Third world warriors fight U.S. wars – for dollars a day

Honduran soldier was among thousands who stood guard over Baghdad embassy, but couldn’t legally enter United States.

By Matthew D. LaPlante The Salt Lake Tribune 12/02/07

With U.S. forces stretched thin in Iraq, private security companies have swept in to fill the void. But abuses of third-world security workers abound. And in many cases, those helping to fight our wars can’t even cross our borders.
For one year, Mario Urquia guarded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, protecting American service members and diplomats in one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Now Urquia is living on the edge of homelessness in Ogden – illegal in the nation he once stood to protect.
While the circumstances that led to Urquia’s illegal entry into the United States are unusual, the factors that resulted in his deployment to Iraq are not. He is just one of thousands of individuals from impoverished nations recruited to help fight a war for the richest country in the world.
Human rights advocates say it’s exploitation. United Nations officials say it’s a violation of international law.
But the U.S. government says that, at a time when its military is stretched so thin, third-world security contractors will be standing guard over U.S. facilities for a long time to come.
A special forces soldier in the Honduran Army with nearly 30 years experience, Urquia said he was contacted in the summer of 2005 by a senior officer, who asked him if he would go to Iraq on behalf of the U.S. State Department. Honduras had stopped sending soldiers to Iraq two years earlier, but records show that Urquia’s mission for a private security company was blessed by several of his commanders. He and others have claimed that Honduran and Chilean recruits were trained by men who identified themselves as U.S. Army Green Berets at two Honduran military bases, in violation of that nation’s laws. A U.S. Defense Department spokesman said all training conducted by U.S. military personnel in Honduras has been “carried out with military counterparts. . . with close coordination and the approval of Honduran authorities.”
Against salaries of $150,000 a year and more being paid to American contractors, the $15,600 annual salary promised to Urquia in his contract might seem strikingly inequitable. But in the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere the wage seemed a king’s ransom. “In Honduras, when you have an opportunity like that, it is not something you refuse,” Urquia said.
But for the lanky, stone-faced mechanic, army reservist and father of five children, there was something even more alluring than money. Urquia claims that officials from the company that hired him promised citizenship in the United States after finishing of his tour of duty in Iraq. It was one of many promises that would go unfulfilled.

Fighting our war

The Congressional Research Service has estimated there are 182,000 individuals working under U.S. contracts and subcontracts in Iraq. And a federal Government Accountability Office report last year estimated that more than 48,000 of those individuals are armed. That makes America’s private-for-profit security force – U.S. leaders resist the term “mercenary” – the second largest armed group in the dwindling coalition that currently occupies Iraq, well ahead of U.S. ally Great Britain.
It’s unclear how many armed contractors come from third-world countries, but federal reports indicate less than a fifth are Americans.
The rest are recruited from dozens of other nations, including many places like Honduras, that are not a part of the Bush Administration’s so-called “coalition of the willing.” And like Honduras, many of the nations from which private security contractors are drawn are steeped in abject poverty. In these places, critics say, billion-dollar American companies can find plenty of people willing to risk their lives for wages as low as $31 a day – and who don’t have a voice when things go wrong.

No compensation

After arriving in Iraq – via Baghdad International Airport, according to a stamp in his passport – Urquia said he was vetted by U.S. military doctors and issued an identification badge at the U.S. embassy, where he was given a uniform with a Honduran flag on the sleeve.
Between August 2005 and August 2006, Urquia led a dozen other soldiers from Honduras’ 2nd Aerotransport Infantry Battalion as they stood guard on one side of the U.S. embassy compound.
“We worked from 6 in the evening to 6 in the morning,” he said. “Then we would go to breakfast and afterwards, we would be picked up for training. We trained all day and slept for two or three hours before we went back to work. That was how it was.”
Urquia said he was given a debit card to access an account where his pay would be deposited. But when he tried to use it to buy food and supplies in Baghdad’s Green Zone, it didn’t work. “We all complained, but they said: ‘Don’t worry, your money will be waiting for you when you return home,’ ” Urquia said. U.S. soldiers who knew of Urquia’s situation would sometimes slip him some cash. Urquia said that money was all he and his soldiers had to spend while in Iraq.
About six months into the tour, one of Urquia’s soldiers was wounded in a rocket propelled grenade attack. Urquia said initial care by U.S. military doctors was sufficient to save the soldier’s life. But after the wounded soldier was evacuated back to Honduras, Urquia said, “he never got the help he needed. His brain was damaged but there was no compensation.”
Urquia said it was obvious, at that point, that he and his men were being exploited. But still expecting that a large savings account was waiting for him on the other side of the deployment, he stuck to it. “What else could I do?” he asked.
More than a year after he returned, Urquia claims he still hasn’t been paid. “Not a single penny,” he said.

