By Matthew D. LaPlante
The Salt Lake Tribune
December 2, 2007

Mario Urquia's story is backed up by passport stamps, a voided visa, photographs, contracts, personal letters, military documents, Honduran government officials, an American attorney and Honduran news reports. But perhaps most significantly, his complaints are consistent with the results of a recent investigation of the billion-dollar security contracting industry by the United Nations Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries, which has exposed systemic abuses among security contractors and subcontractors who recruit in third-world nations.

According to a report issued last year, the U.N. group found "irregularities of contracts, harsh working conditions with excessive working hours, partial or non payment of remuneration, ill-treatment and isolation, and lack of basic necessities such as medical treatment and sanitation," among security recruits from Honduras who took jobs in Iraq. The group made similar findings regarding workers from Chile, Peru, Ecuador and Fiji all nations with rampant poverty in which U.S.-based private security companies regularly recruit and has received similar reports of abuses in more than a dozen other countries.

José Luis Gómez del Prado, the Spanish expert who heads the U.N. group, said investigators "found the same things in all these countries. There is a series of military and private security companies that obtain a contract from the Pentagon or the State Department of the United States and then subcontract other companies which go to third world countries because the workforce is cheaper."

Gómez del Prado said the system has little oversight and is rife with abuse.

But the bottom line, he added, is that the contractors "are civilians who have guns in a war zone and that goes against international laws."

The United States is not a signatory on the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries, but it nonetheless has been resistent to call members of its private army "mercenaries."

The U.S. State Department uses private security contractors to augment small detachments of U.S. Marines at embassies around the world. The department declined to respond to questions regarding the legal and ethical propriety of using workers from impoverished countries in its warzone facilities.

But the U.S. Mission to U.N. offices in Geneva disputes Gómez del Prado's conclusion that the hiring of third-world security contractors constitutes "a new form of mercenary activity."

"Accusations that U.S. government-contracted security guards, of whatever nationality, are mercenaries is inaccurate and demeaning to men and women who put their lives on the line to protect people and facilities every day," an October statement from the mission said.

But as the U.S. and U.N. officials parse words, the extent of the exploitation continues to be overlooked, said Jen Daskal, who studies the policies and conduct of the U.S. military for the nonprofit Human Rights Watch.

No matter what terminology is used, Daskal said, "there's a complete lack of oversight in terms of how contractors find, pay and treat their employees when they're hired.

Daskal called the issue "a huge problem," but said no one in the U.S. Government seems to want to do anything about it. "There appears to be a lack of political will," she said.

With growing scrutiny in the wake of a number of high-profile incidents involving private security companies in Iraq, Daskal is hopeful that legislation aimed at making individual contractors easier to prosecute when they commit criminal acts might, as a tertiary consequence, also bring the force of U.S. labor regulations over the process.

That, she said, might help end the most egregious abuses including some reported cases, like Urquia's, in which "people are basically taken into indentured servitude."

But no pending legislation would stop companies such as Blackwater, DynCorp and Triple Canopy those three security companies alone have taken in more than $2.5 billion in contracts in Iraq from recruiting workers from poor countries to risk their lives for a few dollars a day. Of that, Daskal said, "there's nothing that has any momentum going forward right now. There's very little outcry or even knowledge of what's going on over there.

That deeply concerns Amos Guiora. The national security expert, a professor at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney School of Law, said all Americans should be concerned with "who is fighting our battles." He wonders what message the United States sends about its intentions and commitments overseas when such a large part of its foreign-deployed forces aren't even Americans. And notwithstanding the obvious human rights issues, he said, there is a very clear question as to the risks the U.S. government is taking by exporting its security to the lowest bidder.

If a mercenary from Honduras will man a guard tower for the United States for $31 a day, Guiora wondered, what would he do for $32?

"When you look at the tactical, geo-strategic and geo-political risks," he said, "from all perspectives, it1s lose, lose, lose."