Will the U.S. support controls on security contractors in Latin America?

Photo by: Charles Atkeison / flickr / Creative Commons

Photo by: Charles Atkeison / flickr / Creative Commons

An upcoming conference in Switzerland will test U.S. willingness to make good on its rhetorical support for greater control over private contractors involved in wars or similar circumstances.  The “Montreux plus five” conference in December will discuss implementation of the Montreux Document, which lays out legal obligations and “best practices” for countries that hire “Private Military and Security Companies” (PMSCs) during armed conflict.  The process emerged in 2008 to reiterate state responsibilities after contractors were found to be deeply involved in incidents in Iraq – including the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib prison and a confrontation at Nissour Square in which 17 civilians were killed.  The United States, which participated in discussions of the Document and endorsed it, has been developing its own “standards” based on it.

Although the PMSCs in Iraq and Afghanistan – and their alleged involvement in human rights abuses – are most widely known, security contractors are deeply engaged in U.S. efforts in Latin America related to the “war on drugs.”  In the 2005-2009 period, DynCorp, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, ITT, and ARINC collectively received counternarcotics contracts in Latin America worth a total of $1.8 billion.  The contracts include provision of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, information technology, and communications equipment.  Lockheed Martin received contracts for training, equipment, and other services in Colombia and Mexico. Yet the majority (Democratic) staff of the subcommittee on contracting oversight of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs concluded in 2010 that neither the State Department nor the Department of Defense had adequate systems to track the implementation of counternarcotics contracts.  Referring to contract and accounting errors, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs told the subcommittee chairman that it “does not … maintain discrete records of such occurrences since these challenges routinely occur at the embassies.”

The subcommittee’s focus was on contracting anomalies, but publicly acknowledged incidents – such as DynCorp’s violation of guidelines governing coca eradication in Colombia – suggest oversight over operations is also lacking.  In Colombia, for example, two cases of rape of a minor involving U.S. contractors were reported yet remain uninvestigated, and in Mexico a contractor appears to have been involved in torture training.

PMSCs often carry out their work within the dark interstices of sensitive operations – beyond the government’s immediate operational control but functioning with its imprimatur and expecting its protection when things go wrong.  The U.S. Senate’s acknowledgement of the need for better management and oversight over them has not driven significant reforms yet.  If the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences are any guide, problems with the monitoring of expenditures are the tip of the iceberg.  Security contractors tend to run rough over human rights, and they are often a source of tensions with both governments and the population in host countries.  The use of security contractors without effective monitoring is a source of diplomatic tension within the region as well.  DynCorp’s aerial eradication operations, for example, provoked Ecuador to file suit against Colombia in the International Court of Justice, arguing that Colombia dispersed toxic herbicides into Ecuadoran territory, damaging human health, property and the environment.  The two countries recently resolved the dispute, but the case illustrates the risk of outsourcing sensitive operations to contractors without careful monitoring.

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