The United Arab Emirates has quietly built an army of Latin American mercenaries to fight for Yemen’s deposed government in a proxy war that has drawn in both the United States and Iran.
In a program launched by Blackwater founder Erik Prince and now run by the Emirati military, the force of 450 Latin American troops – mostly made up of Colombian fighters, but also including Chileans, Panamanians and Salvadorans – adds a new and surprising element to the already chaotic mix of forces from foreign governments, armed tribes, terrorist networks and Yemeni militias that are currently embroiled in the Middle Eastern nation.
It is also an insight into how many wealthy Arab nations could wage their wars in the near future – especially in places like Yemen, Libya and Syria – as they deal with standing militaries unused to long-term, sustained warfare and populations that for the most part have little interest in military service.
"Mercenaries are an attractive option for rich countries that wish to wage war yet whose citizens may not want to fight," Sean McFate, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of "The Modern Mercenary," told the New York Times.
He added: "The private military industry is global now," adding that the U.S. "legitimized" the industry with its heavy reliance on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan over more than a decade of war in those countries. "Latin American mercenaries are a sign of what’s to come."
The most recent group of Latin American soldiers to land in Yemen came from the ranks of about 1,800 currently training in the desert in the United Arab Emirates. They have been issued dog tags and ranks with the Emirati military, while the rest of the Latin American troops are being trained to use grenade launchers and armored vehicles.
The exact mission of the mercenaries in Yemen is still unclear, and it could be weeks before they see actual combat, but the troops have joined with Sudanese soldiers recruited by Saudi Arabia to fight in the coalition against the Iranian-backed Houthi Shiite rebels.
The use of mercenaries was originally proposed for domestic missions in the U.A.E., like guarding pipelines and possibly as crowd control in riots that break out in the camps housing foreign workers. Their deployment to Yemen is currently the only external mission such troops have been given besides providing security on commercial cargo vessels.
Emirati officials wanted Colombian mercenaries above those from other countries because they felt that they are the most battle-tested given Colombia’s long-running conflict with leftist guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).
Most of the recruiting of former Colombian troops is being done by Global Enterprises, a Colombian company run by a former special operations commander named Oscar García Batte, who is also co-commander of the brigade of Colombian troops in the Emirates.
The troops are recruited by the promise of higher wages than they could make in Colombia. The Emirati troops earn salaries ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 a month, compared with approximately $400 a month soldiers in Colombia receive, and those who deploy to Yemen will receive an additional $1,000 a week.
Emirati officials have also doled out millions of dollars to equip the unit with firearms and armored vehicles, as well as communications systems and night-vision technology.
"These great offers, with good salaries and insurance, got the attention of our best soldiers," Jaime Ruíz, the president of Colombia’s Association of Retired Armed Forces Officials, told the Times.