The privatization of Iraq

The world of warfare began to change in the summer of 2003. Saddam Hussein’s regime quickly had fallen to the superior military strength of the United States. But an upsurge in insurgent activity meant U.S. forces wouldn’t be returning home as quickly as some Bush administration officials had predicted.
Preparing for the long haul, the military began building up large forward operating bases, where many jobs once dedicated to U.S. service members were being privatized as the armed forces worked to free up soldiers to fight. The extent of the privatization is clear to anyone who has visited U.S. military bases in Iraq, where mess halls in Mosul are staffed by Pakistani cooks, laundry services in Najaf are run by Filipino cleaners and a barber shop in Fallujah is manned by Turkish haircutters.
The contracts didn’t stop at service jobs. By early 2004, the ubiquitous white sports utility vehicles used by security contractors like Blackwater, DynCorp and Aegis were a common sight on the streets of Baghdad, and private guards were taking posts outside buildings throughout the Green Zone.
Perhaps most telling, Coalition Provisional Authority director Paul Bremer’s own security detail was made up not of U.S. troops but beefy, sunglass-wearing private guards. Bremer later signed an order giving such individuals – and the companies for which they work – immunity from prosecution in Iraq, a rule which was later incorporated into Iraqi law and which critics say has led to egregious injustices and human rights abuses.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told The New York Post editorial board in October that she believes private security contractors are vital to the nation’s war in Iraq, where U.S. troops are stretched thin.
“There are a lot of contract security in Iraq,” she said, “because these are missions that can be done by contract security, that you don’t essentially want to tie down American military forces doing all this.”
“If it’s well-managed and the authorities are right – and we look at it very, very closely – then I’m quite sure we’re going to continue to make use of contract security,” she said.

Recruiting the poor

Among the late entries into the security game was Triple Canopy, founded by several former U.S. Special Forces members six months after the Iraq invasion. Despite limited experience in the private security arena the company claims to have secured more than $100 million in revenue in its first year of operation.
By 2005, Triple Canopy had won a contract worth tens of millions of dollars to provide security services at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. And within months of that award, a tall, middle-aged American business man named Luis Angel Mendez was operating in Latin America, where he had enlisted several high-ranking military officers to help fill hundreds of security positions created under Triple Canopy’s contracts.
Mendez doesn’t appear to have worked directly for Triple Canopy, which at the time was headquartered in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnshire, Ill. Rather, he’s listed on Illinois state business records as the director of an innocuously-named startup based out of a small room in a drab apartment complex in the adjoining suburb of Prospect Heights.
That company, Your Solutions, Inc., was fined and later expelled from Honduras after it was learned that scores of foreign fighters were being trained on Honduran soil. But Mendez’s Latin American operation lasted long enough to sign more than 200 Hondurans and at least 100 Chileans to contracts to provide security services in Iraq – for wages starting at $900 a month. By the time Your Solutions had been kicked out of Honduras, Urquia and his squad were en route to Iraq.
Your Solutions was dissolved in 2006 for failing to register with the state of Illinois. The Salt Lake Tribune has been unable to locate Mendez.
Triple Canopy, which still provides embassy security in Baghdad, said in a statement that it severed its relationship with Your Solutions in early 2006 and that it no longer recruits in Honduras or Chile, but “continues to hire security personnel from Latin America to work in Iraq because they are diligent workers, reliable, professional and in some instances specifically requested by our U.S. government customers,” the statement said.
The company did not respond to specific inquiries about contractors who allege to have been lied to, mistreated and stolen from while working under Triple Canopy subcontracts. It also declined to identify the government agencies it claimed had requested the Latin American security workers.

Plea for help

Urquia returned from Iraq to a media and political firestorm. Government investigators were looking into the business dealings of Your Solutions, focusing on how the company had been able to secure training space on Honduran army bases. The United Nations had initiated an inquiry into the human rights implications of the case. Several military officers were implicated, but denied they had anything to do with the scandal.
Urquia felt he knew better. Angry at the officers for disavowing the mission and bitter with Your Solutions for allegedly swindling him and his soldiers, Urquia shared his contract, military orders and photos of him and his fellow soldiers in Iraq with the Honduran news media.
In a country largely opposed to the U.S.-led occupation, some called him a champion for justice – “El Héroe de Hoy” read the caption over Urquia’s photograph in the Honduran newspaper El Heraldo. But the officers he exposed apparently felt differently. Soon, Urquia said, he was receiving death threats.
“They would call me and say, ‘Get ready to die,'” Urquia said. “I know they were serious.”
Fearing for the safety of himself and his family, Urquia went to Honduras’ National Commission for Human Rights. An officer for the commission confirmed that Urquia had opened a case at her office, which had initiated an investigation. But before the case could be completed, the official said, Urquia disappeared.
Urquia said he was coming out of the Human Rights office when several rifle-carrying men emerged from a white vehicle with tinted windows.
“I ran back into the building,” he said. “A man gave me a ride in a car out the back. That’s when I knew I had to leave Honduras.”
At least 16 others have filed complaints against Your Solutions with Honduran authorities. Urquia’s case is one of two that Honduran human rights officials have had to table for lack of a present complainant. Former soldier Daniel Alvarado, who served with Urquia in Iraq, also fled the country after reporting threats to his life. Alvarado is thought to be hiding out in Costa Rica, but a relative contacted by The Tribune said no one has heard from him in more than two months.
Although he felt betrayed by Your Solutions, Urquia hoped the U.S. government still would honor the promise of citizenship – or at least offer him and his family political asylum.
“I’d been working for the United States,” he reasoned. “This was their war and we were the men they used.”

