In October, Erik Prince, the 39-year-old CEO of Blackwater Worldwide, a leading private security company operating in Iraq, went into damage-control mode. Blackwater employees in Baghdad’s Nisour Square had killed 17 Iraqi civilians the previous month, causing an uproar and the suspension of official diplomatic convoys throughout the country for four days. Making the rounds with the media and testifying before Congress, Prince repeatedly said that his employees are not mercenaries, as critics contend. Citing the definition of a mercenary as “a professional soldier working for a foreign government,” Prince told the House Oversight Committee that in contrast, Blackwater’s employees are “Americans working for America, protecting Americans.”
This statement would come as a surprise—and a slap in the face—to the thousands of Latin Americans and others from outside the United States whom the company has hired to fill its contracts in Iraq since the war began. Greystone Limited, a Blackwater affiliate set up in 2004 in the tax haven of Barbados, has recruited Iraq security guards from countries throughout Latin America, including Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama, as journalist Jeremy Scahill has reported.
But Blackwater is far from the only such company hiring “third-country nationals,” or employees who are not from the United States or Iraq. In the interest of improving profit margins, private military firms in Iraq are increasingly turning to the developing world for armed guards. Peter Singer, a leading expert on the private security industry at the Brookings Institution, has estimated that there are citizens from 30 countries employed as security contractors in Iraq. While ex-soldiers from the Balkans, Fiji, Nepal, the Philippines, South Africa, and Uganda are all common in Iraq, Latin America has proven to be a particularly fertile recruiting ground for these companies.
Latin America, says Adam Isacson, director of programs at the Center for International Policy, is a predictable site for U.S. mercenary companies to recruit personnel. In “what other region of the world are you going to find reasonably westernized people with military experience, in some cases with combat experience, who will work for low wages, who speak a language that a lot of our own military personnel speak,” he asks, noting that the U.S. Army is about a quarter Latino and that Latin America accounts for about 40% of U.S. military training programs worldwide. “It’s their natural ground to find people with military experience for whom $1,000 a month is a lot of money.”
One of the first people to recognize the role that Latin America could play in the booming new mercenary industry was José Miguel Pizarro Ovalle, a former arms broker. Indeed, it was Pizarro who “opened the door” for these firms to recruit in the region, as José Luis Gómez del Prado, head of the United Nations Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, told Mother Jones magazine. A dual citizen of Chile and the United States, Pizarro served in the militaries of both countries and to this day defends the Pinochet dictatorship. After leaving the Marines as a translator for the U.S. Southern Command in 1999, Pizarro decided to cash in on his unique connections and began facilitating arms deals between Latin American militaries and U.S. manufacturers. Shortly after the United States invaded Iraq, he set his eyes on a new lucrative business opportunity: the provision of Chileans to mercenary companies.
In October 2003, Pizarro traveled to Blackwater’s headquarters in Moyock, North Carolina, to pitch the idea. Prince was receptive during their meeting and gave him the go-ahead. Pizarro returned immediately to Chile and placed a discreet ad in El Mercurio, the Santiago daily, looking for former military officers for “work abroad.” More than 1,000 applicants quickly responded, and by February 2004, Blackwater’s first batch of Chilean commandos, 77 of them, was on its way to Iraq. Offering the unusually high salary of about $3,000 per month, Blackwater began hiring a steady stream of Pizarro’s men for the “static protection” of State Department and Coalition Provisional Authority buildings. The Chileans were still a relative bargain, considering that former U.S. or British special forces can be paid as much as $1,000 per day in Iraq, according to The New York Times.
Pizarro soon branched out and began providing Chileans to Triple Canopy, another large private military company in Iraq, offering salaries of only $1,000 per month. This paltry sum—though an enormous amount for many Latin Americans—has since become the going rate for recruits throughout the region. All told, Pizarro says he contracted 756 Chileans for the two companies, and possibly others, while he was in business, Scahill reported. The actual number of Chileans in Iraq is undoubtedly higher, since mercenary firms also operate there clandestinely. Chilean senator Alejandro Navarro, an outspoken critic of the private war industry, has estimated that about 2,200 Chileans have been to Iraq and that 1,000 remain there, according to the Buenos Aires–based newspaper Página 12 and Chile’s Santiago Times.
