They signed the contracts thinking they would guard the palaces of the Sheikhs, keep an eye on the oil pipelines, and at worst respond to the odd terror attack: two or three thousand Colombian former soldiers, paid four times the average salary in Bogota or Medellin, and shipped off to Abu Dhabi in 2011. And then suddenly this year the war being waged by the Gulf sheikhdoms in Yemen started to go bad, and the Colombians were deployed for mountain warfare against the Shi’ite minority of the most well-armed country in the world. Yesterday, six were killed in combat near Taiz.
From Colombia’s El Pais, a 2011 interview with a veteran mercenary who missed the cut for the Abu Dhabi mission, and did not regret it.
Now working as a bodyguard for a ‘Señor’ who sleeps in a chalet outside of Bogata, ‘Hache’ spoke to us by phone while he worked his watch shift. If things had worked out as he hoped, he would have now been in Abu Dhabi and not here, waiting on the whims of someone else every evening.
But ‘Hache’ doesn’t back out. Not from this at least. A former policeman who a decade ago was part of the Search Bloc special operations division of the national police, and the Counterinsurgency department of Cundinamarca, ‘Hache’ is a man accustomed to taking orders. And to wakeful nights.
Until the end of last year, he was a member of one of the private armies which were silently assembled five years ago to carry out missions in the Middle East. For 36 months, he signed a series of contracts which carried him back and forth between Iraq and Afghanistan. During that period, he says, his mission was to guard diplomatic missions of the United States in al-Hilla and Kabul. ‘Hache’’s voice, hoarse and nasal on the telephone’s speaker, sounds as if it were coming from a throat still rasped by sand from those faraway deserts.
Last week, the New York Times ran an article on a new force, armed in secret, with the goal of exporting men to guard Sheikhs, pipelines and skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi. The extension of an ongoing business in recruiting gullible men to fight as mercenaries in the war in Iraq. Since 2006, hundreds of Colombian former soldiers have gone there. Now, the UAE is offering a tempting mission for unemployed former soldiers: four dollars an hour, 90 dollars a day, $2,700 a month.
So why are they bringing people over to the United Arab Emirates?
They are building an army there. It’s like a legion, a private force that will be mainly Colombian. I don’t know if they will be going to war, but they will be used to take on terrorist activity.
If you’ve already done special services work in the Middle East, why are you sitting this one out?
At first, because I didn’t pass the evaluations. They were doing evaluations at the Simon Bolivar park in Bogota, and after going for three months of stamina tests, push-ups, sit-ups, they said ‘no’ without giving me any other explanation.
Who made the determination?
This project is with the same people I traveled with before, from ID Systems, the company that in 2006 brought people to Baghdad [under a controversial, low-paying contract with Blackwater]. This time, the decisions were made by a retired colonel by the name of Carrascal. I showed him my certifications, my positive evaluations for previous jobs, but it didn’t get me the job.
A Semana columnist writing about the topic says there are farms where they are doing lightning training sessions. Was that for people who failed the evaluations?
Yeah. For every ten people who show up, only four get taken. So some people came up with the idea of renting a farm between Honda and La Dorada, and anyone who wanted could sign up for a two-week session there. People who trained there then got sent for sure. You have to pay for your stay and your meals; it costs something like [80 dollars].
Did you go to the farm?
No, but lots of people I met did end up doing it. A lot of people went to the Emirates. I hear they need something like three thousand people. I figure that from Colombia, about a thousand guys have gone already. Imagine this: the appointments in Simon Bolivar were on Tuesdays and Thursdays; over the three months that I was going, every day there were at least a hundred different people trying to sign up.
Before all this, ‘Hache’ wanted to be a mechanic. His boyhood dreams were of an oily ceiling, roofed with flattened metal cans. At one point he succeeded in opening an auto-parts store in Bogota; after six years in the police, he opened the business and made an effort to live a life away from the gun. But it was only an effort, and when the business went bankrupt, he followed up on a rumor that was running through the network of former armed forces guys: an army of reservists was being formed to carry out missions in certain war zones. It is not really clear what was behind all of this; many of the men who ended up in the Middle East had first fallen victim to little con-games. Before they had even left, these mercenaries of the desert were themselves ripped off by mercenaries of our big cities.
