Poor Salvadorans Chase the 'Iraqi Dream'
U.S. Security Firms Find Eager Recruits Among Former Soldiers, Police Officers
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
SAN 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 an American 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.
But the heavy recruitment campaign -- through newspaper ads that offer salaries of as much as $3,600 a month -- has raised concerns among human rights officials, who say they believe the 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. "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.
Many of the Salvadorans, including Nerio, have been recruited by Triple Canopy, a U.S. firm. According to Salvadoran news reports, a group of 30 men and six women hired by the company left for Iraq in late November. Many are former soldiers and special forces members; others have far less training. Nerio served in the Salvadoran army for two years more than 20 years ago.
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.
Some also said they hoped their service in Iraq would earn them some gratitude from U.S. officials -- perhaps in the form of a work visa when they returned.
"I never thought I had a chance to go to the United States before," said Nerio, a grandfather of six, standing in his tiny home amid groves of mangoes and papayas. "Now they will see that I have experience in Iraq, so this might be my opportunity."
Officials from two U.S.-based security firms working in El Salvador said they never told recruits that service in Iraq would improve their chances of getting a visa. James W. Herman, the U.S. consul general in El Salvador, said service as a private security guard in Iraq was irrelevant to visa applications.
Joe Mayo, a spokesman for Triple Canopy, declined to say exactly how many people the company was sending to Iraq, but he said local news media estimates of about 175 recruits were about right. Mayo said the firm made clear that the jobs were dangerous. He said the company was providing a needed service to the U.S. government and private companies in Iraq.
"It's a free world and a free economy," said Mayo, who spoke from his company's headquarters in Lincolnshire, Ill. "We're not grabbing people and making them go."
Between 3,000 and 6,000 non-Iraqi security guards are currently working in Iraq, according to Doug Brooks of the International Peace Operations Association in Washington, which monitors the private security industry. He said about one-third are former special operations soldiers, mainly from the United States and Britain. The rest are men and women with some military experience recruited from about a dozen countries, especially El Salvador, Fiji, Nepal, Chile and India.
Brooks said 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. The others make an average of about $1,200 a month, generally for standing guard at military or civilian sites.
Over the past few weeks, lines of applicants have formed every morning outside George's, a karaoke restaurant next to a fancy shopping mall in San Salvador. They were responding to newspaper ads placed by George Nayor, the restaurant owner, who described himself as a U.S. citizen and the local representative of a Washington-based security company.
Nayor's ads do not name the firm. He also declined to identify it or other company officials, saying they did not want publicity. Despite the lack of details, he said, his cell phone has been ringing so frequently with queries that he barely has had time to brush his teeth.
"This is the future of global security," said Nayor, who has accepted applications from 300 Salvadorans and hopes to sign up at least 1,000 by May. He said the first 12 to 24 would go to Iraq this month, and that his company would soon begin recruiting in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Chile and other Latin American countries where many people have military experience.
One recent morning, the first group of applicants to arrive at George's included two members of the Salvadoran army's special forces, who spent seven months in Iraq earlier this year as part of a 380-member military unit in the U.S.-led coalition.
"You could sweat your whole life and never make this much money," said Mario Antonio Sanchez, 32, a special forces sergeant who said he earned $280 a month. Sanchez said that if he was accepted, he would quit the army and sign a six-month contract for at least $2,400 a month. "In our country everybody is just trying to survive. We do this because we need to," he said.
Domingo Hector Navarro Lopez, 39, spent 13 years in the Salvadoran military. He said he was tired of trying to get by on his $158-a-month salary as a security guard. After his wartime experience in his own country, he said, he was not frightened by all the violence in Iraq.
"I thank God for this opportunity to go to Iraq," he said, waiting for his interview with Nayor.
Nerio already speaks nostalgically about Iraq. Gazing at a snapshot of himself with fellow Salvadoran guards on the banks of the Euphrates River, he said he wished he were still there.
Back home in his mud-brick hut on the slopes of the San Salvador volcano, with no running water and a single electrical wire keeping a couple of light bulbs burning, he said he had no idea how he would pay for his hernia operation. He would like to go to the United States to work, but said he fears that his best shot at a better life may have been in Iraq.
"That was my only chance," he said.
Special correspondent Michelle Garcia in New York City contributed to this report.