Paramilitary: Colombian Mercenaries Get An Unwelcome Compliment


June 21, 2013: Since September 11, 2001, countries with well trained and experienced combat personnel have had to face growing problems with private security companies serving corporate or national (especially in the Middle East and South America) employers recruiting their best troops. Colombia is the latest to complain, as an American security company, forming a special “counter-terrorism” force for the Persian Gulf state of Abu Dhabi recruited several hundred of their most experienced army and special operations troops. Recently retired veterans of the Colombian security forces were also sought. The chief attraction was the money, which was about five times what they were making in Colombia. This (up to $3,000 a month or more) was still cheaper than what Western troops with similar experience were asking. This was not a critical loss, as the Colombian armed forces now contain over 400,000 personnel. But it was annoying, legal, and will probably happen again. Over the last decade Colombian troops have become increasingly popular with security company recruiters because since the 1990s, the United States has been helping to train these troops, who have gone on to battlefield success against numerous leftist rebel groups and major criminal gangs. Thus the Colombian troops are well-trained (in American battlefield techniques, which are something of an international standard at the moment), combat experienced (against irregulars and terrorists), and know enough English to serve with similar professionals from all over the world. The Colombian commanders can take some solace in the fact that this puts them in an elite group of nations that have some of the most effective combat operators in the world and are faced with this growing problem of their best people being lured away by the higher pay of private security companies.

This outsourcing of military operations is a trend that continues to grow, as it has for over half a century. Most of these "mercenaries" are performing support jobs formerly performed by soldiers. Several hundred thousand of these worked in Iraq and Afghanistan for American forces and others (including the new Iraqi and Afghan governments). The "temps" were cheaper, even though some of the civilians get paid more, for doing the same work, than the soldiers. But not always. The contractors that take on these outsourcing jobs are usually American or British firms, and an increasing number of their employees are from poor countries (in Asia, Latin America, and Africa) that have inexpensive, non-Moslem, English speaking skilled labor. In some cases, non-Americans are hired for political reasons. Ironically, this has benefited Colombia, where early American training efforts were limited (by American law) to using no more than to 400 U.S. troops and 400 U.S. civilian contractors. That problem was solved by hiring non-American civilians (often ex-military Latin Americans) to help out.

There were plenty of skilled military people available for hire. In the U.S. (and the West) many military personnel take advantage of the twenty year retirement system. This was first introduced by the Romans two thousand years ago and used by many other nations since to give veterans a goal and keep the force young. But until recently, twenty years of military service left most men in no condition for further service. The 20th century changed that, with thousands of very experienced, highly trained, and still physically fit soldiers retiring each year while still in their late 30s or early 40s. The pension isn't really enough to live on, and those retirees with experience in combat jobs don't have many other options to get top dollar for their skills. Many of these men are attracted to high-paying security jobs, which have become more abundant since 2001. But there is also a  demand for highly skilled combat troops to help provide security for companies operating in rough parts of the world. This makes retired commandos a hot commodity. But any retired soldier has lucrative opportunities for mercenary work. The American firm MPRI (which, aptly enough, stands for Military Professional Resources, Inc.) was founded in 1988, to make use of these fit and highly skilled retirees. MPRI was one of the first to recruit heavily among recent retirees. MPRIs troops were used only for training foreign armies and providing security, which is still a big business for mercenaries. After 2001, other companies were found to provide experienced combat personnel for security work, not just training.

Security has long been a major industry that attracted retired military personnel. The change in the last decade was the recruiting of elite combat troops for service as elite security personnel. In Britain recent retirees from the SAS (British commandos) are still in big demand. Such big demand that some recruiters have enticed SAS men to resign (which is allowed in the British volunteer services) and double or triple their pay applying their skills to provide better security for large corporations or senior government officials working in combat zones.

Before it was shut down (for political, not legal, reasons) by the South African government, Executive Outcomes showed it was possible to quickly, and with few casualties, bring African type civil wars to a halt and allow peacekeepers to get to work. Executive Outcomes recruited heavily among black and white veterans of the South African security forces. Many of these troops found themselves unemployed when the white minority gave up power in the early 1990s. So, Executive Outcomes was able to hire men expert in dealing with African irregulars. This, understandably, made the new, black run South African government a little nervous. Many nations are fearful of highly professional, and effective, mercenary companies. The UN has condemned them, for many members see themselves as very vulnerable to a few hundred well trained mercenaries.

While the UN has long opposed mercenaries, more and more people in the UN are pointing out that the only inexpensive, and certain, solution to a lot of the nasty wars going on around the world is mercenaries. Not the undisciplined and rapacious mercenaries of old but the small, well trained, led, and highly effective organizations or former soldiers and commandos. The political hassles of getting UN members to provide less well trained and led troops wastes time and allows the killing to go on in the many war zones that blight the planet. "Private armies" have never been popular, because they often become the basis for tyranny and warlord power. But the current crew of mercenaries consider themselves as another type of service industry and work within the system. Just another form of professional services, so to speak.

Highly professional mercenaries are nothing new. For thousands of years there have been highly professional mercenaries available. They have gone out of fashion in the last few centuries. But mercenaries have never disappeared from the scene for long, and it looks like they are coming back.




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