U.S. Mercenaries in Colombia
When the first details of the FARC guerrillas’ attack at Miraflores in August 1998 emerged, the Colombian Armed Forces and government grew deeply concerned. They realized that the assault’s principal target was a group of 20 to 30 U.S. veterans employed by the U.S. company DynCorp as pilots and ground crew for the aircraft at the San José del Guaviare anti-narcotics base. DynCorp’s pilots were widely known to land at Miraflores for refueling, though, according to the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, the pilots were not authorized to set down in Miraflores and, at the time of the FARC attack, they had no reason to be there.
After the attack, a headcount back at the San José base raised fears that two U.S. pilots had gone missing. When the pair eventually turned up, it was confirmed that they had been out flying over the jungle in one of the five Vietnam-era OV-10 Broncos recently brought to Colombia by DynCorp. The use of the OV-10s has attracted criticism–even among U.S. observers–over their real efficacy in the aerial fumigation campaigns aimed at thwarting the cultivation of illicit crops in Colombia.
For its part, the U.S. State Department has been hesitant about the role of DynCorp’s U.S. pilots and technicians in Colombia. Nevertheless, the company’s $600 million contract has powerful supporters, among them the chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Representative Benjamin Gilman (R-NY), a war veteran and member of the International Narcotic Enforcement Officers Association (see, The Propaganda of Benjamin Gilman).
DynCorp was formed at the behest of President Truman in 1946 for the purpose of putting surplus World War II equipment to use and providing jobs for ex-combatants. Today, the company is the foremost employer in the Washington D.C. area, the third largest employee-owned business in the United States, and a member of the Fortune 500. From its initial inception as California Eastern Airways, DynCorp has become a major player in aerospace research, including involvement in the development of U.S. missile programs, and in air services, such as in its prominent role at Fort Rucker, Virginia, the principal base for pilot training and maintenance of combat aircraft in the United States.
DynCorp’s contract for the Andean drug war is but a tiny part of its operations, though the hardly miniscule sum of $600 million requires the active support of its associates (the majority of whom are Vietnam veterans) located in the most strategic positions of the government. Among its myriad current activities, DynCorp employs 50 to 80 retired U.S. soldiers in Colombia.
In July 1998, the mercenary industry’s magazine, Soldier of Fortune, ran a cover feature on the DynCorp pilots, which, under the suggestive title “Pray and Spray,” examined their work in the Guaviare region–work they perform knowing full well they constitute the FARC’s primary military target. The article, much like the discourse of Rep. Gilman, repeatedly refers to the FARC as “narco-guerrillas.”
Written by Soldier of Fortune chief foreign correspondent Steve Salisbury, the article covered Colombian soldiers’ questions for the DynCorp teams and portrays the relationship between the 7th Anti-narcotic Company (of Guaviare) and the U.S. veterans who work in the region as a cordial one. Soldier of Fortune reported that only one Colombian knew how to fly the OV-10, which requires two crewmen, and that the number of DynCorp’s U.S. participants fluctuated between 50 and 80 men. Between one third and one half of them were pilots, while the rest were mechanics, and over 30 were stationed in San José del Guaviare, rotating in and out for 15 day periods.
Soldier of Fortune also reported that DynCorp had planes at the Mariquita and Santa Marta anti-drug bases, and that on at least a few separate occasions its aircraft have flown to the Puerto Asís base in the Putumayo region of southern Colombia where much of the territory is controlled by the FARC.
Officially, Colombian police have claimed to appreciate DynCorp’s services, but in private they have made their reservations about the U.S. mercenaries known to the State Department via the Bogotá embassy’s Narcotics Affairs Section. According to a Colombian police officer speaking on condition of anonymity, the U.S. pilots fail to comply with even such basic norms of security as dispersing the aircraft at the base in order to limit potential damage in the event of a guerrilla attack. He goes on to claim that DynCorp’s pilots fly when they feel like it, don’t fill out flight logs, and fail to complete their pre-planned flight routes.
A Colombian soldier from one of the military’s anti-drug patrols, who spoke only after removing his name from his uniform, complained that, “[The DynCorp pilots] fly in bermuda shorts, smoke wherever they want, and drink whiskey almost everyday.” At the San José del Guaviare base, continued the soldier, the DynCorp men have a barracks with all the comforts–even satellite television. A Colombian national guardsman near the base complained that, “A Vietnam veteran does not subordinate himself to a Colombian police officer, and that’s why there have been problems.”
Through a contract with the U.S. State Department (the text of which was denied to the Washington Post for reasons of national security), DynCorp took charge of the supply and maintainence of the helicopters used for the interdiction of “drugs at their source” in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, and of the fixed-wing aircraft employed in aerial fumigation efforts aimed at illicit crop production in Colombia.
The initial batch of aircraft consisted of 11 Ayres Turbo-Thrushes, noted for their maneuverability and range. The Turbo-Thrush has armor that leaves only its nose exposed to ground fire, and a hit there, though highly unlikely, could down the plane. Because Turbo-Thrushes have to fly at an altitude of 300 feet during fumigation, where they are vulnerable from guerrilla fire, DynCorp’s helicopters have to “secure the ground” before each mission.
In 1998, Rep. Gilman procured a shipment of Blackhawk attack helicopters that can hover and fire their machine guns as the airplanes spray. The Blackhawks have to be maintained and flown by DynCorp’s pilots until they complete the training of Colombian counterparts. Gilman’s foremost justification for the helicopters was the kidnapping of U.S. birdwatchers in Colombia. “The Colombian National Police need these high-capacity helicopters… in order to get out there with enough armed police to rescue our citizens,” said the Congressman.
No other U.S. Congressman has visited Colombia more times than Gilman. And each time he visits, he sets aside time to talk with the U.S. pilots at the Guaviare base. He has repeatedly, and successfully, argued for the extension of DynCorp’s contract and has been a prominent supporter of the Clinton Administration’s $1.3 billion aid package that will provide 18 more Blackhawk helicopters, which implies increased revenues for DynCorp from maintenance of these new aircraft and training of the pilots.
U.S. Army Southern Command chief General Charles Wilhelm, cited by Rep. Gilman in Congress, stated that 90 percent of the operations of the Colombian Anti-narcotics Police involve helicopters, and that hostile fire had been received during 40 percent of the missions. According to the Colombian police, between January 1994 and November 1997, three police airplanes and five helicopters were shot down. Planes were hit on 67 occasions, and helicopters were struck 74 times, resulting in 44 deaths and 72 injuries to anti-drug police. Perhaps the most startling statistic is that there have been three DynCorp “civilian” casualties and the complete loss of two Turbo-Thrushes in incidents where the police have ruled out the guerrillas as suspects.
Nonetheless, DynCorp has been experimenting with five twin-motored OV-10 Broncos, which were used as reconnaissance planes in Vietnam and on occasion for the dropping of napalm. In contrast to napalm (the incendiary powder that destroyed whole villages in Vietnam and Cambodia), glyphosate–the chemical herbicide nicknamed “round-up” that’s being used against coca and poppy crops–is liquid and evaporates quickly. This is why, given the high speeds the OV-10s fly and the low altitudes required for aerial fumigation, one must question the real reason behind the deployment of both the OV-10s and DynCorp’s disobedient pilots.
A different version of this article previously appeared in El Espectador. Translated from Spanish by Eric Fichtl.