Jewish Cowboy

In the realm of export, Leo Gleser is a veteran international label. His company provides security at Olympic Games, protects embassies, trains special forces and has worked for some of the darkest regimes in Latin America. How did a nature-loving boy who dreamed of reforming the world grow up to be 'Colonel Gleser'?

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Tall and hefty, he is dressed in jeans and a jeans shirt and wears custom-made leather boots, and loves to gallop away on White Cloud, his black horse. "That's right, I am a gau cho judio," says Leo Gleser, owner of an international security consultancy firm. "I definitely feel like a Jewish cowboy," he explains, looking out at the fields of Nir Zvi, a moshav (cooperative farming village) near Ramle.

Born in a remote village in Argentina 57 years ago, he spent his childhood cavorting in nature, specializing in hunting iguanas. As a youth Gleser was active in an underground Jewish self-defense organization in Buenos Aires. He then immigrated to Israel and served in an elite unit in the Israel Defense Forces. Afterward he turned down a job offer from the Mossad espionage agency, preferring to join the security staff of El Al. A combination of fate and circumstances led him to establish his company, International Security and Defense Systems (ISDS -

Today Gleser and ISDS are an international brand-name. He and his staff have provided the security for the visits to Israel of Madonna, Elton John and other rock stars, fortified the homes of wealthy South Americans, organized the security for the U.S. Embassy in Rome, and trained commandos and special forces on three continents.

He and his company are a salient example of the symbiotic connection between the authorities in Israel and the country's private security consultancy firms. In large measure, he was the forerunner of the system, as the founder of one of the first local security firms that broke into the international market. Since then the system has become more sophisticated, to the point where the boundary between private and state is sometimes blurred. The result, at any rate, is a growing phenomenon of "private armies" from Western countries, which provide security services to governments in the Third World.

In Israel the system works like this: The Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry or the Mossad gets a request to provide security advice or to train army or security service forces for the ruler of a country, usually a tyrant. Because the authorities cannot, or do not want, to assist the ruler directly, although they view his request as important in order to promote security or political interests - they ask a private company to provide the service being requested.

There were years in which "Colonel Gleser," as he is known in several Latin American countries, was described there as an Israeli mercenary who assists repressive regimes. "I have never broken the law," he asserts. "I am the owner of a security consulting firm and not of a pirate ship. I am not a mercenary, and the very use of that term against me infuriates me. In every country I come to I operate within the legal framework. Every citizen and every business deserves to have their personal security looked after by the state. I provide legitimate services for which there is a need."

In recent years, at any rate, he has shifted the focus of his activity to the civilian realm, providing security for oil and electricity companies and for other infrastructure facilities in India, the United States, Europe and Latin America. He is also a security adviser to the United Nations, and is hoping to get a contract for security consulting for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. He has plenty of work, but sometimes, at night, over a glass of wine, when he looks inward and becomes contemplative, he finds it hard to explain what remains of the boy and afterward the troop leader in the socialist-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, who admired Che Guevara and believed in social revolution. The trajectory of his life is reflected in the dilemma he faced this week concerning who to vote for in the Knesset elections.

"It was hard for me to decide who to vote for," he says in a heavy Argentine accent. "Thirty years ago I believed in socialist ideas and to this day I am still attached to them. To this day I can be moved to tears when the 'Internationale' is sung. But Israel exists in a capitalist world, which is based on technological progress and know-how. In my gut I would like to help the unfortunates, those who have little. But, without getting into simplistic generalizations, the person who has little does not bring money and a livelihood. Israel needs those who work and produce."

Seller of dreams

Gleser's business breakthrough occurred in the fall of 1979. He was 30 at the time and a security officer for El Al in Spain. His superiors asked him to meet with two former Shin Bet security service men, Victor Cohen and Zvi Aharoni. Cohen was head of the interrogations branch in the Shin Bet and took part in the interrogation of spies who were apprehended in Israel (Yisrael Ber and others); he was also sent to conduct negotiations, which in the end did not take place, with the terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Aharoni had won fame as one of the agents in the operation to capture Adolf Eichmann.

