BOGOTA, Colombia - The offers come via email, anonymous newspaper ads and word of mouth. And the temptation - which includes making as much as 20 times their yearly salary - has been strong enough to lure dozens of Colombians to Iraq to do some of the most dangerous work on the planet.
"If I spoke English, I would have gone," said one retired army major who specialized in intelligence gathering.
The retired officer, who didn't want to give his name, received an email about a year ago promising upward of $7,000 per month if he'd join one of the 60-odd private contracting outfits that guard company installations and oil pipelines, drive trucks and serve food in military mess halls. He says some of his colleagues went, adding to what he estimates are about 50 Colombians who've made the trip to the Middle East from this war-torn nation.
Yet Colombia is but one stop in Latin America for contractors. Dozens of Salvadorans have also been recruited to work in Iraq, and private security firms there told The Washington Post recently that they intend to comb the region for fresh recruits.
Most contractors, said Doug Brooks of the International Peace Operations Association, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that tracks the industry, make between $1,200-$2,400 per month.
From a political perspective, it makes sense as well. Analysts estimate that there are about 6,000 contractors in Iraq, and their presence goes largely unnoticed, even when they die.
"This is a trend that is not slowing. It's gaining speed," said Ken Silverstein, author of Private Warriors. "It's a question of a general trend toward privatization: the fact that the U.S. military has been downsized so dramatically in terms of personnel it no longer can do the things that it used to do. To a certain extent, it allows for the government to operate with a little more discretion than otherwise."
While in El Salvador companies advertise their presence openly, in Colombia the process has been more discreet. One unnamed "American Company," for example, posted an ad in Colombia's leading newspaper, El Tiempo, seeking "officers and enlisted men of the army, marines, and air force." The ad left no phone number, just a post office box.
Other recruits go to secretly organized meetings, the retired major told The Herald.
Colombian soldiers have been recruited for wars abroad before. During the Korean War, Colombia fought alongside the United States.
The country has been embroiled in its own 4-decades-old civil war between left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and the government. There are as many as 4,000 war-related deaths per year.
Some Colombians are troubled that the offer to work in the Middle East will take valuable talent away from the job at home. Others worry that their countrymen are being used as cannon fodder.
"These are truly `garbage' warriors," El Tiempo said in a spirited editorial against the recruiting effort. "They don't even know who's giving the orders."
For their part, Human Rights observers wonder who is vetting these recruits. Colombia's military has one of the worst rights records in the hemisphere. "You're drawing from this problematic pool of Colombian military," said Robin Kirk, the author of "More Terrible Than Death" and a researcher for Human Rights Watch for 10 years. "And you do have this figure of the retired military officer who has been in command of paramilitary troops for a long time. The fact that they were in these paramilitary groups is not necessarily going to show up because we only know them by their nicknames."
Contractors have already found themselves under scrutiny when a British mercenary famous for his exploits in fomenting coups in Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea recently opened up his own shop in Iraq and received a lucrative contract to coordinate security companies there.
Currently there is little official oversight of these companies, but Brooks of the International Peace Operations Association says the contractors want this to change.
"The reality is that it's not going to be a perfect system," he said. "Whether you're wearing camouflage or blue jeans, you have to be held accountable for what's going on."
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