Published on Wednesday, September 20, 2000 in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
'Civilian Army' of Americans Helps Fight Colombia's Drug War
by E.A. Torriero and Pedro Ruz Gutierrez
FLORENCIA, Colombia - The hotshot pilot swoops down at 200 mph in his Vietnam-era crop duster, gliding only 50 feet over the coca valleys he has been hired to destroy.

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Colombian soldiers carry the body of a rebel of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in Fusagasuga, about 50 miles south of Bogota, on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2000. Seven FARC rebels were killed in combat Tuesday with soldiers in Colombia's ongoing civil conflict. At least 35,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the last 10 years. (AP Photo/Scott Dalton)
The U.S. Army veteran earns $90,000 a year tax-free as a civilian pilot, but he understands the downside of this job very well. More than once, he's had to dodge bullets from peasants and guerrillas trying to protect Colombia's multibillion-dollar cocaine trade.

This is one pilot who won't mind giving up a big paycheck should his working conditions continue to deteriorate. "If we start getting into a civil war, I'm out of here," said the pilot, whose employer has ordered its workers not to talk to the media. "Americans will be targeted."

For now, though, he is part of a growing civilian army hired by Uncle Sam to help fight Colombia's war on drugs, to be financed largely by $1.3 billion in U.S. aid. Daredevil pilots with military experience, retired top brass and former Green Berets are all part of the effort as the first $300 million in aid heads to Colombia next month.

Expertise in intelligence and law enforcement is a must. Fluency in Spanish and knowledge of counter-terrorism, jungle warfare and counter-surveillance is a plus. While there are limits to the number of American military people who will be involved in training Colombian troops, there are fewer restrictions on how many U.S. civilians can be hired by defense contractors. Hundreds of Americans, lured by hefty salaries for hazardous work, will play a key role battling guerrillas and traffickers who live off the illicit drug trade.

"Every pirate, bandit -- everyone who wants to make money on the war -- they're in Colombia," said one congressional aide in Washington, who said he would speak candidly only if he were not identified. He described efforts to snare contracts as a "free-for-all."

"This is what we call outsourcing a war," he said. Much of the effort, however, will come from companies very familiar to the U.S. government. At least a dozen U.S. firms are lining up to bid on Uncle Sam's foreign venture.

FARC commander Fernando Caicedo sits in a retaurant in a small town near the FARC headquarters. He says that Plan Colombia and its introduction of military helicopters will lead to a full civil war in southern Colombia. TOM BURTON/ THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Pay is high, but so are the risks. The crash of a U.S. Army spy plane that killed five American soldiers last summer underscored the potential for casualties. Relatives, including those of Capt. Jose Santiago Jr. of Orlando, dispute the official Army version of pilot error and suggest a rebel missile could have shot down the reconnaissance plane.

Three civilian pilots of Reston, Va.-based DynCorp. and EAST Inc., under contract with the State Department, have died in plane crashes since 1997.

DynCorp did not return telephone calls asking for information on its Colombia activities.

DynCorp. has up to 30 pilots and crews in charge of fumigating coca fields with glyphosate, a stronger version of the household weedkiller Roundup.

The company's presence has grown from only a few pilots several years ago to more than 60 workers at the Larandia military base near here.

It is difficult to predict how many Americans will become a part of the Colombian conflict.

Up to 100 Special Forces and Navy SEALs already are teaching Colombia's new military-led counter-narcotics battalions. U.S. workers operating ground-radar stations and civilian coca-spraying crews provide aircraft maintenance at Colombian bases.

On any given day, 150 to 250 Americans are helping in Colombia's drug war.

Soldiers as trainers

That number will grow to 500 U.S. troops and 300 civilians under new caps that can be increased by the president.

American officials say that the U.S. military will not be directly involved in operations, and the U.S. soldiers will act solely as trainers.

And much of the contract work for non-military help will be given first to U.S. companies, which will parcel the work to Colombian subcontractors.

Of the $120 million in U.S. non-military aid in the next three years, more than two-thirds of the contracts will go to U.S. firms or charity groups.

Americans will supervise projects to overhaul Colombia's maligned justice system, teach farmers to grow alternative crops to coca and opium, and relocate Colombians fleeing the civil war.

FARC Gift Shop
A gift shop outside the headquarters of the Colombian rebel group FARC does brisk business over the weekend. Behind the counter is Susana Castro, a 22-year-old, seven-year veteran of the FARC. The visitors at the counter were at the FARC headquarters for a peace conference being hosted by the guerrillas. TOM BURTON/THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
"We are not talking about a large American presence on the ground," said a senior U.S. aid official in Washington who would speak only on background. "Frankly, we think the Colombians are better suited to do the jobs that have to be done."

But American firms are cashing in. Bell-Textron and United Technologies' Sikorsky Aircraft have signed to deliver 18 new UH-60 Blackhawks and 42 "Super" Huey II helicopters.

