A lot about the stunning July 7 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in his bedroom still doesn’t make much sense, and the details we’ve learned since haven’t cleared much up. One mystery: How did the recently bankrupted Florida-based pastor who allegedly masterminded the plot have the resources or wherewithal to do it? Another: How could the perpetrators, who were caught almost immediately, have pulled off such an audacious, Abbottabad-style commando raid on a guarded presidential compound without an apparent exit strategy?
The Haitian authorities, such as they are, don’t have a whole lot of credibility here. There are clearly more shoes to drop, but until they do, it’s hard to know what conclusions to draw from any of this, except for maybe this: These mercenaries were very available for work. And the relative accessibility of the sort of men with the skills to carry out a presidential assassination for money is partly the result of the increasing privatization of two forever wars: the one on drugs and the one on terrorism.
According to initial reports, a small private security company in Miami hired for the Haiti operation roughly 20 former soldiers from Colombia, all of whom had served in the country’s elite special forces. (It’s not clear quite how much the contractors knew about what they were being asked to do before they signed up—media reports suggest they may have thought they were going to provide security for Haitian VIPs—or what actual role they played in the assassination.) The Pentagon confirmed on Thursday that at least some of the men, who have now all been taken into custody or killed, received U.S. training, part of America’s decades-long support of the Colombian military.
The involvement of private contractors is reminiscent of some other recent coup attempts, including the 2004 “Wonga Coup,” in which a group of South African mercenaries financed by Margaret Thatcher’s son attempted to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea, and last year’s “Bar of Piglets” fiasco in which a former Green Beret-turned-security contractor mounted a ludicrously unsuccessful invasion of Venezuela. In Haiti, the contractors got much closer to achieving their goal: They killed Moïse, though it’s not really clear what step 2 was supposed to be.
Every forever war is also a job-training program, and in recent years, Colombian ex-officers have been increasingly well-represented in the ranks of global mercenaries. Colombia has been in a state of armed conflict, with varying levels of intensity, since the 1960s, involving government forces, left-wing guerillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and drug traffickers—with the lines between those groups sometimes blurring. As a result, Colombia’s military boasts the largest land forces in South America. Like any other pyramid-shaped hierarchy, a large number of capable officers are drummed out of service by their 30s and need to find other work.
The U.S., which has been heavily involved in Colombia’s wars since the late ’80s and early ‘90s, also made the country something of a proving ground for the heavy reliance on military contractors that eventually became a defining feature of America’s wars in the Middle East.
“This Pentagon didn’t see this as a first-tier mission, so it’s one of the first things that they started contracting out, to an extent that hadn’t been seen before, says Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a U.S.-based NGO. “So Colombia’s military saw this and got very familiar with working with these companies like DynCorp and others. They got plugged into this economy.”
That economy grew massively in the decade and a half after 1999, when the U.S. gave $10 billion in security aid to the country, initially focusing on counternarcotics measures but after 9/11 increasingly focusing on assistance in the government’s fight against the left-wing FARC rebels. While linked to a host of human rights abuses and civilian deaths, the Colombian government’s scorched-earth campaign did force the FARC into a peace deal in 2016, and the level of violence in the country fell dramatically. It was less successful at curbing the drug trade—Colombia is still the world’s top cocaine producer—or, as a recent wave of mass protests and strikes have shown, addressing the country’s underlying social iniquities.
One enduring legacy of funding Colombia’s war efforts is a large cadre of well-trained, battle-tested soldiers, with years of experience in jungle and mountain warfare, now in search of work.
Sean McFate, a former U.S. Army officer who worked as a private military contractor in several countries in Africa and now teaches at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, says Colombians are a popular option for those in the market for hired guns for two main reasons: They are very good and relatively cheap. “They are about half to a quarter of the price of an American or U.K. mercenary,” he says. “They’ve all got combat experience against the FARC and Narcos. Many of them were trained by U.S. Green Berets. They’re disciplined, effective warriors.”
The U.S. military used Colombian contractors in its own wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in 2015, the New York Times reported that the United Arab Emirates was recruiting hundreds of Colombian mercenaries to fight in Yemen as part of a program managed by Blackwater founder Erik Prince. One frustrated Colombian officer told Bloomberg at the time that an experienced soldier could earn only $90 per day in the Middle East, compared with $375 per month in Colombia, saying, “I can’t compete with Abu Dhabi.” According to the New York Times, the men involved in the Haiti plot were promised between $2,500 and $3,500 per month. (Others Colombian vets have reportedly found even less savory employment, such as providing military training to Mexico’s Zetas drug cartel.)
Decades of bad press and public concern over the use of private contractors has done little to dissuade their use. For governments like the U.S., using contractors in war zones, particularly non-Americans, is a way of maintaining a military footprint with less political risk: The public tends to be far less concerned about contractor deaths and there’s far less public oversight of their activities. As of 2018, the U.S. military was relying on about 5,500 contractors in both Iraq and Syria, about half of whom were third-country nationals, although most of these were involved in support roles rather than combat. Opportunities for contractors won’t necessarily dry up as the U.S. winds down its long-running wars: The New York Times reported in June that the Pentagon is considering transferring its contracts in Afghanistan with private companies to the Afghan government, which would continue to be paid via U.S. aid.
For McFate, the Moïse assassination illustrates the risks of allowing the industry to grow unfettered. “It’s what happens when you use mercenaries as we have been over the past 30 years. What happens to out-of-work mercenaries? They seek out new contracts. They’re a growing labor pool,” he says. “We’re going to be seeing more of this as the years go on. There will be private citizens who hire mercenaries to do these things. This is not an isolated incident.”