Getting the kind of mercenary work New Zealander Hamish Sands is accused of doing in Ivory Coast could be as easy as just turning up in a war-torn area and looking the part.
"If you're a guy who even looks like being military and you're in Africa or Asia, it's likely that you'll be approached by somebody for all these sort of organisations," said one former contract soldier.
Mr Sands, a 36-year-old former Hawkes Bay man who was discharged from the French Foreign Legion, is being held in the West African country by rebels who claim he was hired to assassinate two of their leaders.
The New Forces rebels say he was caught carrying body armour, navigational equipment and an address book containing names of contacts at the ruling Ivorian Popular Front, Government forces and mercenary supply companies.
The rebels believe he has connections to a British private military company. But military and security contractors and experts have told the Weekend Herald they doubt a private military company would have employed Mr Sands, given his chequered nine months with the legion, and allegations he is mentally unstable.
A professional was not likely to jeopardise his mission or his contacts by carrying an address book.
If it were true that he was a hired mercenary, it was more likely that he was a loose unit. He might have turned up in the restive country of his own accord, or been roped into a murky association in another Third World country.
Private military companies would be too concerned about liability and their reputations to employ someone without solid military or police experience.
The New Zealanders they employed tend to be highly skilled former SAS operatives, earning as much as $30,000 a month working for security firms in Iraq, estimates Chris Lawton, a former New Zealand counter-terrorist policeman who is now director of an international security firm.
Mr Lawton estimates that 300 to 400 New Zealanders are working for companies in Iraq alone. One company he knows of employed 80 in the last year. The Ministry of Defence says it has lost about 200 staff that way.
One former contract soldier, who did not want to be named, said mercenary work attracted only the darkest elements within the military.
"The best people in your defence forces never, ever get involved in that sort of stuff."
He said it was common for New Zealand military and police specialists to get "tapped on the shoulder" and poached into private military companies, such as the military contractors working in Iraq, but it was rare for them to seek mercenary work. "These are legitimate organisations whose ethics and professional standards are clear, and for a competent corporation to gain such contracts you must be assured that the people you employ are the right people and they're not a bunch of bloody Walter Mitty or toerag mercenaries who would turn upon the very people who they're sent there to protect for a dollar."
Dr Paul Buchanan, senior lecturer in political studies at Auckland University, and a former Pentagon staffer, said there was a quantum leap between private military companies and mercenaries, although private firms operated in a grey area between international and national laws.
"The regulatory environment is extremely, extremely murky with regards to them, even if they are quite a step above your basic mercenary."
The private firms didn't admit to being involved in combat operations, although some were, he said. They had standard recruitment processes, like any other firm, and hired only experienced and tested military and police staff.
The traditional mercenary - these days most often a Russian or eastern European who had been thrown out of his country's military - would probably front up to a restive country, such as the Ivory Coast, and try his luck, or might respond to an advertisement in Soldier of Fortune magazine.
"Things are pretty shambolic in the Ivory Coast and the Government is very rickety. They may not, in fact, care where you come from, as long as you're willing to hire out.
"And that's endemic throughout Africa - the Governments really don't care if you have discipline or not, as long as you show a propensity to want to use firearms on their behalf, that can bolster up their very poorly trained and equipped troops."
Doug Brooks, president of the Washington DC-based International Peace Operations Association, an association of service, security and military companies, said the Ivory Coast Government had in the past been suspected of hiring renegades.
"When you're desperate for military help and somebody comes and lands in your lap and says he's willing to do it, there's a good chance you'll take them. It's not ideal, but that's the reality of the world."
- 177 CorpWatch