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A bizarre arms trafficking case in Haiti leaves scars in South Florida

"A Deadly Mess": Haitian police inventory a shipment of high-power guns and ammunition sent from Florida — to the Episcopal Church of Haiti — and seized in Port-au-Prince on July 14, 2022.
Haitian National Police
"A Deadly Mess": Haitian police inventory a shipment of high-power guns and ammunition sent from Florida — to the Episcopal Church of Haiti — and seized in Port-au-Prince on July 14, 2022.

“What a mess, what a mess,” a Haitian police officer moans as he takes video of a cache of military-style guns and ammunition seized at the port of Port-au-Prince on July 14, 2022.

“If this keeps up,” he asks, “you don’t think this country won’t be destroyed?”

In truth, that “mess” of smuggled arms the officer recorded wasn’t rare. In recent years, assault weapons have poured into Haiti, often from Florida. In fact, the load that arrived that day was shipped from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. They’re funneled to the violent and powerful gangs that have become Haiti’s de facto rulers as the country’s government and economy collapse.

But this gun trafficking case would be different in one striking respect: the firearms, as Haitian TV news shows breathlessly announced that night, were addressed to Legliz Episkopal — the Episcopal Church of Haiti. The likely reason: like most religious organizations in Haiti, the Episcopal Church receives customs exemptions; that means shipments sent to it would get into the country faster, with a lot less scrutiny.

In October, a Haitian judge announced charges against several people in the case — which has turned out to be a dizzyingly convoluted conspiracy involving Episcopal priests, high-ranking Haitian officials and Haitians here in South Florida, especially Palm Beach County.

Yet it appears to be a textbook illustration of the way easily purchased guns in the U.S. get ferried across the Caribbean into Haiti — and how gangs there get so heavily armed.

And it may also be an example of how powerful forces in Haiti hide their footprints in schemes like these — and make sure innocent people, both there and here, take the fall.

U.S. investigators, in fact, appear to have determined that’s the case with a Haitian-American shipper in West Palm Beach named Remy Lindor, who is one of those charged in Haiti with arms trafficking but has not been charged in the U.S.

Haitian-American shipper Remy Lindor (left) with his attorney, John Howe, at Howe's West Palm Beach law offices last month.
Tim Padgett
/
WLRN
Haitian-American shipper Remy Lindor (left) with his attorney, John Howe, at Howe's West Palm Beach law offices last month.

“This is breaking my reputation,” a downcast Lindor told WLRN at his attorney’s office in West Palm Beach. “It really, really breaks my reputation.”

Lindor’s company, Remy Multiservices, helps Haitian expats get sorely needed items — food, clothes, medicine, electronics — to folks in Haiti. That matters because shipping companies like FedEx can’t operate in Haiti due to its broken infrastructure. In July 2022, Lindor had scores of loyal customers.

“I have a very good business helping people, people here and in Haiti,” he says.

“Everybody liked my service. People trust me when they send this stuff with me.”

But Lindor had to trust them, too. Shippers like him are not legally required to confirm that what their customers say they’re sending is actually what’s being sent. Lindor’s attorney, John Howe of West Palm Beach, says that made Lindor vulnerable.

“Businesses like Mr. Lindor’s are a lifeline to Haiti,” says Howe. “Unfortunately, a criminal element has found a way to exploit it.”

Lindor claims a Haitian-American customer — Fernand Jean-Pierre, of Lake Worth Beach, according to invoices WLRN has examined — paid him to ship boxes that Jean-Pierre said contained air-conditioning units and bags of rice. But when the shipment arrived at Port-au-Prince, Haitian police found instead a shocking arsenal:

Seventeen semi-automatic rifles. A 12-gauge shotgun. Four pistols. Fifteen thousand rounds of ammunition; 130 ammunition magazines. And 500 counterfeit U.S. $100 bills.

READ MORE: Guns of the Caribbean: Haiti, U.S. Virgin Islands flooded with firearms — often from Florida

“These guns are being used for murder, kidnapping — all kinds of crime in Haiti,” says Howe.