The meeting took place in Asia House in Tel Aviv. Cohen and Aharoni, who owned a company that conducted investigations, told Gleser that they were acting on behalf of billionaire Shaul Eisenberg. Eisenberg was involved in a project, worth about $1 billion, with the Granados family, one of the richest families in Guatemala, to build a hydroelectric station in that country. A member of the family, Miguel Granados, was his country's ambassador to the United Nations in November 1947 and organized the rest of the Latin American ambassadors into a bloc of 22 votes in favor of the partition plan for Palestine, which led to Israel's establishment. Thirty-two years after the dramatic vote on November 29, his grandson, Jorge Raul Garcia Granados, was kidnapped by the Ejercito Guerillo de los Pobres (Guerrilla Army of the Poor), a Maoist underground organization, in an operation named after Commandante Ernesto Che Guevara. The family hired the services of an American security firm, but also asked Israel to help find him.

"Aharoni and Cohen recruited me to go to Guatemala and help the family in the kidnapping," Gleser recalls. After getting his superiors' approval, he took leave without pay and flew to Guatemala.

"I met with the general who was responsible for presidential security service. The kid was grabbed on the way to a softball game. It was a violent kidnapping, during which three people were killed. The general told me that no contact had been made with the kidnappers and that their identity was not known.

"I told the general and his family," he continues, "that a body should be established to conduct the investigation, but also to make contact with the kidnappers. They took my advice and assigned the mission to the American firm. They asked me to continue advising them. I returned to Israel, and after wrestling with the proposal decided to leave El Al and take the family's offer."

Returning to Guatemala, Gleser was a full partner in all the contacts with the kidnappers, which were held through the mediation of clerics and led to a deal to release the grandson. "One of the Americans and I flew by helicopter to a mountainous jungle area, which was controlled by the guerrillas. We had a knapsack with the ransom money, $4.5 million. According to the instructions we received from the guerrillas, we landed in a field, left the knapsack and lifted off." The kidnap victim was released shortly afterward.

Since then Gleser has been in close touch with the Granados family. "From the Jorge Raul affair I learned how this world works. I understood that people want to be sold dreams. After all, what was my part in the episode? I helped a family in distress. People in distress want to grasp at hope. I came and gave them the hope, the dream. Sometimes you can wake up from a dream into a nightmare. In life there is either a beautiful dream or a nightmare, there is nothing in between. Luckily for me, the dream came true with a happy ending. Since then I have sold dreams."

King of the lizards

Gleser's home and office are located on an estate he bought for his family in Moshav Nir Zvi. He came to the village in the wake of other members of his family, who were among its founders in the 1950s. Though affluent, he leads a modest lifestyle. His body language is relaxed and his tone of voice direct; he is not evasive and does not beat around the bush, but in the course of all our meetings he emphasizes the qualms he has about having agreed to be interviewed. "Nothing good will come of the interview - not for me and not for my family, and it could burn my company, too," he comments.

Gleser was born in January 1949 in the village of Alto Alegre, in the Cordoba province of Argentina, northwest of Buenos Aires. His grandparents fled czarist Russia after the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, and were sent to a farming colony in Argentina that was established by the Jewish Colonization Association, founded by the Jewish-German businessman and philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch and his wife Clara. "My grandfather, Jacob Gleser, was a 'gaucho judio.' He raised cattle on his ranch and herded them hundreds of kilometers, to the port of Concepcion del Uruguay, for slaughter in the slaughterhouse. That was hard work in the most remote regions."

