Collateral Damage in the War Against Drugs

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The movie Traffic is Hollywood's attempt to put the war on drugs on trial. What you aren't likely to see on the silver screen any time soon, however, is the questionable tactics that the White House is using to fight this war.

In case you haven't heard, the U.S. government is hiring private American firms to fight its drug war in South America, a move critics say amounts to hiring mercenaries.

At least four U.S. companies and one Canadian firm are assisting the Colombian military, a force that has come under fire from human rights groups for its role in a brutal civil war.

The American firms have either been hired directly by the U.S. government or acquired subcontract work from companies hired by Washington.

Under these contracts, the U.S. companies now:

  • fly eradication missions over coca fields in the Andean region;
  • provide surveillance planes that spot left-wing guerrillas in Colombia and;
  • offer military advice to Colombia's army and police, among other duties.

One of those firms - Eagle Aviation Services and Technology, based in Chantilly, Virginia - was hired by Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North, then a National Security Council official, to secretly run guns to right-wing Nicaraguan rebels during the 1980s. This secret supply of weapons and ammunition came at a time when the U.S. Congress had banned the White House from providing lethal aid to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

When contacted, an Eagle spokesperson referred the call to the U.S. State Department.

A State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the department only has a contract with Dyncorp, a military company based in Reston, Virginia.

Dyncorp has been hired to fly eradication missions over fields of coca and poppy, the raw materials for cocaine and heroin.

When it was pointed out that Eagle is a subcontractor for Dyncorp, the official said he could only comment on the Dyncorp contract. He also brushed off suggestions that the U.S. was hiring mercenaries.

"That's foolish," the official said in a phone interview. "They (Dyncorp) perform on technical aspects that fall outside of the scope of the State Department."

But U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky - an Illinois Democrat who wants to ban the use of private businesses for counter-narcotics operations in South America - doesn't think her concerns are foolish.

"We may be engaged in a secret war that may exacerbate the violence in Colombia," said Schakowsky. "I think mercenaries is the correct term.

"These are people who used to work for the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), some who worked for the army. Some of them were also involved in questionable counter-intelligence work in Central America in the 1980s."

Schakowsky has introduced legislation in Congress that would effectively ban the use of private businesses for counter-narcotics operations. She said the bill could pass as early as this fall.

The issue of a Canadian company's involvement with the Colombian military also came up on June 13, the last day the House of Commons sat before the summer recess.

Vector Aerospace, based in St. John's, Newfoundland, has been hired by the Colombian government to repair engines, components and auxiliary power units for its military aircraft, a contract worth CDN$6.5-million. Unlike the American firms, Vector is not involved in surveillance flights or drug eradication missions.

Nevertheless, in Parliament, New Democratic Party Foreign Affairs Critic Svend Robinson asked what action the government planned to take to "stop this Canadian corporate complicity" with the Colombian military.

David Kilgour, Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, said Vector wouldn't need a government permit if the work were being done by a foreign subsidiary. A company official said at least some of the work was being done by its British subsidiary.

Asked in an interview for his view on a Canadian firm working for the Colombian military, Kilgour replied, "I think it's appropriate for a democratically elected government to protect themselves."

However, Kilgour said he had nothing but "absolute revulsion'' for the paramilitary groups which have been tied to widespread massacres.

Human-rights groups have long tied rogue elements of the Colombian military to right-wing paramilitaries. In response, Fanny Kertzman, Colombia's ambassador to Canada, has insisted that Bogota does not assist drug dealers or paramilitary groups. Countless critics - including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Project Ploughshares - say this statement does not portray the full picture. Rogue elements of the military, these groups maintain, have assisted right-wing death squads for years.

Meanwhile, critics of "outsourcing" - a term used for turning the war on drugs over to the private sector - can point to three troubling incidents in South America involving private U.S. contractors.

Last February, Dyncorp employees flying in a U.S.-made military helicopter were involved in a firefight with left-wing rebels in the Colombia jungle. Private companies hired by Washington are not bound by the orders to avoid combat that apply to the roughly 200 regular U.S. military personnel currently in Colombia.

On April 20, the Peruvian Air Force shot down a Cessna plane that was mistakenly identified as one carrying drugs. A U.S. missionary and her adopted daughter were killed. News reports said Alabama-based Aviation Development was the company that alerted the Peruvians to the Cessna.

And on December 13, 1998, a Colombian Air Force plane is alleged to have bombed the town of Santo Domingo, killing seventeen villagers. The Colombian military has long insisted that a guerrilla bomb killed the civilians.

Investigators in Colombia, however, now want to subpoena three U.S. civilians who are alleged to have helped pinpoint targets for the Colombian military from the plane, The Associated Press has reported. All three civilians were former employees of AirScan International, of Rockledge, Florida, the fourth U.S. company hired by Washington to work in the region.

Alejandro Bustos is a 25-five-year-old journalist based in Toronto. He works as a reporter/editor on the Canadian Press World Desk. During his time off, his hobby is to dig up dirt on governments around the world.

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