BOGOTA, Colombia—Carlos Martinez joined the Colombian military at the age of 17, a minor who had to obtain his parents’ written permission to enlist. “I didn’t have many options. There aren’t a lot of opportunities in this country for someone like me who grew up poor,” he said, “but war will always be profitable.”
Martinez spent almost 10 years on active duty in the army, eventually joining an elite special forces unit that fought armed groups and drug traffickers in the Andean countryside. Colombia, which currently boasts some 250,000 active-duty armed forces personnel, produced millions of soldiers like Martínez during its five-decade conflict with guerilla groups, as well as its ongoing campaign on the front lines of the so-called War on Drugs—both efforts heavily subsidized by the United States.
“We are trained to kill,” Martinez told WPR. “There is no other way to describe it.”
The problem for Colombia, though, is where do these trained killers go when they leave the military? Lacking the skills necessary to readapt to civilian life, many become private security contractors, a euphemism for mercenaries that became widely used during the U.S. war in Iraq.
And now, the government of Haiti says 21 Colombian military veterans working as private contractors were
involved in the assassination of President Jovenel Moise
in a nighttime assault earlier this month that also left his wife seriously wounded.
Colombian mercenaries have been spotted in nearly every conflict-stricken corner of the world, working legally as contractors in Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan
, or training cartels in Mexico
. They are in high demand because of their reputation as well-trained and battle-tested fighters, with considerable combat experience in guerrilla warfare and other complex security environments.
In addition to its large and capable military, Colombia has a long history with more informal paramilitary groups from across the political spectrum. Rebel groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—better known as the FARC—and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, battled not only against the Colombian armed forces, but against private militia groups organized by government supporters as well. All of these entities have been guilty of grave human rights violations, but that has not stopped some of them from marketing their battlefield experience. Some paramilitary veterans drawn from groups that supported the Colombian government during the civil war were even hired to help defend Honduran landowners in the aftermath of the country’s 2009 coup
U.S. military involvement in Colombia has only enabled the growth of its private security contractors. Under a joint operation known as Plan Colombia, which began in 2000, the American and Colombian governments funded and trained both the Colombian military and paramilitary groups to fight drug traffickers and rebel groups like the FARC. From 2000 until 2017, the U.S. provided more than $10 billion
in aid to Colombia, more than 70 percent of which went directly to the military and police. To avoid getting its own troops directly involved in the fighting, the U.S. hired private contractors such as DynCorp, which earned hundreds of millions of dollars from Colombian contracts
under Plan Colombia, to bridge the gap.
“The U.S. military pioneered this trend [of using private contractors] in Colombia even before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars made the issue well-known globally,” said Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO that specializes in human rights issues in the region. “As part of the drug wars in Colombia, they began hiring outsiders and private companies to fulfill military roles.”
The private security industry took a big reputational hit in 2007, when armed guards working for Blackwater, founded by Erik Prince, massacred 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 more in Baghdad. But Prince continued to expand his empire, reaching an agreement to build a private standing army
in partnership with Saudi Arabia in 2011. The corporate mercenary industry had gone global, and some of its most attractive recruits were Colombian veterans and ex-paramilitary members.
“The selling point was not only that Colombian soldiers were ‘battle tested,’” said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a research and consultancy firm in Bogota. “They had worked with U.S. special forces. They had been trained by U.S. advisers.” As if to underscore his point, the Pentagon announced Thursday that at least some of the 21 former Colombian soldiers arrested in connection with Moise’s assassination in Haiti had been trained by U.S. advisers during their time in the Colombian military
“There will always be an economic impetus for more Colombian fighters. We have become very good at what we do.”
Another factor adding to the appeal of Colombian veterans to the private security industry, Guzman added, was that “they were cheaper than their North American counterparts.”
And that attraction was mutual. Colombians with battlefield experience found that as foreign security contractors, they were able to earn 10 times what they could at home, and former fighters flocked to the industry.
The economic draw of private contractors created a “brain drain” for the Colombian military, with Washington footing the sizeable bill. “The U.S. was effectively paying three times to train these contractors,” said Guzman. “They paid to train someone, who would then leave to work for a U.S. company in the private sector, also paid for by the U.S., and the absence of the soldier meant [the Colombian military] had to immediately train someone else.”
The turnover became so bad that the U.S. insisted the Colombian military modify its contract, so that soldiers had to fulfill a minimum period of service before leaving for the private sector.
Not all soldiers dream of becoming mercenaries, however. “I would never work as a contractor,” said Martinez. “To me that’s just more paramilitarism, which is something that has torn my country apart. But many of my colleagues couldn’t retire fast enough to take military jobs abroad in the private sector.”
According to one Colombian veteran, who worked for years as a security contractor in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, there is a culture surrounding paramilitary fighters in Colombia—known locally as paracos
—that enables the growth of the private security industry. “Paraco
culture, sadly, has become a national culture,” he told WPR. The veteran asked that his name be withheld to avoid potential issues with his current employer.
“We all grew up in it. After more than half a century of conflict, it has become normalized,” he continued. “And unfortunately, some of those who are part of that culture have less scruples than others when it comes to deciding which jobs to take.”
The phenomenon is likely to continue. With Washington’s backing, the current Colombian government led by President Ivan Duque has ramped up the military’s anti-drug trafficking efforts. Duque has also slow-rolled the implementation of the government’s landmark 2016 peace agreement with the FARC, which was signed by his predecessor, and the promise of peace remains a mirage for large parts of the country. In the FARC’s absence, other armed factions, including offshoots of some of the same paramilitary groups that received U.S. funding in the past, simply moved into the vacuum.
“There will always be an economic impetus for more Colombian fighters,” said the Colombian veteran who currently works as a contractor. “We have become very good at what we do.”
And due to an extreme lack of transparency in the industry, as well as varying legal frameworks in the countries in which they operate, there will always be a gray area where unethical private entities hire these soldiers of fortune. They include the shadowy firm that calls itself the Counter Terrorist Unit Federal Academy. Run by a Venezuelan exile from a small warehouse in Miami, it hired the Colombians awaiting trial in Haiti for allegedly killing the president.
“The armed forces in Colombia are made up of people who didn’t start with advantages,” said Martinez, who is now a reservist. He said his current salary from the government is about twice the minimum wage, which is roughly $264 a month. “Some of us feel we have no choice [but to work as mercenaries], but we do,” he added. “There are other options.”
However, the continued expansion of the private sector seems to confirm Martinez’s sentiment. War is profitable.
Joshua Collins is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, focused on migration and violence. Follow him on Twitter @InvisiblesMuros.
Parker Asmann is a journalist who writes about human rights, security policy and organized crime across Latin America and the Caribbean. Follow him on Twitter @PJAsmann.