Jun 16

From an investigative piece by Mark Bowden, author of the 2002 bestseller Killing Pablo, on the website of The Atlantic:

Both planes were initially operated under an $8.6 million Pentagon contract by California Microwave Systems of Maryland, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. And they were being flown despite repeated warnings by veteran pilots that the mission was running untenable risks.

Those pilots, Paul Hooper and Doug Cockes, predicted that the single-engine Caravan would be unsafe for high-tempo missions over the Andes Mountains. After program managers on site in Bogotá dismissed their warnings, the pilots wrote letters in the fall of 2002 detailing their concerns to company officials, including Kent Kresa, then the chairman and CEO of Northrop Grumman. For their pains they were demoted, reprimanded, threatened with lawsuits, and, in their words, “pushed out” of the program shortly before their predictions came tragically true. They consider themselves fortunate. “The only reason those three Americans were captive on the ground for five years, and the reason why five of their colleagues are now dead, is the greed and incompetence of California Microwave and Northrop Grumman,” Hooper told me.

Bowden alleges that a U.S. company contracted to perform counter-drug missions in Colombia – California Microwave Systems of Maryland, a division of Northrop Grumman, knowingly used planes that weren’t fit for the job.

One crashed in February 2003, and 3 of the American contractors on board were held hostage by the FARC guerrillas until July 2008. Another crashed the next month while on a search-and-rescue mission looking for the hostages, killing everyone aboard.

Bowden notes that Kent Kresa, the chairman of the company at the time, who ignored the pilots’ letters, is now the interim chairman of General Motors.

Feb 01

  • Wílber Varela, alias “Jabón” (”Soap”), appears to have been killed Wednesday by hitmen in the western Venezuelan town of Mérida. Varela was one of the last remaining leaders of the North Valle cartel, Colombia’s largest of the past few years. After the September capture of his arch-rival Diego Montoya, Varela was the most notorious of Colombia’s still-at-large drug lords.

His feared personal army, the Rastrojos, exerts much influence throughout Colombia’s Pacific Coast, and he was believed to be making inroads in and around Medellín. Along with other at-large narco-paramilitary figures like Vicente Castaño and the Mejía Múnera brothers, Varela was believed to have been one of the main sponsors of re-armed “emerging” paramilitary groups in Colombia. While not a victory for Colombian or Venezuelan law enforcement, the death of “Jabón” is likely to cause a significant shake-up in Colombia’s narco-underworld.

  • Colombian media outlets published the disturbing testimony of a sergeant whose unit killed civilians and presented them as guerrillas killed in combat, in order to reap rewards. Sergeant Alexánder Rodríguez of the 15th Mobile Brigade told Semana, “at the beginning of November Sergeant Ordóñes went around collecting 20,000 pesos ($10) per soldier, to pay for the pistol that he had planted on the person they had killed … Ordónez said to them: ‘if you want to give the money, good, if not, let’s leave it like that, but remember that it means five days off [for every guerrilla killed]…’” Sgt. Rodríguez’s order from the captain who commanded him, he told Caracol, “was to clean up. What each unit was doing was supposedly cleaning the town of people who were guerrilla collaborators.”

Three days after testifying to authorities, Semana reports, “the whistleblower was punished: a committee of generals headed by the Army commander, Mario Montoya, decided to retire him from active service; meanwhile Col. Santiago Herrera, who commanded the Brigade where the acts occurred [in Catatumbo, in northeastern Colombia], was transferred to Bogotá to take up duties as Montoya’s own official aide.”

  • Monday’s Los Angeles Times tells the story of one of thousands of Latin American nationals recruited by U.S. firms to serve as private security guards in Iraq. Peruvian citizen Gregorio Calixto was wounded in Iraq while employed by a U.S. contractor called Triple Canopy. “He lives on $492 in monthly disability checks provided through the Triple Canopy insurance. But he says he doesn’t know how long that’s going to last. Nor does he consider it sufficient: The injury has severely limited his prospects in a country where the maimed can often be found begging in the streets. He also says he is owed two months’ back pay.”
  • On the Colombia free-trade front, President Bush mentioned the accord in his SOTU speech Monday, warning Congressional Democrats that failing to ratify the agreement would “embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere.” Key Democratic leaders made clear that they think the FTA has to wait. House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) said passage of the FTA is “doubtful,” while Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana), who was a bit more enthusiastic about the FTA last year, said Wednesday that the accord should not be considered until the administration first expands a program that helps U.S. workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, put out an eight-page letter to U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab recommending delay of FTA approval until a series of conditions are met.
  • The 2009 foreign aid budget request will be issued next week. Watch this space on the State Department website to find out whether or not Latin America will be cut back once again – and whether the Bush administration will seek to undo the changes Congress made to this year’s Colombia aid package.

Jun 12

The State and Defense Departments have issued their annual report to Congress on private U.S. contractors’ activities in Colombia. (It is available here as a 10-megabyte PDF file.) The report, covering 2006, is a very important document – and has often been difficult to obtain. The last edition we had seen covered 2002.

Here are some highlights:

  • The State and Defense Departments spent $309.6 million on private contractors carrying out military and police assistance programs in Colombia last year. That is roughly half of the $632 million in military and police aid that we estimate Colombia received in 2006.
  • Funding for contractors in Colombia has doubled in four years. In 2002, aid through contractors totaled just over $150 million, about three-eighths of the $400 million in military and police aid Colombia received that year.
  • One company – Dyncorp, which carries out the aerial herbicide fumigation program – accounted for fully one-quarter of all U.S. military and police aid to Colombia last year, with $164.3 million. That is roughly double the $85.6 million that DynCorp was reported to be earning in 2002.

Here is a summary table of the contractors listed in the report. Read the report for more information on each, including a description of contract activities, assessments of the risk to contractors’ safety, and the plan – if any – to turn over responsibilities to Colombian forces.

Contractor 2006 Amount Contracting Agency
DynCorp International $164,260,877 State Department
Lockheed-Martin (Includes Lockheed Martin Integrated Systems – OPTEC / Lockheed Martin Technology Services / Lockheed Martin Mission Support) $79,564,221 State Department, Defense Department
ARINC $29,187,000 State Department, Defense Department
King Aerospace $9,036,310 Defense Department
ITT $6,533,502 Defense Department
Oakley Networks $5,000,000 State Department
MANTECH $4,704,955 Defense Department
Northrop Grumman Information Technology International / Northrop Grumman Mission Systems $3,330,863 Defense Department
Telford Aviation $2,783,000 Defense Department
PAE Government Services $2,540,000 Defense Department
OMNITEMPUS $1,000,000 Defense Department
CACI $555,230 Defense Department
Tate Incorporated $420,603 Defense Department
Construction, Consulting and Engineering (CCE) $300,000 Defense Department
Chenega Federal Systems $200,000 Defense Department
U.S. Naval Mission Bogotá Riverine Plans Officer $200,000 Defense Department
Total $309,616,561