Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a report by Haiti: Relief and Reconstruction Watch , written by Jake Johnston. Click here for the full report
On Feb. 17, Haitian police arrested seven Blackwater-like security contractors a few blocks from the country’s Central Bank. They claimed to be on a government mission, and had a cache of weapons. Four days later the United States “rescued” them.
Despite the sensitivity of the case, the identities of those detained were widely known within hours: Dustin Porte, Talon Burton, Christopher Osman, Kent Kroeker, Chris Mark McKinley, Danilo Bajagic, Vlade Jankovic, and Michael Estera.
Two are former navy SEALs, one a former marine. Another worked as diplomatic security in Afghanistan. Outside of Estera, the Haitian national, six of the seven detained have public links to private security companies in the US, from Maryland to Southern California. In Haiti, they’ve simply become “the Mercenaires.”
Christopher Osman’s post on Instagram.
On Feb. 22, Christopher Osman posted a picture with his wife on Instagram. The message accompanying that post has been the only public comment from any of the contractors involved. The post has since been deleted. At least two companies have publicly denied any role in the operation.
“Sometimes life is stranger than fiction and filled with crazy adventures,” Osman wrote, “Its [sic] now known that I do security work and have done it for years.” He claimed that’s what the team had been doing in Haiti — and “people who are directly connected to the current President” had hired them. Osman blamed a political fight between the president and prime minister for the ordeal, and thanked the US government, specifically the ambassador, for their “rescue.”
Relatively little is known about those detained, or why such a disparate group was brought together. But, it turns out, for some of those detained, this wasn’t their first trip to Haiti. At least one had been brought to Haiti by a wealthy businessman just seven months earlier, at the onset of Haiti’s current political crisis.
In early July, the government announced that fuel priceswould increase by up to 50 percent. It was running out of money, and the measure was part of a list of reforms needed to secure an International Monetary Fund rescue package.
Protests, some of which targeted private businesses, erupted across Port-au-Prince and continued even after the government rescinded the decree. The airport was closed. Among the businesses damaged in the protests were the Best Western hotel and MSC Trading. Both are owned by one of Haiti’s most well-known elite families, the Handals.
After the unrest, Chris Handal, a co-owner of the hotel and MSC, brought in foreign security contractors to assess the situation. According to private sector sources, that group included Kent Kroeker. Handal declined to comment for this report.
The presence of foreign security contractors in Haiti is nothing new. During times of unrest, businessmen have often brought in such teams. The Steele Foundation was on a “State Department-approved” security contract with the Haitian government for years. In 2004, Steele agents were present as former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide faced an internal revolt, including from within his own security forces, and was flown out of the country — against his will, he later claimed — on a leased plane that had been used by the United States for extraordinary renditions.
But if the contractors were simply in Haiti to provide routine security assessment or protection, it is their connections and actions in Haiti that raise significant questions about the nature of their mission.
After seven of those detained were returned to the US, only Michael Estera, the Haitian national, remained in jail. When it was reported the Americans wouldn’t face charges, Hans Joseph, a lawyer representing Estera, released a statement, noting that Estera had worked for a local civil engineering company, Preble-Rish Haiti, and demanding his release.
Hans Joseph’s statement on his client Michael Estera.
Soon after, Preble-Rish Haiti deleted its “About Us” page from its website. An archived version, however, revealed two key names: Josue Leconte and Gesner Champagne. The latter was arrested in 1996 on arms trafficking charges in the United States. They were the same two local businessmen who allegedly met the plane from Baltimore at the airport the morning before the arrest.
Preble Rish deleted its “About Us” page.
I met with Hans Joseph, Estera’s lawyer, in a sparsely decorated office in the Delmas 41 neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. Joseph denied Preble-Rish had any role in hiring him, and claimed that Estera would not even disclose to his lawyers who specifically his boss was.
“His life is in danger,” Joseph told me with some urgency. Estera was just a driver and translator working for a local businessman, the lawyer told me. “One of the best around,” he added.
