US judge sentences Germine Joly, former leader of a powerful gang in Haiti, to 35 years in prison

Kenya Haiti
FILE – Kenya police patrol the streets of Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, March 12, 2024. Hundreds of Kenyan police officers are leaving for Haiti, where they will lead a multinational force against powerful gangs. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga, File)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — A man who once described himself as “king” of a notoriously violent gang in Haiti and is linked to the kidnapping of 16 U.S. citizens was sentenced to 35 years in prison Monday in a federal court in Washington, D.C.

Germine Joly, best known as “Yonyon,” had pleaded guilty in late January to weapons smuggling and the laundering of ransoms related to the U.S. citizens kidnapped in October 2021, bringing his trial to a halt.

The case against Joly is part of an ongoing push by U.S. authorities to stem the smuggling of weapons from the U.S. to Haiti, where gangs control 80% of the capital and have left more than 580,000 people homeless as they continue to pillage neighborhoods in a quest to seize more territory. U.S. officials also are trying to crack down on the kidnapping of U.S. citizens in Haiti, whose ransoms finance the purchase of illegal arms and ammunition.

“The leaders of violent gangs in Haiti that terrorize Americans citizens in order to fuel their criminal activity will be met with the full force of the Justice Department,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement.

Joly, 31, had asked the judge for leniency and forgiveness, with his attorneys requesting that he receive no more than 17.5 years in prison. The attorneys did not immediately return messages for comment.

Joly was co-leader of the 400 Mawozo, which translates roughly to “400 Simpletons,” one of Haiti’s most powerful gangs. It controls part of Croix-des-Bouquets, a neighborhood in the eastern region of the Port-au-Prince capital and surrounding areas. It also operates along a route that connects the capital with the border city of Jimaní in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

The gang is known for its high record of kidnappings as well as trafficking of drugs and weapons, killings, rapes and armed robberies, among other things, according to a U.N. report.

“The 400 Mawazo gang not only wreaks havoc in its own communities but targets innocent Americans living and traveling in Haiti,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement.

Three shipments containing smuggled weapons and ammunition arrived in Haiti in 2021, shortly before the gang kidnapped 17 missionaries, including 16 U.S. citizens, the U.N. report noted. The weapons alone were estimated to cost roughly $28,000, it added.

“This single case indicates that 400 Mawozo is able to mobilize significant amounts of money to acquire firearms and ammunition,” the report stated.

The gang is still led by Joseph Wilson, best known as “Lanmò San Jou,” which means “Death has no date,” and it is an ally of G-Pep, a powerful gang federation.

Haitian authorities announced a warrant for Wilson in late 2020, but he has yet to be detained.

Meanwhile, Haitian police arrested Joly in 2014, and in 2018, a local judge sentenced him to life in prison, from where authorities said he still directed gang operations, including the October 2021 kidnapping of 12 adults and five minors after they visited an orphanage in the Croix-des-Bouquets area. The group included 16 Americans and one Canadian who worked with Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries.

The organization said 12 of the captive missionaries escaped, with five others previously freed, although it’s unclear if any ransom was paid.

In 2022, the U.S. government extradited Joly.

Joly’s former girlfriend, Eliande Tunis of Pompano Beach, Florida, had been sentenced earlier this month to 12.5 years in prison. Tunis, 46, had pleaded guilty in late January to the same charges Joly faced.

U.S. federal prosecutors had accused Joly, Tunis and two other suspects of buying and supplying weapons to the 400 Mawozo gang from at least March through November 2021. The weapons included those designed for “military and close-quarters combat” such as AK-47s, AR-15s and a .50 caliber rifle, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

The agency said that Joly, who was in prison in Haiti at the time, directed operations using unmonitored cell phones. He still faces separate charges in another case related to the kidnappings of the U.S. citizens.