WASHINGTON — For hire: more than 1,000 U.S.-trained former soldiers and police officers from Colombia. Combat-hardened, experienced in fighting insurgents and ready for duty in Iraq.
This eye-popping advertisement recently appeared on an Iraq jobs website, posted by an American entrepreneur who hopes to supply security forces for U.S. contractors in Iraq and elsewhere.
If hired, the Colombians would join a swelling population of heavily armed private military forces working in Iraq and other global hot spots. They also would join a growing corps of workers from the developing world who are seeking higher wages in dangerous jobs, what some critics say is a troubling result of efforts by the U.S. to "outsource" its operations in Iraq and other countries.
In a telephone interview from Colombia, the entrepreneur, Jeffrey Shippy, said he saw a booming global demand for his "private army," and a lucrative business opportunity in recruiting Colombians.
Shippy, who formerly worked for DynCorp
International, a major U.S. security contractor, said the Colombians were willing to work for $2,500 to $5,000 a month, compared with perhaps $10,000 or more for Americans.
But where Shippy sees opportunity, others see trouble.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, worries that U.S. government contractors are hiring thousands of impoverished former military personnel, with no public scrutiny, little accountability and large hidden costs to taxpayers.
The United States has spent more than $4 billion since 2000 on Plan Colombia, a counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics program that includes training and support for the Colombian police and military. Last month, Congress moved toward approval of an additional $734.5 million in aid to the Andean region in 2006, most of it for Colombia.
"We're training foreign nationals … who then take that training and market it to private companies, who pay them three or four times as much as we're paying soldiers," Schakowsky said.
"American taxpayers are paying for the training of those Colombian soldiers," she said. "When they leave to take more lucrative jobs, perhaps with an American military contractor … they take that training with them. So then we're paying to train that person's replacement. And then we're paying the bill to the private military contractors."
An estimated 20,000 Iraqis and about 6,000 non-Iraqis work in private security in Iraq, said Doug Brooks, president of International Peace Operations Assn., a trade group representing the burgeoning industry.
Security accounts for as much as 25% of reconstruction costs in Iraq, eating a substantial portion of an $18.4-billion rebuilding package funded by the U.S.
Fijians, Ukrainians, South Africans, Nepalese and Serbs reportedly are on the job in Iraq. Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institution, author of a book on the private military industry, said veterans of Latin American conflicts, including Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans, also had turned up.
"What we've done in Iraq is assemble a true 'coalition of the billing,' " Singer said, playing off President Bush's description of the U.S.-led alliance of nations with a troop presence in Iraq as a "coalition of the willing."
There are no reliable figures on the number of guards from Colombia or other countries. According to Shippy, private military experts and news reports, North Carolina-based Blackwater
USA has sent 120 Colombians to Iraq. In addition, the firm reportedly has hired 122 Chileans.
The reports are difficult to verify because many large companies, including DynCorp, which is based in Texas and operates in 40 countries, have policies against speaking to the media. Gary Jackson, president of Blackwater
USA, said he had no comment.
Shippy, an Air Force veteran whose work for private military contractors has included stints in Saudi Arabia, Ecuador and Iraq, extolled the Colombians' virtues.
"These forces have been fighting terrorists the last 41 years," he wrote in his web posting seeking work. "These troops have been trained by the U.S. Navy SEALs and the U.S. [Drug Enforcement Administration] to conduct counter-drug/counter-terror ops in the jungles and rivers of Colombia."
The Colombians would join the lucrative private military industry in Iraq even as the U.S.-funded war against drug traffickers continues to rage in their homeland. Experts are divided on the effect that would have on U.S. national interests.
"It's not necessarily self-defeating, but it's not optimal," Singer said.
The recruitment of Colombians shows that although "there's still a local demand" for high-end military services in Colombia, "the global demand is far higher," he said.
Two experts on the Colombian military said highly trained officers were constantly being retired from the armed forces to face low wages and widespread unemployment in the nation's troubled economy.
There is no hemorrhage of manpower in the 200,000-strong Colombian army, which relies on a draft and a plentiful supply of volunteers, said Thomas A. Marks, a specialist on the country's military.
Colombians who have completed their military service are entitled to seek higher-paying private-sector jobs when their stints are up, as are U.S. soldiers, he said.
"What's wrong with them using their skills, their know-how in Iraq?" asked David Spencer, a Washington-based security consultant who has spent nine years working in Colombia.
"It's good for the Colombian because he makes more money than he could make in Colombia, and it's good for the [U.S.] contractor because he has to pay less than he'd pay an American."
Colombia has no law discouraging citizens from going to work in Iraq, in contrast to attempts in Nepal and the Philippines to ban or regulate such work after some of their citizens were killed or kidnapped in Iraq.
Sanho Tree, a Latin America specialist at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington who spotted Shippy's job posting, said the availability of high-paying private security jobs could drain talent from the Colombian military, just as it had from the U.S. military.
Moreover, he noted, there is no way to guarantee the loyalty of even U.S.-trained troops once they go to work for private companies.
"One of the real red-flag issues here is these people are free to do as they choose — not only to work for U.S.-aligned objectives in Iraq, but also to work for the bad guys," Tree said.
Shippy said he had been in business for only three months and had yet to land a contract for the Colombians.
He said he was interested in recruiting only Colombians who had been thoroughly vetted for criminal or human rights problems, to work for companies with U.S. government contracts.
Shippy said a trip to Baghdad had convinced him there was plenty of opportunity.
"The U.S. State Department is very interested in saving money on security now," Shippy said. "Because they're driving the prices down, we're seeking Third World people to fill the positions."
But Rep. Schakowsky argued that the Colombian military had a poor human rights record, and she questioned how thoroughly Colombian troops headed for Iraq could be vetted, given that many violators had not been pursued by Colombian authorities.
Some Democrats in Congress and other critics say the increase in private military contracts raises important ethical and financial questions — and that laws governing these transactions have yet to keep up.
Schakowsky, who is a longtime critic of private military contractors, said she had asked repeatedly for copies of Defense Department contracts with the private military firms, but "it's fighting tooth and nail to get them."
She said she planned to write to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for details about private companies' hiring of Plan Colombia veterans for work in Iraq.
"Our relationship with those contractors, the amount of money we've paid to them, is going to be one of the biggest stories of this war," Schakowsky said.
"It's all very murky, and Congress certainly has not done a great deal of oversight."
After the gruesome killings of four Blackwater
contractors last year in Fallouja, Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) proposed legislation to require private military firms working under federal contract to disclose their pay structures, benefits, insurance and employee casualties.
The bill died, but Price plans to try again this year.
It is unclear what legal responsibility, if any, the United States or other foreign governments may have to foreign nationals who are killed, wounded or kidnapped while working for U.S.-paid contractors in Iraq, or to any Iraqis they harm.
In May, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to provide more information about the authority of private companies working under U.S. contracts in Iraq.
"What are the rules governing the use of lethal force by private security contractors?" Leahy asked.
"What happens when a private security contractor paid by the State Department deployed overseas runs over somebody with a vehicle, shoots an innocent person or otherwise causes harm on the job or off the job? Who is responsible? Are they, or are we?"
Rice promised to supply the information, but Leahy's office said this month that it had not received the answers.