U.S. mercenaries widen the war in Colombia
April 26, 2001
The civil war in Colombia is getting uglier, and the United States is increasingly involved.
In mid-April, Colombian paramilitaries killed as many as 100 villagers in one of the worst massacres in years. But the United States is not cracking down on this violence. Instead, it is funneling $1.3 billion in aid to Colombia. Most of that goes to the military, which has close ties to these paramilitary squads.
"The paramilitaries are doing joint operations with the military," said Carlos Salinas, Amnesty International's advocacy director for Latin America and the Caribbean. "On repeated occasions, truckloads of paramilitaries have committed massacres in places where there is a large police and military presence. These massacres go on for three of more hours, with heavy gunfire, without any attempt to by the police or the military to stop the carnage."
What's more, U.S. mercenaries are militarily engaged in the region.
DynCorp, based in Reston, Va., is the largest of a growing number of private U.S. military corporations in Colombia. It boasts $1.4 billion in contracts a year -- 95 percent with the U.S. government -- and has 30 personnel in Colombia, mostly pilots and mechanics for helicopters and fumigation planes. Although it is on contract with the Colombian military, the company is funded by the U.S. government.
On Feb. 18, a DynCorp helicopter flown by gun-toting Americans exchanged fire with guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
One Colombian police officer described the firefight as a "shower of bullets."
In the last two years, at least six U.S. private military corporations have set up offices in Bogota, Colombia's capital, positioning themselves to receive aid-package dollars and raising serious questions about accountability.
Mercenary companies like DynCorp operate beyond legislated restrictions on regular military. While American soldiers in Colombia are under strict orders to avoid entering combat areas or joining military operations, employees of DynCorp and other private corporations face no such restrictions and are not required to report to the Pentagon or Congress.
Proponents of this kind of outsourcing say it helps avoid the public outrage over U.S. troops being sent home in body bags. DynCorp has lost three pilots in three years in Colombia, and hardly anyone has noticed.
"It is very handy to have an outfit not part of the U.S. Armed Forces, obviously. If someone gets killed, or whatever," you can say he's not a soldier, said Myles Frenchette, former U.S. ambassador to Colombia.
But privatizing U.S. policy in Colombia is undemocratic. And it increases the militarization of the conflict. The reliance on U.S. mercenaries and the aid to Colombia's military combine to make the U.S. role in Colombia a negative one.
Instead, President Bush ought to work with Colombian President Andres Pastrana to find a peaceful resolution to the long and bloody civil war. If he doesn't, the United States may be drawn deeper into this conflict.
Frida Berrigan is an associate of the "Foreign Policy In Focus" project (www.foreignpolicy-infocus.org) and a senior research associate with the World Policy Institute in New York City. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.