His father, who died half a year ago, was born on the ranch in 1917. "At an early age he was already helping Grandfather with the work. In 1933, when he was 16, he went on a two-week journey with my grandfather. During the whole trip it rained nonstop. My grandfather told my father to keep himself covered, but he himself was exposed to the rain and as a result died of pneumonia when he got home. I constantly repeat to myself the lesson of my grandfather's life: Within a second there can be someone who can show us how fragile we and our existence and our lives are, how small people are, how weak and wretched."

The family members were left without anyone to provide for them and suffered many years of poverty and distress. Having no other choice, they abandoned the village, like most of those settling on Baron Hirsch's ranches. Gleser's father studied medicine in the city of Cordoba, where he met his future wife, also a medical student. Gleser's maternal grandfather was a small merchant who "sold almost everything that could be sold, including American condoms." In 1948, after completing his studies, his father got a job as a doctor in a remote village, about 800 kilometers from Buenos Aires.

Gleser: "My father performed operations with a razor blade. He would get a call in the middle of the night, mount a horse, and gallop off to deal with the sick and the injured."

Leo was the third child in the family, after Eva and Jorge. Most of the residents of the village were migrants from the Piedmont region in northern Italy. "We were the only Jewish family in a world of Christians. But thanks to the status of my physician-father, we were accepted and held in high regard. We did not experience displays of violence or insults, and there was no difference between me and the other children. I went to church with them on Sunday and learned all the Christian prayers. But it was hard for those around us to grasp that we were Jews. I remember that once Nono, a friend of mine, told his grandfather, 'Leo is a Jew,' and the grandfather asked, 'And he doesn't have horns?'"

Juan Peron and his wife Evita ruled in Argentina at the time. "I remember that there was a large picture of Peron in our school, dressed in a general's uniform," Gleser recalls. "I knew all the Peronist songs by heart." But from an early age he preferred the expanses of nature to studies in school. (Today he knows why: He is dyslexic.)

"I was a strong, blond boy, very impressive. There wasn't a tree I didn't climb. I was like a cat. I fished in the river and hunted animals. I specialized in hunting iguanas. I would lie in ambush for them for hours by the opening of the tunnel, and when the lizard emerged from the opening, I would hit it with a stick and kill it.

"In the end, life in nature was the best school I could have wished for. Nature taught me about coordination and gave me a sense of orientation. In nature I learned about the instincts of animals: A horse will not make the same mistake twice, it will not put a leg into the same hole twice. I try to behave the same way. I have made many mistakes in my life, but I never repeated a mistake twice."

The young guard

When Gleser was nine, his family fell apart. His father, who was then 40, fell in love with a girl of 19 and divorced his mother, who moved to Buenos Aires with the children. "My father went through a mid-life crisis. He didn't know how to deal with the crisis and showed immature behavior."

Life in the big city changed him. The wild nature boy became an urban guerrilla fighter. "In the neighborhood I lived in, there was a huge slaughterhouse. Today it is a tourist attraction, but at that time trucks carrying thousands of cattle for slaughter arrived there every night. The slaughter took place in the morning. The sight of the cattle being brought to slaughter should have been shocking, but you get used to it. Life in the city taught me what injustice is. People say there is a God, but I was in many places where he did not exist."

These feelings were strengthened after he joined a local branch of Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guards, a socialist-Zionist youth movement). He took this step in the wake of his sister, who at the age of 16 was sent to Israel by the movement, for training on Kibbutz Harel. He was then attending a vocational high school, and the movement, he says, drew him in completely: "Hashomer Hatzair was then a concrete way of life for me, a home and a family alike. My commitment to the movement was total. As a youth I found myself belonging to a left-wing Zionist group with a militant political and social consciousness. In the movement I became acquainted with the ideas of Marx and Engels, the philosophy of Sartre and the books of Simone de Beauvoir. Hashomer Hatzair introduced me to the wonderful world of the ideas of the world revolution. The best people in Argentina belonged to Hashomer Hatzair at the time. To this day I am very proud of belonging to it."

