Colombian Mercenaries and the Assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse
The US government — and Joe Biden himself — helped give rise to Colombia’s hired guns.
Ryan Devereaux / The Intercept
(July 30, 2021) — The men sat on a tile floor, many wearing tan combat boots, most with their hands cuffed behind their backs. The table before them was piled with weapons, passports, and bulletproof vests. Soldiers in black balaclavas stood guard nearby, rifles ready. They were Colombian mercenaries, Haitian authorities said, dispatched in a brazen international plot orchestrated through a Florida-based security firm that culminated in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and plunged the nation into uncertainty and terror.
Eighteen Colombians, most of them former soldiers, some hailing from elite units, have been arrested in connection with the July 7 assassination. Three others were killed in the aftermath of the assault, while five more are reportedly still at large. Two Haitian Americans, one a former US government informant, turned themselves in hours after the attack, claiming that they were translators aiding an effort to serve an arrest warrant on the president and transfer him to the presidential palace, not to kill him.
Nearly three weeks after the Colombians’ arrest, the mystery surrounding their activities in Haiti has only deepened. As The Intercept recently reported, at least seven of the alleged assassins received US training during their military careers. According to a US official, between 2001 and 2015, the soldiers received instruction in both Colombia and the US on skills ranging from military leadership and professional development to counternarcotics and counterterrorism.
As experts on Latin American security were quick to point out, with the US administering more than 107,640 trainings of Colombian security personnel in the past two decades, it was more likely than not that at least some of Moïse’s alleged killers would have received US instruction at some point.
The Colombians’ presence in Haiti has opened a rare window into a murky private security world that extends from the US into Latin America and the Caribbean, highlighting the outsize role that veterans of Colombia’s security forces play in the global mercenary sphere. While the full story surrounding Moïse’s assassination has yet to be told, one thread is clear: Through three of the most consequential conflicts of the past century — the Cold War, the drug war, and the war on terror — the interlocking relationship between US and Colombian security forces has produced a generation of hired guns, some of whom, for the right price, can turn an entire country upside down.
The decade-and-a-half in which Moïse’s alleged assassins received US training is critical to understanding this evolution. They were the Plan Colombia years, a period in which the US pumped $10 billion in counternarcotics aid into Colombia, a sum that far surpassed military aid to any other country in the region — in fact, only Israel and Egypt received more — and helped turn Colombia’s military into Latin America’s most advanced government fighting force.
For many US and Colombian officials, Plan Colombia has become shorthand for American intervention done right, an example of Washington throwing its support behind a committed partner who, through great sacrifice and determination, overcame the existential threat of narco disintegration.
“I’m the guy who put together Plan Colombia,” President Joe Biden boasted to the Des Moines Register a year before his inauguration, harkening back to his extensive work in bringing the program to life. For others, however, Plan Colombia was an abomination, a horrifying and emblematic example of counterinsurgency cloaked in a supply-side international drug war strategy that produced waves of extrajudicial killings, staggering environmental destruction, and a market of Colombian mercenaries available to the highest bidder.
The Intercept spoke to a former US military official who worked extensively with the Colombians on implementing the program. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to their ongoing work for another element of the US government, described how the joint US-Colombian mission evolved over time and how the war on terror, both operationally and through the ubiquitous privatization of combat operations, influenced that evolution. For companies looking for arms for hire, they explained, Colombians have something their would-be competitors lack: combat experience in one of the world’s longest civil wars.
“The contractors will know that a guy couldn’t be in the Colombian army for 20 years without having demonstrated or having gone through a series of training schools, some of them taught by the US,” the official said. “When guys are in a combat situation, they become more serious about what they’re doing. If you’re in a peaceful country where nothing’s happening, your weapon doesn’t have to work. But if you’re in Colombia, the attack might happen tonight. So these guys have these experiences. They’ve seen the elephant, if you will.”
In August 2000, President Bill Clinton made a visit to the Colombian city of Cartagena. He was in town to announce the first $1.3 billion installment in a controversial aid package that had been held up in Congress. His presence drew thousands of protesters into the streets of Bogotá, and yet, ABC News reported at the time, the president “seemed unconcerned as he walked through the dockyard commander center in the Caribbean port city.”
In addition to the throngs of soldiers and police officers providing physical security, Clinton touched down in Cartagena armed with the information included in a lengthy Senate report, published months earlier. The report had called for increased assistance to the Colombian army and national police.
“Never before in recent history has there been such an opportunity to strike at all aspects of the drug trade at the source,” it said. The author of the document was Joe Biden, then a senator from Delaware.
