BUCARAMANGA, Colombia (AP) – As the coronavirus pandemic suffocated Colombia, the Romero family needed money to pay off the mortgage. Mauricio Romero Medina’s $ 790 per month pension as a retired soldier did not go 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 long-term legal work requiring only a passport. But Romero had to make a decision quickly.
“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 are believed to have participated in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. It’s a case that dramatizes Colombia’s role as a recruiting ground for the global security industry – and its darkest mercenary corners.
Colombia’s defense ministry says around 10,600 troops retire each year, many highly skilled warriors forged in a decades-long battle against left-wing rebels and drug trafficking cartels. Many – including a number of people involved in Haiti – were trained by the US military.
These soldiers provide a recruiting pool for companies looking for a wide range of services – as consultants or bodyguards, on teams guarding Middle Eastern pipelines, or as part of private security like military in places like the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan. The UAE has paid Colombian veterans to join the battle against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“Former Colombian (soldiers) are very well trained and (…) may be cheaper or more accessible than other types of skilled and specialized labor,” said Silvana Amaya, senior analyst specializing in Andean region for the global security company Control Risks. “It’s a good opportunity for the former (soldiers) in Colombia to have a job that they are obviously ready to do. … So for both sides, supply and demand, we think it’s working well.
Sean McFate, a former US Army paratrooper and private military contractor who has written on mercenaries, said Colombians are generally on par with US and British soldiers, and are “of good value” because they have experience. combat, obey the chain of command, work as a team, and are tough.
“It’s an illicit industry that works around command language,” McFate said. “The three main mercenary pillars are Spanish, English and Russian. And in Spanish, Colombians are the biggest.
Francisco Uribe’s wife, who was among those arrested in Haiti’s assassination, told Colombian radio W that the company that hired the veterans, Florida-based CTU Security, was offering the men about $ 2,700 per month.
It can go a long way when exchanged for Colombian pesos. It’s also well below the rates of retired Green Berets or other American, British, Israeli or South African veterans.
“We are normally paid almost 50%, and sometimes up to 70% less, to be Latin Americans,” said retired Colonel John Marulanda, president of the Colombian Association of Retired Military Officers. and international security consultant.
He insisted that their work is only “a business” and “has nothing to do with mercenarism”.
Colombian President Iván Duque said last week that only a small group of former soldiers arrested in Haiti knew it was a criminal operation. He said the others had been duped into believing they were traveling on a legitimate mission of protection.
Relatives note that the men did not think they needed to hide. Several posted photos of themselves on social media during a stop in neighboring Dominican Republic en route to Haiti.
Jenny Guardado, assistant professor of Latin American studies at Georgetown University, said Colombian soldiers tend to come from low-income rural neighborhoods, where drug cartels and rebel groups also recruit, and they generally see their military service as a way to climb the ranks. the social scale.
But some struggle after leaving the military, especially those who have not completed the 20 years of service necessary for a full pension. And, she said, some have complained about not receiving their full benefits.
The commander of the Colombian armed forces, General Luis Fernando Navarro, told reporters this month that the military does not have the capacity to monitor all retired military personnel, only to guarantee social assistance, including the pension.
The key details of what happened on July 7 are unclear.
Authorities said the attackers raided the president’s home before dawn shouting “Operation DEA!” And wielding large caliber weapons. A small group entered and the rest stayed outside.
A judge told the PA that the attackers tied up a maid and a house boy and ransacked Moses’ office and bedroom. The president’s daughter hid in her brother’s bedroom and survived.
When it was over, Moses was lying on the floor of his room. He had been shot in the forehead, chest, hip and stomach, and his left eye was punctured. His wife was shot and wounded.
No member of the president’s security was injured, raising questions about their role.
The attackers do not seem to have planned to escape. Some hid in a nearby business. Others invaded the Taiwanese embassy. Some were found hidden in bushes by passers-by and turned over to the police.
At least three of the Colombians were killed, including Romero and Capador.
Romero retired from the military in December 2019 after receiving several decorations, majoring as a military paratrooper and combat medic, and attending the Lancero School, which provides training in army special operations and is similar to the US Army Ranger School.
“When soldiers retire, they are invited to join armies in other countries,” Giovanna Romero told the AP. “Mauricio was no exception to the fact that if any of these opportunities presented itself, it could be seized, because he had the knowledge for the job.”
She said her husband never told her where he was going and learned of his death from the media. Now the Colombian government has informed the family that their pension will be suspended for the duration of administrative proceedings.
The assassination of Moses poses a challenge for Colombian security forces, which were already dealing with complaints about a tough response to protests this year and past allegations that soldiers sometimes killed innocent civilians and counted them as slain rebels in combat in order to strengthen the body. account.
Colombian Vice-President Marta Lucía Ramírez said the country was ready to offer consular assistance to detained suspects and to repatriate the bodies of the deceased. Former Minister of Defense, she defended the country’s armed forces.
“I know full well that the Colombian military are never, under any circumstances, mercenaries who will go on duty to commit a crime anywhere,” Ramírez said.
Garcia Cano reported from Mexico City.