Most of the 20-plus suspects arrested in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse as part of an attempted coup appear to be from outside the country, with no known connection to the nation’s politics or military. Authorities believe a wealthy Haitian-American doctor contracted a “private army” of former Colombian soldiers through a Miami security firm, Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU) Security, owned by a Venezuelan-American businessman.
The incident has renewed concerns over the shadowy, unregulated trade of professional militaries — companies staffed by veteran fighters from armed forces around the world that provide private security to the ultra-rich and powerful, various nations, and sometimes to warlords, arms traders, and aspiring dictators.
The New York Times reported last month that in 2017 an Arkansas private security firm provided paramilitary training to four Saudis who were part of the team that killed and dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi the following year. Erik Prince, founder of the controversial security firm formerly known as Blackwater, sought to have his close ally President Donald Trump turn over much of the war in Afghanistan to his private air force for a $5 billion fee.
While international law prohibits the use of mercenaries in armed conflicts, many countries, including the U.S., employ security contractors to fill noncombatant roles. Others, like Russia, which deploys professional fighters in a dozen countries, including the Donbas region, Syria, Libya, and the Central African Republic, use them to bolster their own uniformed troops and cut costs.
Paul Kolbe is director of the Intelligence Project at the Belfer Center at Harvard Kennedy School. He held numerous senior leadership positions overseas and in the U.S. during his distinguished 25-year career with the CIA, and he shared with the Gazette what’s known and not known about the private security industry.
GAZETTE: The group who allegedly stormed the presidential palace and killed Moïse has been referred to as a “private army” because they were hired guns. What did they look like to you?
KOLBE: On Haiti, this looks to me less like a private army (i.e., professional military contractors like Blackwater, Wagner Group, Triple Canopy), and more like a pretty shambolic set of former military types assembled for a specific operation via a sketchy security firm, [similar to] the feckless effort to overthrow [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro last year.
Wagner Group is essentially a state-sponsored private army, which Russia has used as a GRU proxy in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Central African Republic. [GRU is an acronym for Russia’s largest foreign intelligence agency.] It poses as a security contractor, but the main driver is geopolitical, not commercial, and they provide direct combat support. The former Blackwater and its successors rode the post-9/11 security contracting gravy train. Those lucrative Iraq and Afghanistan contracts have significantly declined with the sector since consolidating. Last I checked, Erik Prince has started a Hong Kong-based company, Frontier Services Group, which is doing business with China (Belt and Road project security). He famously had proposed to the Trump administration privatization of the war in Afghanistan.
All this to say that I’m not sure that there has been a proliferation of private armies, but mercenaries and companies that supply them have long been a factor in conflicts where governments want to hide their involvement, or which offer rich commercial prizes. It runs hand in hand with the illicit arms trade.