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Colombia Says Ex-Military Members Were Among The Commandos In Haiti

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Two Haitian Americans are among the suspects in the assassination of Haiti's president. And the country of Colombia says former members of its military were also among the heavily armed commandos. There's a history of former soldiers from Colombia turning to mercenary work in other countries. With us to talk about this is a former U.S. Army intelligence officer. He's a retired lieutenant colonel who was raised in Colombia and now leads the work of McLarty Associates in northern Latin America. Stephen Donehoo, welcome.

STEPHEN DONEHOO: Good morning.

PFEIFFER: These mercenaries, as I've been reading, can be found all over the world, not just in South America but in the United Arab Emirates. What makes the Colombian, basically, hired killers so popular in particular?

DONEHOO: I wouldn't call them hired killers, but the Colombian armed forces are among the best warriors in Latin America in large part because of the training and combat expertise they have. And they're some of the best intelligence operators, as well. Many countries use hired security forces to protect their deployed installations in different parts of the world, including the United States and different countries in the Gulf. And they do that because it's much, much cheaper to be able to hire security firms to provide base security, to provide all of the administrative, you know, food service, vehicle maintenance. All of that stuff is cheaper to contract out than to have your own forces that are much more expensive and that imply having more of a footprint in a country. So that's why Colombians who have been trained by the U.S., by the British, by the Israelis, who have a tremendous amount of international experience, having served in Korea during the the '50s and the Suez in '65 - they've had a multinational battalion as part of the Sinai observer force for almost 40 years. They've got a lot of experience. They've been fighting an internal insurgency for more than 40 years. They know what they're doing. They're very good, and they're inexpensive.

PFEIFFER: You said you would not call them hired killers, but what kind of jobs would they take? And could they sometimes include assassinations?

DONEHOO: I don't think they do include assassinations. They include security for VIPs, security for installations. I think we have we have hired Colombians through different security firms, both U.S. and others, to do anti-mine operations because of their experience in Colombia in clearing minefields. These people are professionals, and they - like in the United States, where even in the Washington, D.C., area, we have civilian police guarding our military installations around Washington. These are people who can do a job much less expensively than having active duty armed forces doing these kinds of functions. So providing base security guards at gates and entrances - that's the kind of thing that you would normally expect these people to be hired to do.

PFEIFFER: I don't want you to speculate on what's happening or what happened in Haiti, and I'm sure you don't want to, either. But is it possible that, sometimes, they don't know what jobs they're signing up for in advance? Because some of these alleged mercenaries reportedly told their families they'd be doing bodyguard work, but, of course, someone showed up dead. Could things just have gone south in the execution of the project?

DONEHOO: It's really hard to tell at this point what actually happened. And I have a lot of confidence in both the U.S. and Colombian investigators that have been sent to Haiti to try to figure this out. But sure, we had a case just in the last year where some former U.S. Special Forces operators got involved in an operation in Venezuela where they were clearly hoodwinked by the people who hired them. So it's not out of the norm to think that something may have gone awry and that they were hired to do one thing and then ended up doing something else. The ability to deploy a platoon-sized element of heavily armed people, supported with heavy weapons, with ammunition, with a number of vehicles and housing - that takes some planning and somebody that locally had support to be able to pull this off. You don't move 28 heavily armed people across two or three borders without having support.

PFEIFFER: in the brief time we have left, is there anything that keeps former U.S. military personnel from being hired for operations like this?

DONEHOO: Well, it depends on what the operation is. But for security operations, no. If it has to do with assassination or overturning a country's government, then we have laws that prohibit U.S. persons from engaging in that kind of activity.

PFEIFFER: Retired Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Donehoo of McLarty Associates, thank you.

DONEHOO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.