In the city, Gleser was compelled to recognize his Jewish identity. "In the village, anti-Semitism derived from naivete and ignorance. In Buenos Aires I encountered anti-Semitism that was not just religious, but had an economic, social and political background."

In the 1960s a wave of anti-Semitism washed over Argentina, where a Jewish community of about 500,000 then lived. The hatred of Jews was fanned by extreme right-wing groups of which the most prominent was the Tacuara, whose members were senior police and army officers, and government officials and their families. They beat up Jews, burned synagogues, put up anti-Semitic propaganda posters in the streets and desecrated Jewish cemeteries. The incidents reached their peak in 1962, when a Jewish student named Sarah Sirota was kidnapped by Tacuara members, who tattooed a swastika on her breast with a razor blade. The Israeli government was shocked into action, and the mission was assigned to the Mossad.

That mission was born out of the concept that Israel is the state of all the Jews, from which it follows that the country's espionage organization views itself as "the intelligence agency of the Jewish people." The head of the Mossad at the time, Isser Harel, cultivated this approach, and at his initiative "frameworks" were created in countries where Jewish communities were in distress. Young Jews, mainly from Zionist youth movements, were recruited into the "frameworks" and given training (in Israel, too) in the basics of intelligence, and were then organized into networks of self-defense and activism supporting immigration to Israel. Such frameworks, under the auspices of the Bitzur unit, which still exists in the Mossad, operated in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia in the 1950s and in several South American countries in the 1950s and 1960s.

Gleser was recruited into a framework in Buenos Aires after he joined Hashomer Hatzair. "I was recruited by my group leader in the movement. I was 16 at the time. Everything smelled of secrecy in the style of a French thriller." At the first opportunity the new recruits were sent for training to a "summer camp" organized by the movement. The fact that Gleser had known from a young age how to use a hunting rifle did not hurt him. The recruits were then assigned security tasks. "After meetings, we would escort the boys and girls home, so that they would not be attacked in the street," he explains reluctantly. "I will say no more about the subject."

A more forthcoming description of the Jewish underground in Buenos Aires was supplied by another "framework" member, Goga Cogan, a decade ago. Cogan, then a journalist with the Israeli left-wing paper Al Hamishmar (now defunct), related in an article that members of the underground carried out "self-initiated deterrence operations, beat up local anti-Jewish hooligans, destroyed places where they met and sabotaged printing houses where anti-Semitic material was produced." The direction was clear, he wrote about one of the operations: "The cafe on the busy avenue ... is the hangout of the anti-Semitic group that is harassing the local branch [of the youth movement] without letup, in innumerable ways. Some of the members of the branch organized themselves to put an end to this, and in the most violent way: to crack their heads, literally. I remember vividly the tremendous noise of the explosion when the table, along with the Coke bottles on it, was smashed. Our first twosome entered the cafe calmly, went over to the table where the hoodlums were sitting and Daniel said something that he had prepared the whole way: 'We are from the Jewish organization, you pieces of shit.' He then pulled out the club he was carrying under his jacket and with all his strength brought it down on the head of the closest guy."

The cause, the adventure

Gleser came to Israel for the first time in January 1967, on behalf of the movement and the underground, and was sent for training to Kibbutz Revadim in the south. He was there when the Six-Day War erupted, and shortly afterward his mother and his brother arrived in the country as volunteers. A midwife by profession, his mother volunteered to work in Bikur Holim Hospital in Jerusalem; his brother Jorge, who arrived with his buddies from Hashomer Hatzair, joined Kibbutz Meggido in the north.

The war and the international reaction affected his worldview. "At Revadim there were Cubans who were studying how to grow citrus fruit. After the war, Cuba closed its embassy in Israel and the Cubans left the kibbutz. I found that hard to accept. The Cuba of Castro and Che was a tremendous ideal for me, and suddenly everything was topsy-turvy: The Cubans and the Russians supported the Arabs. That was a great crisis for me. My disillusionment with the world revolution started."