Orders are pending for at least 14 more by the Colombian Defense Ministry, making the windfall for the helicopter makers in excess of $600 million.

Military Personnel Resources Inc., a Virginia-based military-consultant company run by retired U.S. generals, already is advising the Colombian armed forces. Other U.S firms have started peddling nighttime surveillance gear, riverboat technology, aircraft maintenance services and other wares.

While U.S. companies are leading the rush, foreign companies also are looking to benefit.

Israeli Defense Industries is trying to sell observation technology to the Colombian Air Force to outfit its Vietnam-era OV-10 "Bronco" planes, the same ones leased by the U.S. in fumigation raids.

But it is the growing U.S. presence that has critics from Bogotá to Washington calling the American aid package a prelude to another Vietnam debacle, with U.S. forces being lured into combat.

Already, some of the people working for private U.S. contractors are near the front lines.

MPRI, for example, has a former brigadier general, six retired colonels and several former officers in Colombia to help reorganize the Colombian armed forces under an 18-month Department of Defense contract worth $800,000.

Founded by former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Carl Vuono in 1987, MPRI has about $60 million in contracts worldwide with more than 400 employees who sell their expertise while "capitalizing on the experience and skills of America's best seasoned professionals," according to a company profile. Vuono brings a wealth of experience to the job, having led the U.S. Army's Panama and Gulf War operations.

DynCorp. has at least several dozen pilots and ground-support workers operating under close guard at Colombian military bases, according to one of the company pilots.

They fly missions to eradicate coca fields with Colombian police and military helicopters alongside to provide cover.

DynCorp., a Fortune 500 company, is one of the largest defense contractors in the United States, with strong ties to the CIA and other federal agencies. It has projected sales worth up to $2.5 billion in defense work and commercial ventures by next year.

The trend toward using private contractors and hired guns to carry out U.S. foreign policy is not new. But it's a trend that's growing.

DynCorp., MPRI and other defense contractors have provided services in the world's hot spots from Bosnia to the Persian Gulf.

Their contracts are supervised by the U.S. Defense or State department.

Defense experts say that this so-called outsourcing is not only cost efficient, it helps shield U.S. lawmakers from criticism if Americans are killed or injured.

"The military tends to view the civilian contractors as a lot less confrontational way of doing business," said Chris Hellman, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "It's perceived as a more benign presence."

Defense contractors say their aim is not to fight another country's battles. "We're very transparent," said retired Army Gen. Ed Soyster, an MPRI spokesman and former head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. "We're having (the Colombians) restructure, refocus and demonstrate correct processes."

'Old boys' club'

Soyster would not discuss an MPRI evaluation of Colombian forces earlier this year, but said, "What we do is set them up so that what they do, they do it efficiently."

But critics charge that there isn't a lot of oversight in the bidding for the profitable overseas projects.

"It's an old boys' club," said the congressional aide, who has monitored Colombia funding. "All these generals get hired (by consultants) and do nothing."

Soyster, however, defended his company's mission, saying it adheres to "uncompromising principles of integrity, honor, courage, loyalty and selfless service."

Like many contractors, MPRI makes its work quite public.

It has a 10,000-name database and has ongoing recruiting at U.S military bases. Several months ago, it advertised for "highly qualified and experienced American military officers and senior noncommissioned officers" for its Colombia-U.S. "working group."

Less forthcoming about its activities is Eagle Aviation Services and Technology Inc. of Patrick Air Force Base, where fumigation pilots are trained by the State Department's Bureau of Narcotics and International Law Enforcement's air division.

The company, also known as EAST Inc., is incorporated in several states but refuses to discuss its role in Colombia because it sees it as classified. State Department officials have said EAST is concerned for the safety of its personnel.

EAST Inc. has placed ads in Ag Pilot, a magazine for crop dusters, to hire pilots for fumigation work in Colombia's fields. One ad read: "Highly experienced Ag pilots for year-round positions.

Based in Florida, will work in Central and South America. (Job requires) ability to speak Spanish and converse in a clear and understandable manner to a variety of native speakers."

At the Larandia military base 40 miles south of here, American pilots live in virtual seclusion.

They venture out sometimes for a meal or a drink but only with armed Colombian soldiers and police in tow.

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The soldiers in the rebel FARC are mostly teenagers and include many women, leading to occasional romance. TOM BURTON/ THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
Mostly, American pilots fly fumigation missions in daylight and darkness. They work in three-week shifts and then often shuttle back to the United States for a week off.

Colombian choppers fly cover for the American pilots. But increasingly, the Americans are becoming targets for the rebels.

Two American pilots flying Vietnam-era OV-10 Broncos in the rebel-infested Caqueta province last month aborted their spraying mission when they encountered gunfire.

Even so, one pilot thinks the tide will turn once the full force of the U.S. commitment takes place.

The rebels, he said, will lose their willpower.

Yet, he also predicts the Colombian pilots aren't prepared for battle either. "They want us to fight their war for them."

Copyright 1999, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.