With a U.S. Mercenary Facing Trial in Nicaragua, Another Soldier of Fortune Gives a Glimpse of That Dark World

updated 10/27/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/27/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

On Oct. 5 an American-built cargo plane was shot out of the skies near the Nicaraguan-Costa Rican border. Two days later Nicaragua officials produced three corpses, two of them American, and a prisoner, Eugene Hasenfus, 45, of Marinette, Wis. A red-haired ex-Marine who had parachuted to safety from the doomed C-123, Hasenfus quickly became the focus of a political squabble when he said that he was part of a CIA-directed operation resupplying anti-government contras with guns and ammunition. The CIA, which has been prohibited since 1984 by Congress from giving military aid to the contras, denies involvement. Robert K. Brown, who as editor-publisher of Soldier of Fortune magazine is familiar with the shadowy world of mercenary operations, speculates that Hasenfus was hired and working with the tacit assent of the CIA. A Special Forces veteran who also served in Army counter intelligence, Brown, 53, talked to correspondent David Chandler about the hidden men in Central America.

Isn't it illegal for an American citizen to serve as a mercenary? Doesn't the Neutrality Act forbid it?

That's bull! The media say you automatically lose your citizenship, but you don't. A 1967 Supreme Court decision says that you can fight in a foreign war without losing citizenship. There's a caveat, though. You can be indicted if you take part in a hostile, warlike operation against a nation with which the U.S. is at peace.

Give us an example?

Rhodesia. The Americans who were fighting over there in the '70s against antigovernment guerrillas were not violating any laws until the odd ones began operating against Mozambique or Zambia. As long as they were fighting the terrorists inside Rhodesia, we were within the law. The same thing was true when we went down to El Salvador to train troops. I was there off and on since 1983. If we were involved in a firefight, we were not breaking any laws because we were working with the Salvadoran government. The law has been broken many times, however. The Americans who flew against the Nazis in the Battle of Britain were violating the Neutrality Act, because this was 1940 and we weren't at war yet with Germany.

Was Eugene Hasenfus violating the Neutrality Act when he was shot down over Nicaragua?

That's up to the lawyers to decide. Was this a "warlike act"? Maybe. If I were a Sandinista I would say yes, because Hasenfus was dropping guns. If I were on the other side I would say no, because he wasn't pulling a trigger.

What leads an individual to become a mercenary?

A lot of things. Maybe his motives are political. Maybe he needs some money. Maybe he doesn't like his old lady. Maybe he wants some excitement. Maybe he wants to relive the experience of combat. Some people do.

Who recruits mercenaries?

For the most part recruiting is done through the "old boy network," through people with spook experience, ex-CIA and ex-military people who still stay in close touch with one another. After all, you can't run an ad on TV saying, "Wanted: Mercenaries to invade blah, blah, blah." It has to be done word of mouth. The way it works is somebody who's known internationally in the mere community will be contacted by a member of an organization that wants to put together an operation. Negotiations will go on. How much money do you have? How many people do you need? What kind of equipment? Hypothetically, the guy who wants to employ the mercenaries will sit down with the mere leadership, and they'll tailor a plan to meet their objective. Once the contact is made by the hiring party, the mere leader is going to start calling his old friends. They may be here; they may be in London. It depends upon how much money is available. Say we're going to do a coup in the Caribbean. Do we have enough money to fly in people with a lot of combat experience from southern Africa? Maybe we don't. Then we'll have to bring them out of the U.S.

In the Hasenfus case, where did the money come from for the operation?

I don't know. I do know they've been making supply drops throughout Nicaragua for at least a year and a half. There's speculation that some of the contra operation is being funded by the Saudis. (A Saudi embassy spokesman in Washington, D.C. has denied any involvement with the contras.)

Why would the Saudis be interested?

Maybe they owe somebody a favor. Maybe they don't like communists.

What if someone were to say the CIA was behind the operation?

Well, you can bet your sweet ass the agency knew what was going on. Whether they controlled it or not, I couldn't say. But I'll tell you this: People are going to want to trace the whole thing back to the agency, but they won't be able to. The thing is going to be so layered. They're not going to be able to check the aircraft beyond some registration in Panama. They're not going to find a thing to associate the agency, not a file, not a memo, nothing, because it doesn't work that way. It's all, "Hey, Sam, we've got this operation in Nicaragua. Can you help me locate a loadmaster? We're paying $3,000 to $4,000 a month for the right guy." "Sure, Joe." Then someone somewhere along the way calls this guy named Hasenfus in Wisconsin. "Hey, I think we've got a job for you."

From Our Partners