Haiti leader’s slaying exposes role of ex-Colombian soldiers
BUCARAMANGA, Colombia (AP) — As the coronavirus pandemic squeezed Colombia, the Romero family was in need of money to pay the mortgage. Mauricio Romero Medina's $790 a month pension as a retired soldier wasn't going far.
Then came a call offering a solution.
When Romero answered the phone on June 2, another veteran, Duberney Capador, offered what he said was a legal, long-term job requiring only a passport.
But Romero had to make a decision fast.
“Talk about it with your family and if you are interested, see you tomorrow in Bogota, because the flight is the day after tomorrow,” Romero's wife, Giovanna, told The Associated Press, recalling the conversation.
A month later, Romero and Capador were dead and 18 Colombians were reportedly in custody, accused of taking part in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.
It's a case that dramatises Colombia's role as a recruiting ground for the global security industry — and its murkier, mercenary corners.
Colombia's Defence Ministry says about 10,600 soldiers retire each year, many highly trained warriors forged in a decades-long battle against leftist rebels and drug trafficking cartels.
Many — including a number of those involved in Haiti — have been trained by the US military.
Those soldiers make up a pool of recruits for companies seeking a wide range of services — as consultants or bodyguards, in teams guarding Middle Eastern oil pipelines or as part of military-like private security in places like the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan.
The UAE paid Colombian veterans to join in the battle against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“Colombian former (soldiers) are very well trained and ... may be cheaper or more accessible than other sorts of trained, specialised manpower,” said Silvana Amaya, a senior analyst focused on the Andean region for the global security firm Control Risks.
“It's a good opportunity for former (soldiers) in Colombia to have a job that they're obviously prepared to do. ... So for both sides, supply and demand, we believe that it works well.”
Sean McFate, a former US Army paratrooper and private military contractor who has written about mercenaries, said Colombians are generally on par with US and British soldiers, and are “good value” because they have combat experience, obey chain of command, work in teams and are tough.
“It's an illicit industry that operates around command language,” McFate said.
“The three main mercenary pillars are Spanish, English and Russian. And in the Spanish one, the Colombians are the biggest.”
The wife of Francisco Uribe, who was among those arrested in the Haiti assassination, told Colombia's W Radio that the company that contracted the veterans, Florida-based CTU Security, offered the men about $2,700 a month.
That can go a long way when exchanged to Colombian pesos.
It's also far below the rates of retired Green Berets or other American, British, Israeli or South African veterans.
Colombian President Iván Duque last week said that only a small group of the former soldiers arrested in Haiti knew it was a criminal operation.
He said the others were duped and thought they were travelling for a legitimate mission to provide protection.
Relatives note the men didn't think they needed to hide.
Several posted social media photos of themselves during a stop in the neighbouring Dominican Republic en route to Haiti.
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