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Recruiting Contract Soldiers in Latin America

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An increasing number of Latin Americans can be found carrying out security tasks in Iraq: Peruvians guard the outer perimeter of a U.S. installation in Basra; Chileans protect the government Green Zone in Baghdad; Hondurans have provided security within the terminal at Baghdad International Airport; and Salvadorans once protected the Green Zone in Baghdad. However, many will be surprised to know that these men are not serving in Iraq as members of allied military forces, but rather are hired by private firms contracted through U.S. government agencies.

As reported earlier this week by Tyler Bridges of the Miami Herald, while Americans are eager to bring the troops home, many Latin Americans are willing to go to Iraq:

The Latin Americans typically served in the military back home—many fought leftist guerrillas in places like El Salvador and Columbia—and were taught by U.S. instructors, making it easier for them to use U.S. weapons and work under American security procedures.

After leaving the armed forces, these soldiers found themselves in low-paying jobs. So they agreed to risk injury or death in Iraq for $1,000 to $1,500 a month, ($5-$7 an hour) a good salary for them, but far below the $10,000-$15,000 monthly pay for American contract employees.

From a market perspective, this makes sense. The Latin Americans hired for these security jobs are making four to five times what they would be earning domestically, while the security firms are paying only a fraction of what they would pay a U.S. citizen to carry out the same work.

Although the Latin Americans are carrying out the same work a U.S. citizen would, they are not provided with the same benefits or personal safeguards. For example, the contracts for Triple Canopy, a firm that has started recruiting in Latin America, stipulate that neither Triple Canopy nor the U.S. Government are responsible in case the employees are injured or killed in the line of duty.

Chilean Sen. Alejandro Navarro said his government has had to cover the costs of workers returning from Iraq with stress-related disorders because the security companies that employed them refused to provide help.

Despite concerns, host countries have done little to prevent recruiting, and the current state of the countries has created pools of men ‘ripe for the picking.’ Latin American countries such as Colombia, El Salvador, Peru and Nicaragua have a long history of military action with large militaries that have been involved in civil wars. Most importantly, their militaries have recently downsized, leaving a population of trained men unemployed with few practical working skills. Working in labor-intensive jobs and making little to no money, these men are eager for gainful employment.

Geoff Thale, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, argues that allowing Latin America and other less-developed regions to serve as cheap labor pools to recruit people for dangerous jobs that are part of the U.S. military mission is deeply wrong, for both moral and political reasons.

In a democracy, when wars are fought, there are casualties. When a U.S. soldier is wounded or killed in combat, his family, neighbors, and community directly feel the death and the weight of the war. In response, that community makes political judgments about whether the human cost is worth the political cost.

When those who do some of the fighting and dying are not U.S. soldiers, not members of allied military forces, not even U.S. private contractors working for the pentagon, but private citizens of another country, whose injuries and deaths will have no impact on the political debate in the United States, then democracy is being undermined, and war is being fought without a public weighing of the costs.

While both the private firms and the government will argue that these recruited men are not “fighting in Iraq,” others disagree. “The companies say they are private guards, but really they are private soldiers,” said José Luís Gómez del Prado, a Working Group member who is a Spanish human rights professor. “They are provided with military equipment and weapons. You are privatizing war. That is the concern of the international community.”

Leslie Fields contributed to this post.

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