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A New Poverty Draft: Military Contractors Target Latin America For New Recruits

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Halliburton and other private military contractors have begun advertising campaigns in El Salvador, Colombia and Nicaragua to recruit ex-soldiers to work in Iraq. [includes rush transcript]

With the situation in Iraq becoming more and more deadly and the resistance gaining increasing popular support inside the country, the Bush administration has begun sending thousands more US troops to Baghdad. But many question how many more troops the administration can afford to send, or more important, how many soldiers it can send. The US military is facing an unprecedented crisis in recruiting numbers and new enlistments. Meanwhile, new Pentagon statistics show that more than 5,000 soldiers have now been charged with desertion from bases in the U.S. and overseas since the invasion of Iraq in early 2003.

In some circles, there is talk of a return to the draft, though most analysts say that is unlikely in the near future. But it is not just the military that is facing difficulty in recruiting people to deploy to Iraq. Private contractors are also facing a serious personnel crisis, particularly given the danger of the situation and the fact that kidnappings and beheadings have become a regular part of the reality in occupied Iraq. Now, private US corporations have begun recruiting outside of the country. In recent months companies like Halliburton have launched ad campaigns and recruiting drives in several Latin American countries, promising huge salaries for fighting age men and women to serve in Iraq. Among the countries being targeted are El Salvador, Colombia and Nicaragua.

  • Geoff Thale, senior associate for Central America and Cuba at the Washington Office on Latin America.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A short while ago, I spoke with Geoff Thale of the Washington office on Latin America and asked him about the corporate recruiting campaigns.

GEOFF THALE: Yeah. I mean there’s a lot that’s not known about this story, but it’s pretty clear that U.S. private security firms, at least two are recruiting in El Salvador, at least one, Halliburton, in Colombia, and in Chile, Blackwater, another one of the well known security firms is recruiting former commandoes there. So, we have people — they’re probably four to five — 4,000 or 5,000, foreign, non-U.S. private contractors working in Iraq right now, and some significant number of them are Latin American. You know, I think the general sort of context here is that after the war in Vietnam, I think the United States military learned a lesson, and that lesson was that as U.S. Casualties increased, support for war declines. And one of the — one part of the solution to that problem is to recruit people from abroad, particularly people from Latin America, to fill those kind of jobs.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the corporations that are doing this?

GEOFF THALE: Yeah. Halliburton is obviously the best known of them in Colombia. Halliburton, you know, Vice President Cheney is the former head of Halliburton. It’s got major contracts throughout Iraq. In Colombia, Halliburton is recruiting people to do — it’s recruiting officers, not just troops but officers to be in charge of guarding security installations, embassies, U.S. and other government buildings, oil pipelines and so on. In Blackwater, which is the one in Chile, has been in the news recently. It recruits a lot of retired U.S. Special forces people to work in Iraq, and Triple Canopy, one of the two in El Salvador, is one of the 35 or so companies that recruits and sends people to Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: In a piece —

GEOFF THALE: All of these —

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead.

GEOFF THALE: I should say, Amy, most of them are companies that trade on the New York stock exchange. They’re private for-profit businesses.

AMY GOODMAN: In a piece in The Washington Post, it says that military dining facilities in Iraq are typically staffed by workers from poor Asian and African countries?

GEOFF THALE: Right. Fiji, I think they recruited a lot of people from. Nepal is another big place. Former — you know, the British-trained Gorkha troops in Nepal, a lot of those people have left the service and gone on to be recruited by British corporations to work in Iraq. The Philippines, I think, has also provided a number of people for driving jobs, and military mess hall jobs. I mean, it’s sort of the overall point here is that in Latin America and elsewhere in third world country, you can make four or five times working as the cook in a mess hall or the security guard for an embassy or the security for truck convoy delivering supplies, you can make four or five times there what you can make in your home country. In Salvador, as a matter of fact, people are quitting military jobs, jobs in the Salvador ran armed forces to line up for and volunteer for the jobs with private security firms, because they will make four or five times what they earn, and on the flip side, the U.S. companies involved in recruiting are going to pay them one-quarter of what they would have to pay if they were recruiting a U.S. citizen to do this work. So there’s a market logic. The Pentagon privatizes this work, and saves in the budget. The employer recruits abroad, and improves their bottom line. And people in these countries are earning more than they might earn working domestically. So, if you look on the strictly sort of economic logic, everybody is making money and the free market is at work. If you ask about the morality of this, it’s a kind of a frightening thing.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about — go ahead, Geoff.

