Sunday, May 15, 2011

Colombian Mercenaries Back in the Desert

Erik Prince
The New York Times published this interesting story about how Blackwater founder Erik Prince is creating a private army in the United Arab Emirates - and employing Colombian ex-soldiers to fight for him.

This isn't the first time that Colombian military men have played a controversial mercenary role in the Middle East. During the mid and late 2000s, Colombian veterans were hired by Blackwater and other security firms for non-combat roles in Iraq. They made headlines here in 2006 when 35 Colombian ex-military men hired to do security work for Blackwater in Iraq claimed they'd been cheated of their pay and left trapped in Baghdad.

At the time, I investigated and managed to talk to several Colombian men who'd done security work in Iraq. They were tight lipped, in part because they'd signed contracts promising not to talk about their experience. But, from them and others, I learned that some of the men contracted by Blackwater and other security companies had had legal problems back in Colombia, and that some might have committed human rights violations here and in Iraq. That sounded bad, since U.S. forces were trying to improve the U.S. war effort's record on human rights. People here told me that one guy signed up for Iraq to escape alimony payments, that another had killed someone here. I never saw evidence backing up any of these allegations, but just hearing them was troubling.

The 'Trapped in Baghdad' affair had a disturbing aftermath. After the Colombians finally made it home, the retired military officer who'd recruited them was murdered under mysterious circumstances. I made information requests to the DAS police agency - but, paradoxically, obtained nothing, as if this prominent murder had never been investigated. The word on the street was, predictably, that the recruiter had been killed as payback by some of his angry recruits. 

So, by hiring Colombia fighters, Prince may employ some questionable characters with troubled pasts. By this I don't mean to knock the Colombian mercenary 'brand.' Choirboys don't often sign up to become mercenaries, whatever their nationality. 

However, Prince, whose aims are purely commercial and military, may not be so concerned about human rights. His previous company, Blackwater, has such an image so dirtied by killings that they changed its name to Xe Services, and Prince sold the company and moved to the Middle East. In any case, it sounds like Prince is having trouble getting his private desert army into fighting shape, and the Colombians' poor accuracy at shooting was one difficulty.

For their own part, the Colombians likely earn good money as mercenaries: but is it enough to justify traveling halfway across the globe to defend to risk their lives defending authoritarian governments?

In contrast to the men who did security work in Iraq, who did things like stand guard at an entrance to an oil refinery, it sounds like Prince's current group of men are intended for 'hotter' conflict, such as putting down an anti-government rebellion.

Colombia, with the perhaps the western world's only active armed conflict and lots of poverty is fertile recruitment ground for mercenaries. This 'honor' might not be beneficial to Colombian society. In his autobiography, Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes the troubled return of Colombians who served the Western side in the Korean War. In an era when concepts such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder had not entered psychologists' vocabulary, some Colombian survivors of the war came home to kill or be killed in idiotic ways. Garcia Marquez quotes one returned veteran, on trial for shooting to death two people, as asking the judge: "In Korea I killed a hundred people. Why not kill ten in Bogotá?"

I suspect that psychological support back home is not part of prince's latest employment program.

I was also struck by the NYT's articles's final line. Prince has given lots of money to conservative Christian causes. But one of Prince's ex-employees is quoted saying that his current company treated its employees to a party with prostitutes.

Update: Some Colombian military officials are in hot water because some of Prince's troops were apparently trained on Colombian military bases.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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