An Israeli’s Escape From Colombian Justice

An Israeli’s Escape From Colombian Justice

By Wesley Tomaselli


Because it’s often difficult to spot the bad guy.

By Wesley Tomaselli

As he passed his bag through the metal detector, ready to climb aboard his flight out of Bogotá with a ticket to Lima in hand, Yair Klein looked over toward the flight gate and froze. Colombian authorities were checking passports. “Without a doubt they were looking for me,” he would later recount

It was the late 1980s, and having finally finished training a group of Colombian cattle ranchers, Klein remembers thinking how he couldn’t wait to get home. The former Israeli army lieutenant colonel, now 72, says he was teaching them to defend themselves against leftist rebels, because Colombia’s army couldn’t provide enough security. There was plenty of money to be made teaching cattle rustlers how to play war, and the self-proclaimed “adventurer” enjoyed earning tens of thousands of dollars teaching a motley crew of farmers how to fight without ever having to do battle himself. Until, that is, he decided to leave.

Suspicious of a setup, Klein glided through the Bogotá airport wearing a wide-brimmed sombrero that helped him pass as a Colombian and deflect attention. He casually returned to the ticket window to request a new flight to Leticia, Colombia’s southernmost town, close to the borders of Brazil and Peru. He forked over the cash, grabbed his ticket and climbed aboard. The plane took off, and the Israeli mercenary escaped.

Human Rights Watch says the men who participated in the self-defense trainings went on to become an organized mafia.

A decade earlier, an underground empire of drug money and violence began to rule Colombia, holding the power of the state hostage. Landowners, desperate to protect themselves, started hiring local guns to defend their farms from the country’s Marxist guerrilla army, FARC. So when a handful of banana farmers contracted Klein’s services — exchanges he claims were brokered by military officials — the game seemed simple enough: to get the guerrillas. High-ranking army officials, Klein says, oversaw his trainings. After the first, Klein’s name started getting passed around, and pretty soon he was back to provide another — this time to cattle ranchers who valued his expertise.

That’s Klein’s story. But the game wasn’t so simple. Human Rights Watch tells OZY that the group of men who participated in the self-defense trainings went on to become an organized mafia funded by landowners, military officials and businessmen. By the 1990s, these regional paramilitary bands had organized into a national confederation called the United Self-Defense Forces, or AUC. The AUC committed widespread massacres, forced disappearances, torture and sexual violence, “all while profiting enormously from drug trafficking, land seizures and other mafialike criminal activities,” says HRW Colombia researcher Max Schoening. (OZY’s attempts to reach Klein through the Israeli Embassy were unsuccessful.)

Yair Klein

Yair Klein waits to leave Ben-Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, in 2010. 

Source Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP

So while Klein claims to have had no knowledge of the mafia links, his trainings were allegedly being funded by cartel drug money. Ivan Cepeda, a Colombian senator whose father was murdered by the paramilitaries Klein is said to have trained, believes the Israeli has a responsibility to victims of Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict, which has seen an estimated 220,000 killed since the late 1950s. His testimony, says Cepeda, could help inform other cases where paramilitary actors are accused of crimes against humanity. Klein has helped criminal groups that “have caused tremendous harm in Colombia,” Cepeda says, noting that around 90 percent of paramilitary-related criminal cases seem to escape punishment, owing to suspected corruption.

What he and some authorities want to know most is who gave the orders or “designed the strategy for hundreds of thousands of crimes”? In seeking answers, a Colombian court in 2001 ordered Klein’s extradition to face charges of contributing to the formation of paramilitary groups. Prosecutors have accused him of taking drug money from the Medellín and Cali cartels and want him to serve time in prison. Justice eventually caught up with the Israeli … but not in Colombia.

He was nabbed in a Russian airport in 2007, and police told him he would get extradited to Colombia in 10 days. He was cornered, and a Russian court ruled in favor of the extradition. But Klein pushed back legally, using a senior Colombian official’s statement that he should rot in jail as the linchpin of his defense. Klein argued that he would likely face “ill treatment” in the Colombian justice system. The Russians kept him locked up until November 2010, when the European Court of Human Rights ultimately ruled in his favor and quashed the extradition request, allowing Klein to return to Israel.

The failure to get Klein into a Colombian courtroom spotlights the trouble the state faces in serving justice for those involved in the country’s conflict. Members of the Colombian government, Klein says, initially approved of his participation in the legitimate effort to fight Marxist guerrillas. Two decades later, with the cards face up on the table and showing the results of the paramilitaries’ actions, Klein’s involvement has since been reframed as illegal. Some now view him as an architect of Colombian crime, a man who designed the paramilitary’s notorious tactics and contributed to rampant human rights abuses.

Funnily enough, the chance that Klein could have been exposed to such abuses saved him in the eyes of the European Court of Human Rights. But one can hardly be surprised that he played his best hand after the dealers changed the rules of the game.