GEOFF THALE: We’re paying other people to fight and die for us, is what we’re basically doing, and what we’re suggesting is that Salvadorians or Colombians or Nicaraguans or Chileans, or Fijians, or Filipinos don’t matter as much, and the political cost of their fighting and dying for us, is far less than the cost of having U.S. citizens do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about soldiers versus those employed by companies. Because what we are talking about now are U.S. corporations going down and recruiting. What is the difference? Has the U.S. military gone down to recruit?

GEOFF THALE: No. The U.S. military has not directly gone down to recruit. It’s private security companies that are doing this. They’re all under contract from the Pentagon. And they fill a range of jobs from sort of logistics and mess hall jobs through guard duty with security convoys, with embassies and other things. So, many of these, all of these are jobs that 20 years ago would have been carried out by uniformed U.S. Soldiers. Ten years ago, a significant number of them were being carried out by private U.S. contractor, the mess hall jobs and so on. Now what they’re doing is taking things that once were clearly military jobs at one time, like serving as a guard at an embassy or diplomatic facility and turning them into private jobs. That raises a whole set of questions about who controls these people, what kind of discipline are they subject to, what kind of responsibilities do they have in terms of the — of ethics, of human rights, the uniformed code of military justice and so on.

AMY GOODMAN: And of course, the issue of U.S. casualties, which is so significant for the Bush administration, keeping those numbers down, this helps to —

GEOFF THALE: Yeah. That clearly does that. I think that’s one of the most — from the point of view of democracy in the United States, the fact that we can outsource the fighting and outsource some of the deaths, frankly, you know I think that’s a scary possibility. When you have — in a democracy, when you have — or a country that claims to operate in a democratic fashion, when people fight wars, and there are casualties and deaths, their community, their families and communities feel those casualties and feel the deaths and make political judgments about whether the fighting is worth supporting. And whether the human cost is worth the political costs. When you outsource that, and you have people from other countries doing some of the fighting and some of the dyings, we don’t feel those costs, and the U.S. government and the Pentagon can prosecute wars at lower political costs at home, by having people who matter less to us, because they’re foreign, do the fighting and dying.

AMY GOODMAN: Geoff Thale is with the Washington office on Latin America. What role do the governments play in this? I mean, Colombia, El Salvador, Nicaragua.

GEOFF THALE: That’s a good question. Clearly on one level, they permit the firms to recruit. Probably the more significant thing, though, is that all of these are countries where there’s a long history of military action, large militaries that have been involved in civil wars, mostly militaries with long histories of human rights abuses of one sort or another and militaries that have recently downsized. So what you have is a pool of people with military backgrounds and military training who are very poorly paid and are ripe for the picking, as it were, for U.S. recruiters.

AMY GOODMAN: How much is this known in this country right now, who is being recruited?

GEOFF THALE: It’s hardly known at all. I mean, this piece in The Washington Post ten days ago now came really out of the blue, and I think the reporter who covered it was astonished when he discovered the fact, and I don’t think there’s been any other account of this in the U.S. press. There’s an account about Halliburton recruiting in Colombia that’s basically a reprint of a Spanish language Colombian press. There’s been mentions of the Chileans, but there’s no systematic coverage of any of this, it and it’s one of the frightening things about it.

AMY GOODMAN: And then these people, you mentioned Chileans. Who in Chile. For example —

GEOFF THALE: The Chileans are ex-commandoes and most of them were trained under the Pinochet government, a government sort of infamous for its human rights violations, for torture and disappearance and so on. So, it’s — they’re recruiting people like that, and with that kind of a background and training for security jobs in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: We hear a lot about military contractors when we’re hearing about the torture scandals, for example. It’s not just people in the Pentagon and in the intelligence agencies. We often hear about military contractors. Could people be being used as interrogators from Colombia and Nicaragua?

GEOFF THALE: That’s an interesting question. Nobody has yet made that allegation, but I think one of the questions to look at is what the Latin Americans who are being recruited are being recruited for, and what are the range of jobs that are being recruited to do. The flip side of that is — I think you’re right, there’s significant number of people involved in interrogation of prisoners and involved in the prison scandals in Abu Ghraib and other places who are working for military contractors rather than for the U.S. government. And one of the questions that will be interesting to see is whether those jobs are being outsourced as well, because of the experience and background people there in Latin America have in this kind of a thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Overall, how many people are we talking about?

GEOFF THALE: There’s — like I say, I think the numbers run four to five, maybe four to six thousand foreign contractors working in Iraq. There are probably — my guess is about 1,000 of them are Latin Americans, and those — it sounds like the numbers are going up. Several of the recruiting firms, the U.S. contracting firms have said Latin America is a growth area for our industry, because there’s so many military people laid off and available to them.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many casualties?

GEOFF THALE: That’s — I don’t know is the answer. That’s a good question.

AMY GOODMAN: Geoff Thale of the Washington office on Latin America. And this is Democracy Now!

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