From the FARC to the Houthis

New recruits. Bogota, 2011.

Some 3,000 Colombian nationals have gone to fight and, if it comes to it, die in defense of the UAE since 2011. Of this number, at least 300 are now serving in Yemen at the Port of Aden. What distinguishes these men in Yemen from the UAE’s other “guest workers,” though, is that they will be offered citizenship, a rare privilege not often extended to other expatriate communities.

Such rewards, alongside high salaries and benefits for dependents, go a long way in explaining why so many officers are resigning their commissions or coming out of retirement to serve under Emirati colours.

Israeli, British, and American personnel often trained these soldiers before they left Colombian service; contractors in the UAE have supplied further training upon arrival. One such contractor is Reflex Responses (R2), the first to bring Colombian recruits to the UAE en masse.

Erik Prince, of Blackwater fame, set it up in 2011, as a 51% locally-owned firm to limit his liabilities. British, Australian, French, and American nationals have also been recruited, but as with the Occupation of Iraq, nationals from Latin American countries are overly represented because they can earn at least five times as much a month overseas than at home. Indeed, there are so many Spanish-speaking nationals (50,000) working the Persian Gulf region today that there is now a Spanish-language newspaper, El Correo Del Golfo serving this fast-growing expatriate community.

This heavy recruiting is a serious concern, and an embarrassment, for Colombia’s armed forces. In June 2013, an official document detailing these concerns about a bidding war for soldiers’ service was leaked to a Colombian TV station, Noticias Uno. Addressed to the then-special forces commander of the army by Major General Juan Pablo Rodríguez Barragán, now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the memo outlined steps to deal with “the problems raised by the exodus of [1,400] personnel” to date.

Yet the same memo also outlined ways that Colombia could help the UAE with further recruiting efforts. Although one key recruiter, Colonel Oscar Garcia-Batte, was not named in the report, he has been named elsewhere as a major asset to the Emiratis in pitching to prospective recruits. A decorated counterterrorism officer, he now lives in Dubai, as evidenced by photographs shown of him in Emirati media compared with video footage from Noticias Uno.

With the war in Yemen, and fear of Iranian subversion rising, even more specialists are being recruited. Searches on LinkedIn shows veterans of the Colombian national police, army, air force, and navy working throughout the Emirati security sector.

Even so, the 300 who have gone to Aden represent less than half of the planned force, as many recruits objected to serving outside of the UAE proper. Still, it may not be that difficult to find more volunteers: only one-tenth of all applicants pass muster, according to the Colombian daily El Tiempo. For the hundreds who have been hired annually, thousands more have tried and failed to sell their services to Emirati employers.

Photograph courtesy of Valetina Manjarrez. Published under a Creative Commons license.