During their one night of freedom in Haiti, Estera dropped at least some of the contractors off at the Hôtel Montana, according to the lawyer. Estera has since been released from jail. He has remained silent. Who were these businessmen that Estera was working for?
It remains unclear who, if anyone, signed a contract to bring this specific group into the country, but it is now evident that Preble-Rish Haiti, and the interests behind it, were intimately involved in the entire saga.
The company’s now-deleted “About Us” page showed that Leconte, an American citizen with a barely existent public record, was its president. The public relations director was listed as Champagne, whose “role involves creating relationships and support from both public and private institutions.”
It is a role that he is well-suited for given his relationship with former president Michel Martelly — and that appeared to have worked in the company’s favor.
Champagne is married to Claudia Saint-Remy, who is the sister of Martelly’s wife, Sophia Saint-Remy. Champagne’s uncle was a top official in the Duvalier regime. He and Martelly have been close for decades.
In March 1996, Gesner Champagne was arrested in the United States on arms trafficking charges. Martelly, it was reported, paid the $150,000 bail, and Martelly owned the house at the Miami address Champagne listed in court documents. He eventually reached an accommodating plea deal after cooperating in another investigation. That agreement remains under seal.
Champagne was one of many friends and relatives who populated Martelly’s circle of influence following his 2011 ascension to the presidency. Another is Charles “Kiko” Saint-Remy, a brother-in-law of both Champagne and the former president who has been linked to a range of criminal actions including murder, kidnapping, and drug trafficking since Martelly’s presidency.
If the contract had an official stamp of approval, the involvement of Preble-Rish and Champagne, and their close connections to Kiko Saint-Remy and former president Martelly, raises significant legal and political questions.
What are the implications of an American citizen, Leconte, and an American-owned company, Preble-Rish, being at the center of this scandal? Why would someone convicted of arms trafficking, Champagne, be involved in official security operations? And to what extent was the current Haitian administration, or other government officials, aware of the operation?
What is clear is that it wasn’t just the two Preble-Rish businessmen who were involved with the contractors.
Police discovered three sets of license plates inside the vehicles when the arrest occurred. According to registration documents, and a letter from a local car dealership addressed to the prime minister, one of the plates was registered in the name of Fritz Jean-Louis, reportedly an advisor to the current president, and a former secretary of state for the interior. Jean-Louis was also a minister involved with electoral affairs in 2015, during President Moïse’s campaign.
The license plates discovered inside the vehicles when the arrest occurred.
The letter explains that Magalie Habitant, at the time the director general of the public waste management authority, purchased a moondust Ford Ranger, and two other pickups, in Jean-Louis’ name in late August 2018.
Registration documents for the vehicles.
Letter from a local car dealership addressed to the prime minister.
Another set of plates, and a dark green Toyota Helux, is registered to Preble-Rish Haiti. Officially, the company had been the owner for less than four weeks. On January 22, 2019, Estera, the Preble-Rish driver, signed paperworktransferring the deed from Steeve Khawly, a wealthy importer who ran for president in the last election for a pro-government party.
Signed paperwork transferring the deed for one of the vehicles.
Contacted by Ayibopost, Khawly said he had purchased the car in 2013 “at the request of a friend from the company Preble-Rish.” Khawly and Champagne are both listed as founders of the Seguin Foundation in Haiti. Champagne did not provide any explanation of his involvement when contacted by Ayibopost. “Ask the state authorities who released the soldiers what happened,” he told the outlet. “Ask the American officials why they released these gentlemen.”
As of yet, the owner of the third set of plates is unknown.
If the current administration was aware of the contractors’ presence, they’ve tried to distance themselves from the fallout. “The president is not involved in this matter,” a lawyer for Moïse said, denying any official relationship with Fritz Jean-Louis. “The executive power cannot engage mercenaries to terrorize the population,” a spokesperson said. At that point, Jean-Louis had fled the country, according to police.
But the timeline of events preceding the arrest, and new information obtained about who was involved in the case, indicates the network of individuals who planned and coordinated the arrival of the security contractors was likely far broader than just Leconte, Champagne, and Jean-Louis.