Chile's Iraq Mercenaries Under Investigation by U.N. Group

A member of the U.N. Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries investigating U.S. company Your Solutions last year in Honduras. (Photo: Elmer Martinez / AFP-Getty Images)

Hired Mercenaries Are Second Largest 'Coalition Force' in Iraq

A United Nations work group arrived in Chile today to begin investigating the recruitment of Chilean mercenaries in the American war in Iraq. The U.N. Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries (UNWG) also hopes to get Chile to sign on to the 1989 U.N. Mercenary Convention aimed at restricting mercenary activity.

The group, created in July 2005, has also investigated the recruitment of Honduran, Ecuadorian, Peruvian, and Fijian citizens to fight or provide military-related services in foreign conflict zones. Socialist Party Sen. Alejandro Navarro estimates that as many as 1,000 former Chilean soldiers are now working in Iraq.

In a report last year, UNWG denounced the 48,000 security workers in Iraq, saying they make up the second largest "coalition" fighting force after the United States. Great Britain provides the third largest number of military personnel.

UNWG executive president José Luis Gomez del Prado said the group will interview a wide range of people in Chile, including N.G.O. workers, academics, journalists, and government officials. Gomez del Prado was hopeful he could meet with President Michelle Bachelet and said he was also open to meeting with the Chilean most publicly identified with mercenary recruitment—(ret.) Gen. José Pizarro.

"Presently, we know that there are ex-military and ex-police recruited by a Chilean company with headquarters in Uruguay, a company that has the support of a U.S. company," said Gomez del Prado. "These [private security] companies come to Latin American countries and recruit people for $31 a day, which is what we just saw in Peru. And once they are on a plane or bus, recruits are made to sign an English contract with a sister company from the United States, a contract that leaves them completely unprotected."

In 2005, for example, the Your Solutions security firm sent 147 Chileans into conflict zones in Iraq; 28 of the recruits broke their contracts and returned home early, claiming they received inadequate training and poor equipment.

In September of that same year, Honduras kicked Your Solutions and its 105 Chilean mercenary recruits out of the country for training foreign military in Honduran territory—in violation of national laws. When neighboring Nicaragua refused to allow the mercenary training to continue in their country, Honduras finally relented, allowing the mercenaries to complete 15 more days of training in Honduras before being shipped to Iraq.

Critics like Sen. Navarro fear that mercenary recruitment is increasing in Latin America and that new companies are forming.

Amada Benavides, in charge of UNWG's Latin American arm, said in Peru that mercenary recruitment is "a common problem within the region," even though international law forbids mercenary activity. "Mercenary work is condemned by the law, but the contractors are not," she said.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that 180,000 mercenaries are working in Iraqi territory, outnumbering the 160,000 American troops on the ground. The mercenaries include 21,000 American citizens, 43,000 foreigners, and 118,000 Iraqis. One thousand of these privately contracted security personnel have died, reported the L.A. Times, and at least 10,000 have been injured.

Retired Gen. Pizarro has been recruiting Chilean military personnel for the past several years and said last week that he has 350 Chileans in Iraq working for various companies, including Blackwater and Triple Canopy. Pizarro also recruited 55 Chilean mercenaries currently serving in Afghanistan, and 110 in Haiti.

Pizarro, considered by some to be the godfather of the Chilean mercenary industry, recruited some 1,200 former Chilean soldiers for duty in Iraq in less than two years. The majority are lured with wages deemed astronomical by Chilean standards.

A Chilean guarding a ground facility such as an embassy earns $3,000 a month, and can increase their income by taking on higher risk mobile security assignments that can net up to $12,000 a month.

Pizarro ran into legal trouble in 2005 when Sen. Navarro urged Chile's judicial system to indict the ex-Army official and military analyst for violating the Law of Private Security, as well as being part of a criminal operation. Navarro said that Pizarro's security firm Red Táctica has access to classified information about Chilean armed forces, a situation that constitutes a national security risk.

Red Táctica, which recruits former Army officers for security work in Iraq, also came under fire for alleged labor abuse. Pizarro has since changed enterprises and remains an integral part of the Chilean mercenary industry.

Pizarro said last week he is ready to cooperate with the UNWG and disputed labor abuse claims. "No one has ever filed a complaint, consequently, nobody has ever been accused of contractual irregularities or labor abuses," he said.

Pizarro also objected to labeling Chilean forces "mercenaries," saying that Chile's former soldiers are limited to security work in Iraq and the term mercenary should only designate people hired for killing other soldiers.

The U.N.'s Gomez del Prado believes the definition of mercenary needs modernization to include the thriving private military and security firms. "Anyone who is protecting a building in a highly dangerous zone and returns fire after getting fired on should be termed a mercenary," he said.

The U.N. working group will be in Santiago July 9-13 carrying out their investigation.

From The Santiago Times.