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Haiti gang leader Germine ‘Yonyon’ Joly asks U.S. federal judge for forgiveness, leniency

Miami Herald - 6/18/2024

As a teenager in Haiti, Germine Joly says, he was exposed to unspeakable horrors by armed groups: there were rapes, some of them incestuous, and killings where victims’ hearts were cut out while they were still alive, their bodies later wrapped in sheets and dumped at the bottom of a mountain.

And there was widespread misery as the population in La Plaine, east of the capital, found itself plunged deeper into despair.

Yet while Joly, who pleaded guilty to for dozen charges related to weapons smuggling and money laundering involving the kidnapping of U.S. citizens, says he was aware of “these despicable actions perpetrated on the population,” as far back as 2011, he makes no connection with the litany of crimes he and his 400 Mawozo gang have been accused of: hostage taking, looting, massacres.

Both Joly, known as “Yonyon,” and the gang have been at the center of the U.S. government’s efforts to crack down on the illegal flow of arms from the U.S. to Haiti into the hands of dangerous gangs, and the kidnappings of U.S. citizens by heavily armed bandits seeking to secure funds to purchase high-powered guns and ammunition from the U.S. in order to expand their gangs’s territory.

In a letter to U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ahead of his June 24 sentencing, where government prosecutors are seeking a life term for his role in a gun-smuggling conspiracy, Joly asks for forgiveness and leniency. He also asks Bates to consider the “unique circumstances” of his case.

This includes his abandonment by his mother, who in her own letter to the judge pleads for leniency for her son and says has been ostracized by friends and family over his involvement in Haiti’s gang fueled crisis; his dropping out of school in the ninth grade because his parents could not afford it, and his own struggle against gangs terrorizing his community of La Plaine.

This fight, Joly suggests, made him a folk hero in the community of La Plaine and also a go-to person for those seeking political office. One of those individuals, he claims, was Jean-Renel Senatus, a one-time government prosecutor who later became a senator representing the West region that includes Port-au-Prince.

Painting himself as both a victim of Haiti’s corrupt judicial system and gang-influenced politics, Joly accuses Senatus of being responsible for his incarceration in Haiti, where he was being held on murder and other charges when accusations when FBI agents sought to extradite him.

Senatus, Joly claims, had sent him five weapons through an emissary in 2014 to help his senatorial campaign. When he refused to work for Senatus or endorse his candidacy, Joly said “unbeknownst to me, they devised a scheme against me.”

“The objective was either my demise or imprisonment,” he said.

Senatus denies the accusations, telling the Miami Herald that while he was responsible for Joly’s arrest in Haiti after working with the then head of the judicial police to set up a sting operation, it was because the gang leader was sowing chaos on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

“We arrested him because he was creating a lot of problems in an area called Ti-mache Terrier. He was killing people, stealing and breaking people’s bones,” Senatus said about Joly. “We mounted a sting to have him arrested. I have never met the person who they call ‘Yonyon’ ever in my life. I don’t know where he lives.”

Senatus said his role in Joly’s imprisonment in Haiti has made him a prime target of 400 Mawozo, which has threatened his life, forced him and his parents to stay out of Ganthier, where they are from and the gang currently controls, and in 2021 forced him into hiding for a month.

While Joly suggests in his letter to Bates that his involvement in kidnapping and theft occurred because of his incarceration, Senatus said Joly’s crime spree began well before.

“He is a guy that once he tells you to hand over something and you don’t, he shoots you,” Senatus said.

Senatus said over the years, he has thwarted several attempts by Joly to get out of prison, including his alleged payment of a $15,000 bribe to a judge to secure his release and a separate hostage exchange scheme where he attempted to secure his release in exchange for releasing several French priests and nuns who had been kidnapped by 400 Mawozo in April 2021. U.S. prosecutors said Joly also tried to use the 2021 kidnapping of 17 missionaries with Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries by his gang as a bargaining chip with the Haitian government to get out of prison.

“They took Yonyon from the National Penitentiary to release him in exchange for the freedom of these people,” Senatus said about the French nationals. “When I learned about this at 10 p.m. I tweeted to denounce President Jovenel [Moise] so they could not release him until [the U.S.] came to get him.”

One of the country’s most notorious gang leaders, Joly was taken out of Haiti by U.S. authorities in May 2022 to stand trial in a Washington federal courtroom on more than four dozen weapons-smuggling charges. He also is facing a separate trial on the missionaries’ kidnapping.

In his letter to Bates, Joly makes no mention of either kidnappings. His only remarks about kidnapping are in reference to his insistence that he “categorically” denies “any involvement in theft or kidnapping before my arrest in Haiti in January 2015.”

He details for Bates instances where he paid tens of thousands of dollars to lawyers and government prosecutors over the years to try to secure his release. He accuses Haitian police of “relentlessly” beating him while in custody and unknown individuals of trying to kill him by putting poison in the food brought to him by his relatives while in prison.

The picture he paints is a far cry from the one that went viral during the missionaries’ kidnapping —and later shared in court— where he was celebrating his birthday from inside the prison while wearing designer Fendi clothes.

It is also a far different image than that of the ruthless and politically connected gang leader who despite his incarceration controlled one of Haiti’s most notorious gangs .

Today, 400 Mawozo is not only responsible for several massacres in the area of Croix-des-Bouquets, but the loss of untold livelihoods after looting businesses in nearby Ganthier and La Plaine of millions of dollars worth of investments.

While Joly doesn’t explain how he acquired his wealth, federal prosecutors in a separate memo to Bates say that Joly “attained a status as a leader of the gang and amassed significant wealth for himself, to include luxury items, multiple cell phones, and free reign in prison.”

In the eight days of trial before Joly abruptly changed his plea, Bates heard testimony from kidnapping victims about their ordeal, as well as from federal agents about the high-powered weapons that were purchased and then hidden among used clothing and Gatorade to be shipped to Haiti. He also heard testimony from one of the co-defendants, Walder St. Louis, a cousin of Joly, who testified that the gang leader wanted the guns in order to influence elections.

Joly disputes this. He says he was trying to purchase the guns to resell them so that he could raise $150,000 to secure his freedom from Haiti’s National Penitentiary.

“I must acknowledge my culpability in the acquisition of firearms alongside others, a decision born out of a desperate bid for self-preservation,” he said.

Joly claims that in 2021 he was “besieged by numerous threats” that prompted him to confide in Eliande Tunis, a Pompano Beach resident described as his girlfriend but whom he referred to as “a friend.” The threats were among the reasons for “our decision to procure firearms,” he said, insisting that he did not coerce anyone into purchasing weapons for him as alleged in court.

“Fearing incarceration, they fabricated falsehoods about me —things that are not true,” he said. “Their actions were born out of a shared goal: to safeguard my life.”

A lawyer claiming to have government ties, he said, promised that for $150,000 he could get him out of prison. He paid an initial $50,000 down payment and agreed to pay the rest by December when he was supposed to go to court and be freed, Joly said.

The opportunity never came. Joly had been extradited seven months earlier in May.

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