Alexander Ross returned home to Panama in a zinc coffin, having been caught in the propeller of a US aircraft refuelling in the jungles of Colombia. Yet Ross, 25, was not a soldier, airman or mechanic: he was a computer technician.
His family is desperate to learn how he ended up marshalling an OV-10 Bronco aircraft that was on a mission to spray Colombia's coca plantations. A year later they say they face a wall of silence from DynCorp, Ross's former employer and one of the principal corporate participants in the US government's "Plan Colombia", a $2.5bn (£1.5bn) infusion of mainly military aid since 2000.
His mother, Elena Cáceres de Ross, says that during the past year she has received only one letter from DynCorp, in which the company said the investigation into the accident was in the hands of the State Department. The family has filed for punitive damages in a US court. "No one wants to tell me anything, least of all DynCorp," she says. "All I want is an explanation for why my son was killed working for this cowboy outfit." On Monday a DynCorp executive said the company could not discuss the Ross case while it was under State Department investigation, while the State Department said it could not comment pending the resolution of outstanding legal issues.
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US-financed anti-narcotics operations in Colombia, which are largely carried out by DynCorp and other US private military companies (PMCs), are cloaked in secrecy. In February, a US citizen and a Colombian national were executed by guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia after their aircraft crashed in rebel territory. Three other American contractors were abducted. The Americans were employees of California Microwave Systems, a subsidiary of the US defence group, Northrop Grumman. A few weeks later another three contractors were killed when their aircraft crashed while searching for the previous three.
Since 1998, 21 US government-titled aircraft have been destroyed in Colombia, according to a State Department official. Four were under contracts with the Air Wing, the aerial division of the State Department that owns the Broncos and other aircraft. The State Department also says some 14 US citizens employed as contractors have been killed since 1997, five of them this year. Several contractors of other nationalities employed by US PMCs, such as Alexander Ross, have also been killed, some in unclear circumstances.
In contrast to the deaths of US soldiers in Iraq, those of US contractors in Colombia have received scant public attention. According to some analysts, that is the point. "US public opinion is susceptible to the casualty count," says General Néstor Ramírez, until recently second-in-command of the Colombian army and former defence attaché in Washington. "Imagine if 20 American troops got killed here. Plan Colombia would be over."
The widespread use in Colombia of contractors rather than military personnel means few Americans are aware of the level of US involvement there. Colombia is the third largest recipient of US military aid. Since Plan Colombia was launched in 2000, Washington has supplied more than 70 Black Hawk and Huey helicopters and other military hardware. However, the aircraft are maintained and flown by private contractors, principally DynCorp, Lockheed-Martin, ARINC and Northrop Grumman. In the 12 months prior to April, the US government signed contracts worth $150m with at least 11 US military companies to operate various anti-narcotics and military-linked programmes in Colombia.
Fearing Vietnam-style mission creep in Colombia, Congress limited the number of US personnel that can operate in the country to 400 in uniform and 400 civilian contractors at any given time. However, foreign citizens such as Mr Ross do not count towards that total. US legislation also requires congressional notification before the government can approve the export of defence services valued at $50m or more. But many analysts believe contracts are structured in smaller tranches to avoid oversight by Congress.
All of this leads some to suspect that private contractors are being used for military operations that are either too controversial to sell to the public or that would otherwise be subject to congressional restrictions. "It's obviously a way to avoid scrutiny," says Adam Isacson, of the Centre for International Policy, of the use of contractors in Colombia. "If US military personnel were doing these jobs, US congressional committees would be asking a lot more questions about what they're doing."
Many military analysts reckon the use of PMCs will grow further. Since the attacks on New York and Washington of September 11 2001, launched by a terrorist group based in Afghanistan, failed and failing states have become recognised as a source of global instability. While governments may view intervention as desirable, they often lack the political will and the capability to deploy military forces.
The US skirted political controversy many times during the 1990s by using PMCs. It hired DynCorp to provide unarmed monitors in Kosovo, allowing the Pentagon to avoid calling up several thousand National Guardsmen.