The money may have been good for Pizarro, but controversy was never far behind. In order to skirt Chilean law, which prohibits “the act of providing or offering the services of private armed guards, in any form or designation, by any natural or artificial person,” Pizarro hired Chileans for Blackwater through Neskowin, a firm he set up in Uruguay, while using a different company called Global Guards, registered in Panama, for his business with Triple Canopy. And since paramilitary activity is also banned in Chile, the limited training that recruits received often took place either in Amman, Jordan, or in Iraq, once the Chileans arrived, as the UN Working Group found.
Reports surfaced shortly after this paramilitary pipeline between Chile and Iraq began flowing that Pizarro was posting flyers on military bases and using e-mail to lure active-duty military personnel to the private sector. One Chilean contractor who went to Iraq through one of Pizarro’s companies told the UN Working Group that 17 of his fellow active-duty soldiers “had requested leave to be recruited.”
Given the recent history of repressive regimes throughout the region, it is likely that many Latin Americans working for private military firms in Iraq have been responsible for human rights abuses in their home countries. For instance, Louis E. V. Nevaer reported in 2004: “Newspapers in Chile have estimated that approximately 37 Chileans in Iraq are seasoned veterans of the Pinochet era.” Some argue that this is merely a result of poor vetting, while others do not see it as an accident. As Tito Tricot, a former political prisoner who was tortured under the dictatorship in Chile, told Scahill, the Chileans working for these firms in Iraq “are valued for their expertise in kidnapping, torturing, and killing defenseless civilians.”
“What should be a national shame,” Tricot added, “turns into a market asset due to the privatization of the Iraq war.” In the end, Pizarro was fined and sentenced to 61 days in jail for his recruitment activity, a punishment that is not likely to dissuade many from following in his shoes. Nonetheless, he has appealed the sentence and is currently walking free. Meanwhile, Triple Canopy, which according to State Department figures relies far more on foreign hiring than Blackwater, filled its contract to protect the U.S. Embassy and other sites in Baghdad’s Green Zone by hiring recruits almost exclusively from Latin America (especially El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Honduras), as Foreign Policy magazine noted. In 2005, a local subsidiary of Chicago-based Your Solutions began recruiting for the company in Honduras.
The company trained its recruits—including a group of Chileans who entered the country with tourist visas—at the former military base in Lepaterique. Located just outside Tegucigalpa, the base is a notorious legacy of the Contra war, having been used by Washington in the 1980s to train Nicaraguan counter-insurgents, as well as Honduras’s infamous Battalion 316 death squad. Echoing this gruesome past, one Triple Canopy trainee explained that he and his fellow recruits were instructed “to be heartless when it was up to us to kill someone, even if it was a child,” Agence France-Presse reported. After only several months in operation, the Honduran government fined Your Solutions and kicked the company out of the country for violating the law, which prohibits the training of foreign soldiers on its soil. Nevertheless, before the ax fell, Triple Canopy trained and sent at least 189 Hondurans and 105 Chileans to Iraq, according to the UN Working Group.
In the spring of 2003, public opinion in Latin America was vehemently, and overwhelmingly, opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Despite significant pressure from the Bush administration, only a handful of countries in the region joined the so-called Coalition of the Willing, contributing a combined total of slightly more than 1,000 soldiers to the U.S.-led war effort. While Latin America government officials’ recalcitrance on the war may have dealt a diplomatic blow to the United States, it did not stop thousands of poor ex-soldiers and former police officers throughout the region from performing essentially military functions in Iraq—under a corporate logo rather than their country’s flag.
The unprecedented privatization of the war in Iraq has given rise to a private military industry that was all but nonexistent 20 years ago. In the 1991 Gulf War, for example, there was one contractor for every 60 soldiers on the ground. While the exact number of private personnel in Iraq today is likely higher than official estimates, at least 180,000 private contractors are working there, according to recent government figures cited in the Los Angeles Times. As Scahill noted in congressional testimony, this makes the U.S. military—with roughly 160,000 troops in the country—the “junior partner in the coalition that’s occupying Iraq.”
