A U.S.-made Huey II military helicopter manned by foreigners wearing U.S. Army fatigues crash lands after being pockmarked by sustained guerrilla fire from the jungle below. Its crew members, one of them wounded, are surrounded by enemy guerrillas. Another three helicopters, this time carrying American crews, cut through the hot muggy sky. While two of them circle, firing machine-guns at hidden enemy, one swoops down alongside the downed Huey, and the Americans jump through the wash of the blades into the firefight on the ground, successfully rescuing the downed crew members. It could be a scene from a soon-to-be-released Hollywood blockbuster based on the war in Vietnam or El Salvador. But, it happened in Colombia last February, as part of the U.S. $1.3 billion intervention called "Plan Colombia." The Americans who braved the bullets were members of an armed "airmobile" Search and Rescue Team. However, they were not part of the U.S. Armed Forces, but civilian employees of a private company called DynCorp, the new "privateer mercenaries" of a U.S. policy that now "outsources" its wars.
Like the old English "privateer" pirates of the Caribbean five hundred years ago, sailing under no national flag - robbing and plundering Latin America's riches for the English Crown, Washington now employs hundreds of contract employees through U.S. corporations to carry out its policies in Colombia and other countries. In the old days, the British maintained that because the pirate ships did not fly the English flag, the Crown was not responsible for their actions. While the new privateers are underwritten through U.S. taxes, they are technically "contract employees." Like the sixteenth century pirates, if they get caught in an embarrassing crime, or are killed, the U.S. government can deny responsibility for their actions. What's more only a select few in Congress know of their activities and their operations are not subject to public scrutiny, despite the fact that they are on the government payroll.
"It's very handy to have an outfit not part of the U.S. armed forces, obviously. If somebody gets killed or whatever, you can say it's not a member of the armed forces," former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Myles Frechette told reporters. Meanwhile, Former Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey recently described himself as an "unabashed admirer of outsourcing." And there is an economic consideration too. Deploying high ranking active duty military officers to staff Colombian operations is far more costly than hiring retired officers working privately. A U.S. government official, who asked not to be named, said that there were several reasons that the U.S. government outsources projects: "[Outsourcing] can be a flexible, cost-effective means of providing specific labor-intensive services on a short-term basis. Once we hire government workers, they are here forever. Some of these jobs are only short-term."
Outsourcing belligerent activities on the part of the U.S. government is not new. It goes back to the Revolutionary War. Many such companies were involved in the Vietnam war, but they were only a minuscule presence compared to the major military effort by the U.S. there. What is new is that now contract employees are in the forefront of operations. In the Colombian war, private outsourced military men are out on the frontlines, while the real U.S. troops are hidden on bases as trainers. The exact number of contract employees in Colombia is not known. A recent State Department report states that there are only 200 U.S. military soldiers and about 170 American contractors working in Colombia. Historically, official counts of U.S. personnel and contractors tend to be underestimated in counter-insurgency operations.
DynCorp and Plan Colombia
By far the largest U.S. contractor company in Latin America is DynCorp, headquartered in Reston, Virginia near the CIA, and Pentagon. It hires and places many ex-military personnel, but is actually much more diverse and more high-tech than that. The company's website promotes it as an Internet Technologies corporation. DynCorp describes its areas of expertise as "Information Systems, Information Technology/Outsourcing and Technical Services." Once you dig a little deeper, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary high-tech start up.
According to its own literature, "DynCorp's expertise spans more than five decades - encompassing events from the computer revolution, the Space Age, the Cold War and conflicts from Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm. Through these times, we have dedicated ourselves to providing customers with the best and most educated solutions. Our IT experience has evolved with this ever-changing industry, and we continue to offer our clients solid solutions based on this evolution." DynCorp has "worked with domestic and foreign government agencies to provide successful information, engineering and aerospace technology solutions. As a result, few companies understand the public sector like DynCorp, or can boast a government client base with the depth and breadth of ours."
Indeed, government contracts account for 98% of DynCorp's business. It contracts with more than 30 U.S. government agencies, including the Department of Defense, State Department, FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency, Bureau of Prisons, and the Office of National Drug Policy. About half of DynCorp's revenue comes from the Pentagon and many of its employees are retired military men. The rest of the contracts are mostly with civilian government agencies. According to its website, last year it generated more than $1.8 billion in annual revenues, a $4.4 billion-dollar contract backlog and more than 20,000 employees in more than 550 locations. CEO Paul Lombardi recently boasted to the Washington Technology website that he projects 2001 revenue will top $2 billion. Like many transnational giants DynCorp has gobbled up some of the competition. In 1999 it acquired GTE Information Systems which has helped the company pursue government mega-contracts.
Since 1997, DynCorp has operated under a $600 million-dollar State Department contract in Latin America. But, according to its contract with the State Department, recently acquired by CorpWatch, "mission deployments may be made to any worldwide location, including, potentially, outside of Central and South America." The company mainly "participates in eradication missions, training, and drug interdiction, but also participates in air transport, reconnaissance, search and rescue, airborne medical evacuation, ferrying equipment and personnel from one country to another, as well as aircraft maintenance," according to the contract. DynCorp operates several State Department aircraft, including armed UH-1H Iroquois and Bell-212 Huey-type helicopters and T-65 Thrush crop dusters. DynCorp provides the pilots, technicians, and just about any kind of personnel required to carry out the war in Colombia, including administrative personnel. Some of its personnel in Colombia, such as its helicopter pilots are Colombians, Peruvians, and Guatemalans, but most are from the U.S. All must speak passable Spanish and English, and all must possess U.S. government "Secret" personnel security clearances, except in the cases of foreign contractors, where this requirement may be waived.