Though Plan Colombia is typically viewed in the US through the prism of the drug war, the security package was implemented against the backdrop of a much longer conflict involving leftist insurgent movements, proto-mercenary right-wing paramilitaries, and the Colombian state — it is a story in which the US government, and Biden himself, has made repeat appearances.
The modern history of the relationship can be traced back to 1962, when US Army Brig. Gen. William Yarborough was dispatched to Colombia to assess the nation’s counterinsurgency situation. The years prior had seen more than 200,000 Colombians, most of them peasant farmers, killed at the hands of the land-owning elite.
In a secret memo to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Yarborough, the commander of the Pentagon’s Special Warfare Center and one of the most famous Green Berets of all time, advocated for the creation of armed civilian units with a mandate to “execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents.” He added: “It should be backed by the United States.”
Two years after the visit, in the spring of 1964, the formation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the National Liberation Army, ELN, marked the beginning of Colombia’s internal conflict. Decades later, Human Rights Watch observed in a report how Yarborough’s prescription directly informed the Colombian military’s response to the insurgency, particularly in its embrace of irregular, armed paramilitaries, including those that became death squads.
Washington’s interest in Colombia kicked up again in the 1980s, as US demand for cocaine deepened and lawmakers saw new opportunities in the war on drugs that the Nixon administration had declared a decade earlier. With politicians on both sides of the aisle demanding that more be done to stop the flow of drugs at the source, President Ronald Reagan signed a secret directive in 1986 declaring drug trafficking a national security threat, thus opening the door for expanded military operations in Colombia.
It was critical to make “every American understand a very real link between drugs and terrorism,” then-Vice President George H.W. Bush said at the time. Two years later, the Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War ended. Bush became commander-in-chief and the drug war marched on. As one US general put it in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1989: “With peace breaking out all over, it might give us something to do.”
For many US military officials, “doing something” meant boarding a plane to Colombia, where a multifaceted conflict featuring guerillas, paramilitaries, drug-trafficking organizations, and the government raged through the early 1990s.
Decades before being dispatched on a mission to kill Osama bin Laden, members of the Pentagon’s elite Joint Special Operations Command were on the ground in Colombia, aiding the government’s search for cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. The hunt ended on December 2, 1993, with the drug lord shot dead in Medellín.
The following year, as the various groups with a stake in Colombia’s internal conflict vied for survival and control of an unfathomably lucrative illicit market, lawmakers loosened regulations governing the creation of private security companies. The decision, combined with world historic events on the horizon, would help pave the way for hundreds of Colombian security firms in the years to come.
As he would proclaim on the campaign trail decades later, Biden’s relationship to the conflict in Colombia ran deep. In the 1980s, he had been a fierce critic of the Reagan administration’s drug war policies, arguing that the US wasn’t doing enough to cut off the Colombian cocaine flow and that the White House showed insufficient support for law enforcement, as well as advocating for increased Pentagon and CIA involvement in the drug war.
In April 2000, Biden flew to Colombia to conduct a survey of the state of US counternarcotics operations in the country. The result of Biden’s visit was his May 2000 report, in which he articulated his strong support for then-President Andrés Pastrana’s Plan Colombia.
Announced in 1999, the plan sought $7.5 billion in international aid to support Colombia’s progress on a range of issues, including the peace process with the FARC, the economy, counternarcotics, justice system reform, and “democratization and social development.” It was the drug part that seemed to capture the bulk of Biden’s attention.
“There is, to be sure, no guarantee that this plan will work in significantly reducing narcotics trafficking. Anybody who says they are certain that it will succeed is either lying or is a fool,” Biden wrote. “But in my 28 years in the Senate, I have been deeply involved in studying and debating narcotics policy. I strongly believe that, at this moment, with this president in Bogota, we have a real opportunity to make a significant difference against the drug trade in Colombia. That opportunity could slip away unless we seize this rare enforcement moment.”
Biden’s warning was received. Announcing the first round of aid, Clinton assured critics and skeptics in Colombia and the US that their fears were misplaced. “This is not Vietnam, neither is it Yankee imperialism,” Clinton said at the time. “There won’t be American involvement in a shooting war because they don’t want it and because we don’t want it.”
Pastrana echoed those assurances in an interview with ABC. “I don’t think there is any chance that the military advisers are going to be involved in the real war in Colombia,” he said. “And they will never be.”
Thirteen months later, everything changed.
The Melding of Two Wars
The September 11 attacks shifted the paradigm through which the US approached the drug war in Colombia. In decades past, the Colombian army had largely left the issue of drug enforcement to its counterparts in the national police, focusing instead on its counterinsurgency war against the FARC and others. US personnel on the ground, meanwhile, were under orders to focus strictly on the drug trafficking. “We didn’t want to go down the slippery slope of getting involved in an internal conflict in a country,” said the official who spoke to The Intercept. But then, they added, “when the towers fell in 2001, we did that Global War on Terrorism.”
