SAN SALVADOR -- Juan Nerio, a 44-year-old mason's assistant, was sick of living in a mud hut on the side of a volcano. When he heard that an American company was offering six times his $200 monthly wage, he signed up. Six weeks later he found himself holding an AK-47 assault rifle and guarding a U.S. diplomatic complex in Iraq.
"No one could possibly earn so much in our country," said Nerio, who returned to El Salvador two weeks ago after a hernia forced him to reluctantly give up his $1,240-a-month job in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. "With that kind of money, I thought I could make my family's life a little easier."
Juan Nerio, showing the visa that allowed him to pass through Miami to Iraq, made $1,240 a month there.
(Kevin Sullivan -- The Washington Post)
Like Nerio, hundreds of Salvadoran men, and even a few women, are jumping at the chance to pursue what the news media here call the "Iraqi Dream." With the U.S. military unable to meet security needs in Iraq, private U.S. firms are now providing thousands of armed guards for diplomatic installations, oil wells, businesses and contractors there.
These firms are aggressively recruiting in El Salvador, a member of the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq, viewing it as an ideal source of guards. The country has low wages, high unemployment and a large pool of men with military or police experience -- many of whom were U.S.-trained -- from the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992.
But the heavy recruitment campaign -- through newspaper ads that offer salaries of as much as $3,600 a month -- has raised concerns among human rights officials, who say they believe the companies are exploiting the poor.
"This is the equivalent of a poverty draft," said Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America, a rights and policy group, speaking from his office in Washington. "The United States is unwilling to draft people, so they are recruiting people from poor countries to be cannon fodder for us. And if they are killed or injured, there will be no political consequences in the United States."
Beatrice Alamani de Carrillo, El Salvador's independent human rights ombudsman, said the security companies were "playing with the desperation of people who have no other options." She said that if any of the Salvadorans were kidnapped, "our country is not in a position to negotiate their release." She said she was especially concerned about under-trained women going to Iraq.
Many of the Salvadorans, including Nerio, have been recruited by Triple Canopy, a U.S. firm. According to Salvadoran news reports, a group of 30 men and six women hired by the company left for Iraq in late November. Many are former soldiers and special forces members; others have far less training. Nerio served in the Salvadoran army for two years more than 20 years ago.
Several recruits said in interviews that the jobs appealed to them because opportunities to emigrate to the United States had been severely cut back by tightened immigration rules and border controls. More than a million Salvadorans emigrated to the United States during or after the civil war.
Some also said they hoped their service in Iraq would earn them some gratitude from U.S. officials -- perhaps in the form of a work visa when they returned.
"I never thought I had a chance to go to the United States before," said Nerio, a grandfather of six, standing in his tiny home amid groves of mangoes and papayas. "Now they will see that I have experience in Iraq, so this might be my opportunity."
Officials from two U.S.-based security firms working in El Salvador said they never told recruits that service in Iraq would improve their chances of getting a visa. James W. Herman, the U.S. consul general in El Salvador, said service as a private security guard in Iraq was irrelevant to visa applications.
Joe Mayo, a spokesman for Triple Canopy, declined to say exactly how many people the company was sending to Iraq, but he said local news media estimates of about 175 recruits were about right. Mayo said the firm made clear that the jobs were dangerous. He said the company was providing a needed service to the U.S. government and private companies in Iraq.
"It's a free world and a free economy," said Mayo, who spoke from his company's headquarters in Lincolnshire, Ill. "We're not grabbing people and making them go."