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Firms tap Latin Americans for Iraq

A history of recent wars makes the region attractive to private companies recruiting for security forces.

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 2005



SAN SALVADOR

Last week, El Salvador President Elias Antonio Saca stood at the country's international airport, welcoming home a unit of soldiers returning from service in Iraq. He called them "heroes" and passed on President Bush's personal thanks. School children waiting on the tarmac waved American and Salvadoran flags.

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Police Sgt. Roberto Arturo Lopez is heading to Iraq soon, but he expects no such attention - when he leaves or returns. That's because he, like a growing number of Salvadorans, will play a different sort of role in Iraq: that of a hired US hand.

El Salvador, the only Latin American country to maintain troops in the US-led coalition in Iraq, has 338 soldiers on the ground. But there are about twice as many more Salvadorans there working for private contracting companies, doing everything from the dishes and the driving to guarding oil installations, embassies, and senior personnel.

Private security firms contracted with the Pentagon and the State Department are dipping into experienced pools of trained fighters throughout Central and South America for their new recruits. With better pay than what they can earn at home, some 1,000 Latin Americans are working in Iraq today, estimates the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). These recruits are joined by thousands of others - from the US and Britain, as well as from Fiji, the Philippines, India and beyond. Close to 20,000 armed personnel employed by private contractors are estimated to be operating in Iraq, making up the second largest foreign armed force in the country, after the US.

"It's not illegal - but it's not celebrated either," says Jorge Giammattei, a political adviser at El Salvador's Interior Ministry, giving voice to the moral ambivalence felt here and elsewhere toward the growing reliance on private citizens to fill roles once held by the US military.

Sergeant Lopez is a shooting instructor at the police academy outside San Salvador. He has been with the police 11 years, and as a senior instructor makes $540 a month, on which he supports his wife, ex-wife, and three young daughters.

He was first approached by a friend six months ago, he says. The friend gave him a cellphone number to call and told him he could make $1,500 a month working as a guard in Iraq. He was tempted, he says, but unsure. He had, over the years, earned respect, if not money, at the academy. And while he had always toyed with idea of traveling to the US to find higher-paying work, going to Iraq had never occurred to him.

"That part of the world had nothing to do with me," he says. A few months later, a different security firm got in touch, he says, this time offering $3,200 a month. He then gave it serious thought.

"I know the contracting companies are having no problem finding recruits," says Dan Broidy, author of "The Halliburton Agenda: The Politics of Oil and Money," who estimates that there is more than one contract worker for every 10 US soldiers in Iraq today.

Throughout Latin America there have been numerous press reports of contracting and subcontracting firms recruiting in Chile, Colombia, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Each of the countries has had recent - and in Colombia's case, ongoing - wars, which make for large pools of experienced military and police.

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