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Iraq, Afghanistan lure poor Latin American guards Print

Reuters - 21 Aug 2006

By Isabel Ordonez

LIMA, Peru, Aug 21 (Reuters) - Poor Latin American security guards are flocking to Iraq and Afghanistan to work for U.S. companies desperate for relatively cheap employees with the type of military know-how gleaned in a region once run by generals.

Lured by wages up to 10 times higher than they earn at home, at least 1,200 Peruvians with military or police training have worked in the war-torn countries since 2005, according to security companies and human rights groups.

"We can easily find people in India or Pakistan willing to work in Iraq or Afghanistan for less money, but we prefer men from Latin America for their (military) background," Mike Dodd, vice president of operations at U.S.-based recruiting company 3D Global Solutions, said in a telephone interview.

Another U.S. security company, Triple Canopy, hires guards through a Peruvian recruiter and the sister of a guard said he was recruited by a third U.S. company, MVM Inc. Such companies pay Latin American workers in the war zones salaries that range from $1,000 to $2,000 a month.

Dodd said his company had sent Peruvian guards to Iraq and was recruiting in Costa Rica. Guards from Chile have been to the regions and placements of guards from El Salvador and Honduras have been widely reported in those countries' media.

European and U.S. security agents can earn up to $10,000 per month in the two hot spots, according to the companies, although they said that in contrast with Latin Americans who largely guard facilities, those top earners were usually extremely highly trained, often with special services experience.

With coalition troops failing to quell spiraling violence after invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, protecting embassy and contractor facilities can be perilous.

Much of Latin America was under military rule in the 1970s and 1980s and many armies are still primed for action.

Many unemployed soldiers have been toughened up at home, fighting guerrilla movements in earlier decades, or crime more recently.

"A Peruvian in Baghdad will not panic if he has to face a blast or a blackout because he has already experienced that on the streets of Lima," said Alejandro Fernandez, general manager at Lima-based Defion Internacional, a local recruiter for Triple Canopy.

Defion alone has sent 1,200 Peruvians to the U.S. Embassy, U.S. diplomatic residences and Iraqi government buildings within Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.

"In two months I earned the money I would earn in two years in Peru," said former Peruvian soldier William Perez, who guarded the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

RISKING IT ALL

Dozens of Peruvians have returned with psychological disorders such as post-traumatic stress, according to local media reports and human rights groups, leading the latter to accuse companies of treating guards like cannon fodder.

"These jobs are incredibly dangerous, and while salaries might be high compared to what they earn here, it is not clear if they are receiving proper protection," said Rosa Quedena, head of the Peru-based Ecumenical Foundation for Peace and Development, which defends human rights in the country.

U.S. security companies said they provide proper gear, housing and training, and that the U.S. government itself provides life insurance in many cases.

In Latin American cities where heavily armed kidnappers and robbers consider guards with rusting guns mere irritations, working in a notorious hot spot does not seem so bad to some.

Emanuel Salvador, 24, who guards an export business 12 hours a day, seven days a week in Lima -- where rooftop snipers guard some gas stations -- says he would consider a job in Iraq because he wants a better life for his family.

"The streets of Lima can be just as dangerous," said Salvador, wearing a black uniform, a small gun in his belt. "I will do whatever I can to have a better future." (Additional reporting by Greg Brosnan) 

 
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