Another place where Washington wanted to intervene but could not for political reasons was Liberia in the mid-1990s. The US was keen - as it is today - to support Nigerian peacekeepers in Liberia. But because Nigeria was then under the ostracised dictatorship of Sani Abacha, it could not offer direct assistance. The solution was to provide funds to hire ICI of Oregon, a helicopter transport company, and Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE), a US company providing logistical support. The companies gave support to ECOWAS, an organisation of west African states, which sent a Nigerian-led peacekeeping force into Liberia.
Although the managers running ICI of Oregon's operations were often former US Special Forces soldiers, the personnel and the helicopters used were Russian. When fighting intensified and the US embassy in Monrovia came under attack, the ICI crews struck a deal with the American diplomats: they would be granted protection within the embassy in exchange for helping to defend it. Russian fighters defended the embassy until Navy Seals could arrive. ICI of Oregon won a State Department "contractor of the year" award for the actions of its employees.
Doug Brooks, who set up an industry body to promote PMC involvement in peacekeeping, says such operations are effective because they are manned by experienced Special Forces and other personnel: "They know what they're getting into. They're not afraid to take a bullet hole in their helicopter to make this thing successful. It was something that everybody knew needed to be done but they weren't about to risk Black Hawks or deal with all the political fallout of possibly being seen as supporting Abacha."
It also saved money, Mr Brooks says. The operation was about 15 times cheaper than if equivalent US forces had been used.
Increasingly, peacekeeping and humanitarian operations depend on private military companies to provide basic services. In Liberia, it was announced this month, PAE will again be providing logistical and humanitarian support under the direction of a small contingent of US marines.
However, the US and UN are so far resisting a more radical role for PMCs: the provision of peacekeeping troops. Some argue that the UN could make use of PMCs for peacekeeping operations where national governments are reluctant to intervene, saving lives and cooling conflicts.
Proponents cite the experience of Executive Outcomes (EO), a South Africa-based PMC that has since been disbanded, in Sierra Leone. In 1995, it was called in by the Sierra Leone government to help end a civil war. After helping to make peace, EO was replaced by a UN-sponsored coalition of West African troops (Ecomog) who later lost control.
The private EO operation is estimated to have cost about 4 per cent of the UN's operation. It was also far more successful in achieving peace and was generally accepted to have allowed fewer human-rights abuses. A UK government consultative paper said last year: "It is widely acknowledged that in Sierra Leone the national army was undisciplined, violent and a threat to the civilian population. The same has been said of a few in the Nigerian forces operating under Ecomog. Nobody has suggested anything like this in Executive Outcomes' record."
The group headed by Mr Brooks's International Peace Operations Association has proposed a private peacekeeping force to support the UN force in the Democratic Republic of Congo, claiming that the war can be brought to an end promptly and relatively cheaply. The companies the group says are prepared to take part include MPRI, AirScan, PAE and ICI of Oregon. Under the plan, TASK International would also provide Gurkhas - Nepalese soldiers famous for having fought alongside British soldiers - for a rapid deployment force.
Yet many governments see such private sector intervention as a step too far. During the Rwandan refugee crisis in 1996, EO came up with a plan to keep fighters and refugees apart and create a safe corridor for humanitarian assistance. Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, ultimately rejected the proposal, concluding that "the world may not be ready to privatise peace".
Many governments view PMCs as challenging states' sovereignty and monopoly on legitimate violence. Lack of accountability is another objection. There are well-established procedures to deal with war crimes committed by serving soldiers; with PMCs, it is far less clear who should take responsibility when things go wrong.
"What does happen if one of these guys shoots the wrong people?" says Nigel Churton of Control Risks, formerly with the UK military. "Who should take responsibility?"
Several DynCorp employees working in the Balkans in recent years were alleged to have been involved in a prostitution racket i n which girls as young as 12 were being traded. The company fired the employee who blew the whistle on the operation, while spiriting the accused men out of the country. None has faced trial. Such incidents suggest contractors are not always subject to military discipline, or to the courts of the often chaotic countries where they are deployed, or to the laws of their home countries.
