WASHINGTON — A security company led by the former head of operations for the Israeli military made such inroads into Latin America a few years ago that U.S. diplomats saw it as a security risk and moved to thwart the company's expansion, U.S. diplomatic cables show.
The diplomats' efforts were made easier when an interpreter for the Israeli firm, Global CST, was caught peddling classified Colombian Defense Ministry documents to Marxist guerrillas seeking to topple the state, one cable said.
Still, the ability of the Israeli security consultancy to obtain contracts in Colombia, Peru and Panama in rapid succession speaks to the prowess of retired Israeli military officers in peddling security know-how amid perceptions that they'd bring better results than official U.S. government assistance.
At one point, Panama's intelligence chief threatened to rely more heavily on the Israelis out of anger that U.S. officials wouldn't tap the phones of the president's political enemies, according to then cables. U.S. officials countered that such an arrangement would threaten all security cooperation with Panama, and the Panamanians backed down.
Colombia was the first Latin nation to sign a contract with Global CST, doing so in late 2006, according to one cable, the same year its founder, Maj. Gen. Israel Ziv, retired as head of the operations directorate of the Israel Defense Forces.
Ziv "was a personal acquaintance of then-Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos," the cable said. Santos is now Colombia's president.
Ziv's consulting firm pledged "a strategic assessment" that would devise a plan to defeat "internal terrorist and criminal organizations by 2010," the cable, sent in late 2009, said. The exercise was named "Strategic Leap."
"Over a three-year period, Ziv worked his way into the confidence of former Defense Minister Santos by promising a cheaper version of USG (U.S. government) assistance without our strings attached," the cable said.
Colombia began working with a variety of retired and active duty Israeli officers "with special operations and military intelligence backgrounds," another cable said. By 2007, 38 percent of Colombia's foreign defense purchases were going to Israel, it added.
With a foot firmly in the door in Colombia, Ziv roamed the region, going next to Peru, a coca-producing nation that also faced security challenges.
Ziv told Peruvian authorities that Global CST's had played an advisory role in a spectacular jungle raid on a rebel camp in Colombia a year earlier that freed former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, three U.S. military contractors and 11 Colombian police and soldiers. Colombia denies that Global CST played a role in the raid.
The Israeli firm signed a one-year contract worth $9 million to help Peru defeat the Maoist Sendero Luminoso insurgency "once and for all" in that nation's remote Apurimac and Ene river valleys, according to another U.S. cable.
When Global CST approached Panama's government about expanding on an initial contract, red flags went up at the U.S. Embassy there.
In early 2010, an Embassy cable to Washington said Panama had already paid Global CST for a small security study but the nation's intelligence chief, Olmedo Alfaro, was threatening to rely more heavily on the Israelis out of anger that U.S. officials would not tap the phones of the president's political enemies.
"Alfaro is increasingly open about his agenda to replace U.S. law enforcement and security support with Israelis and others," the cable said, adding that the move "bodes ill" for quelling narcotics activity and crime in Panama.
U.S. officials told the Panamanians that they would limit security cooperation and intelligence sharing if private consultants from a third nation were involved.
"In a meeting with then-U.S. Ambassador to Panama Barbara Stephenson, Panamanian Vice President Juan Carlos Varela said that the government "would not let Israeli influence damage the U.S.-Panama relationship," a cable said.
President Ricardo Martinelli "was similarly taken aback, and emphasized that he did not want to endanger relations with the USG, saying 'We don't want to change friends,'" the cable said.
Adding to the pressure on Panama was news that Colombia's relations with Global CST had soured. In a meeting in late 2009 with the then-U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, William Brownfield, national police chief Oscar Naranjo complained that the company had turned out to be a "disaster," a cable said.
The same cable reported that then-Defense Minister Gabriel Silva overruled a planned Colombian army purchase of Israeli-made Hermes-450 unmanned aerial vehicles, in part because of the nation's "mixed" experience with Global CST.
Silva is now Colombia's ambassador to the U.S. His office didn't respond to several written and telephone messages for comment.
Colombia's souring on the Israeli firm was partly because of U.S. rules that barred intelligence sharing, but also because Colombian police told them in February 2008 "that a Global CST interpreter, Argentine-born Israeli national Shai Killman, had made copies of classified Colombian Defense Ministry documents in an unsuccessful attempt to sell them to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) through contacts in Ecuador and Argentina," the cable said.
The pilfered documents allegedly contained information about top criminals the Colombians were targeting, the cable said.
"Ziv denied this attempt and sent Killman back to Israel," it added.
In early April, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reached Killman and reported that he said he "was being 'slandered' and no such incident ever took place."
The cable went on to say that Ziv's proposals for Colombia "seem designed more to support Israeli equipment and services sales than to meet in-country needs." It added that Colombia realized that "their deals are not as good as advertised."
It wasn't just in Latin America where Ziv and his company pledged quick fix-its for acute security problems. The company, based in a city east of Tel Aviv, would also work in Togo, Guinea, Gabon and Nigeria, as well as in Eastern Europe. Last year, the Israeli government fined Global CST for negotiating to sell weapons and military training to Guinea's military junta.
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