US foreign policy makers face a dilemma in their military strategy in Colombia, where they are keen to provide optimum front line assistance to Colombian security forces in the field. The two main theatres of operation are the provision of back up in the ground war against the forces of the FARC and ELN and aerial support in the form of espionage, surveillance and the crop spraying and eradication programmes.
They are, however, restricted by two key elements. Firstly, the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ still figures in the minds of Bush’s policy advisors, the ‘doves’ at least, who remain reluctant to commit US troops to conflicts that may result in the sustenance of high casualties. Images of dead US troops delivered home in body bags on prime time TV news are seen as political inconveniences drawing, as they do, negative publicity and, more damagingly, the spotlight of public scrutiny. (Another reason for this reluctance to engage in ground combat probably emanates from the current vogue for ‘long distance’ aerial combat, which, of course, provides the more lucrative of contracts for Bush’s friends in the defence and ‘hi-tech’ industries).
The second element that the administration faces is the imposition of checks and balances that Congress are able to enforce when scrutinising the actions and outcomes of US military strategy. The most obvious of these being the ‘Leahy Law’ where funding of military operations and the supply of military hardware must be dependent on monitoring of the end-use of this funding. In other words, US military assistance cannot be seen to be directly contributing to human rights crimes in Colombia.
This dual dilemma for those who wish to further the USA’s military involvement in Colombia is overcome through the use of mercenary contractors. In ways which provide remarkable parallels with the Colombian security forces’ own use of paramilitaries in the dirty war, front line activity is delegated to specialist organisations, usually staffed by ex-military personnel, who undertake those tasks that the official security apparatus is unwilling, or at least is unwilling to be seen, to undertake. The difference for the US ‘paramilitaries’ are that they are organised not into illegitimate armed gangs but into corporations overtly granted vast sums of public money through officially contracted services, while retaining similar covert status, unaccountability and impunity before the law.
Outsourcing the drug war
DynCorp is one such contractor. Describing itself as an organisation offering expertise in “information systems, information technology/outsourcing and technical services”, DynCorp is a multi-billion dollar concern, one which earns 98% of its huge revenue from government contracts. Under its $600 million contract for operations in Latin America, their activity encompasses eradication missions, training, drug interdiction, air transport, reconnaissance, search and rescue, airborne medical evacuation and the ferrying of equipment and personnel from one country to another”. This wide remit covers not only Colombia but operations throughout Central and South America and, according to the terms of their contract, “mission deployments may be made to any worldwide location”. DynCorp provides personnel and logistical support to almost all facets of the war in Colombia and derives its workforce not only from the US but from Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador and El Salvador among other nations. Dyncorp is a major player in this field but is by no means the only one. Around 180 US contractors currently operate in the Colombian war, delivering services as varied as the military operations identified above through to work with displaced refugees.
Private contractors supplying back up to military operations is not a new phenomenon, however, the fact is that civilians now make up the majority of US personnel and while the US army staffs the training centres and military bases, it is the civilian contractors who play the front line role. This new balance of forces enables Bush to escalate military intervention on behalf of the US, without the burden of perceived direct involvement by official US security personnel.
This is born out by the anecdotal evidence coming from senior US policy makers. Former US ambassador to Colombia, Myles Frechette told reporters, “It’s very handy to have an outfit not part of the US armed forces, obviously. If somebody gets killed or whatever, you can say it’s not a member of the armed forces”. Other government sources have referred to the “…flexible, cost-effective means of providing labor-intensive services on a short term basis”, thereby showing that the military is not immune from the privatisation and downsizing affecting most other industries in Europe and North America. The transference of public money to temporary, flexible, private contractors is alive and kicking in the killing zones of Colombia as much as in the delivery of services and utilities in the cities of the North.
Beyond the law?
DynCorp’s contract is overseen by a team of officials in the State Department’s Narcotic Affairs Section (NAS) and the State Department’s Air Wing. Both cliques are staffed by a crew of ex- Cold War warriors and many names are familiar to those who remember US terror in Central America in the 1980s. It is no wonder then that no substantive investigation by these bodies has been launched following allegations of heroin smuggling by DynCorp staff. No arrests have been made, no investigation taken place. The rules of Dyncorps contract contain a multitude of clauses that allow DynCorp aircraft free transport across US borders with little surveillance. A senior Colombian police official told Semana magazine “no authority, whether the Civil Aviation Authority, police or army is authorized to search DynCorp’s planes. Nobody knows what they carry on their return to the US because they are untouchable”. Like their paramilitary cohorts in Colombia, mercenary contractors like DynCorp enjoy near total impunity before the law.
Scrutiny from Congress
As usual, it has taken the death of a US citizen to foster interest in the role of contractors in Latin America. Following the shooting down of an aircraft carrying a US missionary and her baby daughter by Peruvian fighters working on information supplied by a CIA contractor, Congress has begun to take an interest in these otherwise “untouchable” organisations. Concern over the increasing use of such companies led to President Bush’s defeat in his attempts to increase the overall number of civillian contractors in Colombia, during the debate over budget proposals for the Andean Regional Initiative in July of this year.
Initially arguing for unlimited increases, Bush had to eventually accept a compromise that placed a limit of 300 civillian contractors and 500 military personnel in Colombia, though the number of civillian contractors is able to increase beyond 300 as long as the total number of personnel remains under 800. It will be interesting to see how the ratio of civillian to military personnel within that (official) total of 800 will develop over the next 12 months. An educated guess would predict that the 300 limit of civilian personnel will be exceeded at the expense of US military personnel.
Contractors: US policy in a nutshell
- By placing the spotlight on the role of mercenary contractors in Colombia, we can witness many strands of US policy coming together:
- an escalation of military presence
- an increase in direct front line assistance to Colombian security forces and paramilitaries
- the ‘privatisation’ of the military function; transferring public money to private corporations
- delegating responsibility to unaccountable organisations
- avoiding legislative constraints on US military personnel.
While anti-escalation elements within Congress certainly won some minor concessions in the debates in July, it is unlikely to stop the escalation of the role of mercenary contractors, so long as those contractors are able to deliver the policy objectives highlighted above. In the coming months of conflict ahead, expect, therefore, to see escalating US involvement but be prepared to have to search for the evidence; evidence, for the most part, hidden behind the terms and conditions of complex and lucrative State Department contracts.