In Colombia, the United States is deeply involved in a war between the government and the military, who are supported by various


Millions of people in the United States were moved by the story of Private Jessica Lynch, captured by Iraqi troops in March 2003. A few days after her liberation, Jessica Lynch would return to her home in West Virginia as a heroine and an icon of the U.S. battle for the liberation of the Iraqi people.

But in the United States, few people have heard of Thomas Howes, Marc Gonsalves or Keith Stansell. These three U.S. citizens were captured some 16 months ago and have been held prisoner in the Colombian jungles by FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels since then.

The relative anonymity of these three prisoners is no surprise. They were not active members of the U.S. military, but contractors working for two subsidiaries of Northrop Grumman, a private business that provides services to the U.S. State Department in the war against drugs in Colombia and in Afghanistan. Their small aircraft was brought down February 13, 2003 while flying over the province of Caquetá in southern Colombia.

“Contrast the impressive coverage that the media has given to the case of Jessica Lynch with the coverage of these three men in Colombia, who have spent months in captivity,” says Peter Singer, analyst for the Brookings Institute think-tank and author of the book Corporate Warriors. “This illustrates one of the clearest reasons why governments like to use private contractors, because when things go wrong, there are no headlines,” explains Singer.

The number of U.S. civilians working in the antidrug programs in Colombia has doubled in the last two years. When funding for Plan Colombia was approved in July 2000, the U.S. Congress fixed a limit on the number of soldiers and civilian contractors who could “support” Plan Colombia. But in view of the “excellent” performance of the contractors, in May of this year Washington decided to increase from 400 to 500 the number of U.S. soldiers in the country and to eliminate any limit on the number of private contractors. This qualitative jump in U.S. involvement in Colombia is entirely clear.

Within the Andean country, various private contractors, some of them intimately connected to the circles of power in Washington, work for the U.S. government (Lockheed Martin, ARINC, Northrop Grumman, MPRI ...), but for sheer volume of business, DynCorp is the paradigm example.

Its contractors fumigate coca fields, operate airplanes and helicopters for the State Department, organize programs of alternative development, repair aircraft and evaluate intelligence information for the Colombian Ministry of Defense. This U.S. mini-army also provides pilots, technicians and almost every kind of personnel required to wage the war in Colombia, including administrative personnel.

DynCorp Aerospace Technologies [has] contracts with more than 37 federal agencies comprising more than 98 percent of its business. In 2001 the company signed a $600 million contract with the State Department for coca fumigation operations in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.

DynCorp has an ample record of operations around the world. In Colombia, according to Peter Singer, the company's employees have earned a reputation of “arrogance and an inclination to fight.”

The moral character of these “professionals” matters little in carrying out their assignments; however, accusations made against them do matter, particularly the charges that during the Balkan war, various employees of this company were implicated in a scandal of sexual trafficking, prostitution of minors and illegal arms trafficking in Bosnia.

In Afghanistan, DynCorp also got its slice of the pie. During that war, the CIA put some Predator airplane flights partially in the charge of private contractors. But it was only after the conflict “officially” ended, that DynCorp-which also is charged with the maintenance of the presidential aircraft, Air Force One-was assigned a contract for the personal protection of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and another to train the Afghan Army once the Green Berets leave the country. The company has also gone to Mesopotamia to do business: it will pocket $40 million for training police in Iraq.

The extended utilization of contractors in place of military personnel in Colombia means that few people in the United States are aware of the level of involvement of their country in the Andean state, and the escalation of the involvement -to the point that Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt- shows very clearly that just as in the energy sector, multiple military businesses have interests in Colombia and multi-million dollar deals with the Bush administration.

This “invisible war” led by “private military corporations” and financed by the Pentagon is instigating a conflict between private businesses and public resources. Today, more than 48 percent of the defence budget is distributed among private companies, which amounts to a direct transfer of U.S. tax dollars to these corporations.

More than a year later, the families of the three Northrop Grumman employees held captive by the FARC say they still have received no complete explanation of what happened. The families demand negotiations. Washington refuses to negotiate with a guerrilla group it has included on its list of terrorist organizations, even though it has offered a reward of $340,000 for solution of the crisis and the possibility of a visa to the United States in exchange for information leading to the release of the prisoners.

Critics of the use of private contractors say that for U.S. leaders the political risks that surround a deeper official involvement in the Colombian conflict make it preferable to use contractors rather than placing official intelligence forces in a similar danger. The contractors are not subject to any strict code of conduct. Washington is not directly responsible for them, and their death or capture does not receive great publicity. “When private contractors are killed, we can simply declare that they are no part of our military forces,” admitted Miles Frechette, ambassador in Bogotá under Bill Clinton.

“U.S. public opinion has shown itself to be very susceptible to death counts,” affirms retired Colombian General Néstor Ramírez, who was Defense attaché in Washington from January 2002 to 2003. “Imagine the reaction if 20 American soldiers were to die here. It would be the end of Plan Colombia.” Since 1998, more than 20 private contractors have died in Colombia, and their deaths have hardly been mentioned.

Jacobo Quintanilla is a journalist of the Agency for Solidarity Information. This article was supplied by ANNCOL.