Last Updated:5/19/03
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U.S. Contractors in Colombia

Report: In April 2003, the State Department released a required report to Congress listing the sixteen different companies hired to carry out counter-narcotics activities in Colombia, the roles they play and the amounts of their 2002 contracts.

Compiled by CIP Colombia Program Intern Sara Vins, November 2001

In addition to roughly 150 to 300 U.S. military personnel, hundreds of civilians working for private U.S. corporations work with Colombia's security forces in many aspects of the counternarcotics program. Contractors work in Colombia as spray-plane and helicopter pilots, search-and-rescue personnel, mechanics, logistics personnel, radar-site operators, and instructors, among other duties. Their jobs are often risky, requiring operations in territory with a large presence of illegal armed groups.

Public information about the contractors and their operations is limited - neither the government nor the companies release much information about their outsourcing. Basic information, such as the names of all companies hired for State Department, Defense Department and intelligence-agency contract work, is unavailable. Due to a lack of primary sources, our research on contractors depends heavily on journalistic reports.

In May 2001, the State Department released a Fact Sheet outlining the role of U.S. civilian contractors in Colombia.

Contractors vs. military personnel

The "outsourcing" policy has been quite controversial. Many critics question its necessity, and ask why contractors -- and not U.S. military personnel -- have been employed, particularly for the more dangerous jobs.

The contractors are not the least expensive option, as the Associated Press noted in May 2001:

A State Department internal audit last year noted that it is much more expensive to rely on contractors instead of Colombians. It said a Dyncorp pilot receives $119,305 a year, compared with $45,000 for contractors hired by Colombian National Police. The State Department also must pay higher costs for housing and security. Dyncorp has a $200 million, five-year contract with the department, company spokeswoman Janet Wineriter said. [Associated Press, May 7, 2001 - link to article at Media Awareness Project]

Officials claim, however, that using contractors brings clear benefits, as the New York Times reported in May 2001.

R. Rand Beers, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said finding qualified personnel in Colombia is not always easy. And going to the American military is not the catch-all answer, since United States forces do not employ pilots for crop-spraying or the mechanics and logistics experts needed for defoliation programs. Hiring private contractors, Mr. Beers said, is often the best option, giving the government flexibility to hire for short-term jobs while choosing from a pool of experienced companies that offer a range of services tailor made for places like Colombia. [New York Times, May 18, 2001]

Other possible motivations, of course, include avoiding a public relations problem if anything were to happen to the personnel involved.

It's very handy to have an outfit not part of the U.S. armed forces, obviously. If somebody gets killed or whatever, you can say it's not a member of the armed forces," former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Myles Frechette told reporters. [St. Petersburg Times, December 3, 2000]

As civilians, their work and fate comes under less scrutiny. [Miami Herald, Feb. 26, 2001 - link to article text at corpwatch.org]

Using contractors will "reduce the potential fallout when mistakes happen or Americans are caught in harm's way," said Tim Reiser, an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), an opponent of U.S. military aid to Colombia. [Associated Press, Feb. 26, 2001 - link to article at Media Awareness Project]

Counternarcotics or counterinsurgency?

The lack of conditions or transperency over contractors' military activities gives rise to concerns about their congruence with U.S. policy. U.S. officials like Ambassador Anne Patterson reassure that "the political stomach for going into the counter-insurgency business is zero. It is not going to happen." [Article text from Colombian Defense Ministry] Nonetheless, some observers worry that contractors on counternarcotics missions may be getting too close to Colombia's larger conflict.

Trying to avoid a direct involvement in Colombia's decades-old war, the Pentagon has forbidden the estimated 200 U.S. military trainers here from entering combat areas or joining police or military operations that could result in clashes with guerrillas or paramilitaries. But no such restrictions apply to the American civilians working for DynCorp or another Virginia firm, Military Professional Resources Inc., known as MPRI, both under contract to help Colombian security forces. [Miami Herald, Feb. 22, 2001 - link to article text at Yahoo Groups]

"There have been U.S. media reports that some [DynCorp and MPRI] missions extend beyond drug-fighting and into the Colombian military's war against some 23,000 leftist rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, and National Liberation Army, known as ELN." [Miami Herald, Feb. 26, 2001 - link to article text at corpwatch.org]

The "cap"

Due to concerns over proximity to the conflict, a provision in the 2000 "Plan Colombia" aid package law (section 3204(b) of Public Law 106-246) prohibits the presence in Colombia of more than 300 U.S. contract personnel. The same provision sets a maximum of 500 uniformed U.S. military personnel.

