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Supporters of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide celebrate his arrival from Cuba, where he underwent medical treatment, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, July 16, 2021.

Fernando Llano/The Associated Press

In the days before his death, Jovenel Moïse was plowing ahead with what he saw as his legacy project. In meetings and Zoom calls with members of his cabinet, the Haitian President hammered out the wording of a formal decree to hold elections in September, which would include a referendum on his proposed constitutional reforms.

In one final exchange during the late afternoon of July 6, Mr. Moïse and his Elections Minister, Mathias Pierre, made edits over WhatsApp. “He wanted to move forward,” Mr. Pierre recalled.

The referendum plan was contentious, to say the least. Mr. Moïse sold his reforms, which would increase the power of the presidency, as a necessary step to break the country’s perennial political gridlock. His opponents viewed them as a step toward dictatorship.

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It was only the latest fight the 53-year-old entrepreneur had picked during his brief political career. He battled some of the country’s oligarchs when he cancelled their government contracts. He clashed with pro-democracy activists over his efforts to rule by decree. And he fell out with erstwhile allies in his own political party over his refusal to heed their advice.

At 1 a.m. local time on July 7, heavily armed commandos burst into Mr. Moïse’s bedroom, broke one of his arms and one of his legs, gouged out his left eye, and shot him 12 times. His wife, Martine, was wounded, and had to be airlifted to Miami for treatment.

The Haitian National Police have blamed the attack on a pulp-novel plot: A failed Florida-based businessman, they say, teamed up with a former Haitian senator, an ex-justice department official and a private security company to hire 28 mercenaries, most of them former Colombian soldiers, to overthrow the government. Twenty-four members of Mr. Moïse’s palace guard, who failed to protect him, are also under investigation.

Around Port-au-Prince, theories abound over the killing’s ultimate masterminds and motives. Some cast the blame on oligarchs, others on drug cartels or political rivals. Many doubt the official narrative. Key to unravelling the intrigue will be an understanding of both Mr. Moïse’s turbulent career and Haiti’s fractious politics.

Oligarchs, bodyguards likely behind plot to assassinate Haiti’s president, key minister alleges

Suspects in killing of Haiti president met to plan a future without him

Conversations this week with a dozen members of the country’s political and business circles, civil society and diplomatic corps painted a complicated picture of the late president. To critics, he was authoritarian and uncaring. To supporters, he was well-intentioned and headstrong. To both, he was fatally stubborn and with a knack for making enemies.

Most people would speak only on condition their names not be published, for fear of inviting violence in a volatile political situation. The conversations revealed a clear consensus on Haiti’s plutocratic political culture. Virtually everyone The Globe and Mail spoke with depicted the country’s politics as a proxy war between a handful of oligarchs, each one backing different candidates who would favour them over their competitors in the awarding of government contracts.

“We are still working with the economic model of the 18th century, where the peasants are working and another class is doing what they want,” said Monique Clesca, a social-justice activist and former United Nations official here. “About 70 per cent of the population has nothing.”

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In the capital, people with money or power live in compounds surrounded by 3½-metre stone fences. Regular residents must contend with armed gangs that control parts of the city, and a lack of public services such as a sanitation system. Into this context stepped Mr. Moïse.

A businessman from the country’s north, he was best known before politics for running a banana plantation that tried to restore the country’s long-lost status as one of the fruit’s top exporters. In 2015, then-president Michel Martelly chose Mr. Möise, who had no prior political experience, as the ruling Tèt Kale Party’s presidential candidate. The results of that election were invalidated because of massive fraud, and Mr. Moïse won a do-over the following year.

In office, Mr. Moïse did battle with several people he would characterize as oligarchs. He cancelled an electricity supply contract held by Sogener, a company owned by the Vorbe family, and put its generating plants under government control.

He also clashed with Reginald Boulos, a grocery store and real estate magnate who had once been Mr. Moïse’s ally. The president tried to stop the national pension fund, the ONA, from lending to big business, cutting off a source of funds to Mr. Boulos. The tycoon, for his part, accused Mr. Moïse of being a tyrant and set up a political party to take him on.

“Jovenel came with a deep belief in change,” said Laurent Lamothe, a former prime minister who became a friend and informal adviser of the late president’s. “He likes quick solutions to problems and he was a very direct person. He doesn’t hold anything back. He tells you what he thinks. His yes is yes, his no is no.”

Not that Mr. Moïse was totally opposed to cultivating relationships with oligarchs. Political and diplomatic insiders said Mr. Moïse remained close with Sherif Abdallah, owner of a major insurance company, throughout his time in office.

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The president also faced persistent street protests. He was accused of inaction or even complicity in the misappropriation of state funds related to a gasoline-supply program called Petrocaribe, clashed with the opposition over the end date for his term, and started ruling by decree last year after postponing parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, gang violence rose, economic prospects collapsed and a string of opposition activists and journalists disappeared or turned up dead.

“Jovenel didn’t listen. He didn’t see that people were speaking to him and telling him: ‘This is what is going on.’ It was an attitude of arrogance in front of their despair,” said Ms. Clesca.

Then came the constitutional reforms. Mr. Moïse planned to abolish the post of prime minister, reassigning its powers to the president. He also wanted to synchronize parliamentary and presidential elections to make it more likely that both would be controlled by the same party, grant elected officials immunity from prosecution during their terms and allow presidents to run for re-election, which is currently prohibited.

