By Brian Ellsworth
MIAMI (Reuters) – A former Colombian soldier pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges by U.S. prosecutors that he conspired to commit murder or kidnapping outside the United States in connection with the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise.
The U.S. Justice Department in January said Mario Palacios was part of a plan initially designed to kidnap Moise that evolved into an assassination plot after conspirators were unable to find a plane to take Moise out of Haiti.
Palacios’ attorney Alfredo Izaguirre in a brief hearing in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida entered the not-guilty plea, and later told reporters that Palacios was not aware of what was being planned.
“He is simply a soldier who was taken from Colombia to Haiti,” said Izaguirre outside the courthouse. “This was orchestrated by other people.”
Moise was assassinated at his residence in Port-au-Prince on July 7, 2021. He was shot 12 times.
Palacios was part of a five-man group known as the “Delta Team” that entered Moise’s bedroom to gun him down, according to an August report by the Haitian National Police on the murder. The other four members of that group are in Haitian custody.
Palacios was detained in Jamaica in October and was being deported to Colombia in January when he agreed, during a layover in Panama, to travel to the United States instead, according to the Justice Department.
The United States has become increasingly involved in the Moise murder investigation as a probe by the Caribbean nation’s authorities stalls.
Haitian-Chilean citizen Rodolphe Jaar has been charged in the United States and former Haitian Senator John Joel Joseph, who was arrested in Jamaica in January, may face extradition to the United States.
Haiti has arrested dozens of people following the July murder that left a political vacuum in the Caribbean nation.
But Haiti’s justice system has not charged any suspects.
The investigation has drawn complaints about delays, and three judges have resigned the case since August, citing threats and intimidation.
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth in Miami, additional reporting by Gessika Thomas in Port-au-Prince; Editing by Alistair Bell)
By Brian Ellsworth