Like his father before him, President George W. Bush drew a direct link between drugs and terrorism. “Terrorists use drug profits to fund their cells to commit acts of murder,” the president said just three months after the attacks. “If you quit drugs, you join the fight against terror in America.”
In the years immediately before the September 11 attacks, the size and power of the FARC had increased substantially, due in no small part to the hundreds of millions of dollars the group was collecting through the taxation of coca growers, extortion, and kidnapping.
A year before Plan Colombia funding was approved in the US, a trio of research organizations — the Transnational Institute in the Netherlands, Acción Andina in Bolivia, and the Washington Office on Latin America in Washington, DC — published a report documenting how the group’s expansion fueled a perception of a rising “narcoguerrilla” threat in Colombia.
The reality on the ground was more complicated. “In sum, the guerillas’ military growth is not limited to their increased ability to generate revenues through extortion, kidnapping or threats to local authorities and sectors of the civilian population,” the report said. “Their armed capability has grown because of their ability to take military — more than political — advantage of cracks in a highly decayed regime that requires reforms of the existing socio-economic and institutional framework.”
Nonetheless, the FARC’s nexus to drug trafficking and political violence — more so than that of Colombia’s right-wing paramilitaries — would provide the basis for a new US approach to Colombia post-9/11.
“The Colombian armed forces, they didn’t get involved in the counter-narcotic aspect — they said, ‘Hey, that’s a policing mission.’ But we had told them, ‘Well, look, that train has left the station,’” said the US official. “The armed forces said, ‘Yeah, you’re right. This is the time to become involved in this because the lines have blurred here.’”
With Plan Colombia in place and the drug war and the war on terror thoroughly blended into a single amorphous effort, thousands of US personnel and private contractors began streaming into Bogotá, transforming the embassy there into the largest in the world.
In 2003, a plane carrying a crew of contractors conducting a coca spraying operation crashed in a jungle controlled by the FARC. Four Americans were taken hostage. The prohibitions on US-Colombian intelligence sharing on FARC camps, which by that point were happening on a “case-by-case basis,” according to the US official, fell away.
“Our mission was to find them,” they said. “They were held for five years in the jungle there, and so that loosened things up a little bit.”
In the wake of the hostage-taking, the Bush administration approved a CIA covert action program in which US intelligence, most of it coming from National Security Agency intercepts, would be used to direct Colombian military bombing operations against FARC targets. The program, which continued under the Obama administration, remained secret for a decade before being revealed by Washington Post investigative reporter Dana Priest in 2013.
Priest detailed how government lawyers in Washington fused the legal rationales that undergirded “high-value targeting” operations in the war on terror with Reagan’s declaration of drug trafficking as a national security threat to justify the covert bombing campaign.
“The Colombian military got to the point where they were doing these HVT missions, one after the other, after the other, and that is what brought the FARC to the peace table,” the US official said. “I think that was an outcome from Plan Colombia.” It wasn’t the only one.
As the Colombians’ relationship to the US deepened through the mid-2000s, their mercenary stock rose accordingly. In 2011, the New York Times revealed that Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, the world’s most infamous mercenary army, had recruited hundreds of Colombians to serve as the private shock troops of the United Arab Emirates. Four years later, the UAE’s private Colombian forces began turning up on battlefields in Yemen.
As Bloomberg reported in 2015, “An experienced former Colombian soldier can earn $90 per day in the Middle East, compared with about $375 per month back home in the regular army.” Non-state actors also tapped into the Colombian mercenary market, with ex-Colombian special forces members reportedly providing training to Mexican drug cartels.
Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank, began working on issues surrounding Plan Colombia when it was first being debated in the late 1990s. Mercenaries have long been a part of the Colombian security story, he explained, “but it was the Iraq War that gave them a real shot in the arm,” where they provided private VIP and site security.
“I was screaming bloody murder about this during the Iraq occupation,” Tree told The Intercept. “We’re pumping all this money into Plan Colombia, and meanwhile, we’re hemorrhaging soldiers who go and turn mercenary so they make lots more money in Iraq.”
“At the end of the day, if you can’t guarantee the loyalty of the people you’re going to train, don’t train them,” he said. “They’ve ended up working for death squads, the paramilitaries, the narco traffickers. They work for anybody.”
While the stories of mercenary armies in the Middle East and narco training in Mexico grab headlines, most of what happens in the world of international private security is far less sensational, often involving bodyguard work, the guarding of critical infrastructure, or simply standing outside a gas station with a shotgun to ward off petty thieves.
