Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

IRAQ: Chilean Mercenaries in the Line of Fire

Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Apr 7 2004 (IPS) - The 122 former members of the Chilean military who are working as private security personnel in Iraq are potential targets of the resistance there, as indicated by the gruesome murders of four U.S. security contractors a week ago in the central Iraqi town of Fallujah.

The four retired U.S. special operations forces were working for Blackwater USA, the same private security firm that has hired former Chilean commandos to provide support services for the occupation forces in Iraq.

The presence of the 122 former Chilean commandos and other soldiers and seamen in Iraq is awkward for the centre-left government and the military of Chile, which as a rotating member of the United Nations Security Council opposed the war on Iraq launched a year ago by the United States and Britain.

The private security personnel began to be hired in Chile in October by local representatives of Blackwater, former Chilean military personnel who according to the magazine Qué Pasa work, directly or indirectly, for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The hired Chilean soldiers make up less than one percent of the 15,000 mercenaries who have been sent to Iraq since the occupation began, and who, as a group, represent the second-largest military force in that country, outnumbered only by the 134,000 U.S. forces. The troops from Britain, the United States’ largest coalition partner, number around 9,000.

Blackwater, which is based in North Carolina, is one of the 25 private military firms that are benefiting from the lucrative contracts for the stabilisation and reconstruction of Iraq financed by the United States at an average monthly cost of four billion dollars.

The U.S. firm, set up by former Marines and Green Berets, has placed around 3,000 men in Iraq. It was catapulted into the headlines around the world on Mar. 31, when a mob ambushed and killed four of the company’s instructors, set their car on fire, and mutilated their bodies in Fallujah.

On Oct. 12, 2003, a discreet ad was placed in the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio inviting former members of the military, preferably ex-commandos who could speak English, to sign up to provide security services abroad at the tempting pay of 18,000 dollars in six months.

The ad, placed by the Grupo Táctico, Blackwater’s local representative, awakened the interest of at least 400 Marines and ”Black Berets” – the Chilean army’s special operations forces – who retired early in the past few years.

The Navy began an investigation after applications were filed on behalf of Marine reservists by active-duty non-commissioned officers in the Félix Aguayo Fort, in the coastal city of Concón, located around 140 kms northwest of Santiago, where an employment office is located.

The probe, whose results have not yet been published, sought to establish whether the serving non-commissioned officers, who acted without the permission of their superiors, were paid some kind of commission by Grupo Táctico for filing the applications for reservists who were then called to interviews in Santiago.

The local magazine Qué Pasa reported in October that the Navy Intelligence Office found that the Grupo Táctico company belongs to José Miguel Pizarro, a former army lieutenant who voluntarily retired in 1995 and enrolled in the U.S. Marines.

In July 2002, Pizarro stated in Brazil that Chile was studying the possibility of sending troops to Colombia to help fight the leftist guerrillas in that civil war-torn country, forcing the Chilean Defence Ministry to make a public denial of the allegation and provide explanations to Bogota.

Since then, Pizarro has been banned from entering Chilean military installations.

Pizarro is also president of the Washington D.C.-based Red Táctica Consulting Group, a defence consultancy that has offices in 10 Latin American countries and is linked to Kroll Associates, a security company that is accused of being an arm of the CIA, according to Qué Pasa.

The link between Kroll Associates and Red Táctica is its director of operations and training for Latin America, Christian Gatica, a former Chilean Marine who moved to the United States in 2001 and has carried out missions for the U.S. company in Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor.

The recruitment effort in Chile included a pre-selection of 400 men, who then participated in military exercises in San Bernardo, south of Santiago. That annoyed Defence Minister Michelle Bachelet, who ordered another investigation into possible violations of Chile’s law on weapons control.

Grupo Táctico-Blackwater finally selected 122 men who travelled to North Carolina in mid-February to spend one or two weeks at the Blackwater training camp, after which they were sent to Kuwait, and from there to Iraq.

Gary Jackson, president of Blackwater, told the Chilean newspaper La Tercera that the contract awarded by the George W. Bush administration for providing security services in Iraq was a fantastic business opportunity for his company.

Jim Sierawski, the company’s director of training, explained the advantages of hiring former Chilean commandos, who have received specialised military training preparing them to carry out a broad range of missions.

The independent on-line publication Indymedia reported on Mar. 26 that the United States had hired retired members of the Chilean army who served under former dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), as well as ”former henchmen of South Africa’s apartheid regime” to serve as soldiers of fortune in Iraq.

Indymedia estimates the number of former South African military in Iraq at 1,500, which would make them one of the biggest contingents of mercenaries in occupied Iraq.

The private military industry is growing around the world, fed by local wars that are providing employment opportunities for former military personnel who found themselves out of a job, especially in eastern Europe, when the Cold War came to an end.

The 122 Chileans now in Iraq also form part of those displaced from active duty by a plan for the modernisation of the armed forces applied in the army by General Luis Emilio Cheyre, the current army chief.

Cheyre, like his predecessor, General Ricardo Izurieta, who replaced Pinochet in 1998 as commander-in-chief of the army, carried out a discreet but effective purge, forcing into retirement officers and non-commissioned officers who played a role in the dictatorship’s repression, in which some 3,000 people were killed or ”disappeared”.

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