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Latin America’s Hidden War in Iraq Print

by Kristina Mani - October 2007
Military contractors from Latin America are playing a far greater role in Iraq than most people realize, and the implications will be felt from Baghdad to Bogotá.

Media stories about private security firms (PMFS) such as Blackwater have highlighted the important—and controversial—role that private security contractors play in supporting U.S. military forces in Iraq. What few people have discussed is just how many of these contractors come not from the United States, but, increasingly, from Latin America.

The reliance on Latin American security contractors has worrisome implications for both the United States and Latin American countries. Uneven vetting procedures by some PMFs that recruit in the region contradict and potentially undermine official U.S. policies to promote respect for human rights by Latin American military and police forces. Moreover, lack of effective regulation of the private security industry has led to abusive labor practices by some PMFs; it has also encouraged corruption in some Latin American militaries eager to benefit from the recruitment of former soldiers—a development that undercuts efforts to achieve civilian control of militaries in the region’s new democracies. A look at how the current recourse to Latin American contractors came about helps to understand the scope of these implications.

Of the estimated 30,000 contractors employed by private military firms (PMFs) in Iraq, about 10,000 come from countries other than the United States and Britain. No less than 1,200 Chileans, 1,000 Peruvians, 700 Salvadorans, and hundreds each from countries like Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have taken up security work in Iraq. Indeed, when the security firm Triple Canopy landed a U.S. government contract in 2005 to provide security in the Green Zone, it recruited security personnel almost exclusively from Latin America.

Why so many contractors from Latin America? First, the region offers a skilled security-trained hiring base. In the last two decades, militaries in the region have experienced significant downsizing as a result of changing global security conditions and the return of civilian governments, many of which sought to cut military personnel and budgets for political and economic reasons. And although some countries have moved to all-volunteer forces, most still have some form of obligatory military service. As a result, Latin America offers both highly skilled ex-soldiers (thanks to downsizing) and trained ex-conscripts (thanks to obligatory service)—a hiring base able to serve a range of contracting needs.

Moreover, as security conditions in Iraq worsened and the need for security forces expanded, the contractor base from Latin America was able to accommodate the increased demand. While in 2003 and 2004 mainly established top-tier firms like Blackwater were hiring smaller numbers of combat-savvy ex-soldiers from Chile and Colombia, in more recent years the market has broadened to include newer firms like Triple Canopy and other U.S.- and Latin American-based subcontractors that have recruited larger numbers of cheaper ex-conscripts and ex-police with only basic training from countries including El Salvador, Honduras, and Peru.

Second, conditions in Latin America have stimulated the flow of contractors. In many countries, rising crime levels and undermanned or corrupt police forces have created a booming domestic market for private security provision. This “industrial base” fits easily with the employment opportunities that conflicts abroad provide. Add to this the economic instability and unemployment problems that frequently devastate societies in the region, and it is not hard to see why Latin Americans would readily seek work abroad—especially at higher pay levels than are possible at home.

Last but not least, Latin America is unique in the world for the close military and security relationships the United States has constructed with virtually every country in the region over more than half a century. A variety of PMFs already contract with the U.S. military in the region, so U.S.-based firms have an established presence there. This presence has facilitated the creation of PMF spinoffs that know the supply market in Latin America and can work it for their overseas contracts. Such familiarity seems also to breed confidence. As Triple Canopy told the Miami Herald, it “hires security personnel from Latin America because they are diligent workers, reliable, professional and in some instances specifically requested by our U.S. government customers.” And while contracting in Iraq will earn Latin Americans about two to three times as much as they earn back home, at $1,500 to $3,200 per month they remain more affordable hires than their U.S. counterparts.

So what’s the problem? Some Latin American governments, along with the United Nations, have become concerned over disturbing consequences of these developments. After media reports identified legal violations and abusive labor practices by PMFs hiring from the region, officials in some countries began investigating PMF operations, fining and shutting down some (in Honduras) and developing laws for their regulation (in Chile, where the legislation has yet to be approved). There are also allegations in Peru and Honduras that military commanders received payments to allow private firms to train at military facilities without securing government approval. Concerns that some firms reportedly reneged on promised wages and work conditions and denied hires adequate medical treatment have drawn the attention of the United Nations. Its Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries has undertaken investigative visits to several countries, most in Latin America. But U.N. recommendations to tighten regulation can only go so far, especially in countries where institutions of accountability and transparency are still a work in progress and governments face broader problems of economic dislocation, public insecurity, and poverty.

The consequences of Latin American contracting also affect U.S. concerns. It is ironic, for instance, that the U.S. government presses the Colombian military to protect human rights on its own soil, yet hires Colombian ex-soldiers to work in Iraq through private firms whose vetting procedures are less than transparent. Moreover, the United States has invested a good deal of money and effort into helping the region’s new democracies transform their militaries and police forces into professional cadres that respect human rights and abide by civilian control. Yet the contracting phenomenon directly challenges these goals when PMFs drain the best trained and most motivated soldiers and police officers out of regular service to their own societies, and when militaries provide PMFs with munitions and infrastructure—public resources—without seeking authorization from their civilian defense ministry superiors.

With international regulation of the private security industry pending, countries in the region need to act now, and in concert. They must examine PMF activity within their borders, and create legal and enforcement mechanisms to regulate these activities. The Organization of American States and regional trade blocs can help streamline standards across borders by establishing codes of conduct for PMFs and cooperating on a sanctions regime for code violators. And it is imperative that the United States participate as a partner in this process. As the recent incident implicating Blackwater in the shooting of Iraqi civilians has shown, failure to supervise PMFs can backfire on the firms and the governments that hire them, and worse–can lead needlessly to the loss of lives.

Kristina Mani is assistant professor of political science at Oberlin College.

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