One of the striking characteristics of the U.S. operation in Colombia and elsewhere in the Andes is hiring civilians for work traditionally carried out by U.S. military and intelligence services.

The scope of these operations are coming to light with incidents such as the April 20 shootdown of a small missionary plane by a Peruvian air force pilot operating on intelligence provided by a CIA civilian contractor. That attack killed an American missionary and her baby daughter. Two months later, Colombian authorities subpoenaed three U.S. contract pilots to testify about the 1998 bombing of civilians in the Colombian hamlet of Santo Domingo. The pilots were working for Florida-based AirScan International Inc., which at the time had a contract monitoring an oil pipeline, partly owned by Occidental Petroleum. Colombian pilots under investigation for the bombing have reportedly told a military court that the AirScan pilots passed on coordinates for the attack.

Delegating to civilians jobs like spraying coca leaf, patrolling the skies and providing intelligence services gives the U.S. government “plausible deniability’’ and flexibility. U.S. troops may be legally bound from entering combat in Latin America; civilians under U.S. contract may not have exactly the same restrictions. Nor, in the case of deaths in the field, do the dependents of contract employees require the same level of accountability as relatives of U.S. troops.

Today, much of the U.S. government’s support of Colombian military operations in the drug war is being outsourced. In 1999, Virginia-based Military Professional Resources Inc., a veritable Who’s Who of retired senior U.S. military officers, was given an 18-month, $4.3 million contract by the Pentagon to work with the Colombian military. MPRI sent 10 employees, led by a retired Army general, to Colombia, reportedly to evaluate issues such as budgeting procedures, leadership recruitment and training policies. MPRI employees were based inside the Colombian Armed Forces High Command in Bogotá, along with U.S. Defense Department personnel. The team, which did not include a single Spanish speaker, spent more than a year at the Colombian Defense Ministry, holding frequent meetings with staff officers and producing a thick binder that MPRI described as Colombia’s “keystone war fighting document.’’

MPRI “is a professional services company engaged in defense related contracting in the U.S. and international markets,” the company says on its Web site. Its mission statement asserts that MPRI, incorporated in 1988, “can perform any task or accomplish any mission requiring defense related expertise, military skills short of combat operations (or generalized skills acquired through military service), law enforcement expertise, and leadership development.” MPRI’s senior executives include a former U.S. Army chief of staff, retired Gen. Carl Vuono, who led Army operations during the invasion of Panama and the Gulf War; retired Gen. Crosbie Saint, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe from 1988 to 1992; and former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Ed Soyster. The company says it has more than 800 employees, and program offices in several U.S. states and foreign countries in Europe, South America, the Middle East and Asia. MPRI was bought by L-3 Communications in July 2000. L-3 Communications, which has nearly $2 billion in annual revenue but is a new name among defense contractors, was formed in April 1997 with the purchase of business units that were part of the Loral Corporation and Lockheed Martin merger in 1996.

MPRI’s recommendations to Colombia reportedly did not impress the Colombian Defense Ministry, and the contract was not renewed when it expired in March 2001. Colombian officers found meetings with the MPRI officials excruciating and its recommendations irrelevant or inappropriate. MPRI’s advice, according to news reports, included such recommendations as, “Apply appropriate military capability prudently,’’ “Accurate and timely delivery of mail enhances the quality of life for the men and women in the field,’’ and “Hit the enemy with a closed fist; do not poke at him with fingers of an open hand.’’

The scope of what MPRI was paid to do is unclear. Documents supplied by the Pentagon in response to a Freedom of Information request, seeking information on all MPRI contracts in Latin America, did not reveal the Colombian contract. Neither did a search of the government’s database of federal contracts. Soyster, MPRI’s vice president for international relations, refused to release a copy of the contract, as did the U.S. State and Defense departments, citing “proprietary” reasons.

Another private contractor in Colombia with an even larger profile is DynCorp, a Virginia-based company with over 20,000 employees in more than 550 locations and $1.8 billion in annual revenue that provides a range of services to the U.S. military. The U.S. State Department says there were just over 100 U.S. civilian contractors with DynCorp in Colombia as of late March 2001. An approximately equal number of third-country nationals and Colombian citizens are employed under the same contract. According to a Dec. 1, 1997, Jane’s Intelligence Review article, DynCorp had 11 Turbo Thrush T-65s aircraft in Colombia. As part of DynCorp’s contract with the State Department, the article said, five OV-10 Bronco airplanes would join in fumigating coca crops. At the time, DynCorp had just 15 to 30 Americans on contract in Colombia, according to Colombian police.

DynCorp employees fly fumigation planes and also provide search-and-rescue helicopter missions for the Colombia army. But, as with the MPRI contract in Colombia, the full extent of the U.S. government’s relationship with DynCorp is unclear. DynCorp refused to make public a copy of its contract, and the contract is not included in the federal database of U.S. government contracts. A year-old Freedom of Information request for DynCorp’s contract in Colombia remained unanswered. DynCorp and the State Department also refused to release the value of the contract. But CorpWatch, a Washington, D.C.-based corporate watchdog group, said in May that the five-year contract was worth $600 million.

Eagle Aviation Services and Technology, Inc., or EAST Inc., a company that played a role in airdropping arms to the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s, has also been active in Colombia. The company was reportedly created in 1983 to provide clandestine air transport services to the U.S. government by former U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel Richard Gadd, who worked closely during the Contra war with retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard V. Secord and Iranian-born Albert A. Hakim, an arms dealer. All three were later figures in the Iran-Contra scandal.

Federal databases show that EAST Inc., another Virginia-based defense contractor, did $13.8 million worth of work for the Defense Department in 1999. There is no mention of any contract with the State Department for crop fumigation in Colombia or any other Latin American country, but a DynCorp spokeswoman told The Associated Press that EAST Inc. is a subcontractor for the firm.

Records from Virginia’s State Corporation Commission show that Thomas A. Fabyanic, a retired Air Force colonel, is the president of EAST Inc., while Gadd is a director and CEO. A woman answering the phone at the Chantilly, Va., headquarters refused to answer questions about EAST Inc.’s involvement in Colombia. “We’re only a two-person office . . . we’re not interested in talking,” she said. EAST Inc. also has an office at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, where the State Department’s Bureau of Narcotics and International Law Enforcement air division trains crop-dusting pilots. A staffer at the air division told ICIJ that all inquiries about EAST Inc. had to be directed to the State Department’s National Anti-Narcotics Section in Washington, D.C. But Julie Schinnick of that section said she was unable to provide any details about EAST Inc. “I’ve no information on this company,” she said. “There’s no information here that we’ve made public.”

DynCorp and EAST Inc. have lost three pilots in Colombia, according a 1998 report in the Dallas Morning News. Wayne Harley Mulgrew and Gary Clyde Chestnut died when their plane crashed on July 27, 1998. A statement from the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá said that one of the pilots was training the other pilot when their plane went down and that there were “no indications of hostile activity during the accident.” Robert Martin died in January 1997 when he flew into a tree while he was on a crop-dusting mission. In addition, American employees of DynCorp were aboard helicopters that sprayed left-wing guerrillas with gunfire en route to the rescue of a Colombian crew downed by rebel fire in southern Colombia in February 2001.

Despite the reliance on private military contractors, there have been U.S. military deaths already in Colombia. In July 1999, five U.S. soldiers and two Colombian air force officers were killed when their reconnaissance plane, a de Havilland RC-7, hit a 9,000-foot peak while circling above a drug-producing area near Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador. The American soldiers, from Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and assigned to the 204th Military Intelligence Battalion, were the first American military personnel killed fighting the “drug war” in Colombia.