Behind the Haiti assassination, Colombia’s growing mercenary industry
By Julie Turkewitz and Anatoly Kurmanaev
In Haiti, investigators continue to search for the mastermind behind the hiring of more than 20 former Colombian soldiers for a mission that ended in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, plunging the already troubled island nation into crisis.
But 1,000 miles away, in Colombia, the arrest of 18 of those veterans in Port-au-Prince has torn open a debate over the way the nation treats its ex-soldiers, who are the products of a civil conflict that has lasted 73 years and created the second-largest military in Latin America.
Each year, 10,000 servicemen retire from that war, according to Colombia’s defense ministry, but most are rank-and-file soldiers who leave with small pensions, little education — a few are illiterate — and limited experience navigating the civilian world. With few opportunities at home, thousands have sought work abroad, and over the past decade, former Colombian soldiers have become crucial participants in a growing and little-regulated global mercenary industry in which companies and governments hire them to do their bidding.
Their sheer numbers, their experience and their willingness to work for relatively little pay, experts say, has made them singularly valuable to recruiters around the world.
“We are the machines of war; that’s what we’ve been trained for,” said Isaías Suache, 44, a former commando and head of a Colombian veterans’ association. “We don’t know what to be apart from that.”
About two dozen retired Colombian commandos traveled to Haiti earlier this year after a fellow serviceman promised them security jobs paying $2,700 a month, nearly seven times their $400 pensions.
In interviews, their families have asserted that most of them believed they would be doing legal work protecting an important person.
What actually happened in Haiti is still hazy. Moïse’s wife, who was injured during the July 7 assassination, has told The New York Times that her husband’s killers spoke Spanish. But it’s still unclear how many former soldiers participated in the murder. The investigation in Haiti has been plagued by irregularities and violations of due process, leaving many people there and in Colombia concerned that the truth will never be known.
Colombian officials have portrayed the soldiers’ decisions to travel to Haiti as individual choices with tragic consequences. In an interview, Defense Minister Diego Molano said that lack of opportunity at home “in no way can be an excuse to commit criminal activity.”
But in the weeks since the assassination, Colombian veterans have urged the country to reconsider how it treats its soldiers and examine why so many have chosen to go abroad following their service. The soldiers’ discontent, some veterans and security experts say, opens a window for shady actors who want to hire them, potentially threatening global security.
Despite a 2016 peace deal between the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group, the conflict shows no signs of ending — and today the military is training and deploying a new generation of soldiers to fight both old and new factions in the country’s war.
If opportunities at home don’t improve, some veterans warn, those men will be funneled right into an increasingly voracious global mercenary industry that has the potential to unleash more destabilizing operations around the world.
“Support us,” said Raúl Musse, 50, the head of another Colombian veterans’ association. “Help us so that people care about our futures.”
Colombia’s modern civil conflict was ignited by the assassination of a left-wing presidential candidate in 1948. Over time, the conflict grew into a complex war between the government, left-wing insurgents, right-wing paramilitaries and drug-trafficking organizations, all while Colombia received billions of dollars in military support from the United States, its staunch ally.
The bulk of the war has been fought by the country’s rank-and-file servicemen, who often come from rural and working-class backgrounds. But upon retirement, typically around age 40 and after 20 years of service, many have said that they were given few tools to succeed in civilian life.
The $400 monthly retirement pension offers little more than subsistence living in cities like Bogotá. The signature education component of the military’s reintegration program is a year of technical training in industries like cooking and construction. But after losing those military benefits, many soldiers are forced deep into debt to pay for homes for their families.
Over the past decade, the veterans’ desperation has collided with a ballooning global demand for private security, particularly in the Middle East, said Sean McFate, an expert on the mercenary industry and a professor at Georgetown University.
In recent years, Colombian soldiers have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan to work for U.S. contractors, and to the United Arab Emirates, where many became hired guns for the country in its intervention in Yemen. Some Colombians have killed and others have been killed during these missions, said McFate.
Some soldiers make as much as $5,000 a month.
“It totally changed my life,” said William Amaya, 47, a former soldier who worked for the UAE for two years.
He said he used the money to get a university education and open a business.
The Haiti operation and the focus on the involvement of former Colombian soldiers has come at a particularly complex time for Colombia’s veterans.
Public support for the military, once high, has declined as the armed forces have come under scrutiny for human rights abuses, including allegations that officials ordered the killing of thousands of civilians in the 2000s. That scandal is being investigated by the country’s war court.
At the same time, veterans are facing an increasingly difficult work environment, with Colombia’s economy hobbled by the pandemic — just as the UAE’s involvement in Yemen has wound down, cutting the country’s demand for hired guns.
Many men who went to Haiti had applied repeatedly for jobs in the UAE, their families said, but were never called up.
So when the opportunity in Haiti became available, the men jumped. Many went without knowing what country they would be working in, whom they were working for, how long they would be gone or exactly what the mission was.
“We have three children,” said Lorena Córdoba, the wife of Mario Antonio Palacios, who left for Haiti in early June. “There was no money.”