Outsourcing the drug war

By Pedro Ruz Gutierrez and E.A. Torriero of The Sentinel Staff

Published in The Orlando Sentinel on September 19, 2000

FLORENCIA, Colombia -- The hotshot pilot swoops down at 200 mph in his Vietnam-era crop duster, gliding just 50 feet over the coca valleys he has been hired to destroy.

The U.S. Army veteran earns $90,000 a year tax-free as a civilian pilot, but he understands the downside of this job very well. More than once he has dodged bullets from peasants and guerrillas trying to protect Colombia`s multibillion-dollar cocaine trade.

This is one pilot who won`t mind giving up a big paycheck should his working conditions continue to deteriorate.

"If we start getting into a civil war, I`m out of here," he said.

For now, though, he is part of a growing civilian army hired by Uncle Sam to help fight Colombia`s war on drugs, to be financed largely by $1.3 billion in U.S. aid.

Daredevil pilots with military experience, retired top brass and former Green Berets are all part of the effort as the first $300 million in aid flows to Colombia next month.

Expertise in intelligence and law enforcement is a must. Fluency in Spanish, and knowledge of counter-terrorism, jungle warfare and counter-surveillance are a plus.

Although there are limits to the number of American military people who will be involved in training Colombian troops, there are fewer restrictions on how many U.S. civilians can be hired by defense contractors.

"Every pirate, bandit -- everyone who wants to make money on the war -- they`re in Colombia," said one congressional aide in Washington. He described efforts to snare contracts as a "free-for-all."

"This is what we call outsourcing a war," he said, referring to the use of free-lance help.

Much of the effort, however, will come from companies very familiar to the U.S. government.

With as much as $4 billion in U.S. aid expected to flow into the Andean region in the coming years, at least a dozen U.S. companies are lining up to bid on Uncle Sam`s foreign venture.

Deadly way to make living:

Pay is high, but so are the risks.

The crash of a U.S. Army spy plane that killed five American soldiers last summer underscored the potential for casualties. Relatives, including those of Capt. Jose Santiago Jr. of Orlando, dispute the official Army version of pilot error and suggest a rebel missile could have shot down the reconnaissance plane.

Three civilian pilots of DynCorp. and EAST Inc., under contract with the State Department, have died in plane crashes since 1997.

DynCorp., of Reston, Va., has up to 30 pilots and crews in charge of fumigating coca fields with glyphosate, a stronger version of the household Roundup weedkiller. Their presence has grown from only a few pilots several years ago to more than 60 workers at the Larandia military base near here.

It is difficult to predict how many Americans will become a part of the Colombian conflict. Up to 100 Special Forces and Navy SEALs already are teaching Colombia`s new military-led counter-narcotics battalions. U.S. workers operating ground-radar stations and civilian coca-spraying crews provide aircraft maintenance at Colombian bases.

On any given day, from 150 to 250 Americans are helping in Colombia`s drug war. That number will grow to 500 U.S. troops and 300 civilians under new caps that can be increased by the president.

American officials say the U.S. military will not be directly involved in operations, and the U.S. soldiers will act solely as trainers.

And much of the contract work for non-military help will be given first to U.S. companies that will then parcel the work to Colombian subcontractors.

Of the $120 million in U.S. non-military aid over the next three years, more than two-thirds of the contracts will go to U.S. companies or charity groups.

The Americans will supervise projects to overhaul Colombia`s maligned justice system, teach farmers to grow crops other than coca and opium poppy, and relocate and shelter Colombians fleeing civil war.

"We are not talking about a large American presence on the ground," said a senior U.S. Agency for International Development official in Washington. "Frankly, we think the Colombians are better suited to do the jobs that have to be done."

Colombian cash cow?

But American firms already are cashing in on the spoils of war.

Bell-Textron and United Technologies` Sikorsky Aircraft have signed to deliver 18 new Blackhawks and 42 "Super" Huey II helicopters.

Orders are pending for at least 14 more by the Colombian Defense Ministry, making the windfall for the helicopter makers more than $600 million.

Military Personnel Resources Inc., a military-consultant company based in Virginia and run by retired U.S. generals, already is advising the Colombian armed forces. Other U.S firms have started peddling nighttime-surveillance gear, riverboat technology, aircraft-maintenance services and other wares.

While U.S. companies are leading the rush, foreign companies also are looking to benefit. Israeli Defense Industries is trying to sell observation technology to the Colombian Air Force to outfit its Vietnam-era "Bronco" planes, the same ones leased by the United States in fumigation raids.

