BOGOTA, Colombia — The arrest in Haiti of more than a dozen former Colombian soldiers in connection with Wednesday's assassination of President Jovenel Moïse initially provoked shock and shame in Colombia and calls for swift justice.
"There's no way Colombia should be making international headlines due to a group of criminals and hitmen," Colombian Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez said Friday after the handcuffed Colombians were paraded before TV cameras in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. "They must face the full weight of justice."
But some officials and analysts now say that the Colombians, who claim to have been recruited by private security firms in Haiti, are being used as scapegoats. They point out that Moïse had numerous enemies at home — ranging from political opponents to powerful criminal gangs — while no clear motive has emerged for why the Colombians would have targeted Moïse.
The Center for Analysis and Research on Human Rights, an independent Haitian organization, has questioned how the assassins could so easily gain entry to the president's bedroom and carry out their attack without killing or injuring any member of the presidential guard.
Indeed, Steven Benoit, an opposition senator in Haiti, blamed Moïse's security detail for the attack that left the president riddled with bullets and his left eye gouged out. First lady Martine Moïse was also injured in the attack and is now recovering in a Florida hospital. Moïse "was assassinated by his security agents," Benoit told reporters in Haiti. "It wasn't the Colombians."
Jean Mary Exil, Haiti's ambassador to Colombia, told Bogotá's El Tiempo newspaper that the Colombians were not the masterminds and added that whoever was behind the assassination may try to have the detained army vets killed to prevent them from giving testimony to Haitian authorities.
At a news conference in Bogotá on Friday, Colombia's police director Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas confirmed that at least 13 of the detained Colombians are former soldiers who had retired since 2018. Vargas said the former soldiers initially flew from Bogotá to the Dominican Republic in May and June. They then crossed the border into Haiti where he said they had been recruited for jobs with four private security firms at a salary of $2,700 per month.
Rather than acting like a clandestine hit squad and keeping their whereabouts a secret before departing for Haiti, a few of the Colombian army vets posted on Facebook photos of themselves at tourist sites in the Dominican Republic. What's more, hours after Moïse was killed the Colombians apparently offered no resistance as they were rounded up in their hotels by Haitian police and civilians.
"These were so-called elite commandos," Luis Moreno, a former acting U.S. ambassador in Haiti, told The Wall Street Journal. "And they ran away a couple of blocks and were caught, allegedly by civilians? Why did they all get caught, almost immediately?"
The wife of Francisco Uribe, one of the detained Colombians, told a Bogotá radio station that her husband had been recruited by a security firm called CTU and was told he would work as a bodyguard for wealthy families around Latin America. The woman, who requested anonymity, added: "It was a job opportunity."
Indeed, former Colombian police and soldiers have increasingly found work abroad once they retire from active duty.
Colombia has been fighting guerrillas and violent drug cartels for most of the past 50 years and between 10,000 and 15,000 officers and soldiers leave the armed forces every year, according to John Marulanda, a former army colonel who heads the Colombian Association of Retired Military Officers. Upon retirement, he said, their pensions are relatively small prompting many to use their military expertise to get jobs with private security firms.
"There are no rules preventing them from being recruited" by outside security firms, Colombian Armed Forces Commander Gen. Luis Fernando Navarro told a news conference on Friday.
Over the past two decades Colombians have worked as bodyguards, helicopter pilots and frontline soldiers in Afghanistan, Dubai, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. But in some cases, authorities say, they have collaborated with illegal armed groups — like drug cartels in Colombia and Mexico.
It remains unclear exactly what the detained former Colombian soldiers were doing in Haiti, but on Friday Colombian President Iván Duque announced that he had dispatched police intelligence agents to Port-au-Prince to help local authorities investigate.