In fact, Haitian authorities suggest the guns were en route to an especially vicious gang called Kraze Barye, or Destroy the Barrier. It’s run by Vitel’homme Innocent, a top gang leader the FBI last month added to its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list for his role in kidnapping U.S. citizens in Haiti.

Lindor insists that he’s innocent — that he had no knowledge that guns and ammo, not AC units and rice, were being shipped via his service. And his lawyer, Howe, insists U.S. authorities agree.

“Mr. Lindor has fully cooperated with the U.S. government, with Homeland Security,” Howe says. “And he hasn’t been charged with anything" in the U.S.

Homeland Security Investigations officials told WLRN they cannot comment on a pending investigation. And that includes their probe into Jean-Pierre, the Haitian-American customer whose name is actually on the shipping documents.

Lindor claims Jean-Pierre took advantage of him — and lied to him.

“My business sent a lot of stuff for him,” Lindor says.

“I made sure I ask him, ‘What you got in the box?’ But he break my business. Break my heart.”

A lot of people involved in sending arms to Haiti, and financing the gangs, do live in Florida — and we’re aware of who they’re partnering with in Haiti.
Congresswoman Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick

Jean-Pierre, too, is wanted for arrest in Haiti. But like Lindor, he hasn’t been charged in the U.S. Either way, since the guns he allegedly sent were seized in Haiti, Jean-Pierre has all but disappeared and appears to be a fugitive. WLRN made several unsuccessful attempts to contact him by phone and at the apartment he still rents in Lake Worth Beach.

Jean-Pierre’s brother-in-law in Haiti, Rubens Vilmont, has also been charged in the case in Haiti.

Jean-Pierre’s name is attached to several Limited Liability Corporations in Palm Beach County — including, ironically, a charity called A Better Tomorrow For Our Children. A partner in that now defunct venture told WLRN that he and Jean-Pierre attended Santaluces Community High School in Lantana — but that he and other friends have no idea where Jean-Pierre has gone to now. (He asked that his name not be disclosed given the nature of the case.)

Lindor, meanwhile, says his biggest concern now isn’t his legal situation but his community standing, with customers and other folks in Palm Beach County’s Haitian diaspora. They include his fellow congregation members at the Assemblee de Dieu evangelical church in Lake Worth Beach.

“Always people respected me,” says Lindor, who insists that his farmer parents “taught me to be honest and hard-working” when he was growing up on the Haitian island of Gonâve before coming to the U.S. 36 years ago.

A Haitian National Police wanted poster featuring Johnny Docteur, the assistant director of Haiti's Economy and Finance Ministry, charged with arms trafficking conspiracy and other crimes.
Haitian National Police
A Haitian National Police wanted poster featuring Johnny Docteur, the assistant director of Haiti's Economy and Finance Ministry, charged with arms trafficking conspiracy and other crimes.

“All my life, I never do the bad stuff,” he says. “The [U.S.] government knows I’m not guilty. But some people don’t believe that. Now, some people see me, they say, ‘OK, that’s the guy that sent the container — with the guns. So I sit in the house, by myself.”

Lindor says his business has also suffered because Haitian officials now delay any shipping containers that arrive via his service for more prolonged inspections — which makes for unhappy customers back here.

“Some of them, they keep calling me all the time for their — to know about their stuff. So, I don’t feel good.”

One Assemblee de Dieu member, Jean-Pierre Louis, insisted to WLRN that most of the church congregation's members, who include some of Lindor's customers, believe Lindor is innocent, that he should keep his business running, and that "his good reputation is still intact here. It will recover."

A source briefed on the federal probe tells WLRN that U.S. officials are looking at several other people, aside from Fernand Jean-Pierre, who they believe were also involved in acquiring the guns and ammo — which investigators have determined were purchased legally in Florida — and shipping them to Haiti.

In Haiti, a key concern is that high-ranking government officials allegedly arranged to have those weapons shipped to the Haitian Episcopal Church. That way the guns would sail undetected into Haiti — thanks to the inspection exemptions church organizations enjoy there because of their charity work.