But it is the growing U.S. presence that has critics from Bogota to Washington calling the American aid package a prelude to another Vietnam debacle, with U.S. forces being lured into combat.

Already, some of the people working for private U.S. contractors are near the front lines.

MPRI, for example, has a former brigadier general, six retired colonels and several former officers in Colombia to help reorganize the Colombian armed forces under an 18-month Department of Defense contract worth $800,000.

Founded by former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Carl Vuono in 1987, MPRI has about $60 million in contracts worldwide with more than 400 employees who sell their expertise while "capitalizing on the experience and skills of America`s best-seasoned professionals," according to a company profile.

Vuono brings a wealth of experience to the job, having led the U.S. Army`s Panama and Gulf War operations.

DynCorp. has at least several dozen pilots and ground-support workers operating under close guard at Colombian military bases, according to one of the company pilots. They fly missions to eradicate coca fields with Colombian police and military helicopters alongside to provide cover.

DynCorp., a Fortune 500 company, is one of the largest defense contractors in the United States, with strong ties to the CIA and other federal agencies. It has projected sales of $2.5 billion between defense work and commercial ventures by next year.

The trend toward using private contractors and hired guns to carry out U.S. foreign policy is not new.

DynCorp., MPRI and other defense contractors have provided services in hot spots ranging from Bosnia to the Persian Gulf. Their contracts are under the supervision of the Defense or State departments.

Defense experts say this so-called outsourcing is not only cost-efficient, it also helps shield U.S. lawmakers from criticism if something goes wrong and Americans end up being killed and injured.

"The military tends to view the civilian contractors as a lot less confrontational way of doing business," said Chris Hellman, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "It`s perceived as a more benign presence."

`We`re very transparent`

Defense contractors say their aim is not to fight another country`s battles.

"We`re very transparent," said retired Army Gen. Ed Soyster, an MPRI spokesman and former head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. "We`re having [the Colombians] restructure, refocus and demonstrate correct processes."

Soyster would not discuss an MPRI evaluation of Colombian forces earlier this year, but said, "What we do is set them up so that what they do, they do it efficiently."

But critics charge that there isn`t a lot of oversight in the bidding for the profitable overseas projects.

"It`s an old-boys` club," said one congressional aide who has monitored Colombia funding. "All these generals get hired [by consultants] and do nothing."

Soyster, however, defended his company`s mission, saying it adheres to "uncompromising principles of integrity, honor, courage, loyalty and selfless service."

Recruiting at U.S. bases:

Like many contractors, MPRI makes its work quite public.

It has a 10,000-name database and recruits at U.S military bases. Several months ago it advertised for "highly qualified and experienced American military officers and senior noncommissioned officers" for its Colombia-U.S. "working group."

Less forthcoming about their activities are DynCorp. and Eagle Aviation Services and Technology Inc., whose pilots train at Patrick Air Force Base.

Eagle Aviation, also known as EAST Inc., is incorporated in several states but refuses to discuss its role in Colombia. DynCorp. also refused to comment, referring all questions to the State Department.

EAST has placed ads in Ag Pilot, a magazine for crop dusters, to hire pilots for fumigation work in Colombia`s fields.\par One ad read: "Highly experienced Ag pilots for year-round positions. Based in Florida, will work in Central and South America. [Job requires] ability to speak Spanish and converse in a clear and understandable manner to a variety of native speakers."

At the Larandia military base 40 miles south of here, American pilots live in virtual seclusion. They venture out sometimes for a meal or a drink, but only with armed Colombian soldiers and police in tow.

Mostly, American pilots fly fumigation missions in daylight and darkness. They work in three-week shifts and then often shuttle back to the states for a week off.

Colombian choppers fly cover for the American pilots. But increasingly, the Americans are becoming targets for the rebels.

Two American pilots flying Vietnam-era planes in the rebel-infested Caqueta province last month aborted their spraying mission when they encountered gunfire.

Even so, one pilot thinks the tide will turn once the full force of the U.S. commitment takes place. The rebels, he said, will lose their willpower.

Yet, he also predicts the Colombian pilots aren`t prepared for battle, either.

"They want us to fight their war for them."

Pedro Ruz Gutierrez can be reached at 407-420-5620 or by e-mail at pruz@orlandosentinel.com

Posted Sep 18 2000 10:30PM