British Mercenaries in Colombia: Ex-SAS working for and against the Cartels

1.0 Introduction

In 1989, ex-SAS operative Peter McAleese led a team of British mercenaries on a dangerous and controversial mission in Colombia. Over three years, the team made two risky trips to the country. The Medellin Cartel financed the first operation to attack the FARC headquarters. The Cali Cartel financed the second operation to eliminate Pablo Escobar. Escobar, the leader of the Medellin Cartel, was widely considered the most dangerous individual on the global stage at that time. The Cali Cartel was a rival to Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. The Colombian Armed Forces also assisted the mercenaries to a certain extent. The cartels and army provided financial and logistical support for the missions. 

Both missions failed. The first was never carried out, and the second was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the actors involved, the tactics employed and the objective of both missions had significant repercussions in the field of mercenarism and black operations.

2.0 What Do We Know About the Missions?

The rise of guerrillas like the ELN, FARC or M-19 in Colombia in the 1960s 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. This conflict, which involved governmental, non-governmental and organised crime groups (OGCs), attracted the presence of paramilitaries to Colombia. This included British mercenaries. Firstly, to target FARC headquarters, and later to target Pablo Escobar directly in his residency, Hacienda Napoles. After analysing both missions we can conclude that:

  • British mercenaries remained under the operational control of drug cartels during the 2 attempted missions in Colombia.
  • The liaison officer who connected the Escobar-led Medellin Cartel with British Mercenaries later provided the same connections to the Cali Cartel.
  • Foreign private mercenaries were used because generals could not convince political leaders to attack. Diplomacy was considered more effective at the time. Instead of disobeying their elected leaders, the generals acted behind their backs.
  • Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) significantly impacted operations run by the British Mercenaries. Aerial photographs were turned into actionable intelligence.

3.0 The Colombian Context

In the 1960s, Colombia saw a rise in Marxist guerrilla organisations 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 the “Peasant, Farmer and Herder Association of Magdalena Medio” (ACDEGAM) (source). This group was created in 1982 in Medellín and likely contributed to the paramilitarism which eventually provided an opportunity for British mercenaries to participate in the conflict (source).

In 1981, guerrilla kidnappings led to the creation of “Muerte A Secuestradores” (MAS – “Death to Kidnappers”). MAS targeted the capabilities and activities of insurgent guerrillas Members of the Colombian armed forces, in rejection of a governmental negotiation approach with guerrillas, contributed with logistical support to the movement through any means possible. MAS also received support from drug cartels and US corporations that wanted to protect their economic interests (source; source).

3.1 The Narco War

In the mid to late 1980s, Colombia was even deeper in chaos. This was because powerful rival drug gangs were engaged in a bitter battle that was undermining attempts at a stable government. This was a breeding ground for mercenarism. British mercenaries were no exception since they were exposed and contributed to different waves of violence that affected the country. They simultaneously supported both CGOs, 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 led by Yair Klein, before the arrival of the British mercenaries (source).

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Banner of the February 2008 anti-FARC rallies with slogans in Spanish, English, Dutch, and French. Source.

4.0 Background on the Mercenaries

McAleese enlisted in the army at the age of 17, first in the Parachute Regiment and later joining the elite 22 SAS Regiment. He served in Borneo with the SAS, before leaving the British Army in 1969. In 1976 he became a “mercenary” in the Angolan Civil War, where he fought with the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) (source). A year later, in 1977, he fought in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), with the Rhodesian SAS (A Squadron) during the Rhodesian Bush War. A few years later, in 1979, he joined the British South Africa Police´s Special Branch operating in South Rhodesia. After the fall of Rhodesia, he enlisted with the South African Defense Force´s 44 Parachute Brigade (source).

In 1976 he met Dave Tomkins, an expert in explosives, in Angola. Tomkins was an arms dealer working in the country at the moment they met. They became close friends and in 1988, back in England, Tomkins contacted him about a mission in Colombia. Through a contact in the arms trade, Tomkins had met an officer from the Colombian army, Jorge Salcedo, who had contacts with the Medellin Cartel. He asked him to put together a team to destroy the headquarters of the FARC guerrilla group. The Medellin Cartel considered FARC one of the main enemies of his expanding drug empire. 

Three months later, Salcedo contacted Tomkins again, now working for the Cali Cartel to kill the head of the Medellin Cartel, Pablo Escobar. The Cali Cartel was confident it could kill Escobar as he made his way to his luxury ranch at Hacienda Napoles. McAleese accepted the job and recruited a team of 16 mercenaries, including Tomkins. The assembled teams were made of various forces who had military experience. 

(Source), (source), (source), (source), (source)

Hombre con uniforme militar y sombrero

Descripción generada automáticamente
McAleese in his SAS uniform. Courtesy: Peter McAleese.

5.0 Operation against the FARC

5.1 Planning

In 1988, through a contact in the arms trade, Tomkins met an officer from the Colombian army, Jorge Salcedo. The Medellín Cartel had commissioned Salcedo to form a team to attack the FARC. The plan was to destroy the headquarters of the FARC guerrilla group, which was the competence. The Medellin cartel offered Tomkins $2,000 a week and a share of any loot found at the guerrillas’ headquarters. Tomkins then proceeded to assemble a group of mercenaries in collaboration with former SAS officer Peter McAleese, who had been his associate in Angola. According to the records, Tomkins informed McAleese about his intentions at the Booth Hall pub in Hereford, England.

