Monday, September 10, 2007
Colombia, Israel and Rogue Mercenaries
By John C. K. Daly
Outside assistance with Colombian 'counterinsurgency' efforts in the form
of Israeli 'expertise' has created dangerous rogue mercenaries and prolonged a bloody conflict.
Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos has acknowledged that Bogota had quietly hired
a group of former Israeli military officers to advise local defense officials on their counter-insurgency tactics against
leftist Fuerza Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, the Colombian daily Semana newspaper reported
on 10 August.
FARC - founded in 1964 and the Western hemisphere's longest-running guerrilla movement - countered
that Israeli mercenary commandos were actually involved in combat against their insurgents in Colombia's jungles.
The Israeli advisors - reportedly consisting of three senior generals, a lower ranking officer,
an unnamed Argentinean officer and three translators - were hired under a reported US$10 million contract by the Colombian
Defense Ministry to advise on how to improve the army's intelligence gathering capabilities. Santos reportedly approached
former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami last year about the deal.
The Israeli group operates from Tolemaida in Cundinamarca Department, 240 kilometers from the
capital Bogota, where the Colombian army runs its "Lancero" counterinsurgency-training course, with Colombian army instructors
being assisted by US military personnel.
The Israeli forces specialize in debriefing former guerrillas; previously, civil servants without
specialized knowledge handled the interrogations, while the Israelis provide specialized interrogation techniques to improve
the flow of intelligence from the de-briefings.
The program has its critics, many of whom wonder why the government did not resort to private
groups or the US or the UK, which already cooperate with Bogota on intelligence matters. The government's explanation is that
the Israeli mission is highly specialized.
However, Colombian security expert Laude Fernandez is not convinced. "It would have had been
better to rely on the British, who have a good system of intelligence and a better standard in human rights," Fernandez told
the Colombian daily Semana on 4 August.
But Deputy Defense Minister Sergio Jaramillo said the Israelis' assistance was invaluable: "They
are like psychoanalysts; they ask us the material questions and help us see all the problems we weren't aware of before,"
according a 10 August report from the Israeli news service Ynet.
Israeli assistance: Gray areas
Israel is now Colombia's top weapons supplier, with the bulk of the armaments being used against
FARC and another leftist group, the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (National Liberation Army or ELN). Israeli weaponry
includes drones, light arms and ammunition, surveillance and communication systems and specialized bombs capable of destroying
The irony is that Colombia's armed forces occasionally clash with right-wing paramilitaries and
drug cartel gunmen trained in the late 1980s by rogue Israeli mercenaries, one of whom was detained in Russia earlier this
week on an Interpol warrant.
The news throws a most unwelcome spotlight on the Colombian government's efforts to avail itself
of Israeli expertise. In 1987, right-wing paramilitaries hired Israeli former Lieutenant Colonel reservist Yair Klein and
members of his private "security" company Hod He'hanitin (Spearhead Ltd.) as advisors on the country's leftist insurgency
with tacit approval from the government of President Virgilio Barco Vargas.
Klein's activities two decades ago now have caught up with him. On 27 August, Klein was detained
at Moscow's Domodedovo airport on an Interpol warrant issued by Colombia after attempting to board a flight bound for Tel
Aviv with an altered passport after apparently attending to Spearhead Ltd. business in Moscow.
A spokesman for the Russian Interior Ministry told journalists in Moscow that the Prosecutor-General's
Office had received an official request from Colombia on 29 August asking for the arrest and extradition of Klein.
Klein is wanted by Colombia's law enforcement agencies after being convicted for training a terrorist
group in 1990 - a group supported by Colombian drug dealers. The former Israeli army lieutenant colonel was convicted of terrorist
activities and the training of gunmen from among local residents on territory not under the control of the official authorities."
Colombian Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo told reporters that Bogota would formally petition
Russia for Klein's extradition, while Moscow has said little outside of acknowledging the request.
The Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz reported on 29 August that Klein was being detained
based on Israeli police data, which informed Colombia of Klein's intention to return to Israel from Russia. The press secretary
of the Israeli Embassy in Moscow, Aleks Goldman-Shaiman, told the daily that the embassy was currently negotiating for access
Following news of Klein's detention, Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos said, "Hopefully
they'll hand [Klein] over to us so he can rot in jail for all the damage he's caused Colombia," local newspapers reported.
Klein was a former paratrooper and commando in the Israeli Army who left military service in
1985. His involvement in Colombia's interminable guerrilla war began in 1987 when Colombia's former justice minister Jose
Manuel Arias Carrizosa approached Israeli contacts. Carrizosa had been named president of the Asociacion de Bananeros de
Colombia (AUGURA), and its members in Uniban, Colombia's main banana and plantain export company, were looking for a way
to cope with extortion by FARC guerrillas.
Contacts were made with former Israeli Defense Force (IDF) Lieutenant Colonel Yitzhak "Mariot"
Shoshani, who in turn recommended Klein. Shoshani was well-known to the Colombian military, as he had represented Israel's
ISREX company. ISREX, founded in 1968, had sold military goods to Colombian armed forces for many years.
