MIAMI—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 in Iraq.
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 Defense Minister 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 race.
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” began.
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 killed.
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.