Foreign Pilots Hired to Boost U.S. Drug War
Colombia: The State Department is accused of circumventing attempts
by Congress to limit Washington's role in the Latin nation's civil strife.
By T. CHRISTIAN MILLER
Times Staff Writer
BOGOTA, Colombia -- The State Department has directed its largest private
contractor in Colombia to hire foreign pilots to fight the drug war, an
order that helps
get around Congress' attempt to keep the U.S. from slipping further into this country's messy civil war.
Last year, Congress limited to 300 the number of civilian contract workers
participating in U.S.-financed drug-eradication efforts in Colombia. But
in a little-noticed
decision, the State Department only counts U.S. citizens toward that limit.
As a result, more than 400 civilians already are working for private
contractors under the U.S. anti-drug program. The largest employer is DynCorp,
which has 335
civilians on the payroll. Fewer than a third are U.S. citizens, the contractor's chief of operations here said Friday.
An estimated 60 to 80 U.S. citizens work for other contractors, including Bell Helicopter Textron, Sikorsky Aircraft, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin.
A senior aide to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who has
been at the forefront of the battle over U.S. assistance to Colombia, acknowledged
language passed by Congress specified that the cap applied to "United States individual civilians" and that the State Department is not obliged to include foreigners in
its reports to Congress.
"Legally, they may be within the law," said the aide, Tim Reiser. "But
in terms of congressional interest in being informed on what U.S. money
is being used for, that is
of interest to Congress and it's something that the Congress should be informed about."
State Department officials say they are not required to inform Congress
that they have ordered DynCorp to hire as many as 50 pilots from Guatemala,
Colombia and other countries to transport Colombian army forces into cocaine-growing zones.
The pilots, most of them former Central and South American air force
members who fly the most dangerous anti-drug missions here, also are hired
to reduce the risk
that an American would be shot down and killed in the drug war, according to U.S. Embassy officials.
"I'm under no illusion what it would mean to have an American shot down
here, and no one in the U.S. is," Ambassador Anne W. Patterson said in
a recent interview
U.S. lawmakers have long worried that the effort to eradicate cocaine
will draw the U.S. deeper into Colombia's four-decade-old civil war. Both
leftist rebels and
right-wing paramilitary groups fight to protect the coca crops that are their primary source of revenue.
Lawmakers contacted Friday accused the State Department of circumventing congressional intent to limit American involvement in the conflict.
The issue goes to the heart of congressional critics' fears about Plan
Colombia, which was launched last year with a $1.3-billion American contribution:
involvement will slowly escalate, as happened in Vietnam.
The situation also has historical echoes, touching on controversies
surrounding congressional limits on the number of U.S. military advisors
in El Salvador during the
1980s and Reagan administration efforts to evade them.
"This seems to be a loophole around the cap, a way to get around them,"
said Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who has sought to eliminate the
use of private
contractors in the region since a U.S. firm was involved in the accidental downing of a private airplane by the Peruvian military in April. That incident resulted in the
deaths of an American missionary and her infant daughter.
"Every time we find out more about what goes on in Colombia, a dozen
more questions are raised," Schakowsky said. "Most members of Congress
cap to mean we will limit to a total of 300 personnel, no matter what their nationality is."
Private contract workers, who do everything from flying crop dusters
to transporting troops to staffing radar stations, long have been controversial.
fear that the U.S. is conducting foreign policy through private companies without adequate public accountability.
Even some of those who have closely followed the debate over Plan Colombia were surprised to learn of the State Department's practice.
"Nobody knows about this in Washington," said Adam Isacson, an expert
on Colombia at the Center for International Policy, a left-leaning Washington
think tank. "If
anybody is still concerned about mission creep, this will make them all the more worried."
The State Department's International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
Bureau, which is overseeing the bulk of the U.S. effort in the region,
early on debated
whether to count the foreign employees.
At one point, according to an embassy official who was present at the
discussion, the State Department acknowledged the sensitivity of the issue
discussed being "totally virtuous" and counting the foreign employees in its reporting to Congress. The official and several others interviewed requested that their
names not be used, in keeping with State Department policies.
The department subsequently decided to not count foreign employees after
what the official called a "hotly debated" discussion. It became apparent
by the middle of
this year that there would be nearly 300 U.S. citizens working on the program in Colombia by December.
The official added that the State Department discussed the issue with
members of Congress before reaching a final decision, but did not specify
The issue came up again recently when the Bush administration, responding
to State Department fears about reaching the cap by December, tried to
remove all limits
on U.S. personnel as part of the aid package for the Andean region for the coming fiscal year.
House lawmakers compromised, instead allowing a total of 800 U.S. military
and civilian personnel in Colombia. The Senate has so far insisted on maintaining
civilian cap at 300, with a separate cap of 500 U.S. military personnel.
State Department officials defended the move to not count foreign employees,
especially since many are Colombians working as secretaries and drivers
and in other
low-level jobs traditionally given to host country citizens.
These officials noted that if the Colombians were not tallied, the U.S.
program would not reach the 300-worker cap even including the Peruvians,
other Latin Americans recruited to transport troops into conflict zones where leftist guerrillas and narco-traffickers are defending cocaine fields.
DynCorp officials interviewed Friday acknowledged that the State Department
had specifically directed them to hire the foreign pilots as part of a
$200-million contract to fumigate drug crops in Colombia.
"That was customer-directed," said the DynCorp director in Colombia, who declined to be identified for safety reasons.
But the director also said that part of the reason for hiring foreign
nationals is the lack of qualified personnel in the U.S. Another factor
is that the Latin American
pilots speak fluent Spanish.
The lack of fluency among contract workers contributed to the April
incident in Peru that killed Veronica Bowers of the Assn. of Baptists for
World Evangelism and
her 7-month-old daughter, Charity.
Some Central American pilots who interviewed for jobs with DynCorp told
The Times that they were asked whether they had combat experience. DynCorp
said military experience played no special role in their hiring decisions.
"They were looking for pilots with 3,000 hours of flying experience
and war combat," said an ex-member of the Salvadoran air force who interviewed
nearly a year ago. "When we were flying for El Salvador during the war, we did it for patriotic values, to defeat communism. Now, it's for money."
Special correspondent Alex Renderos contributed to this report.