Bogota, Colombia -- As U.S. efforts to reduce drug trafficking out of the Andes escalate, more U.S.-supplied equipment is flowing into the region and more Americans are becoming involved -- and occasionally coming under fire. But because of the growing privatization of U.S. military efforts abroad, their presence is often unseen.
Increasingly, the U.S. government is contracting or licensing private American firms to carry out quasi-military functions in a practice known as ''outsourcing,'' a practice that critics brand as the hiring of mercenaries. It is largely the result of the shrinking size of the U.S. Army and a reluctance to risk the lives of U.S. servicemen in foreign conflicts.
''Congress and the American people don't want any servicemen killed overseas,'' said former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette. ''So it makes sense that if contractors want to risk their lives, they get the job.''
Opponents emphasize the dangers of carrying out foreign policy through private firms, claiming it is fraught with waste and conducted largely outside Congressional supervision or the public's view.
''There is little or no accountability in this process of outsourcing,'' said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. ''This is a way of funding secret wars with taxpayers' money that could get us into a Vietnam-like conflict.''
A Herald review of the practice has found that at least four American companies are conducting some of the key operations that implement U.S. foreign policy in the Andean region, from tracking guerrillas from the sky and helping to interdict airborne drug runners to running risky search-and-rescue missions:
- DynCorp, a Reston, Va., firm that handles much of the aviation side of U.S. drug eradication efforts in the Andean region, has some 80 pilots and mechanics in Colombia -- about half of them Americans and the rest Latin Americans -- running a $30 million to $40 million a year program to defoliate coca fields.
- AirScan, of Rockledge, Fla., sends airplanes loaded with surveillance gear and manned by U.S. military veterans to search for guerrillas in the jungles of Colombia and Angola. U.S. officials in Bogot said AirScan's Cessna 337 Skymasters use infra-red and television cameras to spot guerrillas near the Cao Limn pipeline in eastern Colombia, bombed some 60 times in the past year by the leftist National Liberation Army, known as ELN.
- MPRI, of Alexandria, Va., just finished a $6 million contract with the Pentagon under which a 14-man team headed by a former army general advised the Colombian military and police on logistics, planning and organization. Formerly known as Military Professional Resources Inc., the firm is headed by retired Gen. Carl Vuono, who commanded the Army during Desert Storm, and counts a dozen retired generals and admirals, as well as CIA officials and ambassadors on its staff.
- Aviation Development Corp., a private company based at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama whose pilots were flying a Cessna Citation V over the Amazon on April 20 in a drug interdiction program when they mistakenly helped a Peruvian jet target a plane carrying U.S. missionaries.
As a result of that incident, in which Veronica Bowers and her her seven-month-old daughter, Charity, died, outsourcing came under an unwelcomed spotlight. Now, some members of Congress look skeptically at the practice.
''There wasn't one person aboard that plane sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States,'' complained a veteran of counter-drug operations in Latin America, referring to the private contractors in lieu of U.S. military personnel. ''They were all ... businessmen!''
Over the past few weeks, Congress has moved to limit the use of contractors in the counter-drug efforts in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Schakowsky has proposed a total ban on contractors, while Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass, wants the contracts slowly shifted to local police forces.
But even before the incident in Peru, the debate over outsourcing had long been simmering in Washington, especially as U.S. counter-drug operations in the Andean region bloomed in the 1990s into a campaign that today costs about $1 billion a year.
DynCorp has been paid at least $270 million since 1991 to provide airplane and helicopter pilots and mechanics for the war on drugs in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Guatemala, according to a Government Accounting Office report to Congress in March.
Describing itself as a ''leading information technology and outsourcing services firm,'' the company has annual revenues of $1.4 billion, most of it from U.S. government contracts, and 20,000 employees around the world.
AirScan's Web page says it has provided the Colombian air force and the Angolan government with ''security surveillance services'' for oil pipelines, as well as leasing the Colombians one its sensor-packed airplanes and training three air crews and six maintenance teams.
AirScan uses multi-spectrum cameras to pinpoint coca plantations in Colombia for later spraying by Dyncorp's pilots, according to officials in the State Department's International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Bureau.
AirScan declined comment on its work in Colombia or the value of its contracts. Florida state records shows the company, founded in 1989, is owned by John Mansur.
To the harshest critics of outsourcing, it is simply an attempt by the executive branch to escape Congressional supervision of the growing U.S. involvement in Colombia, where a civil war has claimed some 35,000 lives in the past decade.
''Privatization is a way of going around Congress and not telling the public. Foreign policy is made by default to private military consultants motivated by bottom-line profits,'' Army Col. Bruce Grant wrote in an essay while attending the Army War College in 1998.
Supporters of outsourcing say one of their top concerns is that the main U.S. actors in the counter-narcotics battle -- the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, INL and Defense Department -- have no expertise in the area.
''The State Department is embassies, cables and vouchers, not pilots,'' said Cresencio Arcos, former deputy assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics Matters. ''It has no core competence in spraying coca crops.''
And even when Congress allocates funds for counter-drug programs abroad, it's never certain that the agencies who have the job will have the means to carry it out.
''Congress gives you money, but money doesn't give you bodies or [equipment]. And if the bodies exist, can they teach, do they know the language, do they know the region?'' said Ana Mara Salazar, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Drug Enforcement Policy and Support.
MPRI got the Colombia contract, Salazar added, because the Miami-based Southern Command, in charge of all U.S. military activities in Latin America and the Caribbean, ''didn't have 14 guys it could spare for a year.''
The boom in the outsourcing business came in the 1990s, when the U.S. Army shrank from 790,000 soldiers to 480,000. The Department of Defense is now estimated to have 700,000 full and part-time contractors on its rolls.
MPRI now hires retired officers to staff ROTC programs in 217 universities and 29 military recruiting centers under contract with DOD, said Ed Soyster, a retired army general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency now with MPRI. ''We simply provide a product, like Coca-Cola.''
MPRI also hired and deployed a 20-member team for a U.S. contract as truce observers in Bosnia within two weeks, boasted Soyster, a move that he said would have taken the regular military months if not years.
Founded in 1988 by retired American generals, the firm now has a database of 11,000 former military and law enforcement officers ''on call,'' has worked in Bosnia, Macedonia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Taiwan and is pitching Costa Rica on a contract to help develop its Coast Guard.
Critics of outsourcing said there's little real difference between risking the life of a U.S. serviceman or a contractor in places like Colombia, wracked by violence from leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and drug traffickers.
''This is done primarily because we lack popular support at home to commit military forces for these kinds of things,'' said Sanho Tree, head of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.
As for the firms' vaunted ability to move faster than the government bureaucracy, said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., ''part of the bureaucracy's job is precisely to make sure we don't step in [it] like we did in Peru.''
Some of those involved in outsourcing said it is marred by occasional featherbedding and padding of bills sent to Washington, as well as back-scratching between firms and U.S. officials who supervise their contracts but hope to land a job with the firms after government retirement.
''There's a lot of taxpayers' money being wasted on counter-narcotics, and every contractor and bandit is trying to get at the trough,'' said a retired U.S. Army officer who worked in the Andean region.
Money, indeed, is what attracts the private companies, the sources said.
''There is just too much money coming down the pike to control this thing,'' said a former State Department official, recalling his own efforts to phase out DynCorp's work in Colombia and turn it over to the local police in 1995.
''I had an entire `nationalization' plan worked out to train the police,'' he said. ''But then our coca crop estimates began shooting up, Washington threw more money at the problem and the Colombians were back to being spectators because we had to ramp up a program quickly.''