WASHINGTON/PORT-AU-PRINCE - A wounded Arnel Joseph was lying on a stretcher, ready to be wheeled into an operating room at the Bonne Fin hospital of Les Cayes, a Caribbean seaport located in Haiti's southern region, when members of a special unit of the National Police Force's (PNH) swooped in to arrest him.
"We've captured Arnel!" the officers shouted angrily, then they fired their weapons into the air, in a video seen by VOA Creole.
The alleged gang leader, considered to be one of the country's most dangerous and wanted fugitives, was awaiting surgery on his wounded leg, when he was found and captured, according to National Police Chief Michel Ange Gedeon. The leg was wounded during a fire fight with rival gang leader Ti Sourit, Arnel told reporters as they snapped photos and recorded video of him after his arrest.
Police Chief Gédeon tweeted the news to a stunned nation.
🔴Le chef de gang Arnel Joseph très recherché depuis des mois par la @pnh_officiel a été appréhendé ce lundi à l’Hôpital Bonne Fin (Cayes). Remerciements à nos policiers et à la population haïtienne.#PNH #ArnelJoseph pic.twitter.com/TyL6KuAXGM— PNH (@pnh_officiel) July 23, 2019
"The gang leader Arnel Joseph (who) the national police force spent months trying to locate has been apprehended Monday at the Hopital Bonne Fin (Cayes). Thank you to our police officers and to the people of Haiti."
The police had been tracking him for months and suspected he was hiding out in the lush seaside of Artibonite in the agricultural region of the country.
Gedeon said the arrest "had been an obsession for the 15,000 police officers of the institution," during an interview with radio station Magik9 Tuesday morning.
In 2018, PNH had offered a $27,000 reward (2 million gourdes) for any information leading to Arnel's arrest.
Post arrest photos go viral
Photos of the tall, thin young man in his 20s, lying naked on a dirt surface as people shouted questions at him quickly went viral on Haitian social media Monday night. In one photo obtained by VOA Creole, the tan Timberland-style boot of a police officer wearing camouflage pants can be seen pressing down on his chest. Arnel looks up in bewilderment.
The image sparked questions about whether human rights activists and MINUJUSTH, The United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti would investigate the circumstances of Arnel's arrest and his treatment by police afterward. The special unit had decided to move in on Arnel before the surgical procedure, rather than waiting until after it was over to swoop in.
MINUJUSTH's stated mission is "strengthening Haiti's rule of law institutions, developing the Haitian National Police, and promoting and protecting human rights."
Who is Arnel Joseph?
The 20-something Arnel had been arrested and sentenced to six years in jail in 2011 for the murder of several policemen. He was released in May of 2017. Haiti's penal code is based on the French judicial system. It is unclear how his sentence was determined.
Arnel is accused of terrorizing residents of the Village de Dieu slum of the capital, and more recently of robbing trucks loaded with merchandise, raping, kidnapping and attacking motorists on National Highway #1, which links the capital and cities to the north.
In a conversation with journalists posted on YouTube, he said he considers himself to be a "representative" of the Village de Dieu slum of the capital, Port-au-Prince. "Our revolution is the Haitian people's revolution," he said.
Links to lawmakers
In April, the discovery of of 24 mobile calls between Arnel and Senator Garcia Delva roiled the nation. Senator Delva, who represents the Artibonite agricultural department of the country where the alleged gang leader had been hiding out, denied any wrongdoing.
"I only have one position on this," he told reporters. "If the commission finds that I, in my conversations with Arnel, ever agreed to associate myself with his (illegal) activities then I agree and accept to pay the consequences. For once, this country needs justice."
When journalists pressed him about why he was in contact with the gang leader in the first place, Delva responded that he "talks to everyone."
"Everyone knows my number, I've never changed it - so everyone calls me - anyone can call me. Anyway, I don't think I'm the only one who converses with him," Delva said. The senator refused to divulge what they discussed and alleged that prominent Haitian businessman and opposition leader Reginald Boulos recognizes Arnel as a community leader. He said Boulos confirmed that in a conversation with a local radio station.
How the phone calls were tracked remains unclear.
Senator Senatus told reporters the commission (Senate Commission for Justice, Security and Defense) had received information that led to them asking the National Telecommunications Council (CONATEL) to provide information about the calls made to and from Senator Delva's phone. But Jean David Rodney, the institution's executive director, denied ever receiving such a request in an interview with Haiti Libre newspaper. He said CONATEL has "no direct relationship with the Senate."
Former Senate leader Youri Latortue, who also represents the Artibonite region in the Senate, echoed his colleague Delva's claims about other prominent politicians being linked to the gang leader.
"I think there are a lot of other names on the list of connections to Arnel," Latortue told VOA Creole. "For example there's Vladimir Jean-Louis "Ti Vlad" who does security work for (former president Michel) Martelly - he's on the list too. We have to investigate the links between what they said exists (between) - the president and the thugs - because some people say it was the president who brought Arnel to Port au Prince.
Those allegations remain unsubstantiated.
Conditions to turn himself in to law enforcement
Prior to his arrest on Monday, Arnel expressed a willingness to turn himself in if the government met certain conditions.
His conditions were: finishing potable water projects, building roads, boosting agriculture and providing electricity to the population.
Arnel's capture put an end to years of living on the lam, but the police investigation into his criminal activities continues, according to Carl-Henry Boucher, the administrative director of the national police force.
On social media, reaction to the arrest was mixed.
"Good Job" @michaljoseph9341 commented on VOA Creole's Instagram page.
User @albandywedson questioned why the police waited until he sought treatment to arrest him.
And @benaldo_paul was skeptical of justice really being served, commenting "jomo (President Jovenel Moise) and the honorable garcia delva will have him released."