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Poor Salvadorans Chase the 'Iraqi Dream'

Between 3,000 and 6,000 non-Iraqi security guards are currently working in Iraq, according to Doug Brooks of the International Peace Operations Association in Washington, which monitors the private security industry. He said about one-third are former special operations soldiers, mainly from the United States and Britain. The rest are men and women with some military experience recruited from about a dozen countries, especially El Salvador, Fiji, Nepal, Chile and India.

Brooks said the U.S. and British guards make as much as $700 a day for jobs requiring the highest skills, such as protecting high-profile diplomats and business executives. The others make an average of about $1,200 a month, generally for standing guard at military or civilian sites.

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)

Over the past few weeks, lines of applicants have formed every morning outside George's, a karaoke restaurant next to a fancy shopping mall in San Salvador. They were responding to newspaper ads placed by George Nayor, the restaurant owner, who described himself as a U.S. citizen and the local representative of a Washington-based security company.

Nayor's ads do not name the firm. He also declined to identify it or other company officials, saying they did not want publicity. Despite the lack of details, he said, his cell phone has been ringing so frequently with queries that he barely has had time to brush his teeth.

"This is the future of global security," said Nayor, who has accepted applications from 300 Salvadorans and hopes to sign up at least 1,000 by May. He said the first 12 to 24 would go to Iraq this month, and that his company would soon begin recruiting in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Chile and other Latin American countries where many people have military experience.

One recent morning, the first group of applicants to arrive at George's included two members of the Salvadoran army's special forces, who spent seven months in Iraq earlier this year as part of a 380-member military unit in the U.S.-led coalition.

"You could sweat your whole life and never make this much money," said Mario Antonio Sanchez, 32, a special forces sergeant who said he earned $280 a month. Sanchez said that if he was accepted, he would quit the army and sign a six-month contract for at least $2,400 a month. "In our country everybody is just trying to survive. We do this because we need to," he said.

Domingo Hector Navarro Lopez, 39, spent 13 years in the Salvadoran military. He said he was tired of trying to get by on his $158-a-month salary as a security guard. After his wartime experience in his own country, he said, he was not frightened by all the violence in Iraq.

"I thank God for this opportunity to go to Iraq," he said, waiting for his interview with Nayor.

Nerio already speaks nostalgically about Iraq. Gazing at a snapshot of himself with fellow Salvadoran guards on the banks of the Euphrates River, he said he wished he were still there.

Back home in his mud-brick hut on the slopes of the San Salvador volcano, with no running water and a single electrical wire keeping a couple of light bulbs burning, he said he had no idea how he would pay for his hernia operation. He would like to go to the United States to work, but said he fears that his best shot at a better life may have been in Iraq.

"That was my only chance," he said.

Special correspondent Michelle Garcia in New York City contributed to this report.

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