The US is hiring mercenaries in Chile to replace its soldiers on security duty in Iraq. A Pentagon contractor has begun recruiting former commandos, other soldiers and seamen, paying them up to $4,000 (2,193) a month to guard oil wells against attack by insurgents.
Last month Blackwater USA flew a first group of about 60 former commandos, many of who had trained under the military government of Augusto Pinochet, from Santiago to a 2,400-acre (970-hectare) training camp in North Carolina.
From there they will be taken to Iraq, where they are expected to stay between six months and a year, the president of Blackwater USA, Gary Jackson, told the Guardian by telephone.
"We scour the ends of the earth to find professionals - the Chilean commandos are very, very professional and they fit within the Blackwater system," he said.
Chile was the only Latin American country where his firm had hired commandos for Iraq. He estimated that "about 95%" of his work came from government contracts and said his business was booming.
"We have grown 300% over each of the past three years and we are small compared to the big ones.
"We have a very small niche market, we work towards putting out the cream of the crop, the best."
The privatisation of security in Iraq is growing as the US seeks to reduce its commitment of troops.
At the end of last year there were 10,000 hired security personnel in Iraq.
Recruitment in Chile began six months ago and brought immediate criticism from MPs and officers, who fear that it will encourage serving personnel to leave.
Michelle Bachelet, the defence minister, ordered an investigation into whether paramilitary training by Blackwater violated Chilean laws on the use of weapons by private citizens.
She asked for its recruiting effort to be investigated after it was alleged that people on active duty were involved.
Many soldiers are said to be leaving the army to join the private companies.
Mr Jackson said that similar issues were bedevilling the US forces.
The private sector paid experienced special forces personnel far more than the armed services.
"The US military has the same problems," he said. "If they are going to outsource tasks that were once held by active-duty military and are now using private contractors, those guys [on active duty] are looking and asking, 'Where is the money?'"
The number of hired soldiers in Iraq is estimated to be in the thousands.
Squads of Bosnians, Filipinos and Americans with special forces experience have been hired for tasks ranging from airport security to protecting Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
Their salaries can be as high as $1,000 a day, the news agency AFP recently reported. Erwin, a 28-year-old former US army sergeant working in Iraq, told AFP: "This place is a goldmine. All you need is five years in the military and you come here and make a good bundle."
Responding to a fear that any of its recruits who might suffer traumatic battlefield stress might be simply dumped back into Chilean society without mental health schemes, Mr Jackson said Blackwater USA had extensive psychological counselling programmes.
"We have clinical psychologists on staff and we do a battery of tests during the assessment phase.
"I personally come from a special operations background and I feel comfortable that we have the procedures in place that will allow them to handle the stress.
"We didn't just come down and say, 'You and you and you, come work for us.' They were all vetted in Chile and all of them have military backgrounds. This is not the Boy Scouts."
In an interview with the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, a former Chilean army officer, Carlos Wamgnet, 30, who was going to Iraq, said: "We are calm. This mission is nothing new for us.
"In the end, this is an extension of our military career."
John Rivas, 27, a former Chilean marine, said the work in Iraq would provide a "very good income" that would allow him to support his family.
"I don't feel like a mercenary," he added.