A former Haitian Justice Ministry official who has been a prime suspect in the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti for more than two years was arrested on Thursday outside the capital, the police said.
The suspect, Joseph Félix Badio, 60, was captured in broad daylight while driving an S.U.V. out of a supermarket parking lot in Pétion-Ville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. Mr. Badio, wearing a dark suit, appeared defiant as several shouting police officers surrounded and pointed rifles at him.
Mr. Badio emerged as a key suspect about a week after the assassination, in which a team of Colombian commandos hired by a Miami-area security firm stormed Mr. Moise’s Pétion-Ville home, gunning him down and wounding the first lady, Martine Moïse.
The gunmen, arrested hours after the killing, told the authorities that Mr. Badio had given them their orders. He initially told them they would be “arresting” the president, they said, but changed the plan to murder a few days before the operation, the head of the Colombian police said a few days after the assassination.
An arrest warrant for murder, attempted murder and robbery was issued in Haiti for Mr. Badio, who had been fired from his post as an anti-corruption official in the Justice Ministry a few months before the assassination. But he eluded capture, even as dozens of people in Haiti and nearly a dozen in the United States were arrested in connection with the killing.
“Badio is so central to the assassination case, not because he is likely to have been the ultimate mastermind, but because he appears to be one of the very few individuals who might actually have known what was really going on and who else was involved,” said Jake Johnston, a Haiti expert at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
Evidence indicates that Mr. Badio was involved in nearly every aspect of the conspiracy, Mr. Johnston said. “He could very well be the key link that connects the ongoing U.S. case, which thus far has been narrowly focused on those with ties to Florida, with powerful actors in Haiti that have thus far remained hidden,” he added.
The Justice Department in Washington has accused several South Florida businessmen of orchestrating the assassination so they could install a puppet as president and secure lucrative contracts with the Haitian government.
No U.S. charges have been announced against Mr. Badio, who owns a house in Rockland County, N.Y.
Phone records viewed by The New York Times show calls between Mr. Badio and Ariel Henry, now Haiti’s prime minister, both before and after Mr. Moise’s killing, each of which lasted several minutes.
Mr. Badio worked under Mr. Henry at the Ministry of Interior as well as the Justice Ministry. He was fired in May 2021 from an anti-corruption unit for soliciting a $30,000 bribe in exchange for his promise to release a man from jail who had been accused of involvement in the killing of a radio journalist.
Mr. Badio is not named in the indictment of 11 people accused in U.S. federal court in Miami of participating in the conspiracy to kill the president, but several of the accused said he gave the order. His name also appears throughout a Haitian police investigative report into the assassination, which says he went so far as to rent a house on the president’s street to spy on him.
WhatsApp messages viewed by The Times indicate that Mr. Badio was in touch with some of the alleged conspirators on the night of the killing. He was also present at the staging house where the Colombians gathered to receive weapons before driving in a convoy to the president’s residence, according to the Haitian police report, which referred to Mr. Badio as a “mastermind” and an “orchestra conductor.”
The report, largely a compilation of statements from various suspects, also said Mr. Badio had paid the president’s guards $80,000 to disappear on the night of the killing.
John Joël Joseph, a former Haitian senator; Rodolphe Jaar, a former Drug Enforcement Administration informant; and German Rivera, a retired Colombian Army captain, have already pleaded guilty in Miami federal court to charges in connection with the assassination. The other defendants are expected to be tried in the spring.
Lawyers in Miami for some of the defendants said they suspected that a sealed indictment of Mr. Badio may have been filed by U.S. prosecutors, and that he could be flown to the United States in the coming days or weeks.
Nearly two and half years after Mr. Moïse’s murder, Haiti has yet to hold a presidential election to select his replacement. The nation has been plunged into chaos as gangs associated with political power brokers have gained control of more and more of the capital. Murders and kidnappings have soared.
The United Nations Security Council recently authorized a multinational security mission led by Kenya to help bring order to Haiti, but a Kenyan court has put the plan on hold. This week, the U.N. released a 156-page report documenting how gangs had taken over schools and clinics and were living in luxury in Haiti, the hemisphere’s poorest nation.
Harold Isaac contributed reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.