An Entrepreneur at War: Erik Prince and 25 Years of Privatizing Suffering

For 5,500 euros he flies you out of Afghanistan and for a little more you can hire the premium door-to-door package that includes mercenaries who pick you up from home and make sure you arrive at Kabul airport alive. The offer would be incredible if it didn't come from Blackwater founder and former Chairman Erik Prince, a true war entrepreneur with decades of experience profiting from despair, chaos and violence.

It's unclear if that express evacuation service was real or just one of their usual bluffs. Perhaps it was simply his way of looking for a plan B, since the fall of Afghanistan has complicated his ambitious proposal for the US to "privatize" the occupation of the country and entrust its management to him for a small fee. He says that Donald Trump was almost convinced, but the almost simultaneous return to power of Joe Biden and the Taliban does not bode well for that revolutionary idea.

With such outlandish propositions, Prince may seem enlightened, but it wasn't that long ago that his trigger-happy mercenaries were doing undercover work for the CIA and roaming occupied Iraq killing civilians. In the six years after the 9/11 attacks, Blackwater billed the US government almost 850 million euros for different services, so you can't blame its founder for keeping alive the hope that fat cows will return.

It's been a decade since Erik Prince had to leave Blackwater beset by controversy. The company is still alive, although to get away from its terrifying public image it has renamed itself Academi, a brand that sounds more like a neighborhood language school than a battalion of ex-military for hire. Its founder has also reinvented himself and now travels the world advising (and swindling) a multitude of dictators or would-be dictators. There are still many customers looking to "create a Blackwater".

A Millionaire in Special Forces

Erik Prince cannot really be said to have become a millionaire from the war, since he has been a millionaire from the moment he was born. The Princes were one of the richest families in the state of Michigan and had also had enormous political influence for decades. His parents were already financing the fights of the religious right long before Erik spent more than eight million euros to support Republican candidates in 2016 or that another of his daughters, Betsy De Vos, became part of the Trump government.

Erik Prince may have even gone into professional politics. In his youth, he was a White House intern under Bush Sr., but says he quickly became disenchanted to see the then-president "invite gay groups" and cut deals with the opposition that included tax increases. Shortly thereafter, he made a decision that would change his life forever: Prince enlisted in the US Navy's special forces, the SEALS, in 1997.

In his four years in the special forces, the US was at peace and Erik Prince never experienced a real combat situation, but when he abandoned his military career he already had in his head the idea that would make him famous. With a small part of his inheritance, he bought land in a swampy area to create a military training camp which, due to the color of the waters in the area, he called Blackwater. In the late 1990s it was little more than a shooting range, but then Al Qaeda murdered 3,000 people on September 11, 2001, and everything changed for the company and its founder.

An Entrepreneur in War: Erik Prince and 25 years of privatization of suffering

If Bush Sr had let Prince down, Bush Jr was going to make him gold. The US Army was not big enough to deal with the monumental 'war on terror' that was beginning, so the government did what governments almost always do in such a situation: outsourced. The problem is that there weren't that many companies that could handle the security of a base in Iraq or protect US diplomats in Afghanistan. That's where Erik Prince saw an opportunity and turned Blackwater into more than just a private security company.

The key to its success was that, in its early days, Blackwater primarily hired ex-US military personnel. The hard core of his mercenaries were special forces veterans like Prince himself who made far more money as "contractors" than as military professionals. Although they soon acquired a deserved reputation for being trigger-happy, US personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan felt safer in their hands than in those of newly arrived soldiers or Iraqi troops. Public contracts rained down on him.

In addition to the multi-million dollar awards from the Pentagon and the State Department, Blackwater soon also did business with the CIA. Erik Prince himself has explained that, apart from training the agency's spies and launching his controversial drone bombing program, he was also hired to create a secret team that was going to locate and kill Al Qaeda leaders. . Several million were spent on this operation, but none of the murders actually took place.