Georges Michel, a Haitian historian, voted for Mr. Moïse. He saw the president as a hard worker who could get things done, including a rural road-building program. But Mr. Michel changed his mind as he grew increasingly alarmed at Mr. Moïse’s autocratic tendencies.

“In his new constitution, he wanted to eliminate all checks and balances. He wanted to destroy our progress since 1986. He wanted to take us back to the Duvalier times,” Mr. Michel said, referencing the notorious father-son dictator duo that ran Haiti for 29 years.

Even Mr. Moïse’s own political party fell out with him after he failed to heed their advice on dialling back his plans for the Constitution. Mr. Moïse caused a further rupture within the party this month when he announced a plan to appoint opposition politician Ariel Henry as prime minister instead of a member of Tèt Kale.

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Just two days after that announcement, the president was dead.

At first, the assassination looked like a fearsomely professional job. Video appeared to show the hit squad, impersonating U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officers, arriving at Mr. Moïse’s suburban compound and easily getting inside.

At his own home in the steep, craggy hills that overlook Port-au-Prince, Mr. Pierre, the Elections Minister, was awoken at 1 a.m. by gunfire. It lasted about 45 minutes, he recalled, after which he went back to bed. At 3 a.m., the secretary of state called to tell him the president had been assassinated. “I didn’t believe him,” Mr. Pierre said.

It took subsequent calls from other members of cabinet for the minister to accept that something so unthinkable had happened. The cabinet gathered at the home of Claude Joseph, the interim Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, five kilometres away, a debacle was unfolding. The commandos didn’t get very far from Mr. Moïse’s house before Haitian police blocked their escape. Some holed up in an abandoned commercial building. Others escaped into the bushes, only to encounter mobs of citizens who lit the underbrush on fire to smoke them out. Eleven rushed into the Taiwanese embassy.

When the dust settled, 20 men had been arrested, at least three were shot to death and five escaped. Over the subsequent days, Haitian police accused several other men of planning the crime.

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There was Christian Emmanuel Sanon, 63, a Haitian doctor and evangelical pastor. He had registered more than 20 businesses in Florida, offering everything from medical services to real estate, before going bankrupt in 2013. There was former Haitian senator John Joel Joseph; Joseph Felix Badio, an ex-government official; businessman Rodolphe Jaar; Antonio Enmanuel Intriago Valera, a Venezuelan who runs a Florida security company called CTU; and Walter Veintemilla, a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., insurance agent and financier.

The plot, Haitian authorities have said, was to install Mr. Sanon as president. They have not made clear how exactly the alleged conspirators planned to achieve this. And in a strange twist, police suggested many of the gunmen may not have actually known what they were signing up for, believing they were simply being hired as Mr. Sanon’s bodyguards.

The most pervasive theory in Haiti is that one of the country’s oligarchs ordered the killing, in hopes that whoever succeeded Mr. Moïse would be more amenable to their business interests, and hired the rest of the conspirators. It was a possibility that the late president had himself apparently foreseen.

“He mentioned several times that the corrupt oligarchs were going to try to kill him,” Mr. Lamothe said. “He’s a man who died for what he believed in. He was a principled guy, he was doing his reforms, and he died for them. He went against the system, and the system killed him.”

Other theories – accusing either narcos or Mr. Moïse’s political opponents – are less fleshed out, but nonetheless circulated.

A Colombian television program, Noticias Caracol, this week said three of the mercenaries had fingered Mr. Joseph, the interim PM, as the mastermind. The program did not cite its sources, and Haitian police denied that there was any evidence of Mr. Joseph’s involvement.

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Many Haitians question the story released by police so far. What particularly doesn’t square to them is the notion that the mercenaries were apparently competent enough to get into the president’s bedroom without firing a shot – but so inept they had no viable exit plan.

Some even subscribe to a theory that the Colombians are patsies, called to Mr. Moïse’s home only after the murder and then framed for it by the real killers.

“If you’re going to have all this sophistication to get inside the house, you have to be able to find a way out,” said Chantal Merzier Elie, an opposition human rights activist and former foreign policy adviser to previous Haitian presidents. “It seems like they were set up.”

Meanwhile, the country is struggling to find a way forward in the killing’s aftermath. Mr. Joseph, who has declared himself acting president, has said the government will go ahead with Mr. Moïse’s planned elections and constitutional referendum.

But three other people have challenged his hold on power – Mr. Henry, who had been announced as Mr. Joseph’s successor but not yet sworn in at the time of the murder; Joseph Lambert, the head of the Senate; and Wendelle Coq Thélot, a high court judge backed by several opposition parties.

The U.S. government, which is helping with the murder investigation, has endorsed the idea of holding elections this year. But most political parties and social activists say that, given the country’s security situation, any elections organized solely by Mr. Joseph’s administration will give the incumbent government an unfair advantage.

“It’s a total mess. We are in a major political vacuum. We should have a consensus with all the political parties, get ourselves together to organize the elections – not leave the elections to the current government,” said Chantal Merzier Elie. “I hope this can bring Haitians together.”

Mr. Michel, the historian, was less optimistic. He feared that Mr. Moïse’s assassination could redefine what people are willing to do to seize or hold on to political power. He had to think back 100 years, to when then-president Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was dragged out of the French embassy and beaten to death by an angry mob to find the last time Haiti was in such a crisis.

“I think that this will lead to more violence. They refuse to play fair, they refuse to be honest. It can lead to more radicalization,” he said. “The current situation is really dire. It’s the direst one since 1915.”

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