Not only are far more contractors operating in war zones than in the past, but they are now responsible for many tasks that used to be carried out exclusively by the military. One of the most controversial roles being outsourced is armed protection for convoys, government facilities and diplomats. According to the Private Security Company Association of Iraq there are more than 180 such companies in operation that now employ 70,000 armed private security contractors in the country, and that number is only growing.
Established in 2005 to monitor this new industry, the UN Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries has warned that these so-called “security guards” are “in fact private soldiers militarily armed,” and that the companies that employ them in Iraq constitute “new expressions of mercenarism in the twenty-first century.”
One of those mercenaries was Mario Urquía, a 30-year veteran of the special forces in Honduras. Hired by Triple Canopy, Urquía guarded the U.S. Embassy in Iraq for a year and claims the company promised him U.S. citizenship once he completed his contract. Not only did that prove false, but he also says that he was never paid. “Not a single penny,” he told the Salt Lake Tribune. Urquía filed a complaint against Your Solutions with the Honduran authorities, as have at least 16 others, but his case is not being pursued because he is not currently in the country. After receiving death threats for sharing his story with the Honduran press and exposing those involved in Your Solutions’ operations there, Urquía was forced to flee the country.
Another Honduran guard badly injured his foot while in Iraq. Despite signing a contract that states the employer is responsible for providing medical and hospital insurance, he was not declared unfit for work and forced to man his lookout tower on crutches. Stories like these are not unique for those in the region who have worked for private security companies. According to the UN Working Group, the Hondurans who went to Iraq with Triple Canopy reported “irregularities in contracts, harsh working conditions with excessive working hours, wages partially paid or unpaid, ill-treatment and isolation, and lack of basic necessities such as medical treatment and sanitation.”
In a recent statement, Triple Canopy said it no longer recruits from either Honduras or Chile, but “continues to hire security personnel from Latin America to work in Iraq because they are diligent workers, reliable, professional and in some instances specifically requested by our U.S. government customers.” Since 2005, when the company was booted out of Honduras, most its recruits have come from Peru. In February 2007, one of Triple Canopy’s subcontractors indicated that the company had 1,130 Peruvians working in Iraq at the time. The stories of exploitation that they bring home, however, vary little from those of Hondurans and others. One group of five guards, for example, has filed a complaint against the company for sending them to work in Baghdad’s Red Zone, despite being hired to protect the Green Zone. Another guard says that for six days he was held in custody and isolation in degrading conditions after telling his supervisors that he planned on returning home.
Peruvian contractors, much like those from other countries, have little legal recourse when something goes wrong. Their contracts stipulate that they voluntarily accept every risk “known and unknown,” and exonerate Triple Canopy from any liability even if the contractor is harmed by the company itself. Often signing their contracts in a rush on the way to the airport, the Peruvians are also likely unaware that any claims against the company must be filed in a court in Virginia, where Triple Canopy is headquartered. In fact, in some countries security contractors have said that they were given a contract to sign only once they were on the plane, at which point they realized that their salary would be much less than promised.
While private security outfits have run into trouble in some countries, many others continue with business as usual. “Not only has this phenomenon not stopped,” says Amada Benavides de Pérez, a member of the UN Working Group, but recruitment in Latin America actually “has been increasing.” To address this problem, Benavides proposes a two-pronged strategy: strengthening laws at both the national and international level, and passing a regional treaty, similar to the 1977 convention against mercenaries that exists for Africa.
In the end, however, it comes down to supply and demand. Without reversing the radical privatization agenda that has taken hold in Washington, the U.S. war machine will inevitably continue to rely on private forces. Indeed, it is in the interest of pro-war U.S. policy makers to outsource the human costs of war for as long as possible.
Eric Stoner is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Nation and Yahoo News. He recently served as a researcher on the revised, updated version of Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (Nation Books, 2008).