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Mercenaries Playing Increasingly Prominent Role in Latin America

Mercenaries hired by private military and security companies are playing an increasingly broad range of roles in Latin America.

Mercenaries hired by private military and security companies are playing an increasingly broad range of roles in Latin America, such as guarding mines, borders, prisons, and now humanitarian aid, said the members of the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries at a meeting in this Swiss city.

At the same time, some 3,000 Latin Americans, mainly Chileans, Peruvians, Colombians and Hondurans, are serving as mercenaries in conflict zones in Iraq.

Assistance provided by a commando made up of former Israeli military intelligence experts has also helped the Colombian government deal heavy blows to the left-wing guerrillas, said Amada Benavídes de Pérez from Colombia, one of the five members of the U.N. Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination.

The Working Group, created in 2005 by the U.N. Human Rights Commission (subsequently replaced by the U.N. Council on Human Rights), discussed the possibility of drawing up new international legal instruments to regulate the growing activities of private military and security companies, at their meeting last week.

The use of mercenaries contravenes the United Nations International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, which entered into force in 2001.

Colombia is the most critical case of the use of mercenaries in Latin America, said Benavídes, the former dean of the Human Rights Faculty at the Higher School of Public Administration in her country.

Information gathered by a group of Colombian academics from several universities and by non-governmental organisations has produced data from the victims themselves about what is really happening with regard to the use of mercenaries in Colombia, Benavídes said.

Services provided by private military and security companies cover a variety of roles.

First, there are the companies working in-country within the framework of the U.S.-financed and designed Plan Colombia, a counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategy.

Under Plan Colombia, 25 foreign companies are active in the country, employing 800 people as "private contractors" -- mainly U.S. citizens of Latin American origin, said Benavídes.

Personnel numbers are at times even greater, perhaps even double that figure, because every 15 days a rotation takes place and a new contingent arrives from the United States, the U.N. expert said.

The curious thing about this operation is that the private contractors enjoy the same diplomatic immunity as the members of the U.S. embassy in Colombia, which exempts them from scrutiny under national laws.

"We have documented illegal acts and crimes committed by this group of contractors, but Bogotá cannot even investigate them because the bilateral agreement with Washington forbids it," Benavídes said.

There are, therefore, at least 800 people in Colombian territory whom the government has no control over whatsoever, and who are working for Plan Colombia.

These people, who do not stand out among the population because of their Latin American origins, live at U.S. military bases.

Benavídes recalled that when politician Ingrid Betancourt was freed in July after more than six years as a captive of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), three U.S. contractors who were "crop-spraying experts" were also released.

The press reported at the time that the three U.S. contractors, Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell and Marc Gonsalves, who were captured by the guerrillas in 2003, worked for California Microwave Systems, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman which provided services to the U.S. Department of Defence collecting information on drug crops.

The same sources said that the FARC maintained that Howes, Stansell and Gonsalves were foreign spies working for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

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