U.S. Security Firms Sending
Hundreds of Salvadorans to Iraq

By Kevin Sullivan
16 December 2004

San Salvador, El Salvador: Juan Nerio, a 44-year-old mason's assistant, was sick of living in a mud hut on the side of a volcano. When he heard that a U.S. company was offering six times his $200 monthly wage, he signed up. Six weeks later, he found himself holding an AK-47 assault rifle and guarding a U.S. diplomatic complex in Iraq.

"No one could possibly earn so much in our country," said Nerio, who returned to El Salvador two weeks ago after a hernia forced him to reluctantly give up his $1,240-a-month job in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. "With that kind of money, I thought I could make my family's life a little easier."

Like Nerio, hundreds of Salvadoran men and even a few women are jumping at the chance to pursue what the news media here call the "Iraqi Dream." With the U.S. military unable to meet security needs in Iraq, private U.S. firms are now providing thousands of armed guards for diplomatic installations, oil wells, businesses and contractors there.

These firms are aggressively recruiting in El Salvador, a member of the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq, viewing it as an ideal source of guards. The country has low wages, high unemployment and a large pool of men with military or police experience -- many of whom were U.S.-trained -- from the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. Nerio served in the Salvadoran army for two years more than 20 years ago.

But the recruitment campaign has raised concerns among human rights officials, who contend that companies are exploiting the poor.

"This is the equivalent of a poverty draft," said Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America, a rights and policy group, speaking from his office in Washington, D.C. "The United States is unwilling to draft people, so they are recruiting people from poor countries to be cannon fodder for us. And if they are killed or injured, there will be no political consequences in the United States."

Beatrice Alamani de Carrillo, El Salvador's independent human rights ombudsman, said the security companies were "playing with the desperation of people who have no other options." She said that if any of the Salvadorans were kidnapped, "our country is not in a position to negotiate their release." She said she was especially concerned about under-trained women going to Iraq.

Several recruits said in interviews that the jobs appealed to them because opportunities to emigrate to the United States had been severely cut back by tightened immigration rules and border controls. More than a million Salvadorans emigrated to the United States during or after the civil war.

Between 3000 and 6000 non-Iraqi security guards are currently working in Iraq, according to Doug Brooks of the International Peace Operations Association in Washington, D.C., which monitors the private security industry. About one-third are former special operations soldiers, mainly from the United States and Britain, he said. The rest are men and women with some military experience recruited from about a dozen countries, especially El Salvador, Fiji, Nepal, Chile and India.

The U.S.. and British guards make as much as $700 a day for jobs requiring the highest skills, such as protecting high-profile diplomats and business executives, Brooks said. The others make an average of about $1200 a month, generally for standing guard at military or civilian sites.

Reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle 16 December 2004.

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