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RIGHTS-CHILE: UN on the Offensive Against Iraq Mercenaries

Daniela Estrada and Gustavo González

SANTIAGO, Jul 13 2007 (IPS) - Mercenary recruitment agencies that send former soldiers to Iraq have been accused in Chile of human right abuses, illegal association, possession of explosives and unauthorised use of army weaponry, and are the target of a special United Nations mission.

The UN Working Group (UNWG) on the “use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the right of peoples to self-determination”, established in July 2005 by the then UN Commission on Human Rights, conducted a fact-finding mission about the recruitment firms in Chile this week, and then planned to head to Montevideo.

Senator Alejandro Navarro, of the governing coalition Socialist Party, is the prime mover behind the visit by the delegation, which arrived in Santiago on Monday. He stated that these firms declare legal residence in Uruguay, and that contracts are signed in international airspace while the mercenaries are being flown to the Middle East.

A Jordanian city has also been named as a venue where contracts are signed. Some of these contracts designate the Conciliation and Arbitration Centre of Panama (CeCAP), linked to Panama’s Chamber of Commerce, as the arbiter in case of any dispute, said Navarro, who had negotiated for two years for the UNWG to visit Chile.

At last the government of President Michelle Bachelet officially invited this delegation, led by UNWG executive president José Luis Gómez del Prado, of Spain, who has already visited Honduras and Ecuador in 2006 and Peru in 2007.

The other UNWG members are Amada Benavides de Pérez of Colombia, Alexander Nikitin of Russia, Najat Al-Hajjaji of Libya and Shaista Shameem of Fiji, not all of whom came to Chile.

Navarro said that U.S. private security companies such as Blackwater and Triple Canopy, who recruit guards at the request of the U.S. government to send into armed conflict zones to protect strategic installations, tend to subcontract to South American firms like Red Táctica Consulting Group.

The owner of the Washington-based Red Táctica is José Miguel Pizarro, a retired general of the Chilean army who lives in the U.S. He is also known as a commentator on Iraq security issues for the U.S. news service CNN.

Pizarro had at first agreed to meet with the UN mission in Santiago, but later changed his mind, saying that Gómez del Prado is not impartial and has taken an “anti-American” stance, according to Gómez del Prado himself.

Navarro’s investigation has so far found that seven or eight companies, in the business of recruiting former Chilean troops who have retired from the armed forces or left voluntarily, were set up by Pizarro’s lieutenants. The senator sued them for illegal association before local courts in 2004.

These companies pay their “international security guards” about 1,200 dollars a month, and provide board and lodging, he said.

On Navarro’s Internet page he says that Red Táctica has broken the law on private security guards and alleges they are guilty of illegal association, possession of explosives without authorisation or legal registration, unauthorised use of army weapons and animal abuse.

In an interview with IPS, Navarro complained that “Chile has not yet signed or ratified the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, (adopted by the UN General Assembly in) 1989, in spite of having strongly protested against the war in Iraq.”

On the UNWG mission agenda were meetings with Chile’s Foreign Relations, Defence, Interior, Labour and Justice ministers, with the Supreme Court of Justice and with members of Congress, as well as with university experts, non-governmental and inter-governmental organisations.

Members of the mission were also to meet with legal representatives of the recruiting firms involved in the controversy.

According to Navarro’s estimates, close to 1,200 former members of the Chilean military, mostly retired and with an average age of 40, have gone to Iraq since 2004. They were recruited by private companies who operate in several different countries in order to evade future responsibilities, he said.

At a meeting Tuesday with academics and university researchers, Gómez del Prado emphasised the exponential increase in the number of mercenaries involved in armed conflicts since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

The use of mercenaries is a form of “privatising war,” which involves human trafficking and other practices that violate human rights, said Gómez del Prado and Benavides de Pérez.

The UNWG rapporteurs pointed out that “private security guards” had participated alongside U.S. soldiers in the cases of torture perpetrated in the Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib in 2003.

Chile has been a country of concern to the UNWG since 2004, when it was reported that 124 former Chilean soldiers were in Iraq. Sources in Santiago estimate that there are currently 500 Chilean mercenaries there, while Navarro says there are 1,000.

The university experts at the meeting said that Chile has copious legislation on private security services, but mercenaries are not outlawed, so that it is essential for the country to ratify the UN Convention and adjust its domestic legislation accordingly.

The UN rapporteurs encouraged the international community to adopt this instrument, which has so far been signed by only a few countries, in order to establish guidelines and regulations.

“The monopoly over the use of force (by the state, in order to protect its population) is being increasingly ceded, de facto, to private companies,” Gómez del Prado has said.

The spread of market forces, even in war zones, has led to the contravention of international law and evasion of national legislation by means of mercenary recruitment companies.

So far, no Chileans have been reported killed in Iraq, but some of them have complained of irregularities and abuse. Daniel Maturana, a 28-year-old former Chilean army soldier, told the UNWG his story Tuesday, which had been broadcast by the media two years ago after Navarro reported it.

Maturana said he was contacted in 2005 by Global Guard, another company owned by Pizarro, to work as a guard in a “secure installation” in Iraq, such as an embassy or an airport. He was offered the attractive salary of 2,800 dollars a month for six months, plus 250 dollars for travelling expenses and paid holidays.

Maturana accepted and boarded a private charter plane to the Middle East, along with one of his brothers, also an ex-soldier, and 160 other Chilean mercenaries. He signed the contract on board the flight, but to his surprise the pay stipulated was only 1,000 dollars a month.

“Pizarro told us: ‘If you don’t like it, get off the plane,'” Maturana told IPS.

After a 30-hour journey, during which they ate only bread and water, they arrived in Jordan, where the group was divided up. Maturana and his brother were sent to guard a U.S.-British diplomatic mission in a location near Baghdad, where they carried war weapons: an AK-47 assault rifle and five spare magazines containing 30 rounds each.

Although he said he was treated well by Triple Canopy, the firm that subcontracted Global Guard’s services, Maturana was indignant when he found out how much profit Pizarro was making.

The U.S. firm paid Pizarro between 8,000 and 15,000 dollars a month for each mercenary, more than 10 times what they were getting. “He pocketed about 10,000 dollars for every one of us,” he said.

The former soldier says that Triple Canopy offered him a job with them at 15,000 dollars a month, because of his professionalism. But Pizarro did not like this move at all, and physically assaulted the two brothers, kidnapping them for six days, after which they were rescued by Fijian guards.

They returned to Chile without having been paid any of their wages. Another of their brothers, who had travelled to Iraq later on, also had difficulty in leaving the country.

Maturana said Pizarro’s firm was “a mafia”, but he defended the work he did in Iraq.

“I think it’s degrading to say that former members of the Chilean military are mercenaries, because that isn’t the case. I wasn’t a mercenary or a hired killer, I didn’t kill Iraqis, I just protected buildings and people,” he said.

On the occasion of the UNWG visit, Senator Navarro met with Defence Minister José Goñi, who told him that the Chilean government has every intention of signing and ratifying the 1989 Convention.

“Now it’s in the hands of the Foreign Office, which hasn’t so far regarded it as a priority,” Navarro said.

The results of the experts’ investigations will be presented to the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly in September.

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