Private Military Firms Find Golden Goose

by Tim Rogers

Z magazine, March 2005


As the U.S. war in Iraq becomes increasingly outsourced to private military firms, impoverished and war-torn Central America may become the next hotspot for recruitment of low-pay soldiers.

Triple Canopy, a private U.S. security and special operations firm contracted by the U.S. Department of State, has already set up shop in El Salvador and is actively recruiting private security forces to be sent to Iraq, according to company spokesperson Joe Mayo.

Regional military experts claim that another private Israeli security firm allegedly is recruiting soldiers in Guatemala. Several others are operating in nearby Colombia, according to the Brookings Institution, a U.S. think tank that specializes in military issues.

While Nicaragua security and military insiders claimed they didn't know of any private firms currently operating in their country, they acknowledged that Nicaragua was vulnerable to recruitment by aggressive military firms looking for new and impoverished applicant pools.

During a press conference in Managua last November, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he didn't know anything about private security firms recruiting Central Americans for Iraq and vehemently rejected a reporter's comment that the so-called Coalition of the Willing was becoming unglued. "The coalition is not becoming unglued," he grumbled. "We have a large number of countries that are participating."

The numbers, however, tell a different story about participation levels. "Over 60 firms employ more than 20,000 private personnel carrying out military functions in Iraqi," said P.W. Singer, National Security Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the book Corporate Warriors. "To put this into context, such numbers mean that the private military industry has contributed more forces to Iraq than any other member of the coalition.

"President Bush's claim of a 'Coalition of the Willing' might be renamed the 'Coalition of the Billing'," Singer added.

According to the Brookings Institution, private forces have also suffered the brunt of military casualties in Iraq. By September 2004, private contractors had suffered an estimated 150 killed in Iraq and as many as 700 more were injured.

"These numbers are more than the rest of the coalition combined, and more than any single U.S. Army division," Singer said. Of the Central American countries that belong to the coalition, only El Salvador still has troops in Iraq. Brigades from Honduras and Nicaragua have been recalled due to lack of funds and public support.

Triple Canopy's Mayo said during a phone interview from corporate headquarters in Illinois that his company recently started recruiting in El Salvador because it was still an active member of the coalition and because of its "effective and high talent pool."

Mayo said the Salvadorans employed by Triple Canopy will work as bodyguards and site security guards. He declined to offer any more details about the number of recruits hired during the two months the company has been in El Salvador or on the conditions of the contracts offered.

The Salvadoran daily, El Diario de Hoy, reported last October that the Triple Canopy recruiter in San Salvador was offering applicants $1,700 a month for site guards, and $100 a day for bodyguards, cigarettes included. Those salaries are almost as much as security guards in El Salvador make in an entire year. The article quoted one applicant who told the reporter he already had friends working in Iraq who were "living better than any rich person in El Salvador does."

Mayo said his company is not currently operating in any other Central American country and isn't aware of other private firms that are. But, with similarly low wages, high unemployment numbers and a population familiar with war, and guns, it may only be a matter of time before the military firms migrate to Nicaragua, where some 40 private security companies employ 9,650 guards for an average $125 a month.

The salary alone is enough to entice Nicaraguans to the dangerous work in Iraq. "It's a good offer, I would have to think about it," said Mario Antonio Mendoza, a 43 year-old bank guard in Granada with leading Nicaraguan security firm Ultranic.

"I would go, but I am too old," says his partner, 47-year-old Francisco José Ramirez. "I could send my son, though, he's only 22."

"Yeah, I'd go for the money," Mendoza said. Apparently, 30 seconds was all he needed to think about it.


Tim Rogers is editor of the Tico Times, Granada, Nicaragua.

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