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Haitian president’s assassination exposes shady world of Colombian mercenaries

Three military officers in uniform at a news conference
Gen. Luis Fernando Navarro, center, commander of Colombia’s armed forces, acknowledged on July 9 in Bogota that the recruitment of retired Colombian soldiers to serve as mercenaries around the world had been an issue, but he said there was no rule preventing it.
(Ivan Valencia / Associated Press)

As he considered a new job offer, Mauricio Javier Romero asked his wife what she thought — but provided few details about the mission.

“It’s your decision, but you can count on my support,” she told him, according to the Colombian publication Semana. “He was a man who always tried to do the right thing.”

Haitian authorities said Romero was part of a team of 26 Colombian mercenaries — most if not all former soldiers in the military there — who took part in the July 7 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise at his residence in the verdant hills above Port-au-Prince.

Police said 18 were in custody in Haiti, five were fugitives, and three were killed in the aftermath of the slaying.

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Among the dead is Romero, 45, a retired first sergeant who served for 21 years in the Colombian army.

Besides opening a bloody new cycle of upheaval in the battered Caribbean nation, the assassination has provided a glimpse into the murky world of soldiers of fortune from Colombia — a key U.S. strategic ally that has weathered decades of internal warfare and boasts a robust military tradition, honed with extensive Pentagon training.

There is no global census of mercenaries. But the trade appears to have boomed since U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan outsourced tasks to military contractors — many of them mercenaries in all but name.

“Now that the U.S. is no longer the big sugar daddy, the market has really diversified,” said Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “The New Rules of War.” “We’re seeing mercenaries everywhere.”

He cited three main clusters: English speakers, Russian speakers and Spanish speakers. Colombians are at the vanguard of the last group, which also includes ex-combatants from El Salvador, Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America.

For years, hundreds of military retirees from Colombia — many with extensive knowledge of counterinsurgency warfare — have leveraged their skills abroad, notably in the Middle East, where the United Arab Emirates has employed them for both internal security and foreign intervention.

By all accounts, Colombian veterans make exceptional guns for hire for deep-pocketed potentates, warlords and others seeking to create or bolster an army — or assemble a hit squad.

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“Why are Colombian soldiers good candidates? Because they have excellent training, excellent discipline, and because they have had the experience of combat,” said Carlos Calatrava, a military expert at the Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas, Venezuela. “There are always groups looking for well-trained individuals for the job of protection and security.”

And money talks.

A Colombian army soldier typically makes the equivalent of less than $500 a month; an experienced sergeant may earn double that. Monthly pensions for retirees from those ranks range from about $325 to $650. Many supplement post-service income working as security guards.

By comparison, the Colombians who allegedly helped assassinate the Haitian president were reportedly paid $3,000 to $3,500 a month. They were apparently brought on in staggered fashion in the weeks before the attack, mostly flying initially to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, which borders Haiti.

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It was money that likely drew Dubernay Capador Giraldo, 40, another retired Colombian first sergeant killed after the assassination, to Haiti. Capador apparently talked up the gig to various ex-colleagues, including Romero.

“Dubernay thought that this would give him the opportunity to travel abroad to improve his quality of life,” his sister, Jenny Capador Giraldo told the Spanish daily El País. “He also must have thought about helping his colleagues who sought a better future outside the country.”

Word-of-mouth solicitation is the norm in insular mercenary circles. Shady middleman outfits — the names of several have emerged in the Haiti investigation — count on trusted recruits to find battle-tested former comrades to sign up.

“Hey, we need some more people like you,” goes the pitch, McFate said. “Rattle your cages and use your networks.”

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Secrecy is fundamental. Loose lips are anathema.

The government of the United Arab Emirates has never admitted hiring mercenaries from Colombia. Initially recruited a decade or so ago to protect oil and gas pipelines and prepare for possible hostilities with Iran, some Colombians in the Persian Gulf were eventually dispatched to the U.S.-backed, Saudi-Emirati war against Yemen.

Even when 10 Colombians were reportedly killed in 2015 during fierce battles near the Yemeni city of Taizz, authorities in the Emirates remained silent. No government ever confirmed their deaths.

“One of the chief selling points of mercenaries is plausible deniability,” McFate said. “The UAE doesn’t have to report how many people have been killed. And they like it that way.”

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The Haiti assassination has stirred deep discomfort in Colombia, where the military’s reputation had already been sullied in the so-called false positive scandal. The Colombian army was found to have killed thousands of mostly poor, young civilian men between 2002 and 2008 in a bid to elevate body counts of supposed guerrillas.

Despite the embarrassment of the revelations from Haiti, military officials in Colombia said there is little they can do to stop veterans from selling their services to the highest overseas bidders.

“The recruitment of ex-military [personnel] to go to other zones of the world as mercenaries has been an issue for a while, but there is no rule that prohibits or impedes” the practice, Gen. Luis Fernando Navarro, commander of the Colombian armed forces, told reporters in Bogota this month.

Many Colombians have insisted that their countrymen were duped into taking part in the assassination plot. They believed they were brought on board for a legitimate operation, the defense goes, to act as bodyguards or perhaps assist in a legal arrest of Moise.

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“Never would a Colombian soldier … even hypothetically consider participating in a magnicide,” Marta Lucía Ramírez, Colombia’s vice president and foreign minister, said Friday. “They were deceived.”

President Iván Duque also asserted that most Colombians implicated in the Haiti operation were unaware that their mission was to kill. Nonetheless, Duque said that all shared guilt.

The late 1st Sgt. Romero “under no circumstance” would have participated in a “vile” assassination, insisted his widow, Giovanna Arelis Romero Dussan.

Likewise, the sister of Capador, who is said to have urged ex-mates to join the Haiti venture, told Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper that she would not rest until his name was cleared. “He was no mercenary” she said. “He was a good man.”

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Special correspondents Jenny Carolina González in Bogota, Mery Mogollón in Caracas and Cecilia Sánchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.


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