British Mercenaries and Colombian Cartels


    British mercenaries arrived twice in Colombia in a 3-year period with the objective of targeting FARC headquarters and Pablo Escobar. Aid from the Medellin Cartel, Colombian Armed Forces and the Cali Cartel provided the sponsorship needed to carry out each task.

    The rise of guerrillas like the ELN, FARC or M-19 in Colombia in the 1960’s simultaneously drove the rise of paramilitary defence groups and militias. Organised defence militias were a direct response to a demand for increased security against communist-inspired guerrillas. A conflict which involved governmental, non-governmental and organised crime groups (OGCs) attracted the presence of ex-SAS British paramilitaries to Colombia. Firstly, to target FARC headquarters, and later to target Pablo Escobar directly in his residency, Hacienda Napoles.

    • British mercenaries remained under the operational control of drug cartels during the 2 attempted missions in Colombia
    • The liaison officer that connected the Escobar-led Medellin Cartel with British Mercenaries later provided the same connections to the Cali Cartel
    • Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) almost certainly had the most significant impact regarding operations ran by the British Mercenaries. While aerial photographs were turned into actionable intelligence

    British Mercenaries and Colombian Cartels Targeted home of Pablo Escobar (Mealees & Tomkins)

    Colombian Context

    Colombia saw a rise in Marxist guerrilla organisations in the 1960’s following legal adjustments which legalised civil defence organisations. Guerrillas like M19, FARC or the ELN led to the rise of counter-defence militias, commonly structured by rural and community members. In Puerto Boyacá, groups of farmers and herders rallied together to counter insurgencies through a centralised body, called Peasant, Farmer and Herder Association of Magdalena Medio (ACDEGAM).

    Created in 1982 in Medellín, the organisation likely contributed to the paramilitarism which eventually provided an opportunity for British mercenaries to participate within the conflict.

    Protest against FARC and paramilitaries in Medellín

    In 1981, guerrilla kidnappings targeting the

    led to the creation of Muerte A Secuestradores (MAS – “Death to Kidnappers), an organisation with intended in targeting capabilities and activities of insurgent guerrillas. Members of the Colombian armed forces, in rejection to a governmental negotiation-approach with guerrillas, contributed with logistical support to the movement through any means possible.

    British mercenaries were exposed and contributed to different waves of violence that affected Colombia, simultaneously supporting both CGO’s, governments and paramilitary defence organisations. Peter Mcaleese, David Tomkins and the rest of the company highlight the degree to which contractual security and military capability became normalised during the period in Colombia. In particular considering the presence of Israeli paramilitary contractors prior to the arrival of the British mercenaries.

    Methodology & Tactics

    Mcaleese, a former SAS-regiment infantry soldier, served as a private mercenary in 3 different scenarios, Angola, Rhodesia and South Africa. Tomkins, expert in explosives, began to traffic weapons after an injury in Angola, where both mercenaries met. In particular, experience in guerrilla tactics in the Rhodesian Bush War, along with contacts in the arms trade made by Tomkins, led to the approach of Salcedo along with an invitation to Colombia.

    12 members were recruited by Mcaleese, including Tomkins, to target FARC headquarters ‘Casa Verde’. Salcedo, acting as a liaison officer, connected the party to a Colombian Army Sergeant, whose participation along with the armed forces remained anonymous due to political currents favouring dialogue and integration.

    Training initially settled near Puerto Boyacá, and moved along different locations as demanded. Intelligence gathered through air-reconnaissance led to an assault-proposal by Mcaleese and his crew. Armed with German G-3 rifles, the British mercenaries carried out attack-training routines and simultaneously instructed additional recruits provided by ACDEGAM.

    Still, it is likely that the mercenaries also trained cartel members as well as members of MAS. Funded by the Medellin Cartel, the party failed to provide regularity in objectives, training and capabilities, eventually calling off the attack. Mercenaries provided training capability to paramilitary soldiers in Colombia under the direction of the armed forces, the Medellin cartel and the ACDEGAM, although Casa Verde was never targeted. This makes it likely that attacking Casa Verde was not as important as obtaining capabilities for any type of offensive or defensive scenario.

    The second party consisted of 16 members. This time, due to funding and complete control by the Cali Cartel, resources and methodology was clearer. IMINT was gathered on Escobar’s home, as well as surrounding areas relevant to the operation. The tactic was to approach Escobar’s home in 2 helicopters, the Hughes 500 and Bell 240, and eliminate the leader of the cartel as well as his security detail and defences.

    M16’s, grenades, M72 rockets and PE4 explosives were obtained to target an estimated 70 armed individuals within Escobar’s home. While the mission failed due to a helicopter crash during the operation, the degree of preparation and willingness was almost certainly higher than when FARC’s headquarters were the “objective”.

    Cartel-funded, Different Objectives

    Both mercenaries led by Mcaleese with the liaison between Tomkins and Salcedo were sponsored by Cartels through different means. The FARC-training operation was dually supported by the Medellin Cartel, ACDEGAM and the Colombian Armed Forces. On the other hand, the Cali Cartel controlled the entire Escobar operation and provided more resources in a more efficient manner.

    Despite similar capabilities, that training in Puerto Boyacá and residing in a Medellin-Cartel controlled area by the Magdalena river highly likely provided an opportunity for the British mercenaries to exploit inside intelligence and use it against Escobar in 1989. 

    The environment in Colombia with the rise of guerrillas and paramilitary organisations like MAS or the British Mercenaries was exploited in a different manner by each Cartel. As a consequence, the purpose of Mcaleese, Tomkins and the other individuals was significantly different in each mission in Colombia. While Casa Verde was targeted, training and added capabilities were the only real value which the Medellin Cartél obtained from the mercenaries. Instead, the Escobar attack was trained in multiple scenarios from Cali to La Guagua at Rio Manguido.

    The anonymity of the Colombian Armed Forces likely hindered the operation and specially its resolution. Still, higher support from the Cali Cartel as well as added capabilities from the Cali KGB, meant that the second operation in Colombia likely had increased chances of success.

    Iñigo Camilleri De Castanedo
    Iñigo Camilleri De Castanedo
    Iñigo is a graduate in psychology specialised in decision-making. He is currently finishing a postgraduate in Politics and History, with particular interests focused on intelligence, non-state actors and information warfare.

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