Mercenaries at large in Colombia

Gustavo Capdevila

Mercenaries hired by private military and security companies are playing an increasingly broad range of roles in Latin America, such as guarding mines, borders, prisons, and now humanitarian aid, said the members of the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries at a meeting in Geneva. At the same time, some 3,000 Latin Americans, mainly Chileans, Peruvians, Colombians and Hondurans, are serving as mercenaries in conflict zones in Iraq. Assistance provided by a commando made up of former Israeli military intelligence experts has also helped the Colombian government deal heavy blows to the left-wing guerrillas, said Amada Benavídes de Pérez from Colombia, one of the five members of the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination.

The Working Group, created in 2005 by the UN Human Rights Commission (subsequently replaced by the UN Council on Human Rights), discussed the possibility of drawing up new international legal instruments to regulate the growing activities of private military and security companies, at their meeting last week. The use of mercenaries contravenes the United Nations International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, which entered into force in 2001. Colombia is the most critical case of the use of mercenaries in Latin America, said Benavídes, the former dean of the Human Rights Faculty at the Higher School of Public Administration in her country.

Information gathered by a group of Colombian academics from several universities and by non-governmental organisations has produced data from the victims themselves about what is really happening with regard to the use of mercenaries in Colombia, Benavídes said. Services provided by private military and security companies cover a variety of roles. First, there are the companies working in-country within the framework of the US-financed and designed Plan Colombia, a counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategy.

Under Plan Colombia, 25 foreign companies are active in the country, employing 800 people as “private contractors” — mainly US citizens of Latin American origin, said Benavídes.

A second type of mercenary presence in Colombia is the mostly US and British companies that provide security services for foreign extractive industries, mainly oil firms but also mining companies. There are risks involved in these activities because they are often carried out on lands belonging to indigenous or other local communities. The private security companies prevent access to these lands, and even access to water, Benavídes said. Colombia is a case in point, because it has regulations for national private security companies, but none at all for foreign companies of the same kind, Benavides said.

An outstanding problem related to mercenaries is how to classify members of the far-right paramilitary groups that have been heavily active in Colombia in recent decades. Benavídes said that strictly speaking, paramilitaries cannot be mercenaries because they are not foreigners. However, she acknowledged that the majority of contractors working for private companies providing security to oil and mining firms are Colombian nationals.