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Colombia’s right-wing vice president Marta Lucía Ramírez recently complained that “Colombia should not be making international headlines on account of a bunch of criminals and hitmen.” She was responding to recent revelations that of the 28 assassins directly involved in the murder of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, 26 were Colombians – a product of the country’s thriving industry of state-sponsored mercenary killers.
Colombia’s army is trained by the best of the United States Armed Forces and is often contracted out to protect the private property of multinational corporations, conduct counterinsurgency missions, and carry out high-value-target operations. These comparative advantages give Colombians a leading edge when it comes to the international mercenary market.As with the killing of the Haitian president, many Colombian mercenaries – sometimes called “paramilitaries,” “private military,” or “security contractors” – are retired members of Colombia’s armed forces and have often been trained in the United States, battle-tested in difficult combat environments like jungles to fight rebels, and previously been members of right-wing paramilitary death squads. Not only are they highly trained in assassination techniques and practiced in rugged terrains, they are also typically much cheaper than their mercenary competitors in other countries.
Of the 26 Colombians identified as involved in the assassination of the Haitian president, at least thirteen were former Colombian military soldiers and two have been investigated for involvement in war crimes. At least seven of the Colombian mercenaries involved in the Haiti assassination directly received US training, although the US state department, as usual, has remained highly ambiguous about what exactly they were taught. Several have ties to US intelligence agencies, with at least one closely associated with the DEA. One of the captured mercenaries, Manuel Antonio Grosso Guarín, was until just two years ago a Colombian soldier, and was an expert as a commando in special operations and assigned to conduct operations of high strategic value, including assassinations.
The company that recruited these Colombian mercenaries, CTU Security, based in Miami, is owned by a Venezuelan businessman, Tony Intriago, who enjoys connections with Colombia’s right-wing president Iván Duque. Intriago helped to organise the February 2019 “aid concert” in Cúcuta on the Colombia-Venezuelan border which sought to undermine the Venezuelan government.
Colombian mercenaries are confirmed to have been directly involved in operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Venezuela. Dozens of Colombian-based mercenary companies were hired by Saudi Arabia to fight in Yemen. Colombian mercenaries were also exported to Honduras to defend landowning interests and were later discovered to be involved in the 2009 coup against Manuel Zelaya. Of the $3.1 billion that the United States spent between 2005 and 2009 on privately contracted counterinsurgency and counter-narcotic operations, Colombian companies were the top recipients. If you need mercenaries to carry out your dirty work, particularly of a reactionary bent, Colombians are a good investment.
The privatisation of war
The market for mercenaries first grew through the Colombian state’s war against left-wing insurgents and social activists, dating back half a century. But as the assassination in Haiti revealed, the market for mercenary commandos has grown considerably in recent years. Colombian Armed Forces commander general Luis Fernando Navarro told the press the day after Moïse’s assassination that “there are no rules preventing [mercenaries] from being recruited” abroad.
Encouraged by the US national security doctrine of 2003, Colombia had already legalised and supported the development of armed non-state actors, usually controlled by economic elites such as landowners, industrialists, and drug traffickers. The rise of Colombia’s mercenary industry coincided with the growth of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC in its Spanish acronym) in the 1990s, when the government legalised and later expanded the Convivir system – a reform sanctioning the creation of mercenary forces, controlled by economic elites and working alongside government officials, the military, and intelligence units.Mercenary paramilitaries have even been sponsored by multinationals, including Chiquita (formerly the United Fruit Company), Drummond, and Coca-Cola. Today, mercenaries are involved in protecting capitalist accumulation across the entire country, especially for oil, gas, and coal multinationals.
It is a matter of public record that Colombian state officials maintain strong relations with paramilitary mercenary groups. Thousands of Colombian police and military officials, as well as 60 congressmen and seven governors, are known to have supported right-wing paramilitary entities, and a secret US Special Forces manual leaked by Wikileaks in 2014 shows extensive US support for highly trained commando paramilitaries to conduct tactical and military operations (in addition to other tactics like censorship, psyops, and the use of bounties as part of “high-value target operations”).
The global spread of Colombian mercenaries is part of the gradual privatisation of war internationally, of which Colombia is a world leader. As of 2014, there were around 740 defence companies in the country, and in 2018 (following the 2016 peace agreement), the defence market was valued at $11.1 billion and is estimated to rise to $47.2 billion by 2024.
In addition to legal and logistical support, the Colombian state has intentionally nurtured a thriving mercenary industry in Colombia by systematically offering bounties for the heads of insurgents. Those travelling through contested territories in conflict areas are regularly met by soldiers who offer leaflets with the names and faces of suspected militants alongside details of a reward for information leading to their “neutralisation.”
The use of monetary rewards in war has been systematic for years, escalating under former right-wing president Alvaro Uribe (2002–2010), who allegedly recruited hundreds of thousands of paid informants as part of a state-controlled intelligence network. Uribe, who is from a wealthy landowning family and remains the most influential politician in Colombia, was also one of the most ardent supporters of the use of mercenaries – his presidency was plagued by support for paramilitary death squads, involving everybody from his family members to senior intelligence, police, and military leaders.
Economic incentives have in fact long been a part of the state’s military strategy. In a tragic scandal known as the “false positives,” money and job promotions were offered to soldiers and mercenaries who claimed to have killed rebels. Soldiers are known to have sometimes contracted these “false positives” out to mercenaries.
