Private Contractors and Covert Wars in Latin America

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) threatened to issue subpoenas against the U.S. Defense and State Departments last month if they continue to refuse to accurately account for billions of dollars spent on private contractors assisting Washington in the ‘war on drugs’ in Latin America. But McCaskill’s concerns raise broader questions about oversight and transparency of a controversial industry and its ever expanding role in Washington’s foreign policy.

“We asked for this information from the State Department and the Defense Department (DoD) more than three months ago. Despite our repeated requests, neither Department has been able to answer our questions yet,” said U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill at a Senate hearing on May 20.

The Defense Department, which could only provide an estimate of how much of $5.3 billion it spent on counternarcotics operations in the last decade, actually outsourced what turned out to be an incomplete audit to a private contractor.

Contractors such as DynCorp and Northrop Grumman working in South and Central America are paid to spray drug crops, work with foreign militaries and police, offer intelligence and operational support, and conduct public relations assignments.

McCaskill, who said “there is almost no transparency,” added that she “will not hesitate to use subpoenas.”

Meanwhile, the United Nations is pushing for a new international convention to regulate Private Military and Security Companies (PMSC’s).

“This industry, which deals with heavy weaponry in conflict zones is less regulated than the toy industry,” said José Luis Gómez del Prado, chair of the UN’s Working Group on the use of mercenaries, in April.

The Working Group, worried about the “increased privatization of war and security,” urged Washington last August to allow more public oversight with its use of PSMC’s, especially those contracted by U.S. intelligence agencies.

One requirement included in the proposed legal framework for PMSC’s would be the termination of immunity agreements covering private security personnel. This would affect Washington’s controversial new base agreement with Colombia which grants diplomatic immunity to US military personnel and private defense contractors.

William F. Wechsler, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counternarcotics and Global Threats, used his testimony at the Senate to connect the ‘war on drugs’ with the ‘war on terrorism.’

“Terrorists associated with Islamic Radical Groups (IRGs), as well as narcoterrorist groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), operate sophisticated networks designed to move not only weapons, drugs, and other materials, but people as well. A wealth of intelligence reporting has linked many IRG members to both drug trafficking and alien smuggling. The DoD, through extensively coordinated projects with Federal law enforcement agencies, has developed collaborative and effective methods for detecting, and monitoring, the movement of illegal drugs,” said Wechsler. “Such trafficking, in which terrorists with transnational reach commonly engage, is a present and growing danger to the security of the United States, our forces abroad, and our allies.”

This should cause particular concern in the region given President Obama’s expansion of covert special forces operations in the fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Furthermore, contractors that are working in intelligence gathering could be shielded from public or Congressional oversight due to potentially classified designations to their operations.

Unfortunately, McCaskill’s tough stance with the Defense and State Departments is more a matter of fiscal concern rather than operational mission. She believes that private contractors’ “efforts are crucial to the success of the United States’ mission in Latin America.”

There needs to be both national and global efforts to legally reign in an industry which was recently exposed for teaching torture to Mexican Police just a day after the ‘war on drugs’ was officially expanded in Mexico through the Merida Initiative, a joint security agreement between the U.S. and Mexico.

To think that the toy industry is more heavily regulated is no laughing matter.

Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at He can be reached at Read other articles by Cyril.

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  1. kanomi said on June 13th, 2010 at 12:50pm #

    This policy is insane. Only a clique of psychopaths could devise such blatant evil.

    It’s ridiculous how under-covered the “War on Drugs” is in South America, but it seems to be killing just as many people as the mad wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and making the same clique of power-mad monsters rich.

  2. hayate said on June 13th, 2010 at 8:48pm #

    One needs to remember that the u.s. war on drugs, was, and is, a cover for a war on independent drug importers and a way to provide support for what is loosely called the Jewish/cia mafia. The war on drugs was/is to reinforce these gangsters’ monopoly in the illegal drug business.