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“Imagine that scene for a moment–you are an Ecuadorian farmer, and suddenly, without notice or warning, a large helicopter approaches, and the frightening noise of the chopper blades invades the quiet. The helicopter comes closer, and sprays a toxic poison on you, your children, your livestock and your food crops. You see your children get sick, your crops die.” These are the words of Bishop Jesse de Witt, president of the International Labor Rights Fund, in a letter to Paul V. Lombardi, CEO of DynCorp.
DeWitt’s organization has filed suit in US federal court on behalf of 10,000 Ecuadorian peasant farmers and Amazonian Indians charging Lombardi’s company with torture, infanticide and wrongful death for its role in the aerial spraying of highly toxic pesticides in the Amazonian jungle, along the border of Ecuador and Colombia. DynCorp’s chances of squirming out the suit were dealt a crushing blow in January when federal judge Richard Roberts denied the company’s motion to dismiss the case on grounds that their work in Colombia involved matters of national security.
DynCorp, the Reston, Virginia-based all-purpose defense contractor, is rapidly acquiring the kind of reputation for global villainy and malfeasance that used to be Bechtel’s calling card in the 60s and 70s. As we reported a few weeks ago, DynCorp has been hit with a RICO suit by a former employee alleging that the company fired him after he reported improprieties by company supervisors in Bosnia to the Army CID. According to the lawsuit, those improprieties included “coworkers and supervisors literally buying and selling women for their own personal enjoyment, and employees would brag about the various ages and talents of the individual slaves they had purchased.”
The very origins of the company are somewhat murky. President Harry Truman established DynCorp shortly after the end of World War II, supposedly to provide jobs for veterans and to market surplus military equipment. Certainly, DynCorp has never severed its umbilical relationship to the federal government. The billion-dollar company enjoys contracts with the CIA, Pentagon, State Department, EPA, IRS and DEA. It trains “police forces” in some of the US’s most brutal client states, including El Salvador, Panama, Haiti and Bosnia. Many of its top employees were recruited from the Pentagon, the CIA or and State Department. Indeed theories are rife across Latin America, in particular, that DynCorp has always functioned as a cut-out for Pentagon and CIA covert operations.
As Ken Silverstein reports in a profile of DynCorp in his excellent book Private Warriors, beginning in the early 1990s the company went into Latin America big time, often working under State Department contracts. Usually, the pretext was the drug war. But, as is so often the case, the real objective seemed to be a kind of privatized counter-insurgency operation against rebel groups. In Peru, for example, DynCorp was awarded a contract to provide maintenance services on a fleet of helicopters the State Department had loaned to Peruvian anti-drug forces.
But in 1992, one of those helicopters crashed in the jungle. On board were three DynCorp employees, including a man named Robert Hitchman. As Silverstein notes, “Hitchman was not in Peru to repair helicopters”. He was a covert-ops specialist, who had worked for the CIA’s Air America in the war on Laos and ran former CIA agent Edward Wilson’s Libyan operation for Muammar Qaddafy. The State Department said that the plane simply crashed due to “crew fatigue”. But Hitchman’s son told Silverstein that in fact the plane had been shot down by Shining Path guerillas and that then-Secretary of State James Baker asked him to keep quiet about the true nature of his father’s death. Hitchman said that far from fixing planes, his father was flying DEA agents and Peruvians on missions into guerrilla territory to destroy cocaine labs, bomb coca and coordinate the herbicide spraying program. He said his father was also training Peruvian pilots to fly combat missions.
The Peruvian operation turned out to be a kind of test run for DynCorp’s much bigger role in Colombia, where DynCorp employees not only fly fumigation planes, but train Colombian soldiers and police to do battle with the FARC and other insurgent groups.
“It’s very handy to have an outfit not part of the U.S. armed forces,” former US ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette, told the St. Petersburg Times, in December 2000. “Obviously, if somebody gets killed or whatever, you can say it’s not a member of the armed forces. Nobody wants to see American military men killed.”
Under Plan Colombia, DynCorp was awarded a $600 million contract to fumigate coca fields across Colombia. As of January of this year, the corporation’s crop dusters had sprayed more than 14 percent of the entire land area of Colombia.
