 attack. An arrest warrant was issued for him after the attack.

Philippe, wanted in the United States since the filing of the Nov. 22, 2005, indictment, not only had connections in Haiti’s government and police department but he also paid off informants and insiders to tip him off about any attempts to arrest him.

His group of handpicked police officers allegedly provided security for Colombian cocaine shipments as they were transferred to traffickers in Haiti for export to the United States, according to sources familiar with the U.S. investigation.

Philippe has always denied the allegations against him and said that it has no jurisdiction to arrest him.

Philippe’s leadership in the 2004 coup d’état against Aristide led to the president’s ouster, and Human Rights Watch accused him of overseeing unlawful killings. In the aftermath, Philippe — along with other Haitian police officers, politicians and drug traffickers — became entangled in a U.S. crackdown on Haiti as a narcotics hub for Colombian cocaine.

The investigation was initially sparked the previous year when Aristide agreed to expel a powerful drug-trafficker, Beaudouin “Jacques” Ketant, who was considered the Pablo Escobar of Haiti. Ketant pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 27 years for smuggling tons of Colombian cocaine through Haiti into the United States. But he also accused Aristide of turning a blind eye toward the “narco-state” on the island.

Ketant’s punishment was eventually cut in half by a federal judge because he had helped federal prosecutors make so many cases against others involved in the illicit trade.

Nearly two dozen Haitian suspects, including Aristide’s former security guard, Oriel Jean, were convicted by federal prosecutors in Miami. After Jean’s conviction in 2005, he played a pivotal role as a cooperating witness, including the investigation of Aristide himself, though he was never charged. Jean was assassinated in 2015 after returning to Haiti.

But Philippe had always eluded attempts to catch him.

In the summer of 2007, a secret U.S. mission launched from the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba to seize Philippe failed. There would be several other equally unsuccessful attempts.

A Miami defense lawyer who ran the narcotics section of the U.S. attorney’s office during its crackdown on drug-trafficking in Haiti said Philippe’s capture is historic.

“Philippe’s arrest and expulsion from Haiti brings closure to an era when the island was being used to the advantage of drug traffickers and Haitian officials,” attorney David Weinstein said.

“Removing Philippe from the government and requiring him to answer for his actions from a decade ago will go a long way towards making sure that the same situation won’t occur again.”