Even if the attacks did not eventually take place, the fact that the CIA relied on a private company to set up a secret operation of extrajudicial assassinations well illustrates the extent to which Blackwater had penetrated the US military and intelligence apparatus of those years. Those were golden times for Erik Prince, but everything was to change suddenly on the morning of September 16, 2007.

The Disaster That Buried Blackwater

In a business as complicated as Erik Prince's, it's impossible not to get bad news from time to time. In 2004 his company lost four employees in an ambush in Iraq and a mob dismembered and burned the bodies. Their families sued the company, but the real disaster that changed Blackwater forever did not come from the death of their own at the hands of the insurgency, but from the massacre that their own mercenaries carried out in a central Baghdad square.

It was a tense morning in the Iraqi capital because a bomb had exploded. Two groups of ex-servicemen from Blackwater were escorting US diplomats through a traffic jam in Nisour Square when, for unknown reasons, one of them shot the driver of a car. Apparently the vehicle continued to advance with the deceased at the wheel and this led the Americans to believe that they were being attacked. Then the real killing began.

The mercenaries started shooting like crazy. Machine guns, grenades... People were trapped in the traffic jam and could not escape, while some Blackwater employees were loudly trying to convince their colleagues to stop. When the shooting ended, 14 Iraqi civilians were dead, including two children aged nine and 11, and nearly twenty wounded. None were related to the insurgency and it has never been possible to prove, despite Blackwater's explanations, that someone fired first at the Americans.

The massacre sparked enormous popular outrage and led the Iraqi government to announce that it was withdrawing authorization for Blackwater to operate in the country, only then someone discovered that the company never actually had such authorization. As the Iraqi prosecutor's office set out to prosecute the mercenaries for the crime, someone reminded him that the occupying authorities had ensured that the mercenaries would enjoy full immunity from Iraqi courts.

After a lengthy judicial process in the US, a Blackwater employee was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder and three others to terms of more than 10 years, although all were pardoned by Donald Trump shortly before leaving the White House. The company, however, had begun to feel the consequences of the disaster almost from the day of the shooting. At first, Blackwater tried to silence the crisis by bribing various senior officials in the Iraqi government, but the real problem was at home.

For the US government, the Nisour Square massacre confirmed all suspicions about the company and its tactics, typical of a western movie. The last months of the Bush government were already cool, but Obama's arrival in the White House meant an almost complete break with Blackwater. Their million-dollar contract to protect US diplomats was not renewed and, furthermore, the new director of the CIA informed Congress of the secret program of selective assassinations and then canceled it.

Blackwater and Erik Prince himself had already become the symbol of the excesses of the 'war on terror' and its very high price. The founder tried to leave behind that reputation by renaming the company and disassociating himself from its daily management, but it was not enough. In late 2010, three years after the Baghdad massacre, Prince sold his share of the company and went to Abu Dhabi to start new businesses, which to this day look very much like his old businesses.

Highest Bidder

His past may have kept Erik Prince from doing business with the US government lately, but that same ruthless reputation has made him highly attractive in the eyes of other leaders. In the last decade, he has assembled a small personal army for the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, he has tried to put an end to piracy in Somalia, he has attempted a coup in Libya and he has been selling crop duster planes modified to carry all kinds of of armament. Along the way he has left many unhappy customers, but new ones keep coming.

Gone are those years when Prince was outraged when his employees were called mercenaries and boasted that they were simply "Americans working for the US government." He now has no problem serving the Chinese government and, in an unusual move for an ultra-conservative like him, has even been exploring business opportunities with the Venezuelan regime of Nicolás Maduro. He also has no religious scruples, as the vast majority of the countries he has worked in since leaving Blackwater are Muslim-majority.

Erik Prince does not lose hope of doing business with his government, the US, but right now it is not easy. In recent years, he has been investigated for alleged violations of arms export rules, Congress has accused him of lying on a commission of inquiry, and the special counsel who studied relations between the Trump campaign and Russia says he liaised with Putin. When the former president was still in power, Prince told his clients that he was going to be defense minister, but now, with Biden, not even that. Either way, it's not the first battle Prince has come out of unscathed. In fact, in 20 years he has done nothing but land on his feet.