WASHINGTON / PORT-AU-PRINCE - The streets of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, were mostly empty Wednesday following the assassination of President Jovenel Moise at his private residence in the early-morning hours. Businesses were closed, most people remained home and armored police vehicles were seen on the main roads. Armed guards stood watch in key locations of the capital.
A state of siege was declared by interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who said he was in charge of the country.
Haitian officials said heavily armed gunmen posing as U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers who spoke Spanish and English shot and killed the president in a “highly coordinated” attack. His wife, Martine Moise, was gravely injured and remained in critical but stable condition at a Miami hospital.
National Police Force chief Léon Charles told reporters late Wednesday four “mercenaries” suspected of carrying out Moise’s assassination were killed in a shootout with police, with two other suspects captured. Charles said three police officers held hostage by the suspected assassins were freed. He did not provide any information about the operation.
Speaking to people on the street about the president's killing, VOA Creole received a diverse range of responses.
One resident of the president's Pelerin neighborhood, a wealthy suburb of the capital, said she heard the gunfire but was confused about what was happening at the time. She told VOA Creole the gunfire lasted for about an hour.
"We are victims of our own insecurity," the woman, who declined to give her name, said. "We hope this will not happen again, but, hopefully, the next president will do better so this type of event doesn't repeat itself."
A man in his 20s who spoke to VOA Creole near the downtown area of the capital said he worried that the killing would damage Haiti's image abroad.
"I think this presents a problem for the country's image," he told VOA. "Jovenel should have been brought to justice to explain his actions. I blame him for the impunity that exists currently and for putting guns in the hands of young people. He likened himself [in a speech] to a fish bone stuck in the Haitian people's throat. I would have liked to ask him to explain what he meant by that. The people need to unite now and take hold of our government and choose a leader who can represent us well, improve our image and allow us to move forward."
Another man in his 30s who spoke to VOA Creole near the national palace, and who also did not want to give his name, said, "It really hurts me to hear Jovenel Moise died this way. This is not what I wished for. I would have preferred he be imprisoned for all the bad things he did [while in power] and explain what happened with the PetroCaribe funds, the Bel Air massacre, the La Saline massacre. I did not wish for his death."
PetroCaribe is a corruption scandal linked to profits from oil sold to Haiti by Venezuela at a discount, which were supposed to be used for social, educational and infrastructure projects. Most of the money was allegedly misused, and efforts to bring those responsible to justice have so far failed.
Moise was blamed by some Haitians — as well as U.S. officials such as U.S. Representative Maxine Waters and Ambassador Michele Sison — for failing to bring to justice those responsible for the mass killings of residents in the capital’s Bel Air and La Saline slums. Gangs with ties to the president were blamed for the killings.
Another man in his 20s who spoke to VOA Creole in a downtown neighborhood expressed sorrow over Moise’s death. "It pains me to hear President Jovenel Moise was assassinated. Today his death does not make us feel good at all," he told VOA. "We would prefer to have a real government leading us. For now, all we can say is, ‘Rest in peace.’ "
A man who described himself as a Moise supporter said he thought the killing was politically motivated.
"I believed in Jovenel Moise. I believe he was assassinated today because of his political convictions," the man, who did not give his name, said. "[Moise] is a Haitian citizen who was fighting against the oligarchs and greedy people. I blame those oligarchs for his murder. This was a heinous act."
Former government attorney Francisco Rene, who spoke to VOA at his office in Port-au-Prince, expressed concern about the gravity of the event.
"This is serious. It impacts the future of our democracy, the future of the country," he said. "It's also serious with regards to the economic fallout. Many countries may decide to prevent their citizens from traveling to Haiti. This has diminished our standing in the world."
It was unclear how long the state of siege would be in effect. Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic and its airports were closed until further notice.