Why Colombian mercenaries are fighting in the Middle East

A member of the "Omar Gomez" Western War Front of the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla holds her gun in a camp on the banks of the San Juan River, Choco department, Colombia, on November 20, 2017
8 min read
04 August, 2021
In-depth: In recent years the Middle East has become a popular destination for Colombian mercenaries, with military veterans from the South American country's civil conflict involved in wars across the region.

On the morning of 7 July Haitians awoke to a murdered president. In the dead of night, a group of privately contracted mercenaries raided President Jovenel Moïse’s house, brutally killing him and wounding his wife.

Moïse’s body was found riddled with bullets. He had been shot 12 times, his left eye was gouged out and bones in his ankle and arm were broken.

“Foreigners came to our country to kill the president,” the Haitian Police chief Léon Charles told the press the day following the attack.

"Mercenaries change warfare in profound ways, they commercialise it, and Colombians are in demand because they are good value"

Haitian police reported that a group of 28 foreign mercenaries - including 26 Colombians and two Haitian-Americans - were the perpetrators of the attack.

Authorities later arrested the Florida-based Haitian doctor Christian Emmanuel Sanon as the suspected mastermind behind the plot, as he is believed to have hired the Colombian mercenaries through his Miami-based private security company CTU, though his motivations remain unclear.

Colombian mercenaries in demand

There is still a lot about the premeditated attack on Moïse that is unknown, though the heavy presence of Colombian guns for hire sheds light on the murky workings of the mercenary industry and is an indicator of the industry’s reliance on Colombian military personnel.

“Mercenaries change warfare in profound ways, they commercialise it, and Colombians are in demand because they are good value,” Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and professor at Georgetown and the National Defense University, told The New Arab.

Colombian soldiers have considerable clout in the mercenary field and are highly sought after. The country’s long history of internal conflict has bred a vast supply of experienced, tactical, and well-trained soldiers.

Mourners attend the funeral of slain Haitian President Jovenel Moïse on July 23, 2021
Mourners attend the funeral of slain Haitian President Jovenel Moïse on 23 July 2021. Twenty-six Colombians were among a group of foreign mercenaries suspected of his murder. [Getty]

“They are ex-special forces Colombians who are often trained by the US. They have field experience fighting [Colombian guerrilla group] the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (aka FARC) and narcos. They're also good warriors, they respect the chain of command, they’re tactically proficient and they cost about half to a quarter of the price,” McFate explains.

Many Colombian military veterans find themselves confronting an early retirement and a meagre pension and are therefore lured into the world of private security due to its considerable financial benefits.

The attack in Haiti earlier this month was reported to pay each recruit between $2,500 and $3,500 per month while Colombian military veterans would only receive around $300 to $400 from their monthly pension, making contractual mercenary work an enticing proposition.

“They receive their pension and benefits but it's just down to the market. There's a strong private security market and there's nothing the state can do about it,” says Jorge Mantilla, a Colombian criminologist and researcher at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

“The private security market is well consolidated across the world and there are too many incentives for retired soldiers to go and provide these services.”

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Soldiers of fortune in the Middle East

In recent years the Middle East has become a popular destination for Colombian mercenaries, with soldiers involved in missions and conflicts across Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the UAE - as well as many other countries around the globe.

“The Middle East is a hotspot for all mercenaries because it's what we call a ‘conflict market’, there are lots of conflicts in the Middle East and that attracts mercenaries. There's a tradition of this in the Middle East, hiring foreign fighters to wage a war is not profoundly taboo,” says McFate.

“Additionally, you have wealthy people and wealthy governments who are willing to pay a lot of money. Ultimately, if you want to wage war but not bleed yourself, then you turn to mercenaries, so mercenaries are going because they can double or even quadruple their salary.”

In 2015, the New York Times revealed that 450 Latin American troops, including hundreds of Colombian mercenaries, had been contracted by the UAE to fight Houthi rebels in Yemen. The recruits were paid between $2,000 to $3,000 a month, with $1,000 a week bonuses for those deployed directly to Yemen for the toughest missions.

Additionally, the mercenaries were lured by additional benefits. Those that survived would receive immediate Emirati citizenship - a privilege that extended to their immediate families - as well as a pension, access to UAE health benefits, and a guarantee of education for their children.

"The Middle East has become a popular destination for Colombian mercenaries, with soldiers involved in conflicts across Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the UAE"

A month later, 10 Colombian mercenaries were killed in action in the Yemeni city of Taiz.

