The United Nations quietly released a report in March exposing an array of human rights abuses associated with a growing mercenary industry recruiting large numbers from Latin American countries.
"We have observed that in some cases the employees of private military and security companies enjoy an immunity, which can easily become impunity, implying that some States may contract these companies in order to avoid direct legal responsibilities," said José Luís Gómez del Prado, Chairperson-Rapporteur of the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries in a statement before the Human Rights Council.
The alleged human rights abuses are not just against civilians from the countries in which they operate, but also against their own employees. These "soldiers of misfortune" are often recruited from vulnerable populations in developing countries, such as Honduras and Ecuador, where the U.N. group visited last year to conduct investigations. Massive unemployment, low wages, fragile governments and a history of violent conflicts in these countries make their populations an ideal labor pool. In addition, the report expresses worry about the "phenomenon" of Latin American government outsourcing domestic security and military functions to the private sector and the use of such operations to "protect" oil and mining companies.
"There needs to be international regulations as well as domestic regulations in these countries," said Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Tree, who has been monitoring this "out of control" industry for years in its role in the "War on Drugs" in Latin America, said the lack of regulations and oversight is due to the fact that it’s been under the radar for years and just coming to light because of the Iraq War. It’s estimated that there may be as many as 50,000 mercenaries working in Iraq—making it the second-largest force in the so-called "coalition of the willing." Many of them may end up fighting alongside U.S. soldiers in combat situations.
"The number of personal security specialists we utilize in Iraq alone is more than all the Diplomatic Security agents we have globally", said Gregg Starr, a State Department official in testimony before Congress in June of 2006.
Although there has been some reporting on high profile companies, the issue still may not be garnering the attention it deserves as no media outlets have reported on the UN report.
According to the UN Working Group, there may be as many as 280 private security firms operating illegally in Honduras. A number of Honduran nationals working in Iraq for a subsidiary of the Illinois-based Your Solutions Inc., are believed to have subjected to "irregularities in contracts, harsh working conditions, wages partially paid or unpaid, ill-treatment and isolation, and lack of basic necessities such as medical treatment and sanitation." Some former employees have filed labor and criminal claims against the company with Honduran authorities.
Another scandal unearthed against the company in the Working Group’s report involves the illegal training of Chilean recruits for Iraq in Honduras. The report states that in September 2005 the company brought 105 Chileans, some ex-soldiers, into the country under tourist visas. The Chileans, alongside their Honduran counterparts, were then sent to a former army base in the municipality of Lepaterique to receive training. The former base, now a development center of the Honduras Forestry Development Corporation, was once used by Washington in the 1980s to train mercenaries of a maybe not-so-different sort—namely Contras, Honduras’s infamous death squad Battalion 316, and Argentina’s 601st Intelligence Battalion, a "counter-terrorist" unit initiated under Operation Condor.
The possibility for industry changes in Honduras may be slight as the Working Group pointed out a "campaign of harassment, death threats and slander against the [human rights organization] Associación para una Sociedad Más Justa (AJS, Association for a More Just Society)." On December 4, 2006 Dionisio Díaz García, a lawyer and journalist with the Tegucigalpa-based AJS, was shot in the head while driving in his car to court where he was scheduled to represent a group of security guards who had their labor rights violated.
In a statement, the AJS wrote: "These companies have resorted to intimidation, smear campaigns, and open hostility toward AJS workers. On Monday, December 11, a board member and staff of CRWRC-Honduras partner group Genesis received a text message stating, 'You are the next.'"
In Ecuador conditions are more of the same: immunity, impunity, exploitation and human and labor rights violations. The report expressed concern that private security companies were using the U.S. military base in Manta to recruit employees for foreign operations (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and to conduct aerial spraying and other counter-narcotics operations under "Plan Colombia."
"A transnational private security company was performing counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics tasks from the military base in Manta," said Gómez del Prado of the UN, adding that these functions should be carried out exclusively by U.S. military personnel.
Manta has become a political lightning rod as Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa has threatened to not renew the "Agreement of Cooperation" with the United States (which expires in 2009) that allows Washington to use the Air Force base. The agreement also grants immunity to U.S. military personnel and civilian contractors—a clause which the Working Group views as problematic. The report, documenting abuses and other malfeasance at the base, along with public opinion firmly on the side of Correa, may make it even easier for him to kick Washington out when the agreement expires.
Jeffrey Shippey, a former DynCorp International employee at Manta created a ghost company, Epi Security and Investigations, and recruited more than 1,000 Colombians and Ecuadorans to work in Iraq. The report noted that the company wasn’t registered in Quito nor with local provisional authorities. NGO’s told the Working Group that the company was allegedly using Chilean instructors and former Colombian military personnel.
In an advertisement promoting his company on the Iraq Job Center Web site Shippey wrote: "These forces have been fighting terrorists for 41 years and ... have been trained by the U.S. Navy Seals and the U.S. DEA to conduct counter-drug/counter-terror ops in the jungles and rivers of Colombia."
Another virtue of his mercenaries is that they get paid considerably less than their U.S. counterparts. In July 2005 Shippey told the Los Angeles Times, "The U.S. State Department is very interested in saving money on security now. Because they're driving the prices down, we're seeking Third World people to fill the positions."
Adam Isaacson, Director of Programs at the Center for International Policy, worries about the stories that haven’t come to light yet. He mentioned a report translated on his Web site about Colombians working in Iraq for a subsidiary of Blackwater USA who had their return tickets taken away from them when they complained about getting paid only $1,000 a month after being promised $4,000. They were essentially held hostage.
"It was almost slavery," said Isacson. "Lord knows how many more cases there are."
Tree, of the Institute for Policy Studies, said that there are other consequences that we might not see for years. One of the most worrying is that these people may take this training and use it for violent criminal activities. An example of this is the story of the "Zetas," a group made up of former members of a Mexican Special Forces unit trained in the United States. Many members of this group now work for the notorious Gulf Cartel, which is believed to supply large amounts of cocaine to the United States.
"Don’t train people if you don’t know what side they are going to fight for at the end of the day," said Tree.
Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at www.UpsideDownWorld.org, where this article was first published. He can be reached at Cyril(at)upsidedownworld.org.