A key defendant in the trial of the men charged in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti is set to plead guilty this week, in what could be a major breakthrough for U.S. prosecutors who are handling the case in Miami federal court.
A change of plea hearing has been set for Thursday in the case of a retired Colombian Army captain, Germán Rivera, according to court records.
“I am writing to advise that Mr. Germán Rivera is scheduled to plead guilty,” Sarah Schall, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in the southern district of Florida, told The Times.
The guilty plea is widely viewed by legal observers as a sign that Mr. Rivera, who was considered a leader of the plot to kill Mr. Moïse, is willing to cooperate with prosecutors and testify against the other defendants, an important development that would bolster the prosecution’s case.
Ms. Schall would not comment further on Mr. Rivera’s plea.
Mr. Rivera, 45, initially pleaded not guilty after his extradition from Haiti in February. Prosecutors say he helped recruit a team of about 20 private security contractors accused of killing Mr. Moïse in his bedroom shortly after midnight on July 7, 2021.
Mr. Rivera could face a life sentence on four charges of conspiring to kidnap or kill Mr. Moïse.
On the night of the assassination, Mr. Rivera led a convoy of vehicles that assaulted the president’s residence, according to an indictment against 11 accused conspirators. A few hours earlier, Mr. Rivera and others had met at a nearby house “where firearms and equipment were distributed,” according to court documents.
Mr. Moïse was shot 12 times at a close distance and died instantly.
About 20 former Colombian soldiers were recruited in May 2021 to travel to Haiti as private military contractors and were initially instructed to provide security for a would-be presidential candidate, Christian Sanon, a Haitian American pastor. The plan later evolved into arresting Mr. Moïse and, finally, to killing him, according to prosecutors.
Mr. Rivera was in charge of the Colombians and passed along the order to assassinate Mr. Moïse to the rest of the team, according to recorded witness statements made to Colombian law enforcement after the assassination and leaked to a Colombian TV station. Most of them were highly trained former Colombian soldiers.
Mr. Rivera “is likely to turn state’s evidence and flip against other defendants,” said Emmanuel Perez, who represents Antonio Intriago, the owner of a Miami-area security firm who is also charged in the plot. “It is likely to be the defendants that were on the ground in Haiti on the night of the assassination.”
Mr. Rivera would potentially provide prosecutors with a powerful witness, said David Weinstein, a former federal and state prosecutor now in private practice who is not involved with the case.
Potentially facing life in prison, Mr. Rivera could seek a reduced sentence in return for his cooperation, though how much benefit he could receive would be up to the judge, legal experts said. “It would seem that this would provide some leverage,” Mr. Weinstein said.
Mr. Rivera’s lawyer, Mark Alan Levine, hung up the phone after being contacted by The Times and asked about his client’s reported plea change.
“Rivera is one of the masterminds,” said William Acosta, a criminal defense investigator in New York who was asked by relatives of some of the former Colombians soldiers to research the case in the early stages. “He knows everything. He can break down how everything got started, who was in the meetings, how everything was organized and who gave the orders.”
One of the 11 defendants, Rodolphe Jaar, 51, a businessman and former drug trafficker, pleaded guilty in June and was sentenced to life in prison. A trial date for the other 10 defendants is set for next May.
Prosecutors say the conspirators, who plotted in Haiti and Florida, believed they would reap lucrative government contracts once Mr. Moïse was out of the way and a new president was installed.
Some of the Colombians were told by a defendant that it was a C.I.A.-backed operation and that all the participants would be immune from prosecution, according to an F.B.I. agent’s affidavit.
Relatives of Mr. Rivera in Colombia said they were unaware of his change of plea and expressed shock at the news before declining to comment further.
Since the assassination, Haiti has descended into a spiral of violence and chaos, with no elected government and gangs controlling much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, setting homes on fire and launching a wave of kidnappings and killings.
Human rights groups have expressed concern over the inaction of the state authorities in responding to Haiti’s security crisis, which has seen more than 2,400 people killed and over 900 others injured so far this year, according to the United Nations.
In the immediate aftermath of the president’s assassination, the Haitian government arrested more than 40 people in connection to the killing, including 18 former Colombian soldiers. Three other former Colombian soldiers died in a shootout with the Haitian police. Another former Colombian soldier escaped but was later arrested in Jamaica and extradited to Miami.
The other defendants in the case include Mr. Sanon, a former Haitian senator, John Joël Joseph, the two owners of a Miami area security firm, Mr. Intriago and Arcangel Pretel, as well as a South Florida investor who was accused of financing the operation.
Some of the defendants have been in jail for more than 18 months after they were extradited from Haiti or surrendered to the authorities.
Frances Robles contributed reporting.