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Iraq contractors recruit Latin America's needy

Thousands are lured by pay. Some return with permanent scars.

January 28, 2008|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

LIMA, PERU — Sometimes he wakes up with a shudder, thinking he needs to take cover, fast. At other moments he dreams he's running and the mortar shell strikes again, fiery shards of metal ripping through his flesh.

"I take pills to help me sleep," Gregorio Calixto says, proffering a box of cheap over-the-counter medication, the only kind he can afford.

In the United States, Calixto might be under treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder from his time in Iraq, receiving daily physical therapy and counseling. Here he's an unemployed street vendor, renting a spartan room and struggling to recover physically and emotionally from severe shrapnel wounds.

He is one of several thousand Latin Americans who have taken jobs with U.S. contractors as security guards in Iraq and Afghanistan. About 1,200 Peruvians are in Iraq, mostly guarding sites in Baghdad's Green Zone. Chileans, Colombians, Salvadorans and Hondurans have also served as part of the polyglot assemblage providing "conflict labor" in U.S. war zones.

Although most appear to have returned to Latin America safely and with enough cash to buy houses, taxis and businesses, others, such as Calixto, have been unlucky: seriously injured in Iraq and left to negotiate a labyrinthine and what he terms inadequate U.S. insurance system.

The primary recruiter here, Triple Canopy, a Virginia-based firm founded by U.S. Special Forces and Delta Force veterans, defends its practices. Peruvians are treated no differently from U.S. employees, the company says, and 85% sign up for extensions.

"We believe that Triple Canopy has developed a fairly sophisticated model for managing third-country national security guard forces," Mark DeWitt, the company's senior director of government affairs, said in a statement.

The Latin American recruits are mostly former soldiers and police officers, many with experience fighting leftist rebels.

"They know that we come from a military tradition, that we are disciplined," says Norman Solano, 46, a strapping veteran of Peru's 1980s campaign against Maoist guerrillas who spent more than a year as a security guard in Iraq.

The Peruvians aren't among the $500-plus-a-day hotshots who escort U.S. and allied convoys, such as the Blackwater USA guards facing accusations of shooting first and asking questions later. Those top-end guns-for-hire typically come from the U.S. or Britain.

Rather, the Peruvians and others from developing nations are rent-a-cops, staffing checkpoints and guard towers and keeping alert. Many never fire their weapons.

Triple Canopy says no foreign national working for the firm has been killed in Iraq but declined to provide data on Latin Americans injured there. Two company officials who asked not to be named, however, said about a dozen Peruvian guards had been injured by "indirect fire" (mortar shells or rockets). The worst injury, the officials said, was suffered by a Peruvian who lost an eye. The noncombat casualties included one man who died of a heart attack and another who succumbed to leukemia shortly after being sent home.

For Latin American recruits, the pay is the major lure.

The Peruvian employees typically earn about $1,000 a month; $900 is wired to personal bank accounts, while $100 "spending money" is parceled out in Iraq. All expenses, including room and board and travel, are paid. They work six-day shifts.

It's a hard-to-match deal for ex-soldiers and cops with little education. Some returnees even describe the postings nostalgically as a kind of dream job, despite the dangers, bouts of boredom, time away from family and scorching summers.

"I just wish I could go back," says Solano, who, like Calixto, served from 2005 to 2007 as part of a detail of Peruvians protecting the U.S. mission in the southern city of Basra. "I never ate so much. We had salmon, meat, rice, every day! And dessert! Some of us got fat. We had to work out in the gym to keep the weight off."

Since returning to Peru more than a year ago, Solano has struggled to find steady work. He said his request to return to Iraq has been rejected because of a "stress" condition he developed there, resulting in shortness of breath.

"I'd rather die in a war than die of hunger in my own country," Solano says, taking a break from his current job guarding an outdoor municipal pump from thieves in the northern harbor city of Chimbote, a town reeking with the pungent aroma of fish-meal processing plants.

"Iraq was a good time for me," says Solano, a father of two who now earns about $200 a month, though he hasn't been paid in two months.

Calixto, 27, a former sergeant in Peru's army and the seventh of 11 children, was selling cigarettes and sweets from a pushcart when he heard from a relative that a U.S. firm was seeking recruits for Iraq. He applied at the downtown office of a Triple Canopy subcontractor and was hired the next day, signing a one-year contract.

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