The Haiti Mission
In comments to reporters earlier this month, Colombian President Iván Duque said investigators believe that a core group of seven of the Colombian mercenaries killed or captured in Haiti knew they were on an assassination mission; the others may not have been aware.
Family members of several of the Colombians have insisted that their loved ones believed they were taking a job to protect a VIP for the potentially life-changing sum of $2,500 to $3,500 a month.
“Colombia uniquely has this large number of well-trained people who, once they reach a certain age or level, get drummed out of the service, if they don’t quit early,” Adam Isacson, WOLA’s director of the Defense Oversight program, told The Intercept. “Obviously we’ve got a lot of retired special forces and stuff here in the states, but they all seem to find jobs, a lot of them just over the river in northern Virginia as consultants and stuff, but Colombia doesn’t have that. A lot of these guys actually make a crappy living once they leave the military.”
The US official echoed that sentiment: “When these guys hit their 22- or 25-year mark and they retire, they look for jobs, and what sort of skill sets do they have?”
“Our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they created this phenomenon,” they said. “I think we’re in a contract world now.”
On Thursday, the Biden administration announced the appointment of a special envoy to Haiti in the wake the Moïse assassination. Ambassador Daniel Foote served as deputy chief of mission in Port-au-Prince from 2011 to 2012. Before that, he was the State Department’s top counternarcotics official in Colombia. Following a stint in Afghanistan, Foote became one of the department’s lead drug war officials worldwide, serving two years as deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.
In a statement, the State Department said the veteran foreign service officer will “engage with Haitian and international partners to facilitate long-term peace and stability and support efforts to hold free and fair presidential and legislative elections,” coordinate the efforts of US federal agencies and officials, and “support the Haitian people and Haiti’s democratic institutions in the aftermath of the tragic assassination of Jovenel Moïse.”
To understand how Colombian mercenaries became the force that they did — shaping the events in Haiti today — requires an understanding of the conflict that shaped them. “The drug war in Colombia is a real war — here it’s used as a metaphor,” said Toby Muse, author of “Kilo: Inside the Cocaine Cartels” and a longtime Colombia correspondent, now based in the United Sates.
That conflict, intertwined as it’s been with the government’s counterinsurgency war against the FARC and others, has caused mass internal displacement and featured grave human rights abuses committed by the same Colombian security forces whose veterans so often find work in the mercenary realm.
Among the most shocking of the government’s crimes in recent years is the “false positives” scandal, in which the military is believed to have murdered more than 6,400 civilians over a six-year period in the early 2000s in an effort to falsely inflate its tally of left-wing insurgents killed on the battlefield. Colombian officials have denied that the wave of extrajudicial killings ever took place. At least one of the Colombians currently in custody in Haiti, Francisco Eladio Uribe, was investigated in connection with the scandal, though his wife has claimed that he was exonerated.
“I think people don’t understand how inhumane that was,” Muse told The Intercept. “That these soldiers were killing innocent civilians, dressing them up as guerillas, and they could do it to receive just a few extra holiday days.”
Ironically, a campaign that wasn’t supposed to reproduce the Vietnam experience would be defined, in large part, by its resurrection of one of the war’s more punishing and destructive tactics: aerial fumigation.
While Nixon had deployed fumigation in the borderlands of the US and Mexico in the 1970s, Plan Colombia took the practice to a whole new level. The costs have been severe: millions of acres of rainforest coated with dangerous chemicals; ecosystems and food sources destroyed; unborn children lost in the womb. The growers, meanwhile, have simply learned to adapt. Colombia remains the world’s largest cocaine producer.
In the US, the national conversation around the drug war has progressed by leaps and bounds in recent years, with a widening recognition of the enormous social costs that result from prohibition domestically. The consequences of that same model abroad, however, have generally received less mainstream airtime — or at least not what one might expect for a multigenerational, transnational history of violence underwritten by billions of US tax dollars that has cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people their lives.
Within US borders, the drug war is rarely seen as an extension of US foreign policy with the capacity to produce significant blowback. Biden, however, certainly understood that possibility when he appeared on the Senate floor on June 21, 2000, to advocate for Plan Colombia — he just imagined the potential negative consequences would result from a lack of action, not the other way around. “Mr. President, my mom had an expression,” Biden said as he began his address that day. “She would say, ‘Joey, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.’”
The speech served as message and a warning: that the US could both fund and support drug treatment while at the same time significantly ramping up its military involvement in Colombia — and that if it did not, there would be hell to pay. “Folks, if they lose, mark my words, we are going to reap the whirlwind in this hemisphere on matters that go far beyond drugs,” Biden said. “It will include terrorism, it will include whole cadres of issues we have not thought about.”
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.