"Dans le maquis"

And just as Lindor in Florida claims he and his shipping service were duped, the Episcopal Church in Haiti insists it was unwittingly used.

“The Episcopal Church never requested the container those guns were trafficked in,” argues Samuel Madistin, a Haitian human rights attorney who represents the Episcopal Church in this case and spoke to WLRN from Port-au-Prince.

In his order last month, the Haitian judge in the case, Marthel Jean-Claude, did largely exonerate the Episcopal Church, although he did charge some of its priests for aiding the Haitian officials who allegedly directed the scheme.

The most prominent of those officials charged by Judge Jean-Claude for orchestrating the arms trafficking conspiracy is Johnny Docteur — a top assistant to Haiti’s Economy and Finance Minister, Michel Patrick Boisvert.

Docteur is now, as they say in Haiti, “dans le maquis” — on the run and in hiding, a wanted man.

It feels like Haitian authorities set this up to protect the actual people involved, to hide things — and to scapegoat others, like the Episcopal Church.
Samuel Madistin

“The Haitian judge’s investigation concluded that high-ranking officials…were part of a whole conspiracy — trying to make the Episcopal Church the scapegoat,” Madistin argues.

“It feels like authorities set this up to protect the actual people involved, to hide things.”

Haitian human rights activists like Madistin are urging Haitian authorities, especially the federal Judicial Police’s Bureau of Financial and Economic Affairs, or BAFE, which has led the investigation, to look higher than just Docteur for ringleaders and cover-ups.

The non-governmental National Human Rights Defense Network in Haiti, or RNDDH, issued its own report last year on the Episcopal Church arms trafficking scandal — and one lofty Haitian figure it pointed to was Jacques Lafontant, then the top prosecutor for Port-au-Prince.

That’s because the RNDDH said it found evidence that after the guns were seized, Lafontant contacted suspects in Haiti and Florida. The RNDDH said Lafontant even recommended an attorney in Haiti that Lindor should call.

The report's inference was that Lafontant was trying to manage suspect testimony in order to protect Haitian government officials involved in the scheme. Lafontant refutes that suggestion and denies he contacted figures like Lindor, and he has not been charged in the case. Lindor, meanwhile, denies he had any communication with Lafontant.

RULE OF LAW SUNK Haitian gang members brandish the smuggled military-style weapons that have helped them gain control of much of the country
Rodrigo Abd
/
AP
Haitian gang members in 2021 brandish the smuggled military-style weapons that have helped them gain control of much of the country.

Earlier this year, however, Lafontant was one of dozens of judges and prosecutors the Haitian Supreme Court expelled from their posts due to alleged links to corruption — and Judge Jean-Claude refused to allow input from Lafontant in the Episcopal Church arms trafficking case.

Either way, if Madistin is correct about the crime’s high-level intellectual authors, it would only bear out what Haitian human rights activists and U.S. officials have long been warning: That the gangs that control and terrorize so much of Haiti today are in many instances sponsored by members of the country’s political and business elite — who look to the gangs as protectors and enforcers — and that those elites are recruiting Haitian expats in the U.S. to ship weapons to the gangs in Haiti.

 “A lot of people who are involved in sending arms to Haiti, and financing the gangs, do live in Florida — and we’re aware of who they’re partnering with in Haiti,” says Democratic U.S. Rep. Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick, a Haitian-American who represents portions of Broward County and Palm Beach County, where the shipment of guns in this case originated.

Cherfilus-McCormick is the co-sponsor of a bill in Congress called theHaiti Criminal Collusion Transparency Act. It would give the U.S. government, in particular the State Department, more leverage to sanction if not prosecute people here and there who aid Haiti’s gangs. It passed the House earlier this year. A similar bill is pending in the Senate.

Cases like the Episcopal Church arms scandal, she says, “make getting the Collusion bill passed imperative right now, as we’re looking for solutions to help stabilize Haiti.”

Or as that Haitian police officer said when the guns from Palm Beach County were seized last year:

What a deadly mess.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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