MIAMI – One of the main suspects in the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse is now in U.S. custody and made his first appearance in federal court in Miami on Tuesday afternoon.
Mario Antonio Palacios Palacios, a 43-year-old Colombian, was ordered to remain behind bars until his arraignment, set for Jan. 31, which would make him the first person to be formally charged in the crime.
He faces one count of providing material support resulting in death and conspiracy to kill or kidnap outside the United States.
Palacios was recently deported from Jamaica and, during a layover in Panama, agreed to travel to the U.S., DOJ officials said.
If convicted of the charges, he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment
Moïse was shot dead on July 7 in an ambush at his home in Port-au-Prince. The shooting also injured his wife Martine, who was brought to Miami for treatment.
Investigators arrested dozens of people in connection with the assassination, some of whom have ties to South Florida. Among those are 19 former Colombian soldiers, including Palacios, who was a member of Colombia’s military for 20 years.
Palacios, who was wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt and had his hands and feet shackled, told a judge Tuesday that he wanted to be appointed an attorney. After responding to questions related to his income and property, including that he owned a house in Cali, Colombia, and received a nearly $370 army pension, he was granted counsel based on limited income.
Court-appointed attorney Alfredo Izaguirre told U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia Otazo-Reyes that he recommended Palacios stay in detention because he has no immigration status, relatives or ties to the United States. The judge ordered detention, saying he would be at risk of fleeing.
Palacios is scheduled to appear in court again on Jan. 31. Izaguirre said his client would probably plead not guilty at the preliminary hearing.
A complaint unsealed Tuesday states that Palacios spoke voluntarily with U.S. authorities in October and told them that he was hired to travel to Haiti to provide security and participate in an alleged operation to arrest the president. He said that the initial plan was for co-conspirators to don black hoodies, capture Moïse at the airport in June and take him away by plane. Palacios then said that unnamed co-conspirators told him as early as July 6, a day before the killing, about the plan to assassinate Moïse.
Palacios was arrested in Jamaica in October and was scheduled to fly to his native Colombia on Monday. However, Interpol notified Palacios during a stopover in Panama that the U.S. government was extraditing him, said Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas, director of Colombia’s police.
He said that Colombia, Jamaica and the U.S. were in touch to coordinate the deportation and extradition of Palacios to the U.S.
Interpol had issued a red alert for Palacios on charges including attempted murder, armed robbery and conspiracy based on a request from the Haitian government.
The office of Haiti’s prime minister issued a brief statement, saying only that it wanted justice to prevail in the assassination of Moïse at his private residence. The office did not reply to additional questions including whether the government was still seeking to charge Palacios or extradite him to Haiti.
Former Haitian Prime Minister Claude Joseph said the U.S. taking custody of Palacios was a step in the right direction, but he urged local authorities to work with the U.S. to extradite him so he can face justice in Haiti.
Palacios was one of more than a dozen former Colombian soldiers accused in the slaying of Moïse. The Colombian government has said that the majority of the ex-soldiers were duped and thought they were on a legitimate mission to provide protection and that only a few knew it was a criminal mission.