The suit brought on behalf of the Ecuadorian farmers and tribes is based on an investigation by Acci?n Ecol?gica of pesticide drift from DynCorp’s Colombian spraying operations. The study found that DynCorp had been using a souped-up version of Monsanto’s Round-Up herbicide, called Round-Up Ultra. The effects of Round-Up Ultra are not that much different from Agent Orange, the defoliant used to such malign effect by the US in Southeast Asia. It is an indiscriminate killer, poisoning not only cocoa fields by vegetable crops, wildlife, forests, waterways and people.
“These fumigations are contaminating the Amazon, destroying the forest and killing our people,” says Emperatriz Cahuache, president of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon.
The primary toxin in Round-Up is glyphosate. Both the State Department and DynCorp have said that this is a relatively harmless concoction. But Monsanto itself warns that it should not be used near humans or water sources. But the toxic punch of the herbicides that DynCorp has been using has been amplified by the addition of surfactants. These additives increase the plant killing power of the fumigations and also its lethality to humans.
The Acci?n Ecol?gica study uncovered significant pesticide drift in the Sucumb?os region of Ecuador, a patchwork of Amazonian forests and villages populated by the Quechua subsistence farmers. It concluded that the spraying had caused “harm to the health and crops of 100 percent of the population within five kilometers of the border with Colombia.” More than 1,100 cases of illness have been documented, including the deaths of at least two children.
Again DynCorp and the State Department appear to have flouted Monsanto’s own guidelines. In order to minimize pesticide drift, Monsanto advises that aerial spraying not be done any higher than three meters from the tops of the tallest plants. But in Colombia, DynCorp’s planes routinely fly as high as 15 meters above the vegetation, greatly expanding the drift of the poison.
The lead lawyer for the Indians is Cristobal Bonifaz, an Amherst, Massachusetts attorney. Bonifaz used the Alien Tort Claims Act to sue Texaco in 1993 on behalf of another group of Ecuadorian tribes whose land had been despoiled by the oil company’s rampages in the rainforest. The DynCorp spraying has contaminated roughly the same area.
“It is a tragedy of major proportions that, in the same region where Texaco devastated the environment and caused untold suffering to the people of the rainforest, a new enemy now comes from the air, poisoning the people, killing their crops and destroying their land,” says Bonifaz.
In addition to the Alien Tort Claim, Bonifaz’s complaint against DynCorp also charges that the company violated the US Torture Victim Protection Act. It seeks an immediate halt to the spraying and millions in compensatory damages.
The lawsuit had the misfortune to be filed on September 11. While it has largely been ignored by the US press, it did not escape the attention of DynCorp’s CEO. Indeed, Lombardi seemed to take a personal interest in the case and took it upon himself to try to bully one of the plaintiffs, the International Human Rights Fund, into pulling out.
On October 25, 2001, Lombardi fired off a letter to each board member of the International Labor Rights Fund, an AFL-CIO affiliated group. Lombardi suggested that the Rights Fund was being used as a front for the Colombian drug cartels. “Considering the worldwide support for the elimination of harmful drugs from our cities and schools, it has been suggested by those who are aware of the lawsuit that the most logical supporters of such an action would be the drug cartels themselves. Notably, consistent with the drug cartel’s objectives, the complaint also seeks to permanently enjoin further spraying of coca and opium poppy,” Lombardi wrote.
Lombardi didn’t stop there. He went on to suggest the in the post-September 11 world the Rights Fund’s lawsuit was unpatriotic and might serve to undermine the war on terrorism. “Considering the major international issues with which we are all dealing as a consequence of September 11, none of us need to be sidetracked with frivolous litigation the aim of which is to fulfill a political agenda.”
But the Rights Fund didn’t back down. Indeed, its chairman, Bishop DeWitt, responded by telling Lombardi that if he didn’t stop these strong-arm tactics they would amend the complaint and “charge you personally with knowingly conducting aerial attacks on innocent people”.
Here’s hoping that one federal judge and 10,000 Ecuadoran Indians can achieve what the Democrats in congress have failed to do: halt the US’s chemical war on the Amazon.