In emphasizing its Latin American connections the company states on its website: "ISREX conducts
its business and marketing through its wholly owned subsidiaries - Isrex Argentina (2000), Isrex Peru and Isrex International
SA, as well as through delegations and associated companies such as Istelcom Do Brazil (Brazil) and others."
Over the next two years, Klein and his personnel trained right-wing vigilante paramilitaries
belonging to affluent landowners, who would eventually become the nucleus of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC.)
AUC quickly moved beyond its original intent of providing protection to wealthy landowners to
becoming deeply involved in drug trafficking, and had support from elements in the army and the police, and Klein apparently
shifted to providing expertise to the drug traffickers as well.
Dealing with devils
Klein was hardly the sole Israeli that the Colombian government was dealing with at the time.
In April 1988, Israel agreed to purchase two million tons of Colombian coal over the next three years, while Colombia committed
itself to buying 14 Israeli Kfir fighters for US$60 million from the Israel Security Defense System company.
The coalescence of the landowners' vigilante groups into AUC and its deepening involvement in
the cocaine trade eventually troubled the US and became a liability, as many AUC leaders were either wanted in the US on drugs
charges or accused of serious human rights violations.
Like the AUC members, Klein's drift into the drug trade eventually transformed him from a foreign
advisor approved by the government into a rogue criminal. Colombian lawyers in 1988 asserted that he was allegedly one of
four Israelis hired by drug trafficker Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha. Rodriguez (also known as "El Mexicano") died in a shootout
with Colombian security forces in December 1989. He was one of the Medellin cartel's most violent bosses.
According to a Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad report, beginning in December 1987, Rodriguez
hired both Israeli and British ex-Special Air Services mercenaries to train his personnel.
Klein eventually acknowledged having led a team of instructors for Rodriguez's forces in Puerto
Boyaca in early 1988. A subsequent search of Rodriguez's home uncovered 200 Israeli assault rifles, which the Israeli government
stated were part of a 400-weapon contingent that they had sold to Antigua's government, which had apparently then been transferred
to the Medellin cartel.
Colombian internal security chief General Miguel Marquez in 1989 publicly named Klein as training
and providing arms to the Medellin cartel's sicarios (death squads). Colombian authorities assert that Klein was also
involved in training the security detail of Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, head of the Medellin cocaine cartel in the 1980s.
Escobar was killed in 1993.
Freelance Israeli activities in Colombia apparently did not end with Klein, as in May 2000 Colombian
intelligence arrested two Israelis and a Colombian suspected of attempting to smuggle more than 50,000 weapons to guerrillas.
In 1990, an Israeli court convicted Klein after he pled guilty to illegally exporting military
arms and information to Colombian insurgents and fined him US$13,400. Serving a year in prison, Klein denied all charges,
but worse was to come when in 1998 the Colombian judiciary officially indicted Klein on charges of training illegal paramilitary
Klein next surfaced in Sierra Leone, where in 1999 he was arrested on charges of smuggling weapons
to rebels there and served a 16-month prison sentence, after which he fled to Israel. Two years later, a Colombian court convicted
Klein in absentia of training paramilitaries and drug cartel gunmen and sentenced him to ten years in prison.
Earlier this year, Klein's Colombian shenanigans attracted the attention of Interpol, which on
3 April responded to a Colombian request and issued an international arrest warrant for Klein and Israeli nationals Melnik
Ferri and Tzedaka Abraham, with the warrants alleging that the trio was involved in criminal conspiracy and instruction in
The Colombian government has made persistent but unsuccessful attempts to extradite Klein from
Israel. In a March interview with Colombia's private Caracol TV channel, Klein asserted that the Colombian police sought his
assistance in order to train its members, and in an extraordinary display of chutzpah, stated he would like to return to Colombia
in order to assist Colombian security forces in neutralizing FARC guerillas.
Military options not a solution
Justice will apparently come slowly, as the head of Colombia's DAS intelligence agency, Andres
Penate, who is involved in Klein's detention, said his extradition could take up to a year.
There are a few glimmers of hope in this grim picture. Since 2004, AUC paramilitaries have largely
honored a ceasefire and thousands have handed in their weapons, but President Alvaro Uribe has come in for harsh criticism
for granting too many concessions to the right-wing paramilitaries.
Two issues seem to emerge from this convoluted situation. First, after 40 years of conflict,
a political situation addressing the insurgency seems to be the best hope for ending the conflict. The timeline parallels
that of the British presence in Northern Ireland, which eventually produced such an outcome.
Secondly, "outside" assistance, whether in the form of financial assistance or military expertise,
has not produced a solution, but instead seems to have prolonged the conflict. As distasteful as it might be to the Uribe
administration, discussing the issues fueling the conflict might lead to a cessation of hostilities, since military options
have at best produced a stalemate and created rogue mercenaries providing expertise that, far from ending the conflict, prolonged
Dr. John C. K. Daly is a Washington
DC-based consultant and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.
This article was originally published
at ISN Security Watch (09/03/07).
The International Relations and Security Network (ISN) is a free public service that provides a wide range of high-quality
and comprehensive products and resources to encourage the exchange of information among international relations and security
Reprinted with permission from ISN.