Port-Au-Prince (Reuters) – Haitian President Jovenel Moise was shot dead by gunmen with heavy-caliber weapons in his private residence overnight on Wednesday, sparking an international outcry amid fears of a descent into chaos in the impoverished Caribbean nation.
The assassination, which drew condemnation from Washingthere and neighboring Latin American countries, followed a spate of gang violence in Port-au-Prince in recent months fueled by a growing humanitarian crisis and political unrest here. The disorder has turned many districts of the capital into no-go zones.
Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph said in televised remarks after chairing a cabinet meeting that the government had declared a two-week state of emergency as it launched a manhunt for the killers. Authorities in the country, where the majority speak French or Haitian Creole, said the gunmen spoke English and Spanish, and appeared to include foreigners.
“My compatriots – remain calm because the situation is under control,” Joseph said in his address, backed by a row of somber-faced officials. “This blow has wounded this country, this nation, but it will not go unpunished.”
The president’s wife, Martine Moise, was also shot in the attack at around 1 a.m. local time (0500 GMT) at the couple’s home in the hills above Port-au-Prince. She is in critical condition and efforts are underway here to bring her to Miami for treatment, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States said.
In videos circulating on social media that Reuters was not able to verify, the gunmen – whose faces cannot be made out – can be heard yelling that they were the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as they entered Moise’s guarded residence under cover of nightfall before bursts of shots rang out.
Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, confirmed the gunmen had falsely identified themselves as DEA agents. He told Reuters in an interview Haitian authorities would welcome U.S. security assistance in the wake of the assassination.
A U.S. government source denied the DEA had anything to do with the assassination.
Many people in Haiti had wanted Moise to leave office. Ever since he took over in 2017, he faced calls to resign and mass protests – first over corruption allegations and his management of the economy, then over his increasing grip on power.
Joseph said the police and army had the situation under control although Haiti’s security forces are widely deemed to be understaffed and underequipped compared to its powerful gangs. Several police officers have died in recent weeks in attempts to wrestle back territory from heavily armed bandits.
The streets of the usually bustling capital were deserted on Wednesday morning after the attack and intermittent gunfire overnight, with all businesses closed.
The international airport of Port-au-Prince was also closed, according to local media. The airport director could not immediately be reached for comment.
But with Haiti politically polarized and facing growing hunger, fears of a breakdown in order are spreading.
The Dominican Republic closed the border it shares with Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, except to returning nationals, and beefed up security.
“This crime is an attack against the democratic order of Haiti and the region,” Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader said.
Leaders worldwide condemned the assassination and appealed for calm.
“We stand ready to assist as we continue to work for a safe and secure Haiti,” said U.S. President Joe Biden, denouncing the killing as “heinous” and calling the situation worrisome.
The U.N. Security Council expressed deep shock and sympathy over Moise’s death ahead of a closed-door meeting on Thursday, requested by the United States and Mexico, to evaluate the situation.
Moise’s murder comes amid a power vacuum. He had ruled by decree for more than a year after the country failed to hold legislative elections and just this week had appointed Joseph, who has yet to be sworn in as prime minister. The head of the Supreme Court of Justice died last month of COVID-19 and has yet to be replaced.
An extraordinary issue of the official gazette on Wednesday said the prime minister and his cabinet would assume executive powers until a new president could be elected, as per Haiti’s constitution.
Haiti, a country of about 11 million people and the poorest in the western hemisphere, has struggled to achieve stability since the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, and has grappled with a series of coups and foreign interventions.
A U.N. peacekeeping mission – meant to restore order after a rebellion toppled then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 – ended in 2019 with the country still in disarray here. In recent years, Haiti has been buffeted by a series of natural disasters and still bears the scars of a major earthquake in 2010.
After taking office as president in 2017, Moise, a banana exporter-turned-politician, faced fierce protests over corruption allegations and his management of the economy.
This year, opposition leaders accused him of seeking to install a dictatorship by overstaying his mandate and becoming more authoritarian. He denied those accusations.
Moise sought to push through a controversial constitutional reform that he said would finally fix the problems causing Haiti’s instability but critics said would only serve to help him consolidate his power grab.
Moise had talked of dark forces at play that were unhappy with his attempts to clean up government contracts with private businesses and to reform the constitution.
The U.S. Embassy said it would be closed on Wednesday due to the “ongoing security situation.”
The United States is assessing the “tragic attack,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in Washington.
“We stand ready and stand by them to provide any assistance that’s needed,” she said.
The United States, which is Haiti’s top aid donor and has long exerted an outsized weight in its politics, had on June 30 condemned what it described as a systematic violation of human rights, fundamental freedoms and attacks on the press in the country. The Biden administration urged here the Haitian government to counter a proliferation of gangs and violence.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) expressed concern on Wednesday that the violence could deal a setback to efforts to fight COVID-19 in Haiti – one of only a handful of countries worldwide that has yet to administer a single shot of coronavirus vaccine.