The emphasis on offering monetary rewards to stack up kill counts led to a culture of abuse within Colombia’s military. Some 6,400 civilians were dressed up as guerrillas and falsely accused of being communist insurgents by soldiers hoping to cash in on the reward system, according to Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction of Peace (JEP). At least two mercenaries involved in the assassination of Haiti’s president are believed to have been involved in the false positive scandal as former military soldiers.
In May, Jesús Santrich, a FARC leader regarded as the most charismatic insurgent in Colombia, was assassinated in Venezuelan territory either by official Colombian state forces or mercenaries acting on behalf of the state. Santrich had a $10 million US bounty on his head, as well as a reward offered by the Colombian state. Announcing the death of Santrich on the messaging app Telegram, the FARC released a photo of Santrich’s bloody hand, with his little finger cut off – suggesting that he had most likely been assassinated by mercenaries hoping to collect a reward.
In relation to the assassination of Santrich, a former Colombian military officer turned mercenary explained that even prior to the announcement by the FARC-Segunda Marquetalia (a group of FARC fighters who refused to demilitarise after the 2016 Colombia peace accords), his sources in the National Armed Forces had already confirmed to him personally that Santrich had been killed. While the Colombian mercenary was unsure who exactly was behind the assassination, one likely explanation was that mercenaries conducted the assassination to collect the bounty on Santrich’s head – regarding the bounty as a very lucrative figure even for mercenaries.
This confirms that Colombia’s military and mercenary actors enjoy close and ongoing relations, while the use of mercenaries in the context of the armed conflict is facilitated by state support and collaboration with mercenary forces.
The fact that mercenaries were again recently employed in Venezuela is also no surprise. Colombian mercenaries have long been used in Venezuelan territory in an effort to undermine the Chávez and Maduro governments. In 2004, a group of 153 Colombian paramilitaries were arrested in an operation accused of plotting to assassinate Hugo Chávez.
Like the Miami-based company that contracted the Colombian mercenaries for the Haiti operation, another Miami-based company, Silvercorp, was used in the attempted assassination of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro in 2020. For this failed operation, nicknamed Operation Gedeon, Colombian territory was used as the base of operations and staging route in the lead-up. Situated in the north of the country, where state-sponsored paramilitaries have been strong, these mercenaries positioned their training camps close to Colombian and US military bases, and then launched their operation from Colombian airstrips, rivers, and shores.
Having observed and interviewed Colombian rebels in their territories situated in the countryside and mountains, I find it inconceivable that an armed group could establish mercenary training camps for an extended period of time, and then plot the assassination of a foreign president, without either acceptance or support from state institutions.
The economic motive
Colombia was widely condemned internationally after openly invading Ecuadorian territory in 2008 to assassinate FARC leader Raúl Reyes, an operation in which one of the mercenaries in Haiti was involved). Seeking to avoid further blowback that comes from such outright military interventions, Colombia has since tended – as in the killing of Santrich – to rely on the use of mercenaries as proxies to lend military aggression the cloak of plausible deniability.
Ex-Colombian military personnel are not only employed as mercenaries because of their extensive training and combat experience – there is also an underlying economic motive. The forced conscription of poor Colombians and an almost 300,000-strong active military force creates a constant reserve of desperate retired soldiers struggling to find work with little to no transferable skills under Colombia’s precarious economy (around half of Colombia’s workforce is informally employed). Between ten and fifteen thousand military personnel retire every year, making these veterans “a world that is very difficult to control,” according to Colonel John Marulanda, president of a Colombian association for retired military.
With salaries of only around $200 per month, Colombian soldiers can make much more working as mercenaries for the private sector, while the desperation of highly trained Colombian veterans allows contractors to undercut the wages of similarly trained mercenaries in places like the US. According to the New York Times, private military contractors explicitly target former troops in Colombia, and the “great offers, with good salaries and insurance, got the attention of our best soldiers,” encouraging many to leave the military, according to Jaime Ruiz, the president of Colombia’s Association of Retired Armed Forces Officials.
With Colombian soldiers commonly tasked to protect private property as part of their official responsibilities, retiring soldiers also already have the advantage of having worked closely with private companies and the type of interests that make up the private military sector. Military task forces have been exclusively designed and devoted to protecting oil and coal multinationals, and senior-ranking officers heading such operations have been formally accused of contracting killings out to mercenary paramilitaries, with some such accusations even coming from the rank-and-file military establishment.
Strong relations also continue to exist between corporations, business associations, and the Ministry of National Defense, as interviews with business leaders have shown. For example, by working with Colombia’s bus companies, the National Army is able to identify where everybody is travelling in the country and the departure and arrival locations and times, compelling urban guerrillas to travel under false identities.
It may have been Colombian mercenaries and not the Colombian state that were directly involved in the assassination of the Haitian president. But the development of the country’s mercenary industry can only be understood as intimately bound up with the state’s record of political support for paramilitary and mercenary actors. The assassination of Haiti’s president is inseparably connected with a much deeper history of the privatisation of war in Colombia. In Haiti and around the world, we are now seeing the bitter fruits of this state-sponsored export.
Oliver Dodd is a journalist and PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham in England working on Colombia’s armed conflict and peace processes. He can be followed on Twitter @Olivercdodd.