McAleese proceeded to recruit a team of 16 members, including Tomkins, to target FARC headquarters ‘Casa Verde’. The team included two former SAS soldiers who took part in the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege in London. They headed to Colombia where 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.

(Source), (source)

5.2 Training

Training initially settled near Puerto Boyacá and moved to different locations depending on their needs. Intelligence gathered through air reconnaissance led to an assault proposal by McAleese and his crew. Armed with German G3 rifles, the British mercenaries carried out attack-training routines and simultaneously instructed additional recruits provided by ACDEGAM. It is likely that the mercenaries also trained cartel members as well as members of MAS. 

(Source), (source)

5.3 Failed Execution

The Cartel failed to provide regularity in objectives, training, and capabilities. Eventually, when the promised military equipment failed to turn up, the attack was abandoned entirely. Tomkins returned to England in November. 

Although the mercenaries never targeted Casa Verde, they likely provided training capability to paramilitary soldiers in Colombia under the direction of the armed forces, the Cali cartel and the ACDEGAM. This makes it likely that attacking Casa Verde was not as important as obtaining capabilities for any type of offensive or defensive scenario. 

Three months later, Tomkins received another call from Salcedo. Salcedo´s role in the “FARC attack” and his contact with mercenaries reached Cali. The cartel contacted him for another mission. This time the offer was to attack and kill Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin drug cartel and the most infamous drug baron in Colombia. Escobar was wanted by the US government for smuggling huge amounts of cocaine into the country.

(Source), (source)

Imagen que contiene persona, interior, hombre, parado
McAleese in his mercenary uniform somewhere in Colombia. Courtesy: Peter McAleese

6.0 Operation Phoenix

6.1 Planning

Tomkins’ contacts assured him that there would be “no government interference” to hinder his operations in Colombia. This time he would have an unlimited budget to buy the latest weapons and they would stay in a luxury villa above the city of Cali. The second team therefore arrived there in March 1989. This time there were 12 mercenaries. Salcedo also acted as a liaison officer for the mercenaries, helping the team through customs while the Cali cartel bankrolled their stay. Each of the men was on $5,000 a month plus expenses while Tomkins was getting $1,000 a day. This time, the Cali Cartel fully funded, and controlled the mission, named Operation Phoenix (source). This made resources and methodology clearer. In addition, this mission benefited from IMINT which the mercenaries used on Escobar’s home and surrounding areas relevant to the operation. 

The team originally intended to stay in Cali, but fearing they were attracting too much attention they moved to a ranch in the countryside. Here they received a huge cache of weapons. These included automatic weapons and explosives smuggled in from the US such as M16s, grenades, M72 rockets and PE4 explosives. They also received two helicopters, a Hughes 500 and a Bell 240 repainted in Colombian police livery. 

(Source), (source), (source), (source)

6.2 Training

During this time, the mercenaries trained hard for their mission. However, only Tomkins and McAleese knew who the target was. Before they told the others, one member dropped out and was allowed to return home. He then sold the story to Australian TV, without giving too many details. However, he talked about a British mercenary force deployed in Colombia. This nearly sparked an international incident, with the UK Foreign Minister John Major publicly denying knowledge and condemning the presence of any such force. 

As the attack approached, the men moved their training to the jungle so they could practise with guns and bombs without being overheard. The training for eleven weeks, practising the attack and covering every eventuality. They estimated Escobar was protected by 70 armed individuals.

(Source), (source), (source)

McAleese had been all over the world in regular armies and mercenary forces, but had never been involved in anything like the Escobar mission, nicknamed Operation Phoenix
McAleese and his team training in the Colombian Jungle.

6.3 Execution

The target was Escobar’s mansion residence, the Hacienda Napoles near Medellin, which had massive gardens, its bullfighting ring, and a zoo. According to an informant, Escobar was staying there at the time. 

Before the armed assault, McAleese and his crew had conducted aerial reconnaissance of the area. The plan of attack consisted of an air assault with two helicopters, the Hughes 500 and Bell 240, to eliminate the leader of the cartel as well as his security detail and defences. At the same time, the mercenaries would receive support from a ground assault team of mercenaries. 

However, the mission failed when the helicopter in which McAleese and Tomkins were travelling crashed in the jungle while flying low in the clouds, killing the pilot.

(Source), (source), (source), (source), (source).

6.4 Result

The other team members survived, but McAleese was too badly injured to come down the mountain. He was incapacitated for three days until he was rescued. When Escobar learned of the attack plan, he sent his men up the mountain to find them. However, the team managed to escape in time.

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 was the “objective.”

The team planned a second assault, this time from a base in Panama. The mercenaries spent almost two months in hotels waiting for orders to attack. However, according to Salcedo, they eventually attracted too much attention, including television news coverage. Therefore Salcedo was forced to scrap another mission. This brought to an end one of the most curious and forgotten missions in history (source).

(Source), (source), (source), (source)

McAleese set about staffing his 12-strong team from the various forces he had served with in almost 30 years of soldiering, and they arrived in the Colombian city of Cali in March 1989
McAleese and his team boarding a helicopter in the Colombian Jungle.

7.0 Conclusion

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 more efficiently.

Despite similar capabilities, training in Puerto Boyacá and residing in a Medellin-Cartel controlled area by the Magdalena River highly likely allowed 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 differently 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 Cartel 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 especially 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.

The article has been recently updated. The original version was written by Iñigo Camilleri De Castanedo.

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