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U.S. Civilians on Frontlines of Drug War in Colombia Print
U.S. Civilians on Frontlines of Drug War in Colombia

By Juan O. Tamayo

Knight Ridder Newspapers
February 26, 2001

BOGOTA, Colombia – Former US Green Beret? Retired CIA? Military Helicopter pilot or mechanic? If Uncle Sam doesn’t want you anymore, maybe DynCorp does.

As $1.3 billion in mostly U.S. aid pours into Colombia for an assault on its narcotics industry, firms like DynCorp are providing security forces here with everything from coat-and-tie logistics consultants to helicopter gunship pilots.

It’s not the work for the average retiree.

A team that included several U.S. contract workers landed a helicopter in the middle of a firefight earlier this month to rescue the crew of a police chopper downed by leftist guerilla gunfire in southern Colombia.

But with the U.S. military’s manpower plummeting by 40 percent since the late 1980s, Washington has been increasingly turning to private U.S. firms to carry out quasi-military missions in foreign trouble spots.
U.S. officials call it “outsourcing,” making it sound as innocuous as contracting a computer advisor. The firms contracted bill themselves as “consultants” or “services companies” – not “mercenaries.”

If privatization is the trend these days, the argument goes, why not privatize war, too?
As Colombian President Andres Pastrana travels to Washington to meet with President Bush on Tuesday, worries are mounting about the danger the U.S. contractors face – and whether their presence and that of U.S. troops could lead to deeper involvement in Colombia’s decades-old civil war.

“Once this juggernaut starts rolling it’s extremely difficult to put a stopping point on it,” said Robert E. White, a former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador who heads the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank.

“Once there are a few Americans killed, it seems to me that things begin to unravel,” he added, “And then you find yourself, indeed, fully involved.”

Firms such as DynCorp have been around for decades. Founded in 1946 to handle post-World War II airplane surpluses, DynCorp is the biggest, with sales of $1.2 billion a year – 95 percent from contracts with the U.S. government.

It runs everything from one of the computer centers that handled the 2000 Census to the maintenance for the Kuwaiti Air Force, the administration of a U.S. military air base in the Honduran town of Palmerola and the sale of military surplus from former U.S. bases in Panama.

Other such firms have trained police in Haiti, armies in the former Yugoslavia and military logistics officers in El Salvador and handled logistics for the ill-fated U.S. military involvement in Somalia.

But with Washington pumping huge amounts of money in Colombia, the roles of firms like DynCorp have come under increasing scrutiny – and aroused concerns about the safety and accountability of its employees here.

They are not bound by the orders to avoid combat that apply to the 200 regular U.S. military trainers here, and it’s unclear whether they are covered by U.S. congressional restrictions on contacts with Colombian security units alleged to have links with right-wing paramilitary squads.

As civilians, their work and fate come under less scrutiny. When a DynCorp paramedic died of an apparent heart attack here in October, the U.S. Embassy handled his case like the death of any American abroad, declining to release any information on his background or next of kin.

At least six U.S. firms now work with Colombian security forces, either hired directly by the government here or under contracts with U.S. Departments of State and Defense, said one knowledgeable U.S. official. Israeli Defense Industries also has several contracts here, mostly n the communications and electronics firm.

Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI) of Alexandria, Va., has a contract with Defense Department, expiring March 8, to provide a dozen advisors, mostly retired U.S. generals, to Colombia’s Joint Chiefs of Staff on mostly administrative and logistics issues.

MPRI’s website touts the firm, with reported annual revenues of $12 million, as “the greatest corporate assemblage of military expertise in the world,” with 2,000 retired generals, admirals and other officers on call.

Northrop Grumman of Los Angeles provides an unknown number of U.S. citizens that operate and maintain five radar stations in eastern and southern Colombia that track suspected drug smuggling flights.

Tracking data is beamed to Key West in Florida, home of the drug-fighting Joint Interagency Task Force-East, under the 1998 contract administered by the Defense Department’s Air Combat Command in Hampton, VA.

But by far the largest firm operating in Colombia is DynCorp, hired by the U.S. State Department’s International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau six years ago under a reported $600 million contract to support coca eradication programs in Colombia as well as Peru and Bolivia.

DynCorp provides American pilots for herbicide fumigation planes and helicopter gunships that protect the spray missions, aircraft mechanics and search and rescue teams (SARs) like the one that pulled a downed helicopter crew from the middle of a firefight Sunday in southern Colombia.

Police officials said about 30 American DynCorp employees are now in Colombia, although the company has also contracted some 30 Colombian and several Peruvians and Guatemalans to fly and maintain aircraft.

American pilots earn about $90,000 a year while mechanics earn about $60,000, but they must live on remote military bases, sometimes working 45 days, then taking 14 days off.

DynCorp employees are under strict orders to avoid journalists, but U.S. congressional aides that have had access to them say many are hardboiled, hard-drinking veterans of the U.S. military.

“Your best introduction to them is a case of beer,” said one former U.S. military advisor here who keeps in touch with the situation in Colombia.

Leftist guerillas last year kidnapped one American helicopter mechanic, who stayed in Colombia after his DynCorp contract ended because of a love affair, but freed him after a few weeks “because he was so crazy,” the former advisor said.

DynCorp and MPRI officials said they could not comment on their operations in Colombia under the terms of their contracts with the U.S. governments

But there have been U.S. media reports that some of their missions extend beyond drug-fighting and into the Colombian military’s war against some 23,000 leftist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, and the National Liberation Army, known as ELN.

DynCorp is, after all, a multifaceted company.

Two years ago, it advertised for Spanish-speaking policemen. Cops who inquired were told the company had no jobs at the time but was making an “on call” list in case Washington ever needed to hire a peacekeeping or police-training mission in a post-Castro Cuba.

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