Thoughts on the Recent Haitian Assassination

As many of you know, a few weeks ago the president of Haiti Jovenel Moise was assassinated. This fascinating case is like a real life sherlock homes mystery complete with faked evidence, dead ends, tons of data, and plenty of motives. I'll lay out the undisputed facts of the case, then the official narrative supported by Moise's successors. Finally, I will briefly summarize what I think really happened.

The undisputed facts:

Over the past year, the Haitian regime has faced a crisis in its monopoly on violence. The purpose of repression is to prevent people from making political exchanges with your rivals, such as opposition parties, gangs and warlords. Once you are the only political exchanger in town, you can charge monopoly prices for contract enforcement, monopoly licenses, regulation and dispute arbitration. The problem is that the Moise regime was less and less able to motivate sufficient repression, enabling both gangs and opposition parties to over competing services. This problem usually results from either a shrinking budget or union-like problems with violence contractors. Moise responded by contracting with a new gang leader/war lord named Jimmy "Barbecue" Cherizier, who supplied massacres of opposition neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, Moise attempted to protect himself from coups through rotation. He knew his appointees might try to take him out, but they would need time to build their network, reputation and violence capacity to remove him. Therefore he "rotated" his Prime Ministers quickly, every year or less. On July 5th Moise announced another rotation, removing Claude Joseph and replacing him with Ariel Henry. He did not immediately sign the appointment papers.

At 1am on July 7th, a team of 28 Colombian mercenaries entered t he presidential compound. They intimidated the local police station, impersonated DA agents, and entered the presidential palace. The local police guard contingent was not present and no palace guards were injured. Moise was on the phone with his police chief for 10 minutes calling for backup while the mercenaries searched for him. They found him, confirmed his identity, then shot him dead on the spot.

Sometime after that, a series of shootouts occurred as the mercenaries attempted to escape. Several mercenaries where shot dead, most were captured, and 5 are unaccounted

Claude Joseph immediately declared himself prime minister, noting that Henri had not been sworn in. Henri contested this and declared himself leader. The power struggle lasted for two weeks. Haiti's foreign backers (US and OAS) then demanded Joseph step down, and Henri negotiated his ascension to dictatorship.

During Joseph's two week term, the Haitian police released an implausible narrative of foreign bankers killing the president. It is detailed below.

Since then, much of the evidence of the assassination has been destroyed; the vehicles burned, the presidents documents ransacked, loaned FBI agents were denied access to critical evidence. Most importantly, the prosecutor in charge of the case has been threatened with death by "unknown actors" for not striking names from testimony. The threators have a mole inside the prosecutor's office. The prosecutor and two clerks are now in hiding, and have leaked their documents to the Washington Post.

The official narrative

The official narrative from the Haitian National Police is that a politically unknown pastor and physician named Christian Sanon solicited loans from a Florida-based company "Worldwide Investment Development Group". Worldwide supposedly lent at least 700,000$ to pay the Colombian mercenaries for the assassination. Sanon promised to become the president of Haiti after the assassination, although there was no clear path to make that happen.

The official narrative has several obvious critical flaws.

  1. Worldwide would have to be very stupid to believe Sanon could just become president, as if once Moise was dead they would just pick a local pastor with a YouTube account.
  2. There are often 100 officers from the presidential guard arount the president's home, but none were even injured in the attack. Why would they allow a random group of Colombians access to the presidents home?
  3. Finally, how could Sanon continue to threaten people into silence. If Sanon was the mastermind, he is currently imprisoned and the presidential guards, interior ministry, and other regime insiders should be free to speak their minds.

Profile of the killer

Who ever did this had the following attributes

  1. They had access to at least 700,000$, months prior to the killing. That means either they have a bit of money -or- they were an obvious successor who could pay back a debt. Someone a bankroller would expect to succeed Moise.
  2. They had the cooperation of the police, the army, the presidential guard and likely the interior ministry (which Moise founded personally). For simplicity, let's call these people the support coalition. For a coup, there are two general ways to get SC cooperation. One is for the SC to want you to win. Historically, this happens when the SC's wages are declining or they fear being removed from power. The Shah of Iran was removed when he could no longer pay or promise future payment due to cancer. Because Moise was outsourcing violence to the warlord Barbecue, he would have to reduce their wages or replace some SC (assuming constant revenue). The other way is to threaten the SC. If all members of the SC expect a challenger to win, the challenger can credibly commit to punishing any SC member who rats or fights the coup.
  3. They still have the ability to punish any SC member who rats. Because that the prosecutor is in hiding, we know the perpetrator is still punishing defectors.

Keep your enemies closer - statistical background

Did you know most dictator's are removed by their closest friends and allies? The majority of departures from office in non-democracies originate in the support group. A small minority 20-30% come from revolutions, rebels, and foreign wars (in that order). The figures are all in Svoliks "The Politics of Authoritarian Rule", if anyone is curious.

Futhermore, Haiti has had more coups than almost any other country. They have almost all originated in the security services.

Putting it all together

The most likely narrative of the assassination is as follows.

  1. Moise know the fate of his predecessors. To avoid it, he planned to concentrate power in his own hands and rotate power between his supporters so they could not challenge him. At the same time, the regime faced a power crisis from the opposition. To right the states finances he needed cheap violence fast, and he got that from the warlord Barbecue.
  2. At least on of the rotated heads understood the game too. Most likely Claude Joseph, but possible the interior minister or head of police, decided to make a backup plan. They began building the capacity to replace Moise months in advance, hiring the mercenaries through an anonymizing shell agent.
  3. Shortly before July 7th, the challenger called the other support coalition members and proposed removing Moise. The SC members beleived the Moise was consolidating and slashing their pay, so they agreed. They withdrew the presidential guard and national police protection from Moise.
  4. The Sanon thing is a cover.

What does this mean for Haiti

The basic structure of the game now resets to the first year of rule. Henry has the same incentives as Moise did to concentrate power in his own hands. Whoever he appoints will have the same incentives to prevent a concentration of power. There is no perfectly stable equilibrium of this game in practice, even the most consolidation-proof regime sometimes consolidates (Xi Jingping for example).

For Haitian society, we should expect this regime type to maximize it's revenue. The optimal levels of repression and service provision for revenue maximizing autocracies are given by Wintrobe 1998.

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