August 23, 2006
Colombian contractors in Iraq
Here are some excerpts, translated into English, from the shocking and sad cover story in this week's edition of the Colombian magazine Semana. It tells of thirty-five retired Colombian military officers who were recruited to serve as security guards in Iraq.
A subsidiary of Blackwater USA, the major U.S. contractor whose private guards have even protected U.S. generals in Iraq, recruited the Colombians with promises of salaries of $4,000 per month - more than most doctors or lawyers earn in Colombia. After undergoing training on a Colombian military base (!), they were rushed off to Baghdad - where they found that their salaries would be only $1,000 per month. When they complained, the U.S. company took away their return tickets.
Here is the story. There is much more in the Spanish version that is worth a read as well, such as the reaction of these officers, all of them veterans of Colombia's violence, to the incomparably worse security situation in Iraq ("This is hell: there are bombings all the time, shots, helicopters near and far, sirens day and night. There is no rest. One feels a permanent tension in his chest.")
“The group of 35 of us, and another 34 that arrived about two weeks later, we want to return to Colombia, but they won’t let us. When they find out that we’ve talked about what they’re doing to us, we don’t know what could happen. But the truth is that the people here in Baghdad are desperate,” said Esteban Osorio, a retired captain of the National Army.
… Retired Army Major Juan Carlos Forero went to an office near downtown Bogotá to submit his resumé. “The company is called ID Systems… it’s the representative in Colombia for the American firm called Blackwater. It is one of the biggest private security contracting firms in the world and they work for the U.S. government,” said Major Forero.
“[At ID Systems] we were received by Captain (Gonzalo) Guevara, who works with that firm and is retired from the Army. He told us that basically we had to provide security for military facilities. He told us salaries were around $4,000 USD per month,” Forero said.
Finally, in early June of this year, the representatives of ID Systems told the recruited Colombians that the time had come. “On the evening of the first of June, they asked twelve of us to meet at the office and told us that we were leaving for Iraq the next day. There they told us that the salary wouldn’t be $4,000, but $2,700. We didn’t like that because we had always been convinced that it would be $4,000, but there wasn’t anything we could do at that point.” Why? Because by then none of them had jobs anymore (they had quit in anticipation of the trip) and were desperate to support their families.
At midnight of June 1, Forero and his companions were made to sign contracts, and were given a copy. “We weren’t able to read anything in the contract. We just signed and left in a hurry because when they gave us the contracts they told us we had to be at the airport in four hours and since everything was so rushed, we barely had time to say goodbye to our families, get our bags together and leave for the airport,” said Forero.
From Bogotá they left for Caracas, from there to Frankfurt, where they waited for twelve hours for a flight to Amman, Jordan, and from there a last plane to Baghdad. “Since in the Frankfurt airport we had to wait so long, we started reading the contract, and there we realized that there was something wrong because it said they would pay us $34 a day. That is, our salary would be $1,000 a month, and not $2,700,” recalls Forero.
… The mission of the group… consisted in replacing a group of Romanian contractors that had finished their contracts. “When we linked up with the Romanians they asked us how much we were being paid, and we told them $1,000.” They responded with mockery. “No sane person in the world comes to Baghdad for only $1,000,” they said.
The Romanians told them that for the same work they were being paid $4,000. That fact gave way to uneasiness among the other contractors on the base. The mood turned hostile against the Colombians because if each soldier establishes his own conditions for fighting in a foreign country, there is always a benefit because in the end they are risking their lives. No one spoke to the Colombians and when they did, it was to offend them and treat them like cheap labor.
On June 9th, before they had spent even a week in Baghdad, the 35 drafted and signed a letter addressed to the ID Systems and Blackwater representatives. In the letter, they said that if they didn’t pay the $2,700 that were promised, they wanted an immediate return to Colombia for the entire group.
The letter in which the Colombians demanded their rights was interpreted as rebellion, and the consequences were unexpected. “When we arrived at the base, they took away all our return flight tickets. After the letter they gathered us together and said that if we wanted to return, we should do it through our own means. Ironically, in a show of antipatriotism, one of the people who was most against us was a former captain of the Colombian Army, (Edgar Ernesto) Méndez, who is the link here in Iraq of the contractor in Colombia,” said retired Captain (Estaban) Osorio from Baghdad.
“To force us to comply with the contract, they began to pressure us. They threatened to kick us out of the base facilities to the streets of Baghdad, where you are exposed to being killed or, in the best of cases, kidnapped,” said Osorio.
…What’s more, when they were hired in Bogotá, the retired military men were told they would have eight-hour shifts. After the protest, the shifts became twelve-hour shifts. When the group complained, the response was that they would lose their potable water or that they wouldn’t receive the same food as the others on the base. At the time of recruitment in Bogotá, they were told that they would have medical insurance, dentists, and access to recreation zones within the base and life insurance for $1.5 million dollars. Just like the salary they were offered, nothing turned out to be true. Then came the health deterioration. “Several have gotten sick or have had accidents and it has not been possible for them to receive medical attention. When we asked for an explanation, the only thing we are told is that our contract does not cover that kind of services,” says Forero.
The contractors insist on the influence that the company has on the Army and the government, and that the company could close the doors for them to find jobs back in Colombia. And the threats go even further. “We are afraid for the consequences, not only that we risk being left without a job when we return to Colombia, but that they have also told us to remember that they have all the information about our families and children and that, simply put, is a threat,” said Forero.
Although the Ministry of Defense, the Army and the United States Embassy in Colombia are aware of the recruitment of retired soldiers, it has been a matter dealt with a low profile in which nobody accepts any responsibility.
The closest to it is that the Defense Ministry and Army staff accept that they’re “doing a favor” by lending (ID Systems) a Colombian military base for the training of retired soldiers that are sent to Iraq. “It’s a company endorsed by the U.S. government that asked the Army for cooperation, which consists of allowing them the use of the base, as long as they do not recruit active personnel. There is no agreement, contract or any other type of relationship with them, and therefore, the Colombian government has no responsibility. Whatever happens between retired soldiers and the company that recruits them is basically an agreement between an individual and a foreign company,” said a high-level government official.
For their part, an official from the U.S. State Department in Washington, DC, determined that “The State Deparment believes that this is a private commercial dispute between the Colombian employees and their employer.” The official said that any other comment should be made by Blackwater. Semana Magazine called Chris Taylor, vice president of that company, over ten times, and sent him a written set of questions but never received a response. It was also impossible to obtain a response from the representatives of ID Systems in Colombia, the retired captain Gonzalo Guevara or the owner of ID Systems, José Arturo Zuluaga.
(All the names have been changed for security reasons.)
Colombia, incidentally, is one of the few remaining American allies in South America.