Haitian rebel Guy Philippe pleads guilty in Miami to money-laundering charge
Guy Philippe, a former police commander who eluded capture in Haiti for more than a decade even as he won a seat in the Haitian Senate, was sentenced to nine years in prison in Miami federal court Wednesday for accepting bribes to protect cocaine smugglers who used the island to ship drugs to the United States.
Philippe, 49, pleaded guilty in late April to a drug-related, money-laundering conspiracy charge. His plea agreement allowed him to avoid going to trial in May on a more serious trafficking charge that could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life. Instead, he faced up to 20 years on the money laundering conviction. Under the federal sentencing guidelines, the punishment amounted to about half that time.
Philippe said nothing to U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga as she affirmed the sentence agreed upon by the defense and prosecutors. His prosecution, which initially attracted a throng of supporters including his wife to the federal courthouse earlier this year, ended on an anti-climactic note: Only one curious spectator who showed up on Wednesday for his sentencing hearing, which lasted ten minutes.
Outside the courthouse, a handful of Haitian activists from an opposition group, Veye-Yo, waved a photo showing Philippe and Haitian President Jovenel Moïse campaigning together, along with the words, “Drug-dealing brothers in crime.”
The sentencing culminates a federal investigation into drug trafficking, money laundering and corruption at the highest levels of Haiti’s government that began more than a decade ago when the island became a notorious hub for shipping South American cocaine into the United States.
For years, Haiti’s former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted in 2004 in an armed revolt led by Philippe, had been investigated by a Miami federal grand jury for accepting drug bribes. Charges were never filed.
Philippe’s punishment was the result of a deal that became inevitable after Altonaga refused to dismiss the case based on Philippe’s claim of immunity as a senator-elect in Haiti. She also chastised the federal government for not trying harder to arrest Philippe since his 2005 indictment. He was arrested by Haitian National Police and turned over to the Drug Enforcement Administration in early January, days before his swearing-in.
“By denying the motion to dismiss, it put the defense in a difficult position,” said Philippe’s attorney, Alan Ross, who handled the defense with lawyer Zeljka Bozanic. “What you saw was both parties compromising. The defendant gave up his right to trial, and the government gave up its chance for a longer sentence.”
Philippe’s wife, Natalie, was absent from the courtroom. “We did not want to make this into a show,” Bozanic said.
She added that the defense did not file the customary character letters with the judge because “we wanted this to go as smooth as possible. This was the best possible outcome he could get.”
Prosecutors Andrew Camacho and Lynn Kirkpatrick said they agreed to the lower end of the sentencing guidelines — ranging from 9 to 11 years — for Philippe’s punishment because they believed the amount of time was in line with other Haitian officials who had pleaded guilty to similar money laundering offenses. They cited two defendants: former National Police chief Jean Nesly Lucien and former presidential security chief Oriel Jean.
Lucien was sentenced in 2005 to almost five years after admitting he received $180,000 in drug proceeds as bribes. He did not cooperate with authorities.
Jean, bodyguard for Aristide, was sentenced in 2005 to three years in prison after helping the U.S. Attorney's Office as a cooperating witness to convict several Haitians and Colombians of moving tons of Colombian cocaine through Haiti to the U.S. He admitted receiving $400,000 in bribes. Jean, who testified in the only Miami trial that ended with the conviction and life sentence of a Haitian drug trafficker, was gunned down a decade later in Haiti’s capital. His assassination remains unsolved.
The U.S. government’s cases were built largely on cooperating witnesses involved in drug trafficking or protection in Haiti. In those cases, prosecutors relied mostly on witnesses and bank accounts rather than seizures of cocaine.
The prosecutions of Haitian officials were challenging because the illegal activity happened in an impoverished foreign country where police officers were often on the take and tracing bribes was difficult. Also significant, the cocaine loads shipped from Colombia to makeshift airstrips in Haiti were long gone by the time U.S. investigators uncovered the trafficking through the island.
“No matter what their level of involvement, all of the players in the conspiracy played an integral role in the success of the illicit operation,” said Miami defense lawyer David Weinstein, a former chief of the narcotics section at the U.S. attorney’s office.
“However, cases like [Philippe’s] have to be built on more than physical evidence and often jurors find reasonable doubt in a cooperator’s testimony. It made practical sense for both sides to enter into this resolution.”
Philippe’s case was all the more difficult because he had been on the lam for almost 12 years while cultivating a Robin Hood reputation in the western reaches of the country far from the capital. For more than a decade, federal agents, in collaboration with the Haiti National Police, made at least 10 attempts to arrest Philippe: setting up checkpoints, paying informants, launching a U.S. military operation and pursuing him in a foot chase, only to lose him in dense vegetation.
In U.S. custody, Philippe admitted accepting at least $1.5 million in cocaine profits from Colombian traffickers between 1999 and 2003.
According to a statement filed with his plea deal, Philippe admitted that he not only shared the bribes from narco-traffickers with fellow officers in the Haitian National Police, but he also wired hundreds of thousands of dollars to the United States to buy a home in Broward County and support his family.
Philippe wired $376,000 from banks in Haiti and Ecuador to a joint account with his wife, Natalie, at First Union in Miami. To avoid detection, Philippe used the names of others to wire the funds to his account, according to the statement signed by the defendant and prosecutors. Philippe also admitted he deposited more than $70,000 into his account in a series of transactions of less than $10,000 to avoid federal reporting requirements.
Philippe is the last high-profile defendant from a U.S. crackdown on cocaine smuggling through Haiti that yielded the convictions of more than a dozen drug traffickers, Haitian senior police officers and a former Haitian senator. Among them: Beaudouin “Jacques” Ketant, a Haitian narco-trafficker who accused former President Aristide of turning a blind eye to the cocaine. Ketant, initially sentenced to 27 years in a U.S. prison, was deported to Haiti in 2015 when his term was cut in half after assisting federal prosecutors in their probe.
Before striking his plea agreement, Philippe had insisted that as an elected Haitian senator, he could not be charged by U.S. authorities. He also claimed that his Jan. 5 arrest by DEA agents amounted to kidnapping.
But Altonaga, the federal judge, ruled in March that he was not protected by sovereign immunity because he had not been sworn in before his arrest outside a Port-au-Prince radio station.
Philippe, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2006, was elected to the Senate in November. His seat for a six-year term has remained empty until the resolution of his criminal case in Miami.
On Wednesday, Judge Altonaga said Philippe would be on probation for three years after serving his nine-year sentence. But she also noted that under U.S. immigration law, he would be deported to Haiti immediately upon his release.
Jacqueline Charles: @Jacquiecharles
Jay Weaver: @jayhweaver