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Colombia, Israel and rogue mercenaries

by ISN Security Watch Thursday, Sep. 06, 2007 at 11:17 PM

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 terrorism.

Outside assistance with Colombian 'counterinsurgency' efforts in the form of Israeli 'expertise' has created dangerous rogue mercenaries and prolonged a bloody conflict.

03 September 2007

By John C K Daly for ISN Security Watch (03/09/07)

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 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, the interrogations were handled by civil servants without specialized knowledge, 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 coca fields.

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 said 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 to Klein.

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 tonnes of Colombian coal over the next three years, while Colombia committed itself to buying 14 Israeli Kfir fighters for US 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 Medelin 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 Medelin cocaine cartel in the 1980s. Gaviria 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,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 units.

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 10 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 terrorism.

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 seem 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 it.

Dr John C K Daly is a Washington DC-based consultant and an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.

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