The cops lay motionless and silent on the sand — two ink stains on an already bruise-black night. Through night-vision goggles, they surveilled the concrete skeleton of a building in the distance. Covered in graffiti, it rose like a crumbling tombstone against the desolate Mexican desert. Behind broken windows flitted the menacing outlines of men with assault rifles.
The pair of policemen failed to notice the shadows gathering around them. In an instant, they were surrounded. One cop bolted into the darkness, scrambling through the scrubland toward safety. The other wasn't as lucky. The men with balaclavas and AR-15s tied him up, blindfolded him, and dragged him inside.
They held the terrified cop upside down over a pit full of rats and feces. Then they began pouring water over his face and demanding answers. "What are the names and addresses of your commanding officers?" one of the captors yelled as the cop fought the liquid filling his lungs. "Tell us the names!"
A month later, footage of the torture session exploded on Mexican television. But unlike countless previous films, which showed drug cartels murdering their rivals on camera, this video sparked international outrage because the torturers weren't narcos. They were fellow cops.
"They Are Teaching Police... to Torture!" screamed the headline of one national newspaper as human rights organizations lined up to protest. It didn't matter that the footage was from a training course for which all the police officers had volunteered. Politicians called for criminal charges. The chief of police for the city of León was sacked.
But the brunt of the backlash fell on the white man giving orders onscreen. With the country already gripped by anti-gringo sentiment after George W. Bush handed over $1.5 billion to fight a bloody drug war, Mexicans were outraged that the mysterious man barking orders worked for a private American security firm called Risks Inc. Stranger still, the company was headquartered in Miami.
In hindsight, the Dade connection shouldn't have been so surprising. In the decade since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Miami has quietly sprouted more private security companies than anywhere else in the nation. As America waged wars overseas, a cottage industry of guns for hire sprouted in South Florida, which is now headquarters for nearly twice as many security companies as Washington, D.C., by one measure. Camouflaged by parties and palm trees and close to troubled hot spots in the Caribbean and Latin America, Miami is a boomtown for mercenaries.
New Times spent two months inside this strange and secretive world and discovered that Risks Inc., which is run by an ex-soldier who was once thrown in jail for desertion, is actually the most transparent of the area's stockpile of security companies. Miami is also home to a former CIA spook whose legion of mercenaries in the Middle East has made him a multimillionaire. And then there's the celebrity-wooing Afghan insider accused of funneling a fortune of American tax dollars to the Taliban.
When National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the government's warrantless wiretapping, he also exposed the immense power that private companies wield over American and international affairs. They run our jails, read our emails, and increasingly fight our wars. Unbeknownst to most Miamians, their city is a central hub in this lucrative but loosely regulated industry.
"The state's monopoly on the use of mass, organized violence is slowly being frittered away by reliance on the private sector," says investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill, author of Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. "They are not motivated by patriotism [but] by profit. So what's to stop any of these companies from simply flipping and going to the highest bidder?"
"What's the easiest way to clear a building?" a man asks in a British whine. A dandyish lock of hair flops down his forehead. An untucked black dress shirt betrays a hint of a potbelly. He could be mistaken for a soccer dad if it weren't for the gun in his hand.
"Blow it up, burn it down, clear it out, yeah?" he tells his audience. "A lot of that SWAT stuff doesn't work... Is it going to work in Colombia? No, because people shoot back."
Meet Andrew "Orlando" Wilson: former British soldier, Miami-based mercenary, and the mystery man barking orders in the infamous Mexican torture videos.
Five years after the fiasco in León, Wilson is still teaching people how to fight. Oftentimes it's cops or federal agents looking to sharpen their skills. Today, however, his students are doctors from Jackson Memorial Hospital learning the basics of self-defense. Standing inside a Doral warehouse that has been converted into a firing range, they clutch imitation Glock BB guns uncertainly, like children with expensive new toys. Suddenly, Wilson spots a gun muzzle wandering.
"Keep that gun pointed at me, not over there," he tells a jittery pediatrician. "I'm used to having them aimed at me."