Most of the Americans arrived in Port-au-Prince from the U.S. by private jet early on the morning of February 16. They’d packed the eight-passenger charter plane with a stockpile of semiautomatic rifles, handguns, Kevlar bulletproof vests, and knives. Most had been paid already: $10,000 each up front, with another $20,000 promised to each man after they finished the job.

A trio of politically connected Haitians greeted the Americans when their plane landed around 5 a.m. An aide to embattled Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and two other regime-friendly Haitians whisked them through the country’s biggest airport, avoiding customs and immigration agents, who had not yet reported for work.

The American team included two former Navy SEALs, a former Blackwater-trained contractor, and two Serbian mercenaries who lived in the U.S. Their leader, a 52-year-old former Marine C-130 pilot named Kent Kroeker, had told his men that this secret operation had been requested and approved by Moïse himself. The Haitian president’s emissaries had told Kroeker that the mission would involve escorting the presidential aide, Fritz Jean-Louis, to the Haitian central bank, where he’d electronically transfer $80 million from a government oil fund to a second account controlled solely by the president. In the process, the Haitians told the Americans, they’d be preserving democracy in Haiti.

It was too good a deal for the band of semi-employed military veterans and security contractors to turn down.

But a day after the Americans landed in Haiti, they would find themselves in jail and at the center of a political uproar, with Haitians asking what a group of foreign mercenaries was doing at the central bank and who they were working for. Within three days, Kroeker and his team would be released and sent back to the U.S., having somehow managed to escape criminal charges in Haiti.

Many details of the operation remain murky, but based on interviews with Haitian law enforcement and government officials, as well as a person with direct knowledge of the plan, a picture of the clumsy effort emerges. What at first resembled a comedic plot about a group of ex-soldiers looking for a quick and easy mercenary score was in fact a poorly executed but serious effort by Moïse to consolidate his political power with American muscle.

Neither Moïse nor the Haitian Embassy in Washington, D.C., responded to requests for comment.

None of the Americans spoke directly with Moïse or received official paperwork from the Haitian government authorizing them to undertake the mission, according to the person with direct knowledge of the operation. Yet Jean-Louis and the plot’s other key organizer, Josué Leconte, a Haitian-American from Brooklyn and close friend of Moïse, do not appear to have been rogue operators.

The Americans arrived at a tumultuous political and economic moment in a country with a history of unrest. Since last July, when Moïse tried to raise fuel prices by as much as 50 percent, intermittent protests have paralyzed Haiti.

Thousands of demonstrators march in the street as they chant anti-government slogans during a protest to demand the resignation of President Jovenel Moise and demanding to know how Petro Caribe funds have been used by the current and past administrations, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019. Much of the financial support to help Haiti rebuild after the 2010 earthquake comes from Venezuela's Petro Caribe fund, a 2005 pact that gives suppliers below-market financing for oil and is under the control of the central government. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

Thousands of demonstrators march in the street during a protest to demand the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse on Feb. 7, 2019.

Photo: Dieu Nalio Chery/AP

From 2008 to 2017, Venezuela provided Haiti with about $4.3 billion in cheap oil under the Petrocaribe Accord, which Venezuela signed with Haiti and 16 other Caribbean and Central American countries. Haiti had a particularly favorable deal: Forty percent of the money owed to Venezuela was repayable over 25 years at an annual interest rate of 1 percent. In the meantime, Haiti was free to pump its revenue from that oil into the Petrocaribe fund. The fund was supposed to support hospitals, clinics, schools, roads, and other social projects, and helped prop up the Haitian government after the devastating 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016.

But Trump administration sanctions on Venezuela and financial mismanagement by the Haitian government led the Haitian central bank to halt payments to Venezuela, and the Petrocaribe agreement effectively ended in early 2018. A Haitian Senate investigation found that the fund’s nearly $2 billion had been largely misappropriated, embezzled, and stolen, primarily under Haitian President Michel Martelly’s leadership between 2011 and 2016.

Moïse came to power in 2017, after the Port-au-Prince district attorney accused him of money laundering. The corruption allegations, combined with the end of cheap Venezuelan oil and credit, created a perfect storm of popular outrage. In recent months, Moïse and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Henry Céant have been vying for power, and Moïse’s decision to back the Trump administration’s recent efforts to undermine Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro set off a new round of popular street protests in Haiti, with protesters calling for Moïse to step down. Under the Haitian constitution, that would have made Céant the country’s leader.

The Americans were told that the Petrocaribe fund is controlled by Moïse, Céant, and the central bank’s president, Jean Baden Dubois. Because of the widening political rift between the president and the prime minister, that arrangement left the $80 million effectively frozen, according to the person with direct knowledge of the operation.

Leconte and Jean-Louis told the Americans that by moving the money into an account Céant and Dubois could not access, Moïse could more effectively lead the country, hence the promise that they would be supporting Haiti’s democracy. The fund was the government’s only significant economic instrument, and the move would secure Moïse’s position and freeze out his prime minister. It is unclear what Moïse intended to do with the money once he gained control of it.

Leconte paid the Americans for the operation, according to the source with direct knowledge. Leconte and his business partner, Gesner Champagne, who also met the Americans at the airport in Port-au-Prince, were acting as cutouts, giving Moïse plausible deniability, the Americans were told.

In return for helping Moïse, the president promised Leconte and Champagne that he would give a nationwide telecom contract to Preble-Rish Haiti, the engineering and construction company Leconte and Champagne run together, Jean-Louis and Leconte told the Americans.


The Banque de la République d’Haïti in downtown Port-au-Prince on March 8, 2019.

Photo: Kim Ives/Haïti Liberté