The Colombian mercenaries will be joining military forces of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) engaged in Yemen as part of a Saudi-led coalition now fighting to restore Sunni rule to that distraught nation. They will receive a pension and also UAE citizenship, along with family members. If they die in combat, their children will go to university free.
Arrangements were already in place. On behalf of his military contracting firm Xe Services, Erik Prince signed a $539 million contract in 2011 with UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to supply fighters for wars throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa. The New York Times indicated Colombian mercenaries were involved and suggested that the U. S. government was endorsing Prince’s venture. The United States had concerns about political changes following the “Arab Spring” and about gains for Iran. Prince’s earlier company, Blackwater, “has a long history of working with Colombians,” analyst Jeremy Scahill pointed out.
Colombians fighting in Yemen will be serving U.S. strategic purposes. Saudi Arabia entered Yemen’s civil war in March 2015 at the head of a coalition of four Arabian Gulf states including the UAE. The United States is contributing to a naval blockade and provides military advisers and drone attacks. The coalition’s objective is to thwart the return to power of Yemen’s Houthi movement of Iran-backed Shiites. The Saudis have enjoyed $90 billion in U. S. military assistance since 2010.
Yemen claims natural gas reserves of more than 478.5 billion cubic meters and oil reserves of three billion barrels. Ships carrying 3.8 million barrels of oil daily through the narrow Strait of Hormuz are vulnerable to Yemeni – sited weapons.
Yet Colombian mercenaries fighting a war in Yemen on the U. S. side are contributing far less to U. S. purposes than does direct Colombian government assistance in the form of ongoing instruction provided to the soldiers and police of U. S. allies. Colombia’s lead role recalls the nation’s deployment of 5,100 soldiers to the Korean War; no other Latin American sent troops.
President Obama in April 2012 praised Colombia for sharing its “expertise in security.” In recent years Colombian military and police trainers have instructed counterparts in Latin American and Caribbean nations, and also in Africa and Afghanistan.
One report refers to teaching provided for 9,983 foreign security forces between 2010 and 2012; another, to preparation of 3,000 trainees from 2005 to 2012. The U. S. government provided Colombia with funding in 2014 for preparing 6,526 police and soldiers in 10 Latin American countries. Since 2009 Colombia has supposedly trained 30,000 security personnel in 60 countries.
That relatively large number may result from the category of “police” having been expanded to include drug surveillance, border security, and prison work. A Colombian official’s statement in 2013 that “4,000 Panamanian police agents alone have already been trained in Colombia” is consistent with that idea. So too is a report that military and police training was provided over four recent years to “more than 10,310 members” of Mexico’s “security forces.”
Colombia pays the salaries of military and police teachers. The U. S. government provides equipment and supplies and pays for the travel, housing, and feeding of instructors and students. The U. S. State Department supervises student selection. Many Colombian instructors qualify through past attendance at the U. S. Army’s School of the Americas, renamed as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. They’ve maintained combat skills through counter-insurgency war at home. Instruction takes place inside Colombia and abroad.
Just as U. S. military aid to Colombia is often misidentified as “drug war” assistance rather than as support for the counter-insurgency war, references to teaching about how to fight drug traffickers – pervasive in the material surveyed here – may be similarly inaccurate.
Colombian military officials hope the instruction program will help preserve governmental support if war with guerrillas should end and security forces are reduced; Colombia presently has 444,520 “frontline personnel.” And the government sells its own military equipment for use within the instruction program.
For the U. S. government to pay the cost of housing, feeding, and equipping foreign trainees is less onerous than paying for “a U. S. “squadron of instructors” abroad. U. S. Assistant Secretary William R. Brownfield regards help from the Colombians as payback: “It’s a dividend we get for investing over $9 billion in support for Plan Colombia.”
Importantly, there is the notion that if trainees violate human rights, the U. S. government is blameless inasmuch as the military and police instructors are Colombian. The dismal human rights record of police, soldiers, and paramilitaries in U. S. client states in Latin America provides a rationale for expecting trouble.
Testifying before Congress, U. S. Southern Command head General John Allen spoke of “The beauty of having a Colombia – they’re such good partners, … When we ask them to go somewhere else and train the Mexicans, the Hondurans, the Guatemalans, the Panamanians, they will do it almost without asking, [And it’s] important for them to go, because I’m–at least on the military side–restricted from working with some of these countries because of limitations that are, that are really based on past sins. And I’ll let it go at that.”
The Leahy Law of 1997 prohibits the “furnishing of [military] assistance … to any foreign security force unit where there is credible information that the unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.”
Yet reliance on Colombian intermediaries still poses problems. After all, the program’s instructors, or the military and police units they belong to, may have nefarious associations. According to NACLA.org, “There is a direct correlation between the more than $5 billion in military assistance the United States has given Colombia since 1999 and a dramatic spike of extrajudicial killings in the country.” The NACLA communication cited a 2010 report of condemnation.
Colombia’s government remains the good and faithful servant of a United States pursuing a mission of global dominance. Acquiescence stems from decades of lavish U. S. military aid, from common purpose in destroying Marxist-oriented guerrillas, and from wealth flowing to Colombia’s elite from ties with U. S. – based trans-national corporations.
The relationship qualifies for a name taken from another context. Referring to Britain’s Ulster colony in Ireland, a British governor of Palestine in the 1920s thanked the Zionist movement for building “a loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potential hostile Arabism.” So why not speak now of a Colombian Ulster? Colombia is a safe and malleable U. S. haven in a hazardous Latin American sea.
W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.