From Baghdad To Bogota, The Gray Zones And Global Reach Of Modern Mercenaries

Mexico’s bloody drug wars could mean new opportunities for private military companies like XE Services, better known as Blackwater, which became infamous in Iraq. Latin America provides such firms with both quality recruits and new business opportunities.

Blackwater contractors in Iraq (2006)
Blackwater contractors in Iraq (2006)
David Santa Cruz

MEXICO CITY -- The Iraqi resistance nicknamed him "Al-Shaitan" (the devil) and put a hefty bounty on his head. In the United States, he has been decorated as a hero. Newspapers there call him the "deadliest sniper in U.S. history." During his various missions as a Navy SEAL he officially killed 150 people. The Texan himself counts his kills at 255.

These days, however, 37-year-old Chris Kyle is too busy running his own business to add to his "legendary" kill count. In 2009, after completing his military service – with full honors – he founded Craft International, a company that offers private military and security services and specializes in training sharpshooters. The company forms part of a new trend in military outsourcing, a business model that has quickly spread across the globe, including into Latin America, where modern mercenaries are being put to work in everything from mining to coca eradication.

Craft International is by no means the first such for-profit paramilitary venture. In 1997, another former SEAL, Erik Prince, used his generous inheritence to set up a large private facility specialized in training police and soldiers. Prince, whose wealthy family has close ties to the Republican Party, called his operation Blackwater and staffed the new company with a long list of experienced and skilled trainers.

The story of Blackwater, now called XE Services, is about as dark and murky as the woods of North Carolina where the company is based. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 resulted in a windfall of contracts for the company, which was soon deemed to have the world's largest private army. Blackwater's contractors were involved in several cases of alleged abuse, including a massacre in 2007 in Baghdad's Nisour Square. The company's hired guns allegedly killed 17 Iraqi civilians, including women and children.

"But they were never jailed," says José Luis Gómez del Prado, who chairs a UN working group investigating human rights abuses committed by mercenaries. "There were also the cases of torture in the Abu Ghraib prison. None of those contractors were ever tried, while the U.S. soldiers involved were punished."

In many cases, including in Iraq, mercenaries employed by Blackwater and other such companies enjoy diplomatic immunity. Efforts to prosecute them for war crimes are also hindered by the open question of where exactly to try them. In the country where they committed the alleged war crimes? In the country where they were contracted? In their countries of origin?

Rumsfeld's 9-10 "war on the Pentagon"

People who have been following the trend trace the origins of military outsourcing to a single day – Sept. 10, 2001 – when then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld delivered a speech excoriating Pentagon bureaucracy. Rumsfeld described it as an "adversary that poses a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America." He went on to say that "with brutal consistency, bureaucracy stifles free thought and crushes new ideas. It disrupts the defense of the United States and places the lives of men and women in uniform at risk."

In the Bush administration's ensuring "War on Terror," particularly in Afghanistan and later Iraq, military outsourcing became a major component of the U.S. strategy. And it has continued under the administration of President Barack Obama, who has called for major cuts to the defense budget and promised a "smaller army."

In his book, Servants of War: Private Military Corporations and the Profit of Conflict, German activist and essayist Rolf Uesseler explains how privatization of the military is viewed in the first world as a way to reduce spending and thus free up budgets for education and social programs.

Doug Brooks, director of the International Peace Operation Association (IPOA), a lobby group that works on behalf of companies providing private military services, says state armies are designed to be effective, but not necessarily cost-effective. With contractors, on the other hand, "everything is based on competitiveness." Brooks insists that these private security companies aren't meant to replace soldiers, since the role of the personnel they provide is passive and preventative. "Mostly they work on logistics, construction, support activities," the IPOA director explains.

There are companies that specialize in espionage, others that provide data analysis, training, sales and shipment of weapons, catering and even medical services. Brooks explains that when a government carries out an international operation, its military apparatus tends to have natural limitations in at least some of the aforementioned areas. That's when they turn to private providers, who – in the interest of maximizing profits – cast their eyes toward the developing world.

In order to keep costs down, a private firm like XE Services may choose not to hire out an America engineer, for example, when it can instead find an Indian, Filipino or Mexican who will do the job just as well – but for far less money. That explains in large part why Latin America has played such a major role over the past decade in the private military industry.

"A few months ago I was in Iraq and I was shocked to see Peruvians guarding the U.S. Embassy in Bagdad," says Gómez del Prado. A number of ex-Chilean soldiers have also made their way into the ranks of XE Services and other private military providers.

Mercenary missions south of the border

Latin America hasn't only provided contractors. It has also been a destination spot for some of these modern-day mercenary missions. Several years ago the tabloids were full of news about the alleged romance between the former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and Mark Gonsavles, an American contractor who accompanied her during her long captivity at the hand of Colombia's FARC guerillas.

Gonsalves and three other ex-U.S. soldiers were in Colombia carrying out spy missions for the Pentagon via Northrop Grumman, a company that together with DynCorp handles many of the operations involved in US efforts in the country known as Plan Colombia. Northrop Grumman is 72nd on Fortune magazine's annual list of the 500 biggest U.S. corporations. DynCorp is ranked 868. Pioneers in the world of military outsourcing, both are what are known as Private Military Companies, or PMCs. James Roche, a former Northrop Grumman executive, was named Air Force secretary during the George W. Bush administration.

In 2001, the participation of PMCs in Colombia came to light when a Huey II military helicopter being operated by DynCorp was shot down by FARC guerillas. The attack killed four private contractors. Two years later, in August of 2003, the FARC shot down a "fumigation" plane that was carrying Gonsalves and his colleagues.

"If you speak with people in Colombia's ministries of defense and foreign affairs, they'll admit they don't really know how many people in the country are working as contractors," says Amanda Benavides, the ex-president of the UN Working Group on mercenary use.

According to Benavides, the presence of PMCs in Latin America has been growing steadily. More and more, mining companies are hiring such companies to protect their resources. PMCs, in turn, hire Latin Americans, mostly former soldiers, for missions in foreign combat zones. "Often they are hired as security contractors but they end up working as military contractors," says Benavides. PMCs are also used to control prisons, to guard borders, as first responders in natural disaster situations, and also for humanitarian missions.

Both Benavides and Gómez del Prado think that Latin American countries, especially Mexico, should establish laws allowing them, if needs be, to prosecute privately-contracted mercenaries. Gómez del Prado warns that PMCs are expanding operations across Latin America and are now being involved in Mexico's bloody drug wars and in plan Mérida, a multinational anti-drug trafficking program being carried out by the United States, Mexico and the Central American nations.

"They're copying Plan Colombia," says Gómez del Prado. "And there, like in Iraq, the contractors enjoy diplomatic immunity."

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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