Mercenaries in Yemen–the U.S. Connection
By Laura Carlsen
Latin American mercenaries are leaving the ranks
of the national armies of their countries to fight in the deserts of
Yemen, wearing the uniform of the United Arab Emirates. They have
been contracted by private US companies and in some cases directly
by the government of the Arab country, which, thanks to vast oil
reserves, has the second largest economy of the region.
article in the New York Times revealed that 450 Latin American
soldiers, among them Colombians, Panamanians, Salvadorans and
Chileans, have been deployed to Yemen. The mercenaries receive
training in the United Arab Emirates before deployment, in part from
The presence of Latin American mercenaries in the
Middle East is not new. Colombian news media
have interviewed mercenaries returning from the Middle East for
years. They tell of being recruited by transnational companies with
promises of salaries far beyond what they’d receive at home.
However, the conflict in Yemen seems to be the first time that Latin
American mercenaries have been sent into combat.
Colombia contributes the largest number. According
to the New York Times, the UAE military recruits Colombians because
of their experience fighting the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC) in the jungles and mountains of their country. But
there is another reason.
Since the beginning of Plan Colombia, between 2000
and 2015 the U.S. spent almost $7 billion to train, advise and equip
Colombia’s security forces. In the last few years, the U.S.
carried out a strategy to prepare the Colombians for an emerging
industry: the “export of security.”
And apparently, one way to export security is to
become a U.S.-trained mercenary for Washington’s wars in other parts
of the world.
Colombian troops, drilled in counterterrorism and
counterinsurgency techniques, instead of exporting security are
exporting the United States’ geopolitical agenda of permanent war.
They end up doing the dirty work of their ally to the north, who, as
a consequence, avoids exposing its forces to harm or facing
accusations of interventionism.
According to analyst William Hartung, the United
States government has trained a total of 30,000 soldiers from the
four countries that make up the Latin American mercenary force in
recent investigative report from El Salvador cites a Ministry of
Defense source affirming that there are about 100 Salvadorans
operating in Yemen. While the Colombians claim to have contracts
directly with the Emirati military, in El Salvador the source states
that contracting goes through a national company subcontracted by
Northrup Grumman has a history in the Middle East
Forbes reports that it absorbed an obscure company called
Vinnelli that holds a $819 million-dollar contract to provide
personnel for the Saudi National Guard, dating back to 1975.
The same Salvadoran source affirms that there are
also Mexicans in Yemen. Mexico was not included in the New York
Times report, but has a close relationship with the United States
security complex through the war on drugs.
It cannot be known for sure if the hundreds of
Latin American mercenaries were trained in the United States or by
the U.S. military in their own countries. The U.S. government does
not reveal the names of the soldiers or police that it has trained.
Nor is there a public registry of mercenaries. Although the practice
is legal in certain contexts, it forms part of the underground world
of war, in which shadow powers dictate the conditions in which we
live–and often die.
What is certain is that contracting Latin American
mercenaries follows the logic of the new style of war designed by
the Pentagon. This strategy reduces risks to U.S. troops, increases
civilian deaths and feeds war profits. Drones–unmanned
airplanes–kill thousands of civilians without risking a single life
on the part of the aggressors. They’re shielded from the blood of
their victims and the horror of their screams.
While technology makes long-distance war possible,
another aspect of proxy war is to get others to fight your battles.
A sad reflection of patriarchal violence and economic inequality,
the recruitment of foreign mercenaries is central to modern-day
In the case of Yemen, the populations of the
countries that are involved in the conflict or feel threatened by
it, such as the United Arab Emirates, have no desire to go to war.
In recent months the UAE
has suffered increasing casualities on the ground while the U.S.
and Saudi members of the coalition keep to the skies.
And the United States has strong interests in the
region, but does not want to pay the political price of seeing its
soldiers return home in body bags. The solution? Hire mercenaries
from impoverished Latin American countries.
Recruiting young men from Latin American countries
feeds the U.S. war industry. American companies like Blackwater,
which has changed its name but remains Erik Prince’s empire of
death, and Northrup Grumman, headquartered in Virginia, squeeze more
out of their juicy government contracts by reducing soldiers’ pay.
According to Colombian reports, their mercenaries receive less than
half what European or U.S. soldiers get. Despite the gouging, they
still make on average five times more than what they would earn in
their home countries.
The third and often ignored element of the new
remote-control war is weapons sales. U.S. arms
sales are booming, bringing millions of dollars to the U.S.
defense industry–a powerful lobby in Congress. US strategists
recognize that arms sales effectively advance the geopolitical
agenda by changing the balance of power in strategic conflicts.
The Obama administration has promoted bombings by
the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and
very close relationship with the UAE, which shares its zeal for
eliminating the Islamic State. The administration has now
decided to sell another $1.3 billion dollars worth of weapons to
these countries to replenish supplies. While military aid to allies
(and in not a small number of cases, to both sides of armed
conflicts) has always been a tool of hegemony, arms sales are now
a central strategy.
The Pentagon and its
promoters in Congress openly talk about the advantages of
killing from a distance. Critics cite the many lethal attacks on
civilians, including large numbers of women and children that are
characteristic of this type of war. The
UN calculates that the war in Yemen has already led to the
deaths of 2,500 civilians, among them women and children; almost 500
were killed by U.S. drone strikes.
Now how many will die at the hands of Latin
And how many young men–Colombians, Mexicans,
Salvadorans–will take their last breath in a desert half a world
away, fighting a war that isn’t theirs?
is the director of CIP Americas Program in Mexico City.
This article first appeared on Huffington