Colombian guns for hire also featured in the Libyan civil war in 2011, with reports stating they fought for both loyalist Gaddafi forces as well as anti-Gaddafi rebels. In September 2011, ten Colombian mercenaries were killed when rebel forces raided a Gaddafi compound, imprisoning and executing 85 people.

However, Colombian mercenaries have also been recruited for more menial tasks. In May 2011, the New York Times reported that dozens of Colombian military veterans had been recruited to form part of an army of mercenaries tasked with defending oil pipelines and skyscrapers.

The Colombians were hired by the private US security firm formerly known as Blackwater, one of the industry’s heavy hitters.

Previously, in 2006, a group of 35 Colombian military veterans was deceived into undertaking private security work in Iraq.

An investigation by the Colombian outlet Semana revealed a Blackwater-owned company in Bogotá had hired the veterans for a lucrative six-month security job to defend US military bases in the area. Despite being promised a salary of $7,000 per month, the veterans only received $1,000 a month and were forced to see out the duration of their contracts in Baghdad.

Yemen -Getty
Hundreds of Colombian mercenaries have been contracted to fight in Yemen's war. [Getty]

More than money

Each year, up to 6,000 Colombian soldiers reach their retirement, therefore building a sizable pool of working-age professionals who find themselves at a loose end.

“The transition programmes to civilian life do not work well for the soldiers, it is not enough. Years of war leave certain psychological traumas that cannot be suddenly ignored and it leaves the soldiers helpless,” says Katherin Galindo, analyst and expert on national security and defence at political risk consultancy firm Colombia Risk Analysis.

Many feel socially ostracised and struggle to adjust to civilian life, with their identity and profession lost in limbo. They are therefore left with little choice but to seek ways to ply their trade.

“They enter an unknown civil life and are faced with precarious job opportunities and pensions that don’t allow them to have a better quality of life. Those [mercenary] offers allow them not only to return to what they are used to, but also offer them a much better salary than they received while on duty, so the offer basically becomes irresistible,” Galindo explains.

“If there were good support programs and if these people had an effective labour insertion, this would not be happening. These private industries would not be something so tempting because they would already have economic and psychological stability.”

"The Middle East is a hotspot for all mercenaries because it's what we call a 'conflict market', there are lots of conflicts in the Middle East and that attracts mercenaries"

Private security work also allows military veterans to see more of the world and venture to faraway lands, which Colombian criminologist Jorge Mantilla says is a tempting factor for many.

“There's the dream of travelling and having new experiences. Coming back, talking, and bragging about it. It's about money, masculinity, and travelling around the world,” he adds.

Lack of accountability and regulation

For the private companies doing the contracting and recruiting, the legal grey area that the industry exists in provides them with the ideal setting to avoid blame and accountability.

“That is one of the chief selling points of mercenaries and one of the reasons we've seen the industry really grow, because what they sell is good, plausible deniability. The lack of accountability, the lack of clear international and domestic law is one of the reasons that's actually flaming this industry abroad,” says McFate.

“That's why nation states who already have strong militaries are turning to mercenaries, because if things do go wrong, they could say, ‘we really didn't know much about it and we're going to fire them. We're going to prosecute them.’ They would never do that to their own troops.”

Galindo also condemns the lack of international regulation and control of the global mercenary market, and also points out that Colombia is not a signatory of the United Nations Mercenary Convention against the recruitment and use of mercenaries, further complicating the issue.

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She urges the Colombian state and the international community to take a tougher stance on the industry and enforce efficient regulations on private companies like Blackwater (now known as Constellis) that command much of the mercenary world.

“Since there is no control over these private companies, how are we to control them? It is time to create some regulatory framework at an international level that allows us to say under which parameters private security services can be provided, and under which parameters mercenaries can be recruited,” she says.

There is still time for Colombia to act, according to Galindo. At a national level, the Colombian state should step up its responsibility for its military veterans in order to deter their recruitment and control the supply to the mercenary world.

“It would be good for Colombia to be part of the convention in order to have a regulatory framework by which the mercenary market can be monitored. Colombia should also strengthen regulation on private security companies that hire retired military personnel, as well as work on labour inclusion programmes for former military personnel,” she states.

Inigo Alexander is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on Spain, Latin America and social justice. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Local, NACLA, among others

Follow him on Twitter: @Inigo_Alexander