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Former Colombian officer sentenced to life in prison over Haiti presidential assassination

Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, at the podium, joined U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe, far left, as they announce significant developments in the U.S. government’s prosecution of individuals allegedly connected to the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise in July 2021, at the James Lawrence King Criminal Justice Building on Feb. 14, 2023, in Miami. (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS)  (Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS)
By Jay Weaver Miami Herald

MIAMI – A retired Colombian army officer who pleaded guilty to leading a group of commandos in the assassination of Haiti’s president was sentenced Friday to life in prison in Miami federal court, though he’s hoping for less severe punishment in a cooperation deal with federal prosecutors.

Germán Alejandro Rivera Garcia, aka “Colonel Mike,” declined to say anything when asked by U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez if he wanted to comment before his sentencing. His defense attorney said he would not challenge the prosecutors’ recommendation for a life sentence at this stage – knowing that his client might qualify for a lesser sentence down the road depending on the value of his inside information.

“No, your honor, not for today,” attorney Mark LeVine told Martinez.

As part of his plea agreement, Rivera admitted that he met in late June 2021 with several co-conspirators in Haiti to discuss removing Haitian President Jovenel Moise by force, including a plot to assassinate him the following month.

During the secret gathering, Rivera received directions in a video call from a fellow Colombian in South Florida – who happened to be an FBI informant – that he should follow the instructions of another man attending the meeting in Haiti, according to court records.

That unnamed man “then told Rivera and another co-conspirator that the president would be assassinated as part of the operation,” according to a factual statement filed in Miami federal court as part of Rivera’s guilty plea on murder conspiracy charges last month.

Rivera and James Solages, a Haitian American from South Florida, “relayed that information to other members of the conspiracy,” including another Haitian American, Joseph Vincent, and a member of Rivera’s Colombian commando group, Mario Antonio Palacios Palacios. The latter is trying to have his “confession” to FBI agents thrown out because he claims it was obtained under pressure.

The video-call exchange occurred within two weeks of the July 7, 2021, assassination of Moise by a group of ex-Colombian soldiers, U.S. authorities say, marking a strategic shift from kidnapping Haiti’s leader to killing him at his home in a hillside suburb outside the Port-au-Prince capital.

Over the past year, 11 defendants have been charged with conspiring to kill Haiti’s president or with playing a supporting role in the FBI-led case prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Florida. Among those charged are: Rivera, 45, who pleaded guilty in September, Solages, Vincent and Palacios. A 12th suspect, Joseph Félix Badio, a former Haitian government anti-corruption official, was arrested last week in Haiti and may be transferred to Miami to face charges in the assassination case.

Rivera’s factual statement provides fresh details of meetings among co-conspirators in Haiti and South Florida that led to the shocking assassination of Moise, which has stoked unprecedented turmoil in the Caribbean island.

According to the factual statement, Rivera began meeting in person in Haiti and by video conference in South Florida with the co-conspirators in February 2021. At various meetings, “the conspirators discussed proposed methods for carrying out the operation and the need to acquire weapons to facilitate the operation,” the statement says.

The meetings held in South Florida were attended by several co-conspirators charged in the assassination case, including Arcángel Pretel Ortiz, the FBI informant who worked for a Miami-area security company.

He allegedly helped recruit some of the Colombian commandos and directed Rivera to follow the instructions of another conspirator regarding the plot to assassinate Haiti’s leader. Others present at the South Florida meetings were: Antonio Intriago, the head of the security company, Counter Terrorist Unit; Christian Sanon, a Haitian American physician who aspired to replace Moise as president; and Walter Veintemilla, a South Florida businessman who helped finance the operation, and Solages.

Rivera also attended operational meetings in Haiti with Intriago, Solages, Sanon, Palacios, Haitian businessman Rodolphe Jaar and former Haitian Senator Joseph Joel John. The latter two men have also been charged in the assassination case in Miami. Jaar has been sentenced to life in prison, and John has pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentence.

Jaar, John and Rivera formally pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to kill Haiti’s president, providing that support, and conspiring to kill or kidnap a person outside the United States.

But all three might avoid a life sentence if prosecutors Monica Castro, Andrea Goldbarg and Frank Russo recommend lesser punishment based on their cooperation under the terms of plea agreements.

Rivera is expected to be a critical witness for the FBI-led case.

Separate Haitian, Colombian and U.S. investigations into Moise’s death were launched shortly after the assault that left the 53-year-old president with 12 bullet wounds and his wife, Martine, seriously wounded.

More than 40 people have been jailed in Haiti, including 18 Colombians, as well as members of the Haitian presidential guard accused of taking bribes to stand down or not show up to work on the day Moïse was killed.

The deadly plot revolved around suspects collaborating in South Florida, Haiti and Colombia to kidnap and then kill Haiti’s leader, with the goal of replacing him with a new president and obtaining Haitian government contracts, according to authorities. So far, no one has been identified as the mastermind who orchestrated Moise’s killing.

The investigation escalated in February with the transfer of Rivera and three Haitian Americans to U.S. custody.

Rivera and two Haitian Americans were accused of helping coordinate a failed kidnapping of Moise to remove him from office upon his return from a state visit to Turkey in June of 2021. The same three were also accused of conspiring in a final plan to kill him at his home in the hillside suburbs of Port-au-Prince the following month.

Those suspects are: Solages, 37, who quit his job at a South Florida nursing home to go work for a Miami-area security firm linked to the plot to remove Moïse from office; Vincent, 57, a former Drug Enforcement Administration confidential informant who lived in South Florida; and Rivera, the retired Colombian colonel who is one of the leaders of the deadly attack.

Also transferred to Miami: Sanon, 64, a Haitian doctor and pastor who split his time between the United States and his Caribbean homeland and wanted to replace Moise as president. Sanon, who was not implicated in the main conspiracy case to kidnap and kill Haiti’s president but faces related charges, fell out of favor with the group as a possible successor to Moise in the weeks before his assassination.