BOGOTÁ, Colombia – One evening in early June, Mauricio Javier Romero, a 20-year-old decorated veteran of the Colombian army, received a call from a former army buddy.
The friend wanted to recruit him for a job – a “legal” and “secure” job that would send him abroad, according to Mr. Romero’s wife, Giovanna Romero.
“This person told him he wouldn’t be in trouble,” she said, “that this was a good opportunity for professional growth, economic growth – and knowing how great my husband was. a quality professional, he wanted him to be part of the team. “
A month later, Mr. Romero, 45, died, one of many men killed in Haiti in the aftermath of the assassination last week of President Jovenel Moïse, and one of at least 20 Colombians implicated by Haitian officials in a murder that plunged the Caribbean nation into chaos.
At least 18 Colombian men are in Haitian detention, and at least two have died.
But while the acting prime minister and members of his cabinet have presented the Colombians as the centerpieces of a well-organized plot by “foreign mercenaries” to kill Mr. Moses, critical questions remain about their role in murder.
The country’s senior prosecutor has also begun to examine the role Haitian security forces may have had in an operation that killed the president and injured his wife but did not injure anyone else in the house or on the team. security of the president.
In the streets of Haiti, there is widespread skepticism about the official government line, many wonder how the attackers passed through such a fortified compound defended by Haitian security forces without killing any more.
And in Colombia, some relatives of detained Colombians say the men went to Haiti to protect the president, not to kill him, adding to the many obscure and often contradictory claims surrounding the assassination.
“Mauricio would never have signed up for such an operation,” said Ms Romero, 43, “no matter how much money he was offered.”
Colombia, which has endured decades of internal conflict, has one of the best trained and best funded armies in Latin America, long aided by the United States. For this reason, Colombian veterans are highly sought after by global security companies, which have deployed them to Yemen and Iraq, sometimes paying as much as $ 3,000 per person per person.
Mr. Romero had joined the army in his twenties, at a time when left-wing guerrillas and paramilitary groups terrorized much of Colombia. By the time he retired in 2019, he was a first sergeant who had served across the country and had earned the distinction of “Expert Lance,” specialized training for elite troops similar to the US Army Ranger program. .
Ms Romero described her husband as riding the rules. “If you do it right,” he said, “life will be fine. He was adjusting to civilian life, she said, and sometimes said he lacked the camaraderie and sense of purpose he had from the military.
The call he received in June came from his friend Duberney Capador, 40, also a retired soldier who received special forces training. Mr. Capador had also left the military in 2019 and lived on a family farm with his mother in western Colombia.
According to his sister, Yenny Carolina Capador, 37, he left the farm and traveled to Haiti in May after receiving a job offer from a security company. The siblings spoke often and Mr. Capador told his sister that his team was in training and was responsible for protecting a “very important” person.
“What I’m 100% sure of is that my brother was not doing what they said, that he was hurting someone,” Ms. Capador insisted. “I know my brother went to take care of someone.”
Mr Capador sent his sister pictures of him in his uniform, a dark polo shirt emblazoned with the logo of a Florida security company called CTU, run by a man named Antonio Intriago. Mr. Intriago did not respond to messages seeking comment and the CAT office was closed when a reporter stopped by on Saturday.
Now Mr. Capador was trying to convince Mr. Romero to join him.
Ms Romero said she and her husband discussed it that June night and decided it was a good opportunity to get ahead financially. They had a mortgage to pay and two dependent children, and Mr. Romero’s military pension covered only the essentials.
“If you do,” Ms Romero told her husband, “I will support you as I have during the 20 years that we are together.”
Mr. Romero arrived at the airport in the Colombian capital, Bogotá, on Saturday, June 5, where he collected his plane ticket and headed for the Dominican Republic, neighboring Haiti.
Ms Romero said the last time she spoke to him was last Tuesday. He told her that he was protecting a man he called “the boss” and that he had limited cell connection, but that he wanted to register.
“I’m fine,” he told her. “I love you so much.”
“We’ll talk again,” he said.
It was rushed, but Mrs. Romero wasn’t worried.
The next day, however, she learned on the news that the Haitian president was dead and that Colombians could be implicated. When she couldn’t reach her husband, her head started to spin.
Last Friday, the Colombian Ministry of Defense released the names of 13 Colombians found in Haiti. Her husband was among them.
The Defense Ministry also said it was investigating four companies it said recruited Colombians for jobs in Haiti.
Shortly after, Ms Romero’s 20-year-old daughter received a message with a video that showed a man’s limp body. It looked like it was her father.
“Mami, am I right in saying it’s not him?” His daughter asked. “Isn’t it, mum?” It cannot be.
But Mrs. Romero recognized the rosary hanging from the dead man’s chest. It was her husband.
Haitian officials say a group of assailants stormed Mr. Moïse’s residence on the outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, last Wednesday at around 1 a.m., shooting him and injuring his wife , Martine Moïse, in what the authorities described as a well. planned operation which included “foreigners” who spoke Spanish.
In videos filmed from nearby buildings and synchronized by The New York Times, people who appear to be arriving to assassinate the president have shouted that they were part of a US Drug Enforcement Agency operation.
The DEA said it was not involved.
It is not known what role the Colombians played in the operation.
Later Wednesday morning, Ms Capador said she had started receiving calls and texts from her brother, Duberney. He told her he was in danger, locked in a house with bullets flying around him. Mrs. Capador could hear the gunshots in the background.
Ms Capador said her brother told her he had arrived “too late” to save the “important person” he claimed to have been hired to protect.
Haitian authorities have also detained at least two Haitian Americans in connection with the president’s death. On Sunday, authorities announced the arrest of a third man with ties to the United States: a doctor of Haitian descent based in Florida named Christian Emmanuel Sanon, 63.
Haitian officials have presented little evidence linking the suspects to the crime.
In an interview, Judge Clément Noël, who is involved in the investigation, said the two Haitian Americans claimed they were only working as interpreters in the operation and that they had met other participants in a hotel. upscale suburb of Pétionville in Port-au-Prince to plan the attack.
The aim was not to kill the president, they said, but to bring him to the national palace.
Days after the murder, Steven Benoit, a former senator and prominent opposition figure, was among those who said they found it difficult to believe Colombians were responsible for the assassination.
“The story just doesn’t add up,” Benoit said in a telephone interview from Port-au-Prince. “How is it that there is not a single security guard in the presidential compound who has been shot, who even has a scratch?
Mr. Benoit also asked why the Colombians who were at the scene of the assassination did not immediately attempt to flee the country after Mr. Moïse’s death. Instead, they stayed and were killed or captured.
On Saturday, Ms. Romero told her six-year-old son that “Dad is not coming back.”
She said she had yet to hear from Colombian or Haitian investigators, but urged them to find out the truth so that the families of everyone involved “can find some peace.”
Julie Turkewitz reported from Bogotá, Colombia, and Simon Romero from Albuquerque, NM. Reporting was provided by Sofía Villamil in Cartagena, Colombia; Anatoly Kurmanaev in Mexico City; Edinson Bolaños in Bogotá, Colombia; Ernesto Londoño in Trancoso, Brazil; Mirelis Morales Tovarin in Doral, Florida; and Catherine Porter and Frances Robles in Miami. Jack Begg contributed to the research.