Take tens of thousands of former members of the military experienced in lethal tactics and skills, often provided by U.S. trainers. Give them meager pensions and little to do in an economy battered by the Covid-19 pandemic. Allow them — even encourage them — to sell their skills in a growing globalized market for security contractors and mercenaries.
What you get is a risky business with potentially disastrous consequences. And that’s what happened on July 7 in Haiti when President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his home and Haitian authorities implicated 26 Colombian mercenaries in the plot, with the majority being ex-military. Eighteen were arrested, three were killed, and according to Haitian authorities, five escaped. Some family members of the detained said that the Colombians were recruited by a Miami-based company for an unspecified mission to provide protection. Adding to the murky claims, Colombia’s President Iván Duque said in an interview with a radio station in his country that except for a core group, most of the men didn’t know they had been hired to carry out a criminal operation.
The Colombian suspects are in their 40s. After a decade or two of service, the veterans retired from Colombia’s military forces from 2018 to 2020. Seven were trained by the United States. That counts them among the more than 107,000 Colombian security-force personnel who received U.S. training from 2000 to 2018. In 2000, Plan Colombia, a multibillion-dollar American effort to stabilize the country and fight its intertwined drug trade and guerrilla war, was introduced. It took 16 years after that for Colombia and the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, to sign a peace agreement.
Colombia’s military remains the second largest in Latin America, with nearly 10,600 troops retiring each year. Many struggle to find work in a country where nearly 43 percent of the population is in poverty. Facing few prospects, former service members have ended up providing security for drug traffickers or even leading illegal paramilitary units. While most mercenaries working abroad are legally contracted as security personnel for companies and governments, some have been accused of working with Mexico’s Jalisco and Zetas drug cartels.
Colombian leaders must address the lack of opportunity that has tempted some veterans to take illegal work or leave the country to be mercenaries. Colombia needs a version of America’s G.I. Bill — the legislation that helped propel millions of World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans into the middle class — that would offer much more generous benefits than the Colombian government currently does.
The country is still cementing peace. With the 2016 accord, it seemed that Colombia could finally begin to jettison its painful international association with drug traffickers, hit men and guerrillas. It would be tragic for the country to trade that reputation for one as a land of available mercenaries.
So far, around 6,000 Colombian former troops have served as security guards, pilots or technicians maintaining aircraft and vehicles in the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Afghanistan and Dubai.
Job offers come via word of mouth and WhatsApp groups, often through Colombian companies run by retired officers. Sometimes they lure away active-duty personnel, as they did at the height of Colombia’s armed conflict in the early and mid-2000s. So many U.S.-trained Black Hawk helicopter pilots quit to work for private firms that the government started making pilots sign commitments to stay.
Like any institution in which careers end for those who don’t get promoted, Colombia’s armed forces produce a robust supply of combat-hardened veterans. They qualify for a pension after 20 years of service, which, for many noncommissioned or lower-ranking officers, amounts to just several hundred dollars per month or even less. Veterans often find that civilian jobs pay very little for their military skills. “The best offer I got,” a former noncommissioned officer told the daily El Espectador, “was for a supervisor job in a security-services company with a salary of 1.8 million pesos,” or $465 per month.
The Assassination of Haiti’s President
- An assassination strikes a troubled nation: The killing of President Jovenel Moïse on July 7 has rocked Haiti, stoking fear and confusion about the future. While there is much we do know about this event, there’s still much we don’t know.
- A figure at the center of the plot: Questions are swirling over the arrest of Dr. Christian Emmanuel Sanon, 63, a doctor with ties to Florida described as playing a central role in the death of the president.
- More suspects: Two Americans are among at least 20 people who have been detained thus far. Several of the people under investigation met in the months before the killing to discuss rebuilding the country once the president was out of power, Haitian police said.
- Years of instability: The assassination of Mr. Moïse comes after years of instability in the country, which has long suffered lawlessness, violence and natural disasters.
The Colombians who ended up in Haiti were offered at least five times that: $2,500 to $3,500 per month — a king’s ransom compared to what many former members of the military are offered in Colombia.
International recruiters, too, find the deal hard to resist. Former Colombian troops offer an enticing combination of combat experience; professional training, often at developed-world standards; technical skills like helicopter piloting and intelligence analysis; and a willingness to work for far less than veterans from wealthier nations.
It was clear before the assassination in Haiti that Colombia needed to tackle its lack of opportunities for former service members. However, when drafting the 2016 peace accord, the government sidestepped addressing veteran benefits in an already contentious negotiation.
Colombia passed a law in 2019 to create modest benefits for veterans, like training and inducements for employers to hire them. But since the law is not fully regulated, few have benefited. The government offers vocational training opportunities to personnel the year before they retire, but advocates for veterans say these are limited, especially for those stationed in remote areas.
Fully funding retraining and educational opportunities and providing stronger income support could cost Colombia and donor nations a few hundred million dollars a year. Wealthy Colombians could pay perhaps 0.1 percent of gross domestic product, and the Biden administration could supplement that by diverting some aid from Colombia’s military, which no longer faces a nationwide insurgency. But that investment would make sense. A veteran holding a wrench or a keyboard in his home community is infinitely preferable to one holding a rifle in Haiti, a foreign war zone or the criminal underworld.
Adam Isacson is the director for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.
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