BOGOTÁ, Colombia, May 17 — Their presence grew as Colombia's drug war intensified in the 1990's, with the United States hiring American pilots, radar operators, former Army Special Forces trainers and other former military personnel to carry out important missions.
Under private contracts known to only a few members of the United States Congress, these specialists — all working for American companies — have flown spray planes and helicopters, trained and advised Colombian military personnel, repaired high-tech machinery and helped pave remote airfield runways. Supporters of private contractors say that, overall, the companies have completed important work while relieving key American military specialists who would otherwise have had to uproot from strategically significant regions.
The use of contractors provides a way for the American government to deny or play down any responsibility if something goes wrong.
But now questions are being raised in the American Congress and even by Colombian officials about the logic of relying on private companies for operations that are not open to public scrutiny.
Americans working in Colombia are constantly exposed to danger, critics note, with three American pilots killed since 1997 when their spray planes crashed. Also of concern to policy makers in Washington and military officials here is whether the United States should be spending tens of millions of dollars annually on contractors when Colombian officials say Colombians could be trained to complete the same operations for much less money.
Indeed, the largest of the companies operating in Colombia, DynCorp of Reston, Va., a $1.4 billion company that has handled many tasks here in the last 10 years, was awarded a five- year, $170 million contract in 1998, according to government reports. American Congressional aides familiar with DynCorp say the company's pilots can earn more than $100,000 a year conducting operations that Colombian pilots could do for less than $40,000 a year.
"When we get a contractor here, we always think we could probably get a Colombian to do this, and a lot cheaper," said a high-ranking official in President Andrés Pastrana's administration who is familiar with contractors. "We can do it with a Colombian company, and it would cost 60 percent less."
However, R. Rand Beers, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, said finding qualified personnel in Colombia is not always easy. And going to the American military is not the catch-all answer, since United States forces do not employ pilots for crop-spraying or the mechanics and logistics experts needed for defoliation programs.
Hiring private contractors, Mr. Beers said, is often the best option, giving the government flexibility to hire for short-term jobs while choosing from a pool of experienced companies that offer a range of services tailor made for places like Colombia.
The need for such services is likely to increase as the United States invests $1.3 billion to destroy Colombia's coca fields. Documents provided by Congressional aides show that it is not uncommon for defoliation planes flown by Americans and other contract pilots on defoliation missions to be hit by gunfire. In fact, rebels or cocaine traffickers have hit OV-10 planes flown by Americans nearly 70 times since 1998, though none were shot down, DynCorp records show.
Then, in April, a Peruvian fighter plane downed a private plane carrying missionaries from the United States after an American surveillance aircraft staffed by American contractors alerted the Peruvians that the airplane might be suspicious because of where it was flying. Although the contractors — employees of the Aviation Development Corporation of Montgomery, Ala., and working under contract to the Central Intelligence Agency — apparently tried to call off the fighter from pursuing the missionary plane or firing on it, their efforts proved futile. Veronica Bowers, a missionary, and her baby daughter were killed.
Representative Bill Delahunt, a Democrat from Massachusetts who sits on the House International Relations Committee, said contract work in Colombia must become more public "to establish some transparency to ensure accountability."
With bipartisan support from other members of the committee, Mr. Delahunt sponsored an amendment to a State Department authorization bill that calls for detailed reports on contractors in Colombia and for American workers to be replaced by Colombians if and when qualified personnel are made available. The legislation was approved Wednesday in the House.
"We don't need, given the incident in Peru and our experiences in Latin America in the past, shadowy relationships where information is difficult to secure and where activities tend to be obscure," Mr. Delahunt said.
Some military experts note that contractors have fulfilled necessary and important missions since World War II. They tend to be highly trained — often experienced former military men and women — who offer expertise when the American military is stretched thin, said Gabriel Marcella, who teaches at the United States Army War College and has written extensively about Colombia's conflict. These specialists, military experts say, can quickly fill posts in places like Colombia without compromising American military commitments in other regions.
"In many cases it's easier to do it with a contractor," said Gen. Ed Soyster, a retired general who is the spokesman for Military Professional Resources Inc., a Virginia company that recently completed a contract with Colombia's Ministry of Defense. "They can count on the right people without affecting the readiness of your forces."
To human rights groups and some policy makers in the United States Congress, the use of contractors provides a way for the American government to deny or play down any responsibility if something goes wrong. And some policy makers fear that, if Colombia's conflict escalates, the use of contractors could grow.
"What we're seeing is the out- sourcing of the war down there," said a senior Republican aide in Washington. "The State Department gives lip service to Colombian nationalization of the program, and so it is just more and more gringos, at more and more expense."
The State Department has started to be more open about what contractors are doing in Colombia, and its officials stress that American policy is to replace Americans with Colombians as soon as they are trained.
Recent figures from the State Department show that on any given day there are 160 to 180 American civilians in Colombia working under contract with the State Department, the Department of Defense or in social programs for the United States Agency for International Development. DynCorp employs about 100 Americans in Colombia, as well as 100 Colombians and third-country nationals, according to the State Department.
Twelve Americans rotate in and out to fly spray planes. Escort helicopters that accompany spray planes and search-and-rescue helicopters are also staffed by American pilots and medics.
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