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.
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.
Joe Mayo, a spokesman for Triple Canopy, a security company based in Lincolnshire, Ill., confirmed that the firm is recruiting in El Salvador but declined to give any detailed information. "Everything we do is legal," he stressed in a phone interview, "but we are a private company. The minute you divulge your numbers of employees and your methods of recruiting, you become less competitive."
But a police sergeant here, speaking on condition of anonymity, says there have been more than 800 requests in the past three months by policemen nationwide asking to leave in order to accept jobs with two different contracting firms, mostly with Triple Canopy. He says 32 people have been given permission by the department and maybe 10 more, he says, have gone without permission.
Pay depends on the recruit's experience and the job to be performed, but can also be determined by his country of origin. While some firms offer US and European recruits up to $700 a day, companies like Blackwater, based in Moyock, N.C., reportedly pay Latin Americans and others from less developed countries $1,200 to $5,000 a month. Uniforms, housing, transportation, food, and life insurance are all provided. Typical police salaries in El Salvador range from $320 a month for rank-and-file police to $1,500 for a handful of elite officers.
The practice has its critics. "This is all very deeply wrong," says Geoff Thale, a senior associate for Central America at the left-leaning WOLA. He argues that the developing world should not serve as a cheap labor source for life threatening work that the US government has chosen to undertake. "It may be tempting to hire low-wage workers to take risks for us, so that we don't experience the human cost of casualties or deaths ourselves. But it's not morally acceptable," he says.
Others, like Paul Forage, a lecturer on military and security issues at Florida Atlantic University, wonder whose law the contracted recruits operate under, what sort of accountability mechanisms are in place, and who would help them if they were kidnapped? "There are a lot of vague areas here," says Forage.
While Pentagon and State Department guidelines governing the operation of contractors in Iraq are loose, Doug Brooks of the International Peace Operations Association, a group of private-sector service companies engaged in overseas operations, says the industry is becoming more regulated, both by itself and the US government.
Firms, for example, are required to obtain standard insurance for all their recruits, and more companies are committed to assisting their workers in cases in injury or kidnapping.
"There used to be more irregularities," he admits, "but the bad [contracting firms] have been weeded out."
Lopez's best friend at the academy, Max Vaquerano, is already in Iraq, in Basra. The two men communicate weekly by e-mail, and Lopez says he now has good sense of what to expect in Iraq - it's hot and, despite most news accounts, is often boring.
Lopez has already had an interview with a contracting company, which he refuses to name, and has asked for leave from his current duties. Even if he doesn't get it, he says, he will be leaving next month.
"It's time to go to war," he says, smiling, "It's a good opportunity."
• Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.