Head of Haiti’s Palace Guard Subject of US Law Enforcement Investigation into Arms Trafficking

Dimitri Herard, the head of the General Security Unit of the National Palace (USGPN, by its French acronym), is the subject of a US law enforcement investigation related to arms trafficking in Haiti, according to multiple sources both inside Haiti and the United States. Earlier this week, the president of Haiti was assassinated in what Haitian government officials have claimed was an elite commando raid of the president’s private residence. As head of the palace guard, Herard is one of the individuals most responsible for the safety of the president. The USGPN is responsible for securing both the palace and the president’s private residence.

On Thursday, July 8, the chief government prosecutor in Port-au-Prince requested that Herard present himself for questioning in relation to the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. A source close to the deceased president, requesting anonymity out of fear for their life, claimed that Moïse was personally aware of the US investigation into Herard, and that Moïse had told them that “the US is taking care of it.”

Herard, in 2012, was one of a small group of Haitians sent to Ecuador under then-president Michel Martelly to train at the Eloy Alfaro Military Academy. He eventually entered the president’s palace guard and became head of the USGPN in February 2017 after the inauguration of Moïse. Despite Herard’s high-level presence within the USGPN, he also operates a private security company. The practice, while a clear conflict of interest, has become increasingly common among police officers in recent years.

In April 2020, Carl Frederic Martin, a Haitian-American and former US Navy officer, together with the sister of Dimitri Herard, created Tradex Haiti S.A., a security company. Another company, this one Florida-based and owned by Martin, received a $73,000 State Department contract in November 2019 to provide “riot gear kit[s]” for a specialized unit of the Haitian National Police (PNH).

In late August 2020, I reported on Martin’s State Department contract, the new security company he had formed with a relative of Herard, and their attempts to create a weapons manufacturing company called HOFSA. The activities of Martin and Herard came directly after the arrest of businessman Aby Larco, accused of being a significant source of arms trafficking in Haiti. Larco and Martin had formed a security company together years earlier, though they eventually ended the partnership. Seven days after Larco’s arrest, Martin and a relative of Herard filed the paperwork to incorporate their new arms manufacturing company, though its business license was eventually revoked.

Three days after the publication of the late August report, a “news” website was created that quickly published a fake news article alleging I had been paid by members of the Haitian elite to destabilize the country. “Coming back to Haiti to further destabilize a democratically elected government will prove to be harder for time to come,” the unsigned article warned. The website’s “About Us” page is a direct copy and paste from the website of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, replacing the organization’s name with “Haiti News Hub.”

In the more than a year and a half since Larco’s arrest, however, the flow of black market weapons into Haiti has only increased, fueling rising insecurity and violence. Kidnappings reached a peak of nearly four a day early in 2021, and, according to security experts, have provided armed groups with significant resources to purchase new weapons and ammunition. Individual ransom payments have reached hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In late June, former police officer and leader of the G9 Family and Allies, Jimmy Cherizier, held a press conference with dozens of armed men displaying high-powered weapons. Police officers and government officials often complain that they lack the resources or firepower to properly counter armed civilian groups. At the same time, many of those groups draw upon support from current and former police officers as well as politicians and private sector actors.

US law enforcement has been increasingly interested in the network bringing illegal weapons into Haiti and its relation to kidnappings. In March 2021, two individuals, Peterson Benjamin and Lissner Mathieu, were arrested in Haiti and brought to the United States. Benjamin was quickly indicted on charges related to his alleged involvement in a criminal enterprise responsible for the kidnapping of a US citizen in Haiti. Mathieu was apparently arrested in connection with a decade-old drug trafficking case. When he was arrested, Mathieu had in his possession a badge from the National Palace. The government denied that he had ever been employed in the palace.

It is unclear if the investigation into Herard is related to this earlier case, or precisely how far along the investigation is. However, multiple sources confirmed that US law enforcement officials recently traveled to Haiti and gathered information related to Herard and his alleged involvement in weapons trafficking. According to a well-placed source in Haitian law enforcement, at least some of the arms are coming from Turkey and then entering Haiti through the Dominican Republic. Moïse traveled to Turkey to participate in a business forum in June.

A US agency involved in the investigation did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication. Herard also did not respond.

In June, the same website that published the fake news article threatening me published another article touting Herard as a “rising star” within the PNH who was increasingly at loggerheads with the chief of police, Leon Charles. On June 28, the website published another article about the proliferation of high-powered weapons in the hands of gangs in Haiti, pointing the finger at Aby Larco, who has been in prison for nearly two years, and Sebastian Barjon, another former partner of Martin, Larco, and Herard. The article claimed that both Larco and Barjon were the target of US and Haitian investigations. The article does not mention either Herard or Martin.

While there is no evidence the investigation into Herard is related to this week’s assassination of the president, given his role in presidential security, the existence of the investigation is sure to raise more questions. The government prosecutor in Port-au-Prince, Bedford Claude, has invited Herard, as well as Civil Laguel, security coordinator for the president, and the leaders of two other police units, for questioning in relation to the assassination case. After spending a day in Moïse’s residence, Claude told Le Nouvelliste, “I did not see any police victim except the president and his wife. If you are responsible for the security of the president, where were you? What did you do to avoid this fate for the president?”

He said that he had requested a list of all security officers present at the president’s residence the night of the assassination, but that he has yet to receive a response. On July 8, Haiti’s police chief, Leon Charles, told the press that the mercenary team that allegedly killed Moïse was composed of 28 people, including 26 Colombians and two Haitian-Americans. Thus far, police have arrested 17 and killed three, while eight allegedly remain at large. The Colombian minister of defense confirmed that at least some of those arrested had served in the country’s armed forces.

Speaking on local radio this morning, former Senator Steven Benoit cast doubt on the official narrative that this team of Colombians was responsible for assassination of Moïse, alleging that they in fact had been in Haiti under a contract with the government. “The President of the Republic, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated by his security agents,” Benoit claimed, without providing details. Also today, White House press secretary Jenn Psaki announced that, responding to a request for security and investigative assistance from the Haitian government, the US would be sending senior FBI and DHS officials to Haiti as soon as possible.

This first appeared on CEPR.

Jake Johnston is a Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.

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