BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
BOGOTA, Colombia -- As U.S. efforts to reduce drug trafficking out of the
Andes escalate, more U.S.-supplied equipment is flowing into the region and
more Americans are becoming involved -- and occasionally coming under fire.
But because of the growing privatization of U.S. military efforts abroad,
their presence is often unseen.
Increasingly, the U.S. government is contracting or licensing private
American firms to carry out quasi-military functions in a practice known as
``outsourcing,'' a practice that critics brand as the hiring of mercenaries.
It is largely the result of the shrinking size of the U.S. Army and a
reluctance to risk the lives of U.S. servicemen in foreign conflicts.
``Congress and the American people don't want any servicemen killed
overseas,'' said former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette. ``So it
makes sense that if contractors want to risk their lives, they get the
Opponents emphasize the dangers of carrying out foreign policy through
private firms, claiming it is fraught with waste and conducted largely
outside Congressional supervision or the public's view.
``There is little or no accountability in this process of outsourcing,''
said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. ``This is a way of funding secret wars with
taxpayers' money that could get us into a Vietnam-like conflict.''
A Herald review of the practice has found that at least four American
companies are conducting some of the key operations that implement U.S.
foreign policy in the Andean region, from tracking guerrillas from the sky
and helping to interdict airborne drug runners to running risky
DynCorp, a Reston, Va., firm that handles much of the aviation side of U.S.
drug eradication efforts in the Andean region, has some 80 pilots and
mechanics in Colombia -- about half of them Americans and the rest Latin
Americans -- running a $30 million to $40 million a year program to
defoliate coca fields.
AirScan, of Rockledge, Fla., sends airplanes loaded with surveillance gear
and manned by U.S. military veterans to search for guerrillas in the jungles
of Colombia and Angola. U.S. officials in Bogotá said AirScan's Cessna 337
Skymasters use infra-red and television cameras to spot guerrillas near the
Caño Limón pipeline in eastern Colombia, bombed some 60 times in the past
year by the leftist National Liberation Army, known as ELN.
MPRI, of Alexandria, Va., just finished a $6 million contract with the
Pentagon under which a 14-man team headed by a former army general advised
the Colombian military and police on logistics, planning and organization.
Formerly known as Military Professional Resources Inc., the firm is headed
by retired Gen. Carl Vuono, who commanded the Army during Desert Storm, and
counts a dozen retired generals and admirals, as well as CIA officials and
ambassadors on its staff.
Aviation Development Corp., a private company based at Maxwell Air Force
Base in Alabama whose pilots were flying a Cessna Citation V over the Amazon
on April 20 in a drug interdiction program when they mistakenly helped a
Peruvian jet target a plane carrying U.S. missionaries.
As a result of that incident, in which Veronica Bowers and her her
seven-month-old daughter, Charity, died, outsourcing came under an
unwelcomed spotlight. Now, some members of Congress look skeptically at the
``There wasn't one person aboard that plane sworn to uphold the Constitution
of the United States,'' complained a veteran of counter-drug operations in
Latin America, referring to the private contractors in lieu of U.S. military
personnel. ``They were all . . . businessmen!''
Over the past few weeks, Congress has moved to limit the use of contractors
in the counter-drug efforts in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.
Schakowsky has proposed a total ban on contractors, while Rep. Bill
Delahunt, D-Mass, wants the contracts slowly shifted to local police forces.
But even before the incident in Peru, the debate over outsourcing had long
been simmering in Washington, especially as U.S. counter-drug operations in
the Andean region bloomed in the 1990s into a campaign that today costs
about $1 billion a year.
DynCorp has been paid at least $270 million since 1991 to provide airplane
and helicopter pilots and mechanics for the war on drugs in Colombia, Peru,
Bolivia, Ecuador and Guatemala, according to a Government Accounting Office
report to Congress in March.
Describing itself as a ``leading information technology and outsourcing
services firm,'' the company has annual revenues of $1.4 billion, most of it
from U.S. government contracts, and 20,000 employees around the world.
AirScan's Web page says it has provided the Colombian air force and the
Angolan government with ``security surveillance services'' for oil
pipelines, as well as leasing the Colombians one its sensor-packed airplanes
and training three air crews and six maintenance teams.
