Colombian soldiers are making appearances as hired guns across the globe – whether by official agreement as instructors or as more traditional fighting mercenaries for foreign states. These soldiers, trained by institutions under the tutelage of U.S. instructors, offer a desirable and large fount of trained manpower for those with money seeking to build or augment their military capabilities. Could the Colombian soldier of today shape the world of tomorrow as a mercenary by intensifying conflicts or granting states or private organizations the means to questionable ends?
Colombia, the north Andean country at the top of South America has been embroiled in a bloody internal conflict for more than half a century. Colombia’s military and security forces have grown rapidly as the fighting against drug cartels, revolutionary quasi-drug cartels and counter-revolutionary quasi-drug cartels escalated. Colombia’s security forces are bolstered by conscription – all adult male Colombians, with exceptions based on conditions such as university enrollment, are eligible to be conscripted for a period of 24 months.
In the past decade, the two largest armed groups have disbanded and come to agreement with the government, at least on paper. In 2006 the Paramilitaries, originally rooted in civilian self-defense groups which sprung up to combat the predations of the FARC, demobilized as part of a government sponsored plan. Recently, a peace deal has been settled with the FARC. This has left Colombia, still facing massive internal security and stability problems, with a relatively large and powerful military.
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Studying the fallout of demobilization, collapse and disbandment on the profusion of freelance soldiers is not new, However, in Colombia’s situation, the military is not facing drastic reductions. Rather, as the conflict winds down and the pool of trained former soldiers expands the incentives for the Colombian soldiers and for foreign employers to seek to collaborate increases.
The incentives of mercenary work also extend to active Colombian soldiers and, particularly, special forces. Colombian officials have expressed concern that foreign entities offering compensation far outstripping what the Colombian government can offer could lead to a drain of professional troops from critical areas and leave formerly elite commands with manpower shortages. Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas, according to Bloomberg, claims that Colombia’s elite troops are being drawn away from the Colombian government to lucrative contracts in the Middle East and beyond.
Undoubtedly the demand for Colombian mercenaries will only increase given their apparent success under Saudi command in Yemen. Colombia, still facing the threat of BACRIM, a multitude of large, well-armed criminal organizations, desperately need to maintain its military in fighting shape. A peace deal with the FARC is a majorvictory but it does not signal the end of the Colombian conflict.
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Colombian troops have recently been employed as official advisors and instructors for foreign militaries in South and Central America and even West Africa. Colombia’s elite troops, often considered on par with U.S. special forces in terms of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations, are being used to bolster global counterterror efforts. Some have speculated that Colombia plays a valuable role as a close ally of the U.S. by acting as a proxy where the involvement of U.S. troops is unfeasible, prohibitively expensive or political unworkable. One way or another, South America’s most experienced military is having an impact on global affairs. Whether this will contribute to or detract from global and regional stability has yet to be seen.