A global system of explitation

Vicki Gass spent two years in Iraq working to educate women on matters of constitutional rights and advocacy. But the education she received included a firsthand look at how some U.S. contractors exploit third-world workers.
Now a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America, Urquia’s story was familiar to Gass on several levels.
“There were a whole lot of issues, a whole lot of exploitation going on,” Gass said. “It was pretty outrageous. I met some people from Romania, who felt they had been lied to. They got to Baghdad and they couldn’t get out. They were making $800 a month.”
Gass said the lure of mercenary work for men like Urquia is really only a small step from what many individuals from that part of the world already do to support their families. “People are forced to go abroad – whether it is traveling over treacherous terrain to get to the United States or going to Baghdad, they’re leaving their countries because they don’t have jobs.”
And for soldiers especially, Gass said, any offer of employment can be difficult to turn down. When the civil wars that marked much of the past 30 years in Latin America subsided, she said, “many army officers and soldiers who were disbanded didn’t have any other opportunities.”
Pratap Chatterjee sees similar themes in Urquia’s tale.
“What we’re seeing here is the exploitation of poor labor,” said Chatterjee, the author of Iraq, Inc.: A Profitable Occupation. “These companies are simply taking advantage of the market we all live in. This is the way globalization works. You tap into the global poor. The rule is that the lowest wage rules.”

Growing desperate

The ragged manila folder Urquia keeps to document his struggle includes a transient worker’s visa he obtained to work in the United States in the late 1990s. Arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border last spring, Urquia presented the visa, which was valid through September, expecting to be granted quick passage into Texas.
But the world had changed since Urquia last visited the United States. Perhaps wary of the Middle Eastern stamps in Urquia’s passport, the immigration officer took out a permanent black marker and voided the visa. Urquia said the officer gave no explanation.
“I said, ‘How can you do this? Let me tell you, I went to Iraq for your country,’ ” Urquia recalled. “And he told me to shut up.'”
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials have not responded to requests to identify what the markings on Urquia’s visa mean. Undeterred, Urquia paid a man to help him cross the Rio Grande near the Mexican border town of Reynosa. He moved from there to Houston, then to Colorado Springs and finally to Utah, where he found work at a salvage yard in Lehi. His hopes to raise enough money to bring his family north and hire an attorney to handle his claim for political asylum were dashed, however, when he broke his elbow while pulling an engine from a car. “Since I couldn’t fix cars anymore, they fired me,” Urquia said.
Urquia now is living in a run-down home which is being renovated by a friend near downtown Ogden. Once the home is completed and rented out – sometime next month, he figures – Urquia fears he’ll be on the streets. Without any source of income, he said, he is growing desperate. He fears for the safety of his wife and children in Honduras. His wife and youngest daughter are both sick.
“But if I return,” he said, “they will kill me.”

A political refugee

Unable to return home for fear of his life, Urquia has found himself in the unlikely company of thousands of Iraqi refugees who, having aided U.S. efforts in Iraq, now find their lives at risk in their homeland. Two million Iraqis have fled the country – including thousands who acted as interpreters, informants contractors or security workers for U.S. troops.
So far fewer than 3,000 have been admitted into the United States.
“Those who have risked their lives to help out the Americans desperately need a safe haven,” said Jen Daskal, an attorney at the nonprofit Human Rights Watch. “Those individuals should be first in line.”
Urquia currently is mulling a move to Seattle, where he has a cousin who may be able to help him find work – or to face the risks of returning to Honduras, where his family remains. He dreams of a day when he can bring his family to be with him in the country for which he once went to war. But in the current climate of such hostility to illegal immigrants, he said, he’s not confident that day will ever come.
“I thought, because I fought for this country, that there would be a place for me here,” he said. “I still hope there is, but I don’t know.”

Tribune reporters Roxana Orellana, Tom Harvey and Jennifer Sanchez contributed to this report.