Gleser experienced a similar disenchantment with Israeli socialism: "In Hashomer Hatzair in Argentina I thought that everyone was really equal on the kibbutz, that the slogan 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs' was true. But then I saw that only a few really worked and that there was protectionism and that it was no different from the corruption and brutality and bureaucracy of the trade unions in Argentina." He had intended to enter the warm fold of Zionism, but at the time "I did not have the temperament for Zionism. That came about afterward, when I was drafted into the army."

Returning to Argentina in 1968, Gleser assumed a commanding role in the self-defense movement. "The studies and training in Israel gave me tremendous strength and self-confidence. I was a kid of 19 without commitment to a family, without any sentiments, and as a proud Jew fighting for his people I felt I was the representative of a small, all-powerful nation." But a few months later he was forced to leave Argentina after he was arrested for a few days in the wake of an operation. His squad had three members. One of them, Prof. Haim Peres, a student of the anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss, who now teaches at the University of Grenoble in France, holds left-wing views and does not hesitate to castigate Israel harshly.

It was only with the intervention of lawyers that Gleser was finally released. His commanders advised him to leave his homeland, because "the ground is burning beneath your feet." Embarking on a journey similar to that of his hero Che Guevara, he hitchhiked for two-and-a-half months across two continents, eventually reaching the USA, where his brother was. He worked in a few odd jobs until he sailed aboard a refrigeration ship owned by Israeli businessmen Yaakov Meridor and Mila Brenner, and arrived back in Israel.

In Israel he had an offer to join the Mossad and undergo special training for infiltrate as an agent into an Arab country. "But I preferred to join the Israel Defense Forces and be a genuine soldier in uniform." He volunteered for the ultra-elite naval commandos, but for reasons which he still cannot fathom he was ejected from the course, "even though I was a good soldier." From there he went to Haruv, the commando unit of Central Command, most of whose activity consisted of patrols and ambushes along the border with Jordan.

"Military service in Haruv gave me a great deal of satisfaction and was excellent preparation for all the things I am doing today. The army service connected me with Israel totally. Hashomer Hatzair brought me to the country and the army put me in Israel. When we operated in Gaza, there was a wanted Palestinian from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine whose nickname was Che. Suddenly you are in Gaza and your boyhood hero Che is actually your enemy. The worldview that gradually crystallized in me is that the Arab tragedy was caused by their actions and does not stem from the Jewish and Zionist occupation, and I am against the occupation. A country like Saudi Arabia could have long since solved the problem if it had been ready to help and invest money in problems of poverty, hunger and refugees. But they do not want to do that; the Palestinians do not interest them."

In 1972 he was recruited by El Al to work as a sky marshall and was assigned to El Al stations in Mexico and Spain. At the end of 1973 he married Haya, a Jewish student from Sweden whom he met in Jerusalem. That was his life until the meeting in Asia House and the Guatemala mission.

"No, it was not the money I received from the Granados family [after the kidnapping job] that did it for me. As far as I remember, the payment was not much more than I got in El Al. I went because of the cause and the adventure."

Moral boundary

The connection with the wealthy family opened many doors. For two years Gleser was a security adviser for the Guatemalan electricity company and its facilities, as well as the airport and other civilian sites. He founded ISDS in 1982. As managing director he appointed Arieh Avnat, his friend from Haruv and also a security guard in El Al. That year, General Efrain Rios Montt came to power in Guatemala. The far-right general decided to wage an all-out war against the left-wing guerrilla organizations, even at the price of trampling human rights. Montt needed experts, security consultants and mercenaries. Gleser decided that it was not for him. Despite the financial incentive, he set himself a moral boundary which he would never cross.

He left Guatemala for neighboring Honduras. The relations between Israel and the Central American country were warming up at the time, in part because of the visit there of the defense minister, Ariel Sharon. Honduras wanted to buy Kfir fighter planes from Israel Aircraft Industries, but the deal fell through due to the lack of American approval and agreement.

