South Florida woman pleads guilty to smuggling arms to Haiti. Gang leader waives jury trial

A Pompano Beach woman who helped one of Haiti’s most notorious kidnapping gangs obtain high-powered rifles and ammunition from Florida gun dealers pleaded guilty Wednesday to violating U.S. export laws.

Eliande Tunis pleaded guilty to a 48-count indictment just before trial in federal court in Washington, D.C., leaving Germine “Yonyon” Joly, a high-profile Haitian gang leader, as the lone defendant in the case. Joly is charged in the same weapons-smuggling conspiracy while coordinating the armed kidnapping of 17 missionaries in October 2021.

In an unusual step on Wednesday, Joly waived his right to a jury trial and instead asked U.S. District Court Judge John D. Bates for a bench trial.

The indictment accuses Tunis and two other Florida residents of smuggling arms from South Florida to Haiti to benefit the 400 Mawozo gang, which claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of the 17 U.S. citizens and Canadian missionaries who worked with Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries. The gang originally demanded a $17 million ransom for their release.

At the time of the abduction, Tunis was in communication with Joly and the gang’s No. 2, Lanmò Sanjou, also known as Joseph Wilson, about the kinds of weapons the group needed. With the help of two Florida-based straw buyers, who purchased and falsified documents, Tunis shipped a .50-caliber Barrett semi-automatic rifle and other weapons to Haiti by concealing them in garbage bags and covering them underneath clothing and Gatorade inside oversize barrels, U.S. authorities said.

During the plea proceedings, the government emphasized the clandestine way in which the weapons were shipped. With Tunis dressed in dark blue prison overalls and listening, the government said some of the weapons shipped to Haiti were hidden in barrels and containers marked “seafood.”

The smuggling of weapons into Haiti, especially from South Florida, has been a key issue for those seeking to stem the wave of gang violence and kidnappings in Haiti. The country’s security problems have led to the internal displacement of tens of thousands of Haitians, and the State Department has ordered U.S. citizens to leave the country.

With armed groups now controlling a large swath of the capital, Haitians face daily dangers. Since Tuesday, for example, residents in the Port-au-Prince neighborhoods of Solino, Delmas 18 and Delmas 24 have reported sporadic gunfire and armed attacks from bandits associated with the Bel-Air gang led by a man named Kempes. At least two people were executed by the gang, according to local media reports, and several houses were set ablaze.

In La Saline, another neighborhood, ongoing gang clashes are preventing cargo containers from getting out of the port and threatening to worsen an ongoing fuel problem. Gangs are also seizing containers that do manage to get out of the port.

The role of Tunis and her co-defendants in Haiti’s ongoing violence came to the surface while the FBI’s Miami field office investigated the missionaries’ kidnapping.

A U.S. citizen, Tunis has been described as both a member of 400 Mawozo by U.S. investigators and as the alleged “girlfriend of one or possibly multiple senior figures in the gang,” by a panel of United Nations experts looking into arms trafficking in Haiti.

During Wednesday’s court hearing, her attorney and prosecutors quibbled over language in her factual statement related to money used for the weapons purchases. U.S. prosecutors contend that ransom payments from kidnapped Americans were used, while Tunis’ lawyer wanted to omit the nationality reference. In the end, her lawyer agreed to the reference, a key argument in the Department of Justice case that establishes U.S. jurisdiction. Prosecutors contend that ransom proceeds from kidnapped U.S. citizens are used to purchase firearms and ammunition in the U.S. and then shipped to Haiti to gangs.

Joly, who was in prison in Haiti during the missionaries’ kidnapping but allegedly ran the gang’s operations, including hostage negotiations, from his prison cell, was extradited to the U.S. in May 2022. After his arrival, Tunis and two other Florida residents and Haitian nationals, Jocelyn Dor and Walder St. Louis, were also charged with criminal conspiracy to violate U.S. export laws by smuggling firearms and munitions to aid the 400 Mawozo gang.

In October, Dor agreed to plead guilty to six charges, including receiving wire transfers from Haiti and a $15,000 deposit into his bank account from Tunis to purchase several rifles to be shipped to Haiti. The most serious charge, violating the U.S. Export Control Reform Act when he sought to export guns to Haiti without the proper license, carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years and a fine of up to $1 million.

The fate of St. Louis, a Miami resident, remains a mystery. There is no indication about whether he is going to face trial or has cut a plea deal, because the court record doesn’t show his status.

The weapons-smuggling case includes evidence of texts, audio messages and photos tying all four defendants and Lanmò Sanjou, who is also wanted by U.S. authorities, to each other during discussions about the weapons purchases, according to U.S. investigators.

One such message is allegedly from Tunis, who in an audio WhatsApp message in Creole says: “We are 400 Mawozo and…We are snakes. We slither to get where we are going. They would be shocked to see Mawozo invade Miami.”

During Wednesday’s hearing, Tunis’ attorney, Robert Charles Bonsib, and the prosecution disagreed about her prison sentence. Justice Department prosecutors, who have admonished her in court documents for deleting hundreds of texts and audio messages from her phone about the weapons, argued that she should get life in prison and a fine of between $50,000 and $500,000.

Bonsib argued that Tunis’ role was not instrumental to the case and asked for between 51 and 63 months in prison and a fine of between $20,000 and $200,000.

The judge said he will sentence Tunis on May 8.

Meanwhile, opening statements in Joly’s trial are scheduled for Thursday. Bates said the trial could take three weeks.

Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.