The U.S. government claims that while the troop "cap" has never come close to being exceeded, the 300-person contractor cap is an obstacle, especially as helicopters begin delivery to Colombia in late 2001. In August 2001, the Los Angeles Times reported that DynCorp, likely the largest contractor in Colombia, was maintaining 335 civilians in the country -- but since only one-third were U.S. citizens, the "cap" did not apply. [Los Angeles Times, August 18, 2001 - link to article text at Detroit News]

The Contractors

At least six contractors work or have worked with counternarcotics operations in Colombia. Names that have surfaced in official and press reports include DynCorp, Military Professional Resources, Inc. (MPRI), Northrop Grumman, Eagle Aviation Services and Technology (EAST), Inc., and the manufacturers of helicopters given to the Colombian security forces (Sikorsky and Bell Textron).

The name of another company, Aviation Development Corporation based at Maxwell Air Force base in Montgomery, Alabama, surfaced amid news of its employees' involvement in the accidental shootdown of a planeload of U.S. missionaries over Peru in April 2001. The name of this company, which was working on a CIA contract in Peru, has not appeared in any reporting on Colombia. [See May 28, 2001 issue of In These Times.]

DynCorp (more information)

Lawsuit against DynCorp from International Labor Rights Fund

By far the largest firm operating in Colombia is DynCorp, hired by the U.S. State Department's International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau six years ago under a reported $600 million contract to support coca eradication programs in Colombia as well as Peru and Bolivia. [Miami Herald, Feb. 26, 2001 - link to article text at corpwatch.org]

Members of Search and Rescue (SAR) teams are believe to have engaged in about 15 rescues during the past six years, about half of them "hot extractions" from combat areas where team members have been at risk, a source in Bogota said. ...The teams are under orders from DynCorp and U.S. officials to avoid journalists. [Miami Herald, Feb. 22, 2001 - link to article text at Yahoo Groups]

After the pilot of one of the police helicopters was shot and forced to set down, the five other helicopters - three of them piloted by DynCorp employees - moved in and began shooting at rebel positions, said [Capt. Luis Fernando] Aristizabal, a Colombian co-pilot of one of the Dyncorp-piloted helicopters. He said the door gunners were all Colombians and that Americans did not fire weapons during the mission. [Associated Press, Feb. 21, 2001 - link to article text at Yahoo Groups]

Military Professional Resources Inc. (more information)

MPRI, hired by the U.S. Defense Department, [had] a team of about 10 retired U.S. military officers in Bogotá to advise the military on strategic and logistical issues. The company has steadfastly declined to comment on their exact number or work. [Miami Herald, Feb. 22, 2001 - link to article text at Yahoo Groups]

The [MPRI] report blurs the lines between the drug war and the civil war: its operational guidelines would have all Colombian infantry units switching back and forth between counter-drug and counter-guerrilla operations. [Associated Press, May 21, 2001 - link to article text at commondreams.org]

U.S. military sources say the Pentagon has no plans to replace MPRI in Colombia. Any future collaboration with the Colombian military reform effort likely will be left to the Southern Command, the Miami-based military force responsible for Latin America. [St. Petersburg Times, May 13, 2001]

Northrop Grumman (more information)

Northrop Grumman of Los Angeles provides an unknown number of U.S. citizens that operate and maintain five radar stations in eastern and southern Colombia that track suspected drug smuggling flights. [Miami Herald, Feb. 26, 2001 - link to article text at corpwatch.org]

Eagle Aviation Services and Technology (EAST), Inc. (more information)

(Subcontrator of DynCorp)

U.S. drug eradication flights in Colombia are being flown by the same private company that Oliver North used to secretly run guns to Nicaraguan rebels during the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal. Eagle Aviation Services and Technology Inc. has flown State Department planes on dangerous missions in Colombia for 10 years. Three of its pilots have been killed in two crashes. EAST doesn't work directly for the State Department. It is a subcontractor of Dyncorp Aerospace Technology, the military company hired by State to fly and maintain aircraft for counterdrug missions in Colombia. [Associated Press, June 5, 2001 - link from commondreams.org]

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