The downing of a US fumigation helicopter on February 18 revealed that US military contractors are engaging in Colombian combat operations despite President Bush's stated policy of limiting US military involvement in Plan Colombia to a strictly advisory function. The helicopter gunship was one of six sent to protect four crop-spraying planes sent from Larandia air base to Caquetá, parts of which are controlled by the FARC guerrillas. Ground fire wounded the helicopter pilot, forcing him to land. One helicopter succeeded in rescuing one of the four downed crewmen before having to flee FARC gunfire. A second helicopter finally succeeded in removing the other crewmen along with the downed helicopter's guns and radio. Colombian police reported that the last rescue helicopter was on the ground under fire for ten minutes. Reports by Associated Press and the Miami Herald also indicate widespread use of such contractors in Colombia. The teams are usually ex-Special Forces military who take part in potentially dangerous search and rescue operations amid a press blackout from DynCorp and the State Department.
Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been very careful to avoid military casualties in any of its overseas operations. The Caquetá incident indicates that the US military is using private US citizens employed by defense contractors to avoid such official military casualties and body counts. Besides DynCorp, several other US firms and at least one Canadian company are heavily involved in Colombian operations. MPRI of Arlington, Virginia is providing a group of senior ex-military officers to advise the Colombian high command in Bogotá. Vector Aerospace of Newfoundland is providing helicopter repairs and for Colombia. The US Congress has set a limit of 300 military contractors for Colombia operations, yet U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson has told Congressional delegations that they may soon need to increase that number.
Another report from Iquitos on the Peruvian Amazon indicates that former Navy SEALs, working for a private US firm, are employed to oversee sophisticated gunboats which patrol the Amazon and are entering Amazon ports in Colombia and penetrating the Putumayo river. Special Forces teams in Iquitos have reported that these contractors are hired to kill leftist guerrillas. Recently Tim Reiser, aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, told AP that using US contractors will "reduce the potential fallout when mistakes happen or Americans are caught in harm's way." As fumigation teams and their protective search-and-rescue support units move more deeply into guerrilla territory in pursuit of illusive drug war victories, it remains to be seen how the American public will react to increasing evidence of US military contractors putting themselves in harm's way. They may not always escape as easily as the team in the department of Caquetá.
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