Here Come the
Death Squad Veterans
If José Miguel Pizarro has his way, he will recruit 30,000 Chileans as
mercenaries to protect American companies under Pentagon contract to rebuild
Iraq. And undoubtedly, within those ranks will be
former members of death squads that tortured and murdered civilians when
dictatorships ruled in Latin America.
"There is no comparison with what they can earn in the
active military or working in civilian jobs, and what we offer," José Miguel
Pizarro, Chile's leading recruiter for international security firms, says.
"This is an opportunity that few in Chile can afford to pass up."
Pizarro's firm, Servicios Integrales, was contracted by
Blackwater USA to recruit the first batch of Chileans in November 2003. By
May 2004 he had placed 5,200 men who, after one week of training in
Santiago, head to North Carolina for orientation with Blackwater, the
private security firm that made headlines when four of its employees where
killed in Falluja, their bodies mutilated and hung from a bridge. After
training, Blackwater flies the men to Kuwait City to await their assignments
As democratic governments were voted into office
throughout Latin America in the 1990s, Latin militaries were downsized.
Thousands of military officers lost their jobs. "This is a way of continuing
our military careers," Carlos Wamgnet, 30, explained in a phone interview
from Kuwait while awaiting his assignment in Iraq. "In civilian life in
Chile I was making $1,800 a month. Here I can earn a year's pay in six
weeks. It's worth the risks."
At 30, Wamgnet is too young to have participated in any
crime of the Pinochet regime. But not all the Chileans in Iraq are
guiltless. Newspapers in Chile have estimated that
approximately 37 Chileans in Iraq are seasoned veterans of the Pinochet era.
Government officials in Santiago are alarmed that men who enjoy amnesty in
Chile -- provided they remain in "retirement" from their past military
activities -- are now in Iraq.
In an interview with the Santiago-based daily newspaper La
Tercera, Chilean Minister of Defense Dr. Michelle Bachelet stated that
Chilean "mercenaries for American firms doing business
in Iraq" may be subject to "arrest or detention in third countries,"
a reference to recent arrests in Spain and Mexico of South Americans with
war-crimes pasts. South American media report
that Chileans have requested travel from Chile to the United States and then
directly to the Middle East, to bypass Mexico and the European Union. The
thousands of Chileans in Iraq have been nicknamed "the penguins" by American
and South African soldiers for hire, a reference both to Chile's proximity
to the South Pole and the fact that many Chilean mercenaries are of mixed
Not everyone in Chile is opposed to the presence in Iraq
of former Chilean army members. "It is true that the majority [of Chilean
recruits] see this as an opportunity to earn money," La Tercera columnist
Mauricio Aguirre wrote."But it is also an opportunity for our soldiers to
prove themselves on the ground, and to put to use the skills for which they
trained in the Armed Forces over the years."
"Blackwater USA has sent recruiters to
Chile, Peru, Argentina, Colombia and Guatemala for one specific reason
alone," said an intelligence officer in Kuwait who
requested anonymity. "All these
countries experienced dirty wars and they have military men well-trained in
dealing with internal subversives. They are well-versed in extracting
confessions from prisoners."
As the security situation in Iraq deteriorated in the
spring of 2004, more "dedicated recruiting"
Though Chile is in vigorous debate about the role of
military servicemen becoming hired guns in Iraq, in Argentina there is
virtual silence. Several Argentine mercenaries have made their way to the
United States to meet with American security firms before heading to Iraq.
"No one wants to discuss what is becoming clear," says Mario Podestá, 51, an
independent Argentine journalist. "I know of seven
military officers responsible for disappearing opponents of the
dictatorship" who are now in Iraq. During Argentina's
"dirty wars," opponents of the military regime
were "disappeared" (abducted), tortured and then
Podesta spoke to this reporter in early April. He was in
Jordan preparing to travel by road to Baghdad, along with Mariana Verónica
Cabrera, 28, an Argentine camerawoman. "I want to find these men," he said
of the Argentine 'dirty war' criminals he had
identified as being mercenaries in Iraq. It was not to be.
Podestá and Cabrera were killed, along with their Iraqi
driver, in an automobile accident before reaching Baghdad.
source: Pacific News Service - June 16, 2004