PMCs say such problems can be overcome if governments build proper oversight and accountability into contracts. They say many UN and other peacekeeping operations suffer more severe problems. At the same time as the DynCorp incident took place, Mr Brooks says, UN police were providing enslaved women to brothels, dealing in the black market and helping local mafias. In west Africa, Save the Children reported that UN peacekeepers, humanitarian NGOs, and government agencies had scores of employees trading food and favours to desperate refugees for sex. "While DynCorp certainly deserves criticism for the way it handled the sex crime incident in Bosnia, the episode should be kept in context," Mr Brooks says. "We should not delude ourselves by assuming traditional peace operations have inherently virtuous standards of morality."
Moreover, there are many instances in which there is not a choice between public or private peacekeeping forces. If EO's pitch to act in Rwanda had been taken up, Mr Singer says, "possibly hundreds of thousands of people might have been saved".
Bruce Jones, deputy director of the Centre for International Co-operation at New York University, says: "The ethical argument against the use of private organisations in peacekeeping is deeply undermined by the states' not being willing to act."
One reason why the UN and national governments have shied away from using PMCs in such an active manner is the fear that they may not be able to control the outcome. In 1997, for example, the British government was severely embarrassed after it emerged that Sandline International, a British company, was delivering weapons to Sierra Leone in apparent contravention of a UN arms embargo. Despite initial denials, the Foreign Office was shown to have been aware of the transactions.
Since that episode - and another involving Sandline in Papua New Guinea - the UK government has been at pains to stop any British PMCs getting involved in a foreign conflict. This year the Foreign Office warned Northbridge Services Group, an Anglo-American operation, against recruiting fighters for the government in Ivory Coast. UK and US authorities are also investigating a recent offer by Northbridge to back the rebels in Liberia against Charles Taylor, the president who stepped down yesterday.
Michael Grunberg, commercial adviser to Sandline International, acknowledged that the Sandline "arms to Africa" affair had created political sensitivities in the UK but said it had also hampered proper public debate. "We need to get away from that political dimension and focus on what role the private sector could play in peacekeeping deployments," he said.
The UK government - in common with most others - has no formal regulatory regime for PMCs and last year's consultative paper was inconclusi ve.
South Africa has taken the lead on regulation, banning its citizens from fighting in a foreign war without government approval. A South African became the first person convicted under the law this month after he was caught hiring mercenaries for Ivory Coast. In the US, PMCs are covered under the 1968 Arms Export Control Act which regulates both arms dealing and the export of military services. US companies offering military advice or training must get permission from the State Department.
However, US government studies have found that beyond that requirement, there is little monitoring and oversight of the activities of contractors. A report this year by the US General Accounting Office, the audit and evaluation arm of Congress, found that "broader oversight is lacking in key areas, making it difficult for commanders to manage contractors effectively". The Pentagon itself found in 1998 that there was "no central oversight of contracts for emergency essential services, no legal basis to compel contractors to perform, and no means to enforce contractual terms".
Steven Schooner, an expert in government contract law at George Washington University Law School, says the government has not addressed the myriad legal issues posed by having so many contractors so close to the field of battle. Who do contractors report to in combat? What if they decide their jobs are too dangerous? Can they carry weapons? Who is liable if they are killed or injured? What rights do they have if they are captured by enemy forces? Is the government obliged to try to rescue them in the same way it did Jessica Lynch, a US soldier captured in Iraq? What legal liability do contractors have if they kill or injure civilians, intentionally or by accident?
"It's shocking given the level of outsourcing in the battlefield that they have not worked out the legal treatment," Mr Schooner says.
The Pentagon and private contractors are starting to address these issues. Companies such as Lockheed Martin are trying to codify a series of clauses they have written into specific contracts. In the last two years, contractors have begun to write in special insurance protection for employees in contracts with the US government. This should provide family members with some benefit if they are killed or injured, such as a Halliburton employee who was delivering Army mail in Iraq.
But that will be too late for Alexander Ross's mother. Such moves are, in any case, only small steps towards codifying and regulating an industry whose growing global significance is undeniable, but with which the world has yet to come to terms.
Additional reporting: Andy Webb-Vidal, Victoria Burnett and Joshua Chaffin