How did you get involved?
In 2005, I signed on with a company that spent like a year doing paperwork for me. The guy who seemed to be running things was a Captain Monroy. He had an office next to the American Embassy. They had me pay for English lessons, explosives courses, buy informational CDs, and then one day I showed up for an appointment and the whole thing had disappeared; they had just packed up and run off.
So how did you end up going anyway after the rip-off?
A new rumor started circulating, about another project with another Captain. I went to his office, in La Soledad, gave him my resume, he interviewed me, did my evaluations, and it all seemed serious. We trained on the firing range and did a course for which we were paid [$500]. There were about 40 of us. At the end there was an official dinner with our families; we were presented with diplomas. And in January of 2007, I was sent to Iraq.
In 2006, there was at least one company sending people over there, promising them unreal salaries…
That was a misunderstanding. The company was ID Systems, the same company I went over with. People were saying they had promised them $4,000 a month and then paid them much less, but no, they knew what they were going to get. What happened is that a bunch of companies all jumped into the game and offered much cheaper services, so ID had to drop the price. When I went, it was for $1,000 a month.
What was your job?
In al-Hilla (Iraq), I was guarding a regional embassy of the United States; it was operating out of a hotel that had once belonged to Saddam Hussein. You had to search people who came in, check vehicles. It wasn’t a personal bodyguarding job, but internal guarding. The embassy was in a hotel on the outskirts. We had M-4 carbines, Glock pistols and M-40 machineguns. There were threats from Islamist groups every day. From Al-Qaeda. They said they were going to carry out chemical attacks. We had to get training for that on-site.
Were you involved in direct combat?
No. There were lots of attacks on the embassy, but since there were no clear targets, you couldn’t shoot back. They were very long distance attacks, sometimes at night. Once a mortar shell hit near a buddy of mine. I was in the booth right next to him. He went deaf from it. They took him out in a helicopter and he never came back.
What were the quarters like for you and the other Colombians?
They were shipping containers that had been fitted out, next to the embassy. Rooms for two guys, air conditioned, with bathrooms. There were at least 90 Colombians with me. The food was done by cooks from India. Sometimes the menu was American, Tex-Mex, Arab; once they tried to make Colombian dishes for us. We ate well; I couldn’t complain.
Could you visit the city? Were you free to do that?
We could not leave the base. The only thing I saw was the river that flowed nearby; I think it was an arm of the Euphrates.
And on free days?
Just internet; English courses, Photoshop, chats with the family, then go work out. I bought things on the internet; shoes, clothes: it would all get delivered there. Human contact, friendship-that was with the people you worked with. One guy tried to learn Arabic. There were women around, but they were different, and out of respect you didn’t bother them.
No way to get a beer then?
In the base, there was a day for that: Thursdays. Salsa Night, they called it. They’d put on Colombian music and in the bar you could relax a bit. We were allowed two beers; that was all that you were authorized.
It is eleven at night, and the onetime soldier turned bodyguard does not want to grumble over his old days. He thinks about the family that he lost in those lost years. In the girl that he was in love with and who he never saw again. And he also thinks about the girlfriend he has today; the love that he would not give up for the precarious desert. ‘Hache’ swears that his heart is shielded from the call of money. His voice in the end seems to have lost the sandy rasp of distant deserts:
Would you do it again?
No. Money doesn’t buy happiness. And in the end, I guess I wasn’t a real mercenary.
FURTHER READING: In 2012, Colombia’s weekly Semana wrote that the exodus of the country’s best and most well-trained officers and soldiers to better paid positions in the Emirates was seriously affecting the quality of the Colombian armed forces:
El Pais Eds. Translated from Spanish by International Boulevard
10 Dec 2015