LIMA, Oct 31 - "Piraña", a former Peruvian army sergeant who fought the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) Maoist guerrillas in the jungles of Peru in the 1990s, decided at the last minute not to travel to Iraq with around 200 former members of the military and police recruited by the U.S.-based private security firm Triple Canopy.
"My mom convinced me not to go," Piraña told IPS on condition of anonymity. "She told me she would prefer to see me poor but alive rather than dead for a handful of dollars."
Complaints from the families of former soldiers and police officers hired to work as security personnel in Iraq by private military contractors triggered a scandal in Peru.
"There is no work here, and when you do find a job, you earn pathetically low wages. I'm a factory watchman, and I earn the equivalent of eight dollars for a 12-hour day. To work in Iraq they were going to pay me 35 dollars a day, plus other benefits. It was really tempting, despite the risks," said Piraña, 29.
"I have three kids, and my wife helps out selling food in the street, but we just don't earn enough. I saw the ad in the newspaper and applied. They quickly accepted me because of my combat experience in the army. I went through the training and everything, but my mom found out and persuaded me to change my mind," he added.
Ads seeking former members of the armed forces and police officers interested in working as security personnel in exchange for "excellent wages" began to appear in newspapers in Lima last August. Hundreds of people applied.
The ads were run by Triple Canopy, a private security and special operations firm founded in 2003 in the state of Illinois by former members of the U.S. army's elite Delta Force. Thanks to the company's contacts in the George W. Bush administration, it quickly won lucrative contracts with the State Department.
The firm provides bodyguard and site security services to U.S. infrastructure and personnel involved in the reconstruction of Iraq, which has been occupied by the United States since March 2003.
The growth of Triple Canopy reflects the boom currently enjoyed by "private armies" and the outsourcing of war.
One of Triple Canopy's first contracts was a six-month 90-million dollar deal to protect a dozen offices of the Iraqi interim government, which are frequent targets of attacks by the resistance to the U.S. invasion and occupation.
"We don't hire mercenaries," said Jorge Mendoza, manager of the local company Gun Supply, which provided the training to 200 Peruvians on behalf of Triple Canopy.
"These are people with experience in security missions, who know how to handle weapons, but they aren't going to fight in Iraq. Of course it's very dangerous work, but no one forced them to take the job. Triple Canopy guarantees them insurance and indemnification in case of accidents, attacks or death," he told IPS.
"They are paid in accordance with the job they are going to do. The salaries go up to 50 dollars a day," added Mendoza.
Triple Canopy has also hired former soldiers and police officers in El Salvador, Colombia and Chile, although they are paid more than the wages promised the Peruvians.
That did not deter the 380 Peruvians who have already flown to Iraq, however.
Families of Peruvians recruited by Triple Canopy complained about the terms under which their husbands, sons or brothers were hired.
For example, anyone wanting to sue the firm would have to do so in a court in Virginia, because the new recruits' contracts were signed under the laws of that state, where the company relocated its headquarters in June, "to be closer to our main customer, the U.S. government," according to a press release on the Triple Canopy web site.
A copy of the contract, obtained by IPS, shows that the Peruvians are being hired for one year, from Oct. 15, 2005 to Oct. 14, 2006. It also stipulates that neither Triple Canopy nor the U.S. government are responsible in case the employees are injured or killed in the line of duty.
The contract also states that the insurance policy covering the company's personnel will not provide coverage in case of an incident that occurs when employees are off-duty or outside their place of work. If employees are attacked by insurgents at home, for instance, they will receive no compensation.
Triple Canopy spokespersons said the Peruvians would be working in the heavily fortified "Green Zone" in Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi government offices are located. The high security area has been targeted by numerous rebel attacks.
"I believe the training, of no more than 15 days, was insufficient, but nearly all of them went to Iraq anyway," said Piraña.
"They were in a hurry to send the people over, they wanted everything to move really fast," said the former sergeant, who returned to his job as a watchman.
The complaints by the families of the new private security recruits forced the Peruvian Foreign Ministry to act. Ambassador Jorge Lázaro, in charge of Offices of Peruvian Communities Abroad, announced that he had launched an investigation to determine whether the contracts violated the rights of the new recruits.
"Peruvians are free to work wherever they want, but the government must ensure that the contracts respect the international agreements to which the state is a signatory," Lázaro said in a news briefing.
The press, meanwhile, reported that 200 of the Triple Canopy recruits had been trained in FAME, the army's weapons and munitions factory.
According to a contract between the army and Gun Supply, to which IPS had access, the army provided the trainers with the ammunition needed for target practice.
The army, which has suffered drastic budget cuts, accepted the arrangement with Gun Supply, which represents Triple Canopy in Lima, as a means of obtaining much needed cash.
The 150,000 dollar deal was approved by army commander General.Luis Muñoz, who apparently did not consult either the Defence Ministry or the Foreign Ministry - a move that could cost the general his post.
A parliamentary commission summoned Defence Minister Marciano Rengifo, who admitted that the contract with Gun Supply was a mistake and that he had ordered an investigation into the matter to identify who was responsible.
But despite the scandal, the arrangement was not cancelled.
Gun Supply's Mendoza told IPS that the firm had been commissioned by Triple Canopy to hire another 600 former soldiers and police officers. "That is what we have been asked to do. At least for the time being, the army has not tried to cancel the contract. If it does, there will be a penalty."
The companies involved in the deal have interesting contacts in Peru. The owner of Gun Supply is a state contractor who has sold ammunition to President Alejandro Toledo's personal bodyguard detail. He is also the son of the security chief at the U.S. Embassy in Lima.
Gesegur, another company contracted by Triple Canopy to recruit security personnel in Peru, is also a well-known state contractor, with ties to the National Intelligence Service (SIN).
During the regime of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), SIN was headed by the then president's powerful security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, who is in prison today and facing trial for a number of crimes involving a vast network of corruption that he orchestrated during the Fujimori years.
Gesegur also had ties to the National Intelligence Council, which replaced SIN after Toledo took office.
"I'm a weapons specialist with several years of combat experience; I was perfect for the job," said Piraña. "But if I left and I was killed, my children would have been left up in the air. I can ensure you it wasn't cowardice. I'm not afraid of war. My mom just made me realise it's more important to stay alive."
Mendoza said the government has not ordered Gun Supply to stop training Peruvians to be sent to Iraq. "They recognise that it's a job opportunity. You take it or leave it, it's as simple as that. One thousand dollars a month in Peru is good money."
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