Magazine article NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs

Colombian Mercenaries Fighting for Arab Coalition in Yemen

Magazine article NotiSur - South American Political and Economic Affairs

Colombian Mercenaries Fighting for Arab Coalition in Yemen

Article excerpt

Since the beginning of this decade, talk in Colombia has been that hundreds of the country's best officers and soldiers were serving as mercenaries in hot spots around the globe. Some put the number at more than 300 fighters; others said 450, and still other stretched the number to 3,300. At the beginning of this year, more specific reports indicated that most of these persons were fighting a war in the Middle East, more than 13,000 kilometers away. The setting is the impoverished Republic of Yemen, where Shiites and Sunnis--the two main branches of Islam--are fighting each other, and where Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are present. Since March 2015, a Sunni Arab coalition headed by Saudi Arabia and made up of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Qatar, and Bahrain has been intervening in the fight. Dozens of Colombians may have died there, but until recently, nothing had been said back home.

In a story published Nov. 25, 2015, under the headline "Emirates Secretly Sends Colombian Mercenaries to Yemen Fight," two New York Times reporters, Emily Hager and Mark Mazzetti, wrote that hundreds of Colombian soldiers, as well as troops from San Salvador, Panama, and Chile, had contracted to join the UAE army. Their investigation confirmed reports published months earlier in the newspaper El Tiempo and the magazines Semana and Don Juan.

The mercenaries were lured by salaries more than eight times larger than what they would receive as retirees in Colombia. "These big offers with good salaries and benefits are an incentive for our best soldiers," said Jaime Ruiz, a retired officer who heads the Asociacion de Jubilados de las Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia, an organization of Colombian military retirees (NotiSur, Oct. 7, 2005).

Monthly pay can reach $7,000

While the first soldiers emigrated at the beginning of 2010, Hager and Mazzetti reported that the arrivals of South American mercenaries in Abu Dhabi and the UAE increased in March 2015. The men were tempted by monthly payments of between US$2,000 and US$3,000, plus US$1,000 a week when the soldiers are assigned the toughest jobs and operate directly in Yemen. The members of the Arab coalition have no soldiers of their own on the ground, as the coalition's intervention is limited to devastating aerial bombing. According to the Times, the main reason for contracting mercenaries is that the citizens of the seven emirates that make up the UAE have no interest in serving in the military. Other sources note that Emiratis don't see the Yemen war as their own, and that at least half the population of the UAE is made up of foreign labor. Above the US$6,000-US$7,000 per month that the mercenaries could receive if they enter Yemeni territory, they have other benefits: If they get out alive, they and their immediate families can receive immediate Emirati citizenship, a pension, and the same health benefits UAE natives receive. Their children are guaranteed education until they enroll in university, the sources say.

According to the Times article, the UAE military has taken control of a program that had been originally headed by a private US firm hired by Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater Worldwide, a company that provides security services to the Pentagon, principally in Iraq and Afghanistan. Emirate officials said the most sought-after foreign soldiers are the Colombians because, after more than half a century fighting the guerrillas of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), they are the best prepared.

The Times reported that after Blackwater stopped doing the recruiting, the job went to Global Enterprises, a Colombian firm run by Oscar Garcia Batte, a former commander of special operations in Colombia's Army who commands the Colombian troops in the UAE and was deployed in Yemen. Other sources say this task is actually done by a Colombian company called ID Systems Ltd. The first journalist to mention ID Systems was Nathalia Hernandez in Don Juan, a magazine published by the daily El Tiempo. …

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