By Jay Weaver and Jacqueline Charles
Guy Philippe, an elected Haitian senator and former police commander who eluded capture in Haiti for more than a decade, pleaded guilty Monday in Miami federal court to a drug-related, money-laundering conspiracy charge that could send him to prison for at least nine years.
Philippe, arrested in January, admitted he accepted between $1.5 million and $3.5 million in cocaine profits from Colombian traffickers for allowing them to use Haiti to ship cocaine to Miami and other parts of the United States between 1999 and 2003. The following year, Phillipe gained widespread notoriety when he led a revolt to oust Haiti’s president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
By pleading guilty, Philippe avoided the risk of a trial early next month with possible conviction on the main drug-conspiracy charge — and a potential life sentence.
His punishment will be up to U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga, who could give him a maximum sentence of 20 years at a hearing set for July 5. But under the federal sentencing guidelines in his plea agreement with prosecutors, Philippe, 49, faces between nine and 11 years in prison.
“Given all that we have learned about the case, we believe Mr. Philippe made the right decision to resolve it,” defense attorney Alan Ross said outside the courtroom.
Former Haiti coup leader Guy Philippe, who has been wanted for more than a decade on drug charges in the United States, was arrested Thursday in Haiti and escorted to Miami by U.S. federal agents.
Another defense attorney, Zeljka Bozanic, who acknowledged the difficulty of going to trial more than a decade after Philippe’s indictment in 2005, said the plea allows him to avoid serving a life sentence.
“He’s a very, very smart guy and I wish him good luck in politics,” Bozanic said outside the federal courthouse. “I hope that he’s able to run again and I believe that he will still have a lot of support from a lot of people, despite what happened here. … And I believe people will be able to understand much more at some later time.”
Philippe, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2006, was elected in November to a six-year Senate term. His seat has remained empty until the resolution of his criminal case in Miami.
According to a statement filed with his plea deal, Philippe admitted that he not only shared the bribes from narco-traffickers with fellow officers in the Haitian National Police, but he also wired hundreds of thousands of dollars to the United States to buy a home in Broward County and support his family.
Philippe wired $376,000 from banks in Haiti and Ecuador to a joint account with his wife, Natalie, at First Union in Miami. To avoid detection, Philippe used the names of others to wire the funds to his account, according to the statement signed by the defendant and prosecutors Lynn Kirkpatrick and Andy Camacho. Philippe also admitted he deposited more than $70,000 into his account in a series of transactions of less than $10,000 to avoid federal reporting requirements.
“Philippe cast aside his duty to protect and serve the people of Haiti,” said Benjamin G. Greenberg, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida. “Instead, he abused his position of authority as a high-ranking Haitian National Police Officer to safeguard drug shipments and launder illicit trafficking proceeds. The prosecution of those who abuse the public’s trust to facilitate criminal conduct remains a top priority for the U.S. and our Haitian law enforcement allies.”
Philippe is the last high-profile defendant from a U.S. crackdown on cocaine smuggling through Haiti that yielded the convictions of more than a dozen drug traffickers, Haitian senior police officers and a former Haitian senator. Among them: Beaudouin “Jacques” Ketant, a Haitian narco-trafficker who accused former President Aristide of turning a blind eye to the cocaine. Ketant, initially sentenced to 27 years in a U.S. prison, was deported to Haiti in 2015 when his term was cut in half after assisting federal prosecutors in their probe.
For more than a decade, federal agents, in collaboration with the Haiti National Police, made at least 10 attempts to arrest Philippe: setting up checkpoints, paying informants, launching a U.S. military operation and pursuing him in a foot chase only to lose him in dense vegetation.
Before striking his plea agreement, Philippe had insisted that as an elected Haitian senator, he could not be charged by U.S. authorities. He also claimed that his Jan. 5 arrest by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents amounted to kidnapping.
But Altonaga, the federal judge, ruled last month that he was not protected by sovereign immunity because he had not been sworn in before his arrest outside a Port-au-Prince radio station.
After that major setback, Philippe, who initially pleaded not guilty, struck a deal with the U.S. attorney’s office.
Philippe’s change of plea has rattled some Haitian lawmakers and supporters who have publicly protested his arrest and extradition. Supporters have demonstrated against his arrest in his western Haiti hometown of Pestel, in front of the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince and in front of the Miami federal courthouse during his January court appearance, wearing “Free Guy Philippe” T-shirts. On Monday, however, only two attended his change of plea hearing in a nearly empty courtroom.
“We were expecting a big crowd,” a court employee was overheard saying before a smiling Philippe walked into the courtroom in a khaki-colored jail uniform at 2:18 p.m, his hands and feet shackled.
Not even Philippe’s U.S. citizen wife, Natalie, who had helped her husband wage a public relations campaign proclaiming his innocence, was present. The only support came from a cousin, Pierre Papillon and his daughter, Cassandre.
After the judge announced Philippe’s guilty plea, both cried.
Natalie Philippe, wife of Guy Philippe, confirming that it was her husband’s voice from inside a Miami federal detention lockup in a recording that went viral recently.
“I wasn’t expecting this,” said Pierre Papillon, who said he had not spoken to Philippe prior to his change of plea. “I thought he would maintain his not guilty plea and be freed.”
Still, Papillon said he was resigned to idea of the guilty plea. “He’s a fighter, and he knows how to fight. I supposed he saw what was best for him.”
Cassandre Papillon said she had hoped to see the case resolved Monday. Instead, she and others will have to wait until July 5 to learn Philippe’s sentence.
“He’s been sitting here since January and now he has to wait until July,” she said, wiping tears away from her eyes. “It’s a little absurd and I think it’s too much. We just want him to go back home.”
Even after the arrest, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse — who campaigned with Philippe despite his fugitive status — appointed a number of close Philippe supporters to key government posts. Among them: the head of Philippe’s political party, Jeantel Joseph, who led the protests at the U.S. Embassy and was given a top Haitian government security post.