Global Policy Forum

Transferring Cost of War to Latin America is Morally, Politically Wrong


The US has begun recruiting contractors for Latin American countries to carry out security tasks in its war zones in an effort to minimize US causalities and prevent domestic opposition to the US’s many military interventions abroad. Though the US argues that economically this arrangement benefits both the US and the Latin American contractors, it is morally and politically unacceptable to pay foreigners to “take risks for us” in order to avoid paying the “political cost” of waging otherwise unpopular wars.

By Geoff Thale

January 29, 2005

U.S. officials learned one lesson from the Vietnam War it is that opposition at home to U.S. military intervention abroad grew as American casualties mounted. Now officials have found a way around this problem: In Iraq, U.S. contractors are recruiting people from poor Latin American countries to carry out security tasks.

As U.S. military actions abroad have increased in the last decade, with the Persian Gulf War, the action in the Balkans and now the war in Iraq, the Pentagon has searched for ways to fight wars effectively while minimizing U.S. casualties. Where possible, war is conducted from the air, with planes making bombing runs to hit enemy targets and weaken morale. Where U.S. troops engage in ground combat, they are now equipped with the latest high-tech weapons and protected by the best armor.

Now U.S. officials seem to have hit on a new strategy to minimize U.S. casualties: recruit people from Latin America to do some of the fighting.

A Dec. 9 Washington Post story reports that two U.S. private security firms, under contract to the Pentagon, are recruiting in El Salvador for people to do guard duty and other security work in Iraq. And a Dec. 12 report from El Tiempo in Bogota says that a major U.S. contractor is recruiting retired Colombian military officers to work in Iraq. Salvadorans and Colombians are apparently being recruited to guard embassies and other public buildings in Baghdad, protect oil and gas pipelines and provide security. This is dangerous work that was previously done by U.S. Marines and other military personnel.

Human-rights abuses

Reportedly, recruitment efforts in Latin America are going to expand. U.S. contractors believe that there is a pool of people in the region with military background and training who would be eager to work for the wages that are being offered. Interestingly, the first recruits are coming from militaries with a history of human-rights abuses.

In El Salvador, the security firms are said to be pleased with the candidates they have found. Many of them served in the Salvadoran armed forces; they are highly motivated, because they are being paid several times what they could earn in the Salvadoran economy; and they are cheap, because even paying five times what an average Salvadoran earns means that the security firms are paying far less than they would have to pay to recruit U.S. civilians to do this work.

The economic logic of this is unassailable. The U.S. military contracts out elements of security operations to U.S. companies, who recruit relatively low-cost Latin Americans to fill the jobs. The contractors keep labor costs down, thus helping their bottom line. The Latin Americans are poor, need the work and benefit from what are -- by their standards -- high salaries. What's wrong with this?

It's deeply wrong, for both moral and political reasons.

��Moral: Latin America and other less-developed regions shouldn't serve as a cheap labor pool to recruit people for dangerous jobs that are part of the U.S. military mission in Iraq. It may be tempting to pay others to take risks for us. It may be particularly tempting to pay people from foreign countries such as El Salvador, Colombia or Chile, so that we don't experience the human cost of casualties or deaths ourselves. But it's not morally acceptable.

��Political: U.S. military and government officials are attempting to avoid paying the political cost in the United States of the war in Iraq by hiring poor Latin Americans to do part of the fighting and the dying in place of U.S. citizens. Whether one supports or opposes the U.S. war in Iraq, one can agree that it is the U.S. military that ought to bear the burden of fighting a war that the United States initiated. Allies may join in and send their own troops in support if they so choose. But U.S. contractors working for the Pentagon shouldn't be recruiting civilians in Latin America to bear the burden of carrying out a U.S. military mission. It's wrong.

When a U.S. soldier is wounded or killed in combat, his or her family, neighbors and community feel the weight of the war and ask themselves, ''Is it worth it?'' In a democracy such as the United States, it is important for citizens to share the burden related to military action abroad, feel the impact and make the judgment about whether it's worthwhile.

Democracy being undermined

But, in the case of the U.S. war in Iraq, when those who do some of the fighting and dying are not U.S. soldiers, not members of allied military forces, not even U.S. private contractors working for the Pentagon, but private citizens of another country, whose injuries and deaths will have no impact on the political debate in the United States, then democracy is being undermined, and war is being fought without a public weighing of the costs.

Our leaders shouldn't be recruiting Latin Americans (or others) to stand in our place, or pay the ultimate price in U.S. military conflicts, to avoid political debates at home.

Geoff Thale is senior associate for Central America and Cuba at the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights, democracy and sustainable economic development in Latin America.


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