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Washington’s secret forces in Latin America
by Alejandro Bustos

The U.S. government is hiring mercenaries to fight Washington’s anti-drug war in South America, or so the critics maintain.

Not surprisingly, U.S. officials don’t see it that way. Supporters of outsourcing – the buzzword for turning the war on drugs over to the private sector – argue it’s a cost-effective way to fight the narcotics trade. But, these same officials will tell you, don’t confuse efficiency with mercenary expeditions.

According to The Miami Herald, Washington has hired at least four U.S. firms for quasi-military roles in South America. They are: DynCorp of Reston, Va., AirScan of Rockledge, Fla., Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI) of Alexandria, Va., and Aviation Development Corp. based in Alabama.

In concrete terms, this contracting-out of the drug war means private companies now fly eradication missions over coca fields in the Andean region, provide surveillance planes that spot left-wing guerrillas in Colombia, and offer military advice to Colombia’s army and police, among other duties.

MPRI's one-year contract expired in March and was not renewed, said an Associated Press story dated May 21. The company had been hired to provide military advice to Colombian military officials.

It has been further charged that private soldiers are being hired by Washington to fight the South American drug war. According to an alternative press story on the Internet, retired Navy seals based in Peru near the Colombian border have been hired for combat duty. The U.S., Colombian and Peruvian governments deny the allegation.

But Peter Gorman, an independent journalist based in the jungle city of Iquitos, Peru, the closest city to southern Colombia with an international airport, insists that former Navy seals now working in the region have admitted to him that they are preparing for armed confrontations.

“They claim, quite openly to those in Iquitos, including this reporter, to have been hired by a company named Virginia Electronics,” Gorman wrote on February 19. “They say they earn their money per kill, and that since they are retired they are not bound by military codes.”

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“They say they earn their money per kill, and that since they are retired they are not bound by military codes.” Peter Gorman

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Gorman went on to say: “A web search doesn't show the existence of a militarily-connected company called Virginia Electronics. There is, however, a Virginia Electronics Expo site which touts itself as being approved by the (U.S) Department of Defense.”

A week after Gorman’s piece was posted online, the U.S. wire service Knight Ridder reported that: “A team that included several U.S. contract workers landed a helicopter in the middle of a firefight earlier this month to rescue the crew of a police chopper downed by leftist guerrilla gunfire in southern Colombia.”

Private companies hired by Washington, the Knight Ridder report added, “are not bound by the orders to avoid combat that apply to the 200 regular U.S. military trainers (in Colombia), and it's unclear whether they are covered by U.S. congressional restrictions on contacts with Colombian security units alleged to have links with right-wing paramilitary squads.”

The report did not say that the contract workers had been hired specifically for combat.

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To understand what is going on in the Andean region you must turn to the 37-year-old civil war in Colombia, which pits two left-wing guerrilla groups against right-wing paramilitaries and government forces. Both the paramilitaries and guerrillas have been tied to the drug trade, as well as mass-scale kidnappings meant to raise ransom money. Adding to this volatile mix are accusations that the paramilitaries, who have committed repeated massacres, have links to the government.

To complicate matters further, the fighting in Colombia is threatening to spill over into neighbouring Peru, Ecuador, oil-rich Venezuela and economic giant Brazil. In his article, Gorman said the retired Navy seals in Peru have been hired to kill retreating Colombian guerrillas – a claim that has not been independently confirmed.

Meanwhile, this past September, the United Nations reported that hundreds of Colombians fled to Venezuela after right-wing death squads attacked their town in late-August, displacing 1,500 people. Fearing a refugee crisis and spreading of violence, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela have decided to tighten their border controls with Colombia.

Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela, has also warned his country’s ranchers that they will go to prison if they form private militias to defend themselves from armed groups in Colombia, the Associated Press reported on March 7. Critics of the left-leaning Chavez say he has been too sympathetic to the Colombian rebels.

Amid this chaotic mess is Washington’s desire to stop the flow of drugs from South America to the U.S. To achieve this goal, Washington has approved a $1.3 billion US aid package, mostly military, for the region. The anti-drug initiative, called Plan Colombia, is the biggest U.S. military build-up in Latin America since the civil war in El Salvador.

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The anti-drug initiative, called Plan Colombia, is the biggest U.S. military build-up in Latin America since the civil war in El Salvador.

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Supporters say it’s a necessary step to fight the drug trade. Critics respond that it’s really a sly attempt to hide a war against left-wing rebels. Caught in the middle are the people of Colombia, who have to face constant bombings, threats, kidnappings and an estimated 3,000 dead per year due to the conflict.

Outsourcing, meanwhile, came under scrutiny on April 20 when Peru’s air force jet shot down a Cessna plane carrying U.S. missionaries. The shooting occurred after a private surveillance plane, which was manned by a CIA-contracted crew, alerted the Peruvians to the Cessna. The plane was mistakenly thought to be running drugs.

Media reports have said Aviation Development Corp. was the company who alerted the Peruvians.

Missionary Veronica Bowers, 35, and her seven-month-old daughter, Charity, were killed in the shooting. Bowers husband, Jim, 38, and their six-year-old son, Cory, survived unhurt. The pilot, also a fellow missionary, was seriously wounded but was able to crash-land the plane on the Amazon.

The tragedy in Peru inspired members of Congress to demand that the use of private businesses for counter-narcotics operations be banned or sharply curtailed.

Alejandro Bustos 

Supporting Documents

The Miami Herald story can be found here: * * *

Peter Gorman's story can be found here: * * *

Knight Ridder story can be found here: * * *

DynCorp: * * *

AirScan: * * *

MPRI: * * *

Aviation Development Corp: * * *

Virginia Electronics Expo: * * *


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