Feds: Gangs had foothold in South Florida to buy high-caliber weapons to use in Haiti

When U.S. investigators began looking at the weapons purchased by three South Florida residents on behalf of a notorious gang leader in Haiti, the inventory was a cache of high-powered armory: variants of the AK-47 assault rifle, 12-gauge shotguns and holographic telescopic sights, for starters.

One gun in particular, the .50-caliber M82A1 Barrett sniper rifle, is so powerful that it can go through a cinder-block wall like it’s going through paper.

Federal agents in the ongoing weapons smuggling trial for Germine “Yonyon” Joly in a Washington, D.C. federal courtroom testified this week that they found the guns, or receipts for their purchase, during searches of South Florida homes and a storage unit in Orlando.

Joly, the head of the 400 Mawozo, is the first Haitian gang leader extradited to the United States in connection with the brazen kidnapping of 16 missionaries in the fall of 2021. He is facing 48 counts of weapons smuggling. The charges are related to straw purchases of firearms and ammunition from licensed Florida gun dealers. The weapons were then illegally shipped to Haiti from Florida seaports in violation of U.S. export laws for the use of Joly’s Port-au-Prince gang.

Among the witnesses prosecutors presented: One of the co-defendants, Walder St. Louis, a Haitian national who took the stand Thursday as part of a plea deal. One of the straw buyers, St. Louis pleaded guilty in the case to crimes related to the export of weapons and the movement of money. Five weapons were found inside St. Louis’ South Florida home, an agent testified.

St. Louis said he helped Joly acquire the guns, but did so under threat. Eliande Tunis, one of the other co-defendants who has pleaded guilty to all 48 counts to avoid trial, threatened him, St. Louis said.

“They could burn my family members and turn them into dust,” St. Louis testified. “She told me she would kill my family.”

Joly and Tunis, St. Louis said, were “the king” and “queen” of the gang, which started its criminal run in Haiti stealing cattle and cars before moving into extortion and kidnappings.

St. Louis called Tunis, whom he met in August 2020, the “mother of the base.” She was also Joly’s girlfriend, St. Louis testified, and on her visits to Haiti would pay off prison guards at the National Penitentiary in order to sleep with him in hopes of getting pregnant.

One time, when Tunis arrived at his house to have him accompany her to a gun store, Tunis told him “the king,” Joly, sent her to get a gun, St. Louis said.

Neither prosecutors nor the defense delved much into how the defendants —St. Louis, Tunis, Joly and Jocelyn Dor, who is also expected to testify against Joly — came to be connected to each other and how that led to 400 Mawozo’s extension into South Florida.

Prosecutors say the three South Florida residents were members of the gang and used proceeds from the kidnapping of U.S. citizens in Haiti to purchase arms, which in turn helped fuel a cycle of violence and kidnappings in the troubled Caribbean nation.

In a report published this week, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said that illegal firearms and ammunition trafficked from the United States to Haiti are fueling the escalating violence by criminal gangs. The arms are being shipped primarily from Florida on container vessels and small aircraft.

Helping in the gun-smuggling are Haitian and Haitian Americans in Florida and New York who serve as brokers and intermediaries for illicit weapons and ammunition purchases with the intention to traffic, the report notes. Florida is one of the top states that comes up in weapons-tracing requests from Caribbean countries, including Haiti, according to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Prosecutors say the guns that the Florida-based members of 400 Mawozo either shipped or attempted to ship to Haiti were from license gun dealers in Miami, Apopka, Pompano Beach and Orlando.

St. Louis testified that he purchased guns four times from Lucky Pawn in Miami. The guns were then turned over to Tunis. Another gun, he said, was purchased in Pompano Beach.

As St. Louis recounted the meetings and answered questions through a Haitian-Creole interpreter, Joly, wearing a navy blue suit and pale blue shirt, listened quietly.

St. Louis said he first met Joly in 2015 and his No. 2, Lanmò Sanjou, Joseph Wilson, the following year. He and Lanmò Sanjou met again in 2017 after St. Louis saved a U.S. citizen from being killed by the gang.

As punishment for his interference, St. Louis said, Lanmò Sanjou, whose name translates in Creole to “Death doesn’t know when it’s coming,” ordered two of his soldiers to place a hot iron rod between his legs. The gang leader, sitting behind the two guards, watched as they did so.

Despite the incident, St. Louis and Dor helped Tunis to get guns for the gang, which said it needed the weapons “so they could fight the police.” On Friday, FBI Special Agent Joseph Kenny testified that 10 weapons were recovered in Dor’s storage unit.

The same U.N. report identified 400 Mawozo as among the gangs in Haiti that are involved in the purchasing, transporting, selling and distribution of firearms and ammunition in the country.

“After illegal merchandise arrives in areas ostensibly under their control,” the report said, “it is stored, distributed or sold to other gangs.”

McClatchy DC bureau reporter Shirsho Dasgupta contributed to this report.