DynCorp is tight lipped when it comes to its clients. Company spokesperson Janet Wineriter refused to comment on the company's overseas operations. Nor will the State Department make on-the-record statements about DynCorp's operations. Company paramedic Michael Demons apparently recently died of a heart attack on a Colombian military base and the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá attempted to keep his death secret. Because Demons was not a military officer and didn't work directly for the U.S. government, there was no official report and his death was treated as if he were a tourist. DynCorp has also lost three pilots in action. None of these deaths were reported in the news media.
DynCorp also operates in Bolivia and Peru, in conflict zones where indigenous coca growers feel U.S. drug operations encroach on their cultural use of coca and their economic livelihood. In Peru these areas also face renewed activity of Shining Path guerillas. But by far the largest DynCorp operations are in Colombia, and according to its contract with the State Department, it has a "command and control" function in the field, apparently outside any government oversight.
DynCorp's shroud of secrecy has the potential for giving cover to a wide range of activities outside stated US policy objectives. DynCorp is contracted to help eliminate drug production in Colombia. But a DEA
document (see image), recently obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, stated that on May 12, 2000 the Colombian National Police intercepted a FedEx
parcel at the airport. It was sent from the Bogota DynCorp site and destined for DynCorp's office on Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. The name of the sender has been blacked out. The 250 Gram liquid "tested
positive for heroin," according to the DEA. "My understanding is that was a faulty test result," DynCorp spokesperson Wineriter told CorpWatch.
DynCorp is openly labeled "mercenary" by a hostile Colombian press, a charge they vigorously deny. A State Department official told CorpWatch that "mercenaries are used in war. This is counter-narcotics." But in Colombia, the line between the counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics has been blurred for many years. While it is true that Colombia now produces much of the cocaine used in the United States making it a target for the "war on drugs," Washington's policy objectives may go beyond drugs. The U.S. is also concerned about Colombia's more than 30-year long guerilla insurgency. Critics say that Plan Colombia is an expansion of Washington's involvement in counter-insurgency.
A hint of other U.S. policy aims is visible to anyone taking a commercial flight from Houston to Bogotá. Amongst the U.S. passengers, the embassy types, the businessmen and older ex-military types are easily recognizable. But those who stand out most are the young gringos with cocker-spaniel hairdos wearing blue jeans and sweatshirts with oil company logos inscribed on them. Increasing oil supplies is at the heart of Bush administration energy policy. And both U.S. presidential candidates during the 2000 elections had ties to major oil investments in Colombia. Al Gore's family owns shares in Occidental Petroleum and now-President George Bush has ties to Harken Energy Inc., of Houston, Texas.
According to Fernando Caicedo, a middle-aged, mustached, but sprightly guerilla commander interviewed in southern Colombia: "the gringos want to exploit the whole upper Amazon region, an area that includes parts of Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, known for its richness in black gold -- oil."
DynCorp's day to day operations are overseen by a secretive clique of officials in the State Department's Narcotic Affairs Section (NAS) and the State Department's Air Wing, a group that includes unreformed cold warriors and leftovers from the Central American wars of the 1980's. Working hand-in-hand with U.S. military officials, Narcotic Affairs is supposed to be part of the drug war only, running the fumigation operations against drug crops. But there are indications that it is also involved in the counter-insurgency. In areas that are targeted for fumigation by Narcotic Affairs, Colombian right-wing paramilitaries arrive, sometimes by military helicopter, according to a human rights worker living in the Putumayo who asked for anonymity. Members of these paramilitaries "clear the ground" so that the planes spraying herbicides, often piloted by Americans, are not shot at by angry farmers or insurgents.
"If we did not take control of zones ahead of the army, the guerrillas would shoot down their planes" said southern Colombia paramilitary leader, "Comando Wilson" last April. Many of these paramilitary forces have benefited from U.S.-financed military training in the Colombian Army. Their frequent apparent coordination with the Narcotic Affairs Section and their DynCorp employees, as well as with the Colombian Armed forces, raises the question of U.S. collaboration with "outsourced" death squads, a charge vehemently denied by U.S. officials.
Questions on Capitol Hill
The growing death toll around the use of contractors like DynCorp has caught the attention of U.S. lawmakers. In April, private forces under a CIA contract in Peru identified U.S. missionaries flying in a plane as suspected drug dealers. They notified the Peruvian Air Force which shot them down, killing a woman and her seven month old daughter. While there was speculation that DynCorp might be involved, the company vehemently denied the allegations. "DynCorp does not provide surveillance services under this program and was not involved in any manner in the incident that occurred in Peru," according to spokesperson Charlene A. Wheeless. The New York Times reports another company, Aviation Development, was responsible for the downing of the plane. Aviation Development works in the same areas of Colombia as DynCorp, mainly as an airborne intelligence gatherer under contract to the Central Intelligence Agency.
Moved to action by the incident, Rep. Janice Schakowsky, D-Ill, submitted the Andean Region Contractor Accountability Act H.R. 1591, "legislation that would prohibit U.S. funds from being used to contract with private military companies in the Andean region."
"U.S. taxpayers are unwittingly funding a private war with private soldiers," Schakowsky recently testified in Congress. "American taxpayers already pay $300 billion per year to fund the world's most powerful military. Why should they have to pay a second time in order to privatize our operations? How is the public to know what their tax dollars are being used for? If there is a potential for a privatized Gulf of Tonkin incident, then the American people deserve to have a full and open debate before this policy goes any farther."
"Are we outsourcing in order to avoid public scrutiny, controversy or embarrassment? Is it to hide body bags from the media and thus shield them from public opinion?" she asked. "Or is it to provide deniability because these private contractors are not covered by the same rules as active duty U.S. service persons."
As Schakowsky's bill winds its way through the bureaucracy on Capitol Hill, DynCorp continues to operate in Latin America free from public scrutiny or accountability.