The president of Honduras, Roberto Suazo Cordova, and the chief of staff, Gustavo Martinez, also wanted Israel to establish the army's Special Forces. The Defense Ministry preferred to have this done by a private company and the contract went to Gleser. He brought with him friends from his military service and experts from the intelligence community. Since then this has become the standard system: The chief contractor who gets the contract hires a subcontractor, advisers and experts, all of them free-lancers, and they do the work for him.

Gleser and his company created the Special Forces of the Honduras army and supplied them with equipment manufactured by Israel Military Industries, from Galil and sniper rifles to personal gear, and in addition drew up security plans for the largest U.S. base in Latin America - Palmarola, which was built in northern Honduras as a replacement for the bases the United States had to evacuate from the Panama Canal.

From there Gleser won contracts in El Salvador and Peru for security consulting and the supply of equipment to the army of the democratic president of Peru, Alan Garcia. The army and police of Peru were then locked in a fierce conflict against the terrorism perpetrated by the left-wing organizations Shining Path and Tupac Amaru. The contract was to secure and protect ports and the facilities of the navy, and to train and set up a special school for its Special Forces.

Connections with Vargas Llosa

In the 1990 Peruvian elections Gleser won a contract to provide security to one of the candidates, Mario Vargas Llosa. The famous novelist was defeated by his rival, Alberto Fujimori (who was ousted at the end of the decade following corruption revelations), but Gleser says he acquired a friend and continues to be in touch with the Peruvian writer, who now lives in Europe.

Did you have any qualms about setting up and arming the Special Forces? After all, these are dictatorial regimes that undermine human rights and use firearms against their citizens.

"I had no qualms. My friend from Argentina, Prof. Peres, represents an approach that views Israel as a fascist, brutal state, which does not respect human rights. I do not want to defend Israeli policy, but all the countries I have worked in have had legally elected democratic regimes. Honduras was democratic at the time and so was Peru. They are countries that had elected presidents and governments and armies. They turned to me lawfully and I acceded."

Still, how do you explain the fact that your name was linked to controversial actions?

"There were cases in which people who did not work for us used our name and reputation and gave us a bad name. I do not see myself as a mercenary. True, I have missions, and I try to carry them out as well as I can, but I act according to the principles and laws of the state. Mercenaries act against the laws."

Did you have offers to take part in illegal actions such as coups?

"I've heard many things in my life. People put out feelers to see whether I would be ready to lend a hand to all kinds of things."

Such as?

"Such as unofficial and unauthorized elements, who want to order wiretapping and various means of supervision. But I will not go into that. I know half the world is doing it, but my company and I simply refuse any such offer."

Were you not accused of being involved in interrogations using torture in Ecuador?

"That was a false accusation by the president at the time, Abdala Bucaram. He concocted a baseless story against the former president, his rival, Leon Cordova. Bucaram had a wild imagination and claimed that one of my men was involved in kidnapping people and interrogating them under torture. When he was elected president, in 1990, we left Ecuador, and since then this totally unfounded story has haunted us. There are always newspapers or politicians who find an opportunity to recycle old things."

For a long time, Gleser emphasizes, most of his activity has been focused in the civilian realm and has served companies in the area of infrastructure, "but it is hard to eradicate the mistaken impression that was created, that our work is with military elements. The truth is that the 60 families that are connected to my company do not make a living from despots or corrupt people. We have never had anything to do with atrocities and we never trained anyone who perpetrated atrocities. To murder people you don't need special instruction and training. All you have to do is release your animal instinct. For that, there is no need for American, French, British or Israeli instructors, who are the most moral."

Why did you finally agree to be interviewed?

"I really do not actually know. Maybe because I also have an ego and occasionally I had thoughts of writing a book about my life. This interview is meant to give me certain experience, but it is experience that scares me."W



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