BOGOTA, Colombia – Recruiters working for U.S. contractors are hiring former Colombian soldiers — and luring away active-duty ones — for security jobs in Iraq, according to a former army officer who met with the recruiters.
Colombia is a member of President Bush's "coalition of the willing" in Iraq, although it hasn't sent any troops. Its troops instead are battling a 40-year-old Marxist insurgency with U.S. aid on its own turf.
But now, instead of Colombian troops on the ground in Iraq, former Colombian soldiers are going as contractors — and earning up to $8,000 monthly.
Efforts have been made in several Latin American countries to recruit contractors for Iraq, but Colombia's conflict, pitting leftist rebels against right-wing paramilitaries, presents special complications.
The recruitment drive here comes as the outlawed paramilitary groups are demobilizing. Suddenly the fighters — many of them former Colombian army soldiers — are finding themselves out of work after waging a dirty war of massacres and assassinations against rebels and their suspected collaborators.
The recently retired Colombian army officer, a veteran of more than a decade of front-line combat in this South American nation, said the recruiters are carefully screening candidates to weed out ex-members of Colombia's paramilitary or rebel groups.
"You have to present your documents, your military records. Their idea is to find soldiers who have had no problems, no problems with human rights, or those who left the military in an irregular manner. It's a very careful selection," said the retired officer, who did not want to be identified for fear of endangering his own application to work as a contractor.
The recruiters, who are Colombian, are also encouraging qualified active-duty Colombian military personnel to retire and take the high-paying contracting jobs, the former officer said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.
The work: to protect oil pipelines and shipments of crude oil in a country where attacks by insurgents occur daily.
Sixteen former Colombian soldiers reportedly left for Iraq this month and another contingent is expected to leave in January.
Precisely which U.S. company or companies are hiring contractors in Colombia is unclear — and the desire for anonymity appears to be intentional.
"It's a really low-profile process, with a lot of confidentiality," the former officer said. "It's a sensitive thing ... to take military personnel out of a country like Colombia to work in another country."
A classified ad posted by "an American company" recently appeared in El Tiempo, Colombia's biggest newspaper, looking for people with military experience to work abroad. The unnamed company invited those who have had combat training and are no older than 37 to apply to a Bogota post office box.
The former army officer said he did not answer the newspaper ad but met with Colombian recruiters for an American company on two occasions after setting up an interview through former military colleagues. He would not identify the company. The pay ranges from $6,000 to $8,000 a month, he said.
The former officer said Colombians who served in the armed forces are ideal for security work in Iraq.
"We have a lot of experience at war," he said. "We know what it's like to be separated from our loved ones. ... War has taught me to love my country, my army, my family and to respect the enemy."
The former soldier was wounded in combat once and has battled members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the National Liberation Army and their paramilitary foes.
"I have seen my men die. I have seen guerrillas die. I have seen paramilitaries die," he said, but added that he preferred not to see combat once he is in Iraq.
"Ideally, I won't participate directly in the war."