Five Americans who claimed to be on “a government mission” are facing charges of possession of illegal arms and other crimes in Haiti after being arrested by Haitian police with a cache of automatic rifles and pistols while driving in vehicles without license plates.
In all, eight individuals, including a Russian, Serbian and Haitian national, were arrested in Port-au-Prince, Joel Casseus, the head of the Port-au-Prince police station, told the Miami Herald in an interview following the Sunday arrest at a police checkpoint.
While copies of the group’s U.S. passports, resident alien cards and Haitian driver’s license are circulating on WhatsApp, Haiti National Police officials say they still don’t know who the men are or why they are in Haiti, which has been rocked by violent protests since Feb. 7.
On Monday, the country finally began to see an increase in traffic and activities in the capital and other major cities after protests and violence forced the closure of schools and businesses for nine consecutive days. A protest called for by the opposition did not materialize, and another one organized by university students was broken up by police.
Protesters and the opposition are calling for the resignation of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse over mismanagement of the economy and corruption allegations centered around Venezuela’s PetroCaribe oil-discount program. Haiti owes the South American country about $2 billion and Haitians have been demanding an accounting of the money, which was supposed to be invested in social programs for the poor after the country’s 2010 earthquake.
The U.S. Embassy was made aware of the Americans’ arrest, and its consul general visited the judicial police on Monday where the men are being detained. Asked if it had any covert operations on the ground, the embassy told the police no, according to sources familiar with the ongoing investigation.
In a statement, a State Department official said: “We understand that the Haitian National Police detained a group of individuals, including some U.S. citizens. When U.S. citizens are arrested overseas we seek Consular Access as soon as possible and provide appropriate Consular assistance as provided by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Due to privacy considerations, we are unable to comment further.“
Casseus said when one of his units first stopped the vehicles, the men refused to present their identification or explain why they were heavily armed and traveling in a Toyota Prado and Ford Pickup without plates. Five plates were later found in the vehicles. It was the lack of tags on the vehicles that raised police suspicion, he said, noting that three other police units were also called to the scene, about a block from the central bank in downtown Port-au-Prince, to assist.
“This is something that unfolded over a two-hour, two-and-a-half hour period,” Casseus said.
Police found that the vehicles were carrying six automatic rifles, six pistols, two professional drones and three satellite phones. They also found a telescope, backpacks, gun vests, professional tapes and documents, he said.
“There were a lot of documents,” he said. This also includes a list with names, a police source said.
Asked what they were doing in Haiti, the men told police “they were on a mission, and they didn’t have to speak to us,” Casseus said. “They said they were on a government mission.”
The men, he said, didn’t specify which government had hired them. But at one point, they told officers that “their boss would call our boss,” he said. Soon a third vehicle arrived with another individual, this one speaking French. He too was arrested.
“We used professional force to show them that we are serious,” Casseus said. “We then took them to the police station.”
Two sources have told the Herald that following the arrest, several individuals connected with the Moise administration have tried to get the men released. One even claimed that the men were there to do a security operation for the central bank. A check with the bank’s governor by police, however, revealed he was unaware of their presence.
“They have refused to speak,” Casseus said of the men. “They’ve said they don’t have to speak.”
Casseus, 46, said he doesn’t know how long the men were in town, and added their passports did not show any entry stamp for Haiti. However, their visas show they had visited several other countries prior to arriving in Haiti.
A 24-year veteran of the police force, Casseus said the arrests represent “a moment of pride because you’re seeing that your orders are being carried out when you pass them. You feel a lot of pride and it’s encouraging.”