The assassination of the President of Haiti reveals the shady world of Colombian mercenaries

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

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

Haitian authorities say Romero was part of a team of 26 Colombian mercenaries – most if not all former army soldiers there – who participated in the July 7 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise at his time. residence in the green hills above Port-au-Prince.

Police said 18 are in detention in Haiti, five are fugitives and three were killed as a result of the murder.

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

In addition to opening a bloody new cycle of upheaval in the battered Caribbean nation, the assassination provided a glimpse into the murky world of the makeshift soldiers of Colombia – a key strategic ally of the United States who has weathered decades of war. internal and boasts a strong military tradition, honed with extensive Pentagon training.

There is no world census of mercenaries. But trade appears to have exploded since the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contracted out tasks to military contractors – many of whom are mercenaries, except by name.

“Now that the United States is no longer the big daddy of sugar, the market has really diversified,” said Sean McFate, principal researcher at the Atlantic Council and author of “The New Rules of War.” “We see mercenaries everywhere.

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

For years, hundreds of retired Colombian military personnel – many of whom have extensive knowledge of counterinsurgency warfare – have used their skills overseas, particularly in the Middle East, where the United Arab Emirates have brought them to bear. have employed both for internal security and foreign intervention.

By all accounts, Colombian veterans are crafting exceptional weapons to hire for potentates with deep pockets, warlords and others looking to build or strengthen an army – or build a squad.

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

And the money speaks.

A Colombian army soldier typically earns the equivalent of less than $ 500 per month; an experienced sergeant can win double. Monthly pensions for retirees in these ranks range from approximately $ 325 to $ 650. Many supplement after-service income by working as security guards.

By comparison, Colombians who allegedly helped assassinate the Haitian president were reportedly paid between $ 3,000 and $ 3,500 per month. They were apparently brought in in stages in the weeks leading up to the attack, most initially flying to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, which borders Haiti.

It was money that likely attracted Dubernay Capador Giraldo, 40, another retired Colombian first sergeant killed after the assassination, to Haiti. Capador apparently told various former colleagues about the concert, including Romero.

“Dubernay thought it would give him the opportunity to travel abroad to improve his quality of life,” his sister, Jenny Capador Giraldo, told Spanish daily El País. “He also had to think about helping his colleagues who were looking for a better future outside the country. “

Word of mouth solicitation is the norm in island mercenary circles. Shady middleman outfits – several names appeared in the Haiti investigation – rely on trusted recruits to find former combat-experienced comrades to sign up.

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

Secrecy is fundamental. Loose lips are anathema.

The UAE government has never admitted hiring Colombian mercenaries. Originally recruited a decade ago to protect oil and gas pipelines and prepare for possible hostilities with Iran, some Colombians from the Persian Gulf were eventually sent into the Saudi-UAE war against Yemen, which was supported by the United States.

Even when 10 Colombians were reportedly killed in 2015 in heavy fighting near the Yemeni town of Taizz, UAE authorities have remained silent. No government has ever confirmed their deaths.

“One of the main selling points of mercenaries is plausible deniability,” McFate said. “The UAE does not have to report how many people were killed. And they like it like that.

Haiti’s assassination sparked deep unease in Colombia, where the army’s reputation had already been tainted by the so-called false positives scandal. The Colombian army was found to have killed thousands of young civilians, mostly poor, between 2002 and 2008 in an attempt to increase the number of so-called guerrilla corps.

Despite the embarrassment of Haiti’s revelations, military officials in Colombia said there was little they could do to stop veterans from selling their services to foreign top bidders.

“The recruitment of ex-soldiers [personnel] going to other parts of the world as mercenaries has been a problem for some time, but there are no rules that prohibit or hinder ”this practice, said General Luis Fernando Navarro, Commander of the Colombian Armed Forces , to reporters in Bogota this month. .

Many Colombians have insisted that their compatriots were duped into participating in the assassination plot. They were believed to have been brought aboard for a legitimate operation, according to the defense, to act as bodyguards or perhaps to aid in a legal arrest of Moise.

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

President Iván Duque also claimed that most of the Colombians involved in the operation in Haiti did not know their mission was to kill. Nonetheless, Duque said all shared the guilt.

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

Likewise, Capador’s sister, who reportedly urged her former comrades to join the Haitian company, told Colombian newspaper El Tiempo that she would not rest until her name was cleared. “He wasn’t a mercenary,” she said. “He was a good man.”

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

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