For one year, Mario Urquia guarded the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, protecting American service members and diplomats in one of the most dangerous places in the world. He is just one of thousands of individuals from impoverished nations recruited to help fight a war for the richest country in the world. A special forces soldier in the Honduran Army with nearly 30 years experience, Urquia said he was contacted in the summer of 2005 by a senior officer, who asked him if he would go to Iraq on behalf of the U.S. State Department.
Against salaries of $150,000 a year and more being paid to American contractors, the $15,600 annual salary promised to Urquia in his contract might seem strikingly inequitable. But in the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere the wage seemed a king's ransom to the lanky, stone-faced mechanic, army reservist and father of five children.
The Congressional Research Service has estimated there are 182,000 individuals working under U.S. contracts and subcontracts in Iraq. And a federal Government Accountability Office report last year estimated that more than 48,000 of those individuals are armed. That makes America's private-for-profit security force - U.S. leaders resist the term "mercenary" - the second largest armed group in the dwindling coalition that currently occupies Iraq, well ahead of U.S. ally Great Britain.
It's unclear how many armed contractors come from third-world countries, but federal reports indicate less than a fifth are Americans. he rest are recruited from dozens of other nations, including many places like Honduras, that are not a part of the Bush Administration's so-called "coalition of the willing." And like Honduras, many of the nations from which private security contractors are drawn are steeped in abject poverty. In these places, critics say, billion-dollar American companies can find plenty of people willing to risk their lives for wages as low as $31 a day - and who don't have a voice when things go wrong.
[Excerpt of article by Roxana Orellana, Salt Lake Tribune]