AirScan uses multi-spectrum cameras to pinpoint coca plantations in Colombia
for later spraying by Dyncorp's pilots, according to officials in the State
Department's International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Bureau.
AirScan declined comment on its work in Colombia or the value of its
contracts. Florida state records shows the company, founded in 1989, is
owned by John Mansur.
To the harshest critics of outsourcing, it is simply an attempt by the
executive branch to escape Congressional supervision of the growing U.S.
involvement in Colombia, where a civil war has claimed some 35,000 lives in
the past decade.
``Privatization is a way of going around Congress and not telling the
public. Foreign policy is made by default to private military consultants
motivated by bottom-line profits,'' Army Col. Bruce Grant wrote in an essay
while attending the Army War College in 1998.
Supporters of outsourcing say one of their top concerns is that the main
U.S. actors in the counter-narcotics battle -- the State Department's Bureau
of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, INL and Defense
Department -- have no expertise in the area.
``The State Department is embassies, cables and vouchers, not pilots,'' said
Cresencio Arcos, former deputy assistant secretary of state for
International Narcotics Matters. ``It has no core competence in spraying
And even when Congress allocates funds for counter-drug programs abroad,
it's never certain that the agencies who have the job will have the means to
carry it out.
``Congress gives you money, but money doesn't give you bodies or
[equipment]. And if the bodies exist, can they teach, do they know the
language, do they know the region?'' said Ana María Salazar, former deputy
assistant secretary of defense for Drug Enforcement Policy and Support.
MPRI got the Colombia contract, Salazar added, because the Miami-based
Southern Command, in charge of all U.S. military activities in Latin America
and the Caribbean, ``didn't have 14 guys it could spare for a year.''
The boom in the outsourcing business came in the 1990s, when the U.S. Army
shrank from 790,000 soldiers to 480,000. The Department of Defense is now
estimated to have 700,000 full and part-time contractors on its rolls.
MPRI now hires retired officers to staff ROTC programs in 217 universities
and 29 military recruiting centers under contract with DOD, said Ed Soyster,
a retired army general and former director of the Defense Intelligence
Agency now with MPRI. ``We simply provide a product, like Coca-Cola.''
MPRI also hired and deployed a 20-member team for a U.S. contract as truce
observers in Bosnia within two weeks, boasted Soyster, a move that he said
would have taken the regular military months if not years.
Founded in 1988 by retired American generals, the firm now has a database of
11,000 former military and law enforcement officers ``on call,'' has worked
in Bosnia, Macedonia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Taiwan and is pitching Costa
Rica on a contract to help develop its Coast Guard.
Critics of outsourcing said there's little real difference between risking
the life of a U.S. serviceman or a contractor in places like Colombia,
wracked by violence from leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and
``This is done primarily because we lack popular support at home to commit
military forces for these kinds of things,'' said Sanho Tree, head of the
Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.
As for the firms' vaunted ability to move faster than the government
bureaucracy, said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., ``part of the bureaucracy's
job is precisely to make sure we don't step in [it] like we did in Peru.''
Some of those involved in outsourcing said it is marred by occasional
featherbedding and padding of bills sent to Washington, as well as
back-scratching between firms and U.S. officials who supervise their
contracts but hope to land a job with the firms after government retirement.
``There's a lot of taxpayers' money being wasted on counter-narcotics, and
every contractor and bandit is trying to get at the trough,'' said a retired
U.S. Army officer who worked in the Andean region.
Money, indeed, is what attracts the private companies, the sources said.
``There is just too much money coming down the pike to control this thing,''
said a former State Department official, recalling his own efforts to phase
out DynCorp's work in Colombia and turn it over to the local police in 1995.
``I had an entire `nationalization' plan worked out to train the police,''
he said. ``But then our coca crop estimates began shooting up, Washington
threw more money at the problem and the Colombians were back to being
spectators because we had to ramp up a program quickly.''
Senior Associate, Demilitarization Program
Center for International Policy
1755 Massachusetts Ave NW, Suite 312
Washington DC 20036
+202-232-3317 fax 232-3440