MIAMI — The United States has charged a retired Colombian commando with taking part in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti — the first suspect to face U.S. prosecution in the crime.
Mario Palacios was detained at an airport in Panama on Monday and flown from there to Miami, after previously agreeing to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement, according to federal prosecutors. He appeared before a federal judge on Tuesday and was charged with conspiring to kidnap or kill outside the United States. He was held without bond.
Alfredo Izaguirre, a lawyer who was appointed to represent Mr. Palacios, said he would most likely plead not guilty at a pretrial hearing scheduled for later this month.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said he faced a possible life sentence.
Mr. Palacios, 43, was among two dozen retired members of Colombian military special forces who traveled to Haiti between May and June as private security contractors hired by a Miami-based firm called CTU Security, according to interviews with their families and Haitian police. Once in Haiti, their mission gradually changed from providing protection to local dignitaries to storming the presidential residence in an operation that resulted in Mr. Moïse’s death, according to Haitian police, the U.S. Department of Justice and Colombian intelligence.
Mr. Moïse was gunned down on July 7 in his bedroom by assassins who spoke Spanish, according to his wife, Martine Moïse, who was injured in the attack. However, the exact identity of the killers, the details of Mr. Moïse’s death and the ultimate mastermind of the plot remain unknown, although it appears to have been partly planned in the United States.
Mr. Palacios could help shed light on some of those questions. He was among the five Colombian ex-soldiers who formed part of the “Delta Team,” which entered his residence during the attack, according to the preliminary investigation report by the Haitian police.
After the assault he was the only one of his companions to escape Haitian authorities. He eventually fled to Jamaica, where he was detained for violating immigration laws. It was in Jamaica that Mr. Palacios decided to cooperate with U.S. law enforcement, providing several written statements, according to an affidavit unsealed in Miami on Tuesday.
When the Jamaican authorities deported Mr. Palacios back to Colombia on Monday, U.S. agents intervened on a stopover in Panama.
Three Colombian soldiers said to have taken part in the operation against Mr. Moïse were killed by the Haitian police, and the remaining 18 were captured and jailed in the capital, Port-au-Prince. They have yet to be formally charged.
Some of the detained soldiers have confessed to participating in the murder in their initial depositions, according to the police reports. Since then, however, they have retracted their confessions, claiming that they were obtained under torture and that they are being framed for a crime they did not commit.
“I don’t know who killed him. I’m telling you that from my heart, I swear on my family, my sons,” Mr. Palacios told the Colombian magazine Semana while in hiding in Port-au-Prince in August. He said that when he arrived in Mr. Moïse’s bedroom, the president was already dead.
Mr. Palacios told a U.S. federal judge at a hearing Tuesday that he is unemployed, owns a house in Cali, Colombia, and lives off his military pension.
Although the circumstances of Mr. Moïse’s death remain unclear, Haitian investigators say that Colombian soldiers knew they would topple the president and replace him with a former supreme court judge, Windelle Coq-Thelot. Some had participated in a meeting with Ms. Coq-Thelot in her house shortly before the operation, according to the police report and a person who attended the meeting.
“Palacios and others entered the Presidential residence in Haiti with the intent and purpose of killing President Moïse, and in fact, the President was killed,” an F.B.I. agent investigating the case said in the affidavit unsealed on Tuesday.
Like many others implicated in the crime, most of the former Colombian soldiers appear to have been led to believe the operation had the full backing of the United States. No evidence has emerged indicating that the U.S. government supported or knew of the plot.
Shortly after the assassination of Mr. Moïse, which plunged an already fragile nation into chaos, the F.B.I. and Department of Homeland Security sent agents to Port-au-Prince to assist the investigation, at the invitation of the Haitian government.
But as of this week, U.S. prosecutors had not charged anyone in the killing, though at least six United States citizens and residents had been implicated in the plot.
In particular, the F.B.I. has not commented on the legal status of two Miami-based managers of CTU Security, Antonio Intriago and Arcangel Pretelt. According to officers of the Haitian police and Colombian intelligence, the two were aware of the coup plot.
Mr. Intriago had traveled to Haiti in the weeks before the assassination and met with some of the key Haitian suspects, according to the lawyers of the detained men and the Haitian police.
Another U.S. citizen, a South Florida-based financier named Walter Veintemilla, helped fund the recruitment of the Colombian soldiers, according to the Haitian police. In Haiti, CTU told the Colombian soldiers that Mr. Veintemilla’s company, Worldwide Capital, had secured billions in investments that would flow into the country under a new government. The Colombian soldiers were promised years of lucrative work supervising the security of the country.
There’s no indication that Worldwide Capital or its subsidiaries, which sell retail financial products like mortgages and car insurance, ever had access to such capital.
Lawyers for Mr. Intriago and Mr. Veintemilla said in late July and August that their clients were innocent and were cooperating with U.S. authorities. They did not respond to request for comment on their clients’ current legal status.
Even less is known about Mr. Pretelt, a retired Colombian special forces officer who recruited his former colleagues, some of whom he knew personally from his service days.
Participants in the plot say that Mr. Pretelt claimed to have worked for U.S. law enforcement agencies, and assured them that the United States was fully behind it. There’s no evidence that Mr. Pretelt, who had once been a witness in a drug-trafficking case, had ever worked for the federal government.
After Haitian police units still loyal to Mr. Moïse pinned down Colombian soldiers on a road from the presidential residence shortly after the murder, Mr. Pretelt appears to have tried to salvage the plan to install Ms. Coq-Thelot in the presidency.
“It looks like there’s bad communication with the local police, and that can bring problems for all of you,” Mr. Pretelt wrote to a suspect in Haiti hours after the murder, according to a text message seen by The New York Times. “The new president should be sworn in.”
Mr. Pretelt’s location is unknown and he was not reachable for comment. The F.B.I. and the Justice Department didn’t respond to a request for comment on his legal status.