GENEVA - Mercenaries hired by private military and security companies are playing an increasingly broad range of roles in Latin America, such as guarding mines, borders, prisons, and now humanitarian aid, said the members of the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries at a meeting in this Swiss city.
At the same time, some 3,000 Latin Americans, mainly Chileans, Peruvians, Colombians and Hondurans, are serving as mercenaries in conflict zones in Iraq.
Assistance provided by a commando made up of former Israeli military intelligence experts has also helped the Colombian government deal heavy blows to the left-wing guerrillas, said Amada Benavídes de Pérez from Colombia, one of the five members of the U.N. Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination.
The Working Group, created in 2005 by the U.N. Human Rights Commission (subsequently replaced by the U.N. Council on Human Rights), discussed the possibility of drawing up new international legal instruments to regulate the growing activities of private military and security companies, at their meeting last week.
The use of mercenaries contravenes the United Nations International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, which entered into force in 2001.
Colombia is the most critical case of the use of mercenaries in Latin America, said Benavídes, the former dean of the Human Rights Faculty at the Higher School of Public Administration in her country.
Information gathered by a group of Colombian academics from several universities and by non-governmental organisations has produced data from the victims themselves about what is really happening with regard to the use of mercenaries in Colombia, Benavídes said.
Services provided by private military and security companies cover a variety of roles.
First, there are the companies working in-country within the framework of the U.S.-financed and designed Plan Colombia, a counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategy.
Under Plan Colombia, 25 foreign companies are active in the country, employing 800 people as "private contractors" -- mainly U.S. citizens of Latin American origin, said Benavídes.
Personnel numbers are at times even greater, perhaps even double that figure, because every 15 days a rotation takes place and a new contingent arrives from the United States, the U.N. expert said.
The curious thing about this operation is that the private contractors enjoy the same diplomatic immunity as the members of the U.S. embassy in Colombia, which exempts them from scrutiny under national laws.
"We have documented illegal acts and crimes committed by this group of contractors, but Bogotá cannot even investigate them because the bilateral agreement with Washington forbids it," Benavídes said.
There are, therefore, at least 800 people in Colombian territory whom the government has no control over whatsoever, and who are working for Plan Colombia.
These people, who do not stand out among the population because of their Latin American origins, live at U.S. military bases.
Benavídes recalled that when politician Ingrid Betancourt was freed in July after more than six years as a captive of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), three U.S. contractors who were "crop-spraying experts" were also released.
The press reported at the time that the three U.S. contractors, Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves, who were captured by the guerrillas in 2003, worked for California Microwave Systems, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman which provided services to the U.S. Department of Defence collecting information on drug crops.
The same sources said that the FARC maintained that Howes, Stansell and Gonsalves were foreign spies working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
A second type of mercenary presence in Colombia is the mostly U.S. and British companies that provide security services for foreign extractive industries, mainly oil firms but also mining companies.
There are risks involved in these activities because they are often carried out on lands belonging to indigenous or other local communities. The private security companies prevent access to these lands, and even access to water, Benavídes said.
The U.N. Working Group on the use of mercenaries has documented similar cases in Peru and Ecuador, where the actions of private security companies have seriously harmed communities living close to mining areas, she said.
The third form of mercenary intervention in Colombia is the already mentioned participation by logistics experts from Israel, who work for the Colombian Defence Ministry.
Many of the military successes by government forces against the guerrillas have depended on military intelligence provided by the Israeli mercenaries, Benavídes said.
Fourth and last of the issues involving mercenaries and Colombia is the 500 people from this country who are in Iraq. There are no official statistics, "but our own information and that collected by foreign academics who have done research in Colombia" suggest this figure, the expert said.
Close to 3,000 Latin Americans now in Iraq are from Chile, Peru, Colombia and Honduras. Recently, however, they have been joined by others from El Salvador and Guatemala, she said. There are no indications that any Argentines, Brazilians or Uruguayans are in Iraq, she added.
But it may happen that a Chilean recruitment agency sending mercenaries to Iraq is legally registered in Uruguay. Therefore if there is a legal problem with one of the "contractors", it will not be settled in a Chilean court, Benavídes said.
Neither would it come before the Uruguayan justice system, because the contract would not have been signed there but, say, in the U.S. state of Virginia. But the U.S. would not take the case under its responsibility because the alleged crime was committed in Iraq.
This example illustrates the legal vacuum existing in international law, which the U.N. Working Group is endeavouring to fill with the new, universal instrument they are studying, that is intended to cover the gaps in national legislations.
Colombia is a case in point, because it has regulations for national private security companies, but none at all for foreign companies of the same kind, Benavides told IPS.
An outstanding problem related to mercenaries is how to classify members of the far-right paramilitary groups that have been heavily active in Colombia in recent decades.
Benavídes told IPS that strictly speaking, paramilitaries cannot be mercenaries because they are not foreigners. However, she acknowledged that the majority of contractors working for private companies providing security to oil and mining firms are Colombian nationals.