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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."

Read more from AméricaEconomía in Spanish

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