Pubdate: Mon, 26 Feb 2001
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2001 Chicago Tribune Company
Contact:  435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611-4066


Flying missions over guerrilla-infested coca fields or staffing remote 
radar stations in the jungle, private American citizens are working 
perilously close to the front lines of the drug war in Colombia.

Referred to as "contractors" by the Washington agencies who hire them and 
"mercenaries" by critics, they are supposed to number no more than 300.

Yet with the U.S. government "outsourcing" much of its drug war aid to 
these contractors, officials are already indicating that the ceiling needs 
to be raised.

As Colombian President Andres Pastrana travels to Washington to meet with 
President Bush on Tuesday, worries are mounting about the danger the U.S. 
contractors face and whether their presence and that of U.S. troops could 
lead to deeper involvement in Colombia's decades-old civil war.

"Once this juggernaut starts rolling, it's extremely difficult to put a 
stopping point on it," said Robert White, a former U.S. ambassador to El 
Salvador who heads the Center for International Policy, a Washington think 

"Once there are a few Americans killed, it seems to me that things begin to 
unravel," he added. "And then you can find yourself, indeed, fully involved."

Some of the riskiest jobs in a $1.3 billion U.S.-financed counterdrug 
offensive have been contracted to companies including DynCorp, of Reston, 
Va., whose employees last weekend flew into a firefight involving leftist 
guerrillas to save the crew of a downed Colombian police helicopter.

The company provides rescuers, mechanics and helicopter and airplane pilots 
for aerial eradication missions over cocaine and heroin-producing 
plantations that are "taxed" and protected by the rebels.

Because they are kept away from the media, it is difficult to know whether 
DynCorp's employees live up to their image as a rowdy group of daredevils 
and combat veterans.

Some critics say the contractors are being used in dicey areas to avoid the 
scandal that would erupt if U.S. soldiers began returning from Colombia in 
body bags.

Some, worried about the growing U.S. role in Colombia, have compared it to 
Vietnam where an initially small U.S. involvement ballooned.

Using contractors will "reduce the potential fallout when mistakes happen 
or Americans are caught in harm's way," said Tim Reiser, an aide to Sen. 
Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), an opponent of U.S. military aid to Colombia.

While pointing out that no Americans have been killed by enemy fire on 
spraying missions, a U.S. Embassy official admitted they regularly come 
under attack.

"Sure the Americans get shot at," said the official, who spoke on condition 
of anonymity. "We had 125 bullet impacts on aircraft last year, and I'm 
sure there were Americans who were flying some of those aircraft."
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