Há muitos anos que o negócio da segurança privada está em expansão. Não só aquela a que estamos habituados, mas, sobretudo, aquela que é necessária em países de risco: estados falhados, cenários de guerra, locais onde os governos não conseguem manter a ordem. Assim de repente, Afeganistão, Iraque, Sudão, República Centro Africana, Nigéria, África do Sul, Paquistão, Venezuela… Houve quem se apercebesse disso. E começasse a recrutar antigos militares para formar uma empresa que se tornou o terceiro maior empregador privado do mundo com uma força três vezes maior do que o exército britânico. Ainda assim, poucos a conhecem. Chama-se G4S e está em todo o lado. A sua história foi contada na revista Vanity Fair.
Wherever governments can’t—or won’t—maintain order, from oil fields in Africa to airports in Britain and nuclear facilities in America, the London-based “global security” behemoth G4S has been filling the void. It is the world’s third-largest private-sector employer and commands a force three times the size of the British military. On-site in South Sudan with G4S ordnance-disposal teams, William Langewiesche learns just how dirty the job can get, and how perilous the company’s control.
By William Langewiesche
I. Death on the Nile
Late last fall, at the start of the dry season in the new country called South Sudan, a soldier of fortune named Pierre Booyse led a de-mining team westward from the capital city, Juba, intending to spend weeks unarmed in the remote and dangerous bush. Booyse, 49, is an easygoing Afrikaner and ordnance expert who was once the youngest colonel in the South African Army. He has a full gray beard that makes him look quite unlike a military man. After leaving the army he opened a bedding store in Cape Town, where he became the leading Sealy Posturepedic dealer, then opened a sports bar too, before selling both businesses in order to salvage his marriage and provide a better environment for his young daughter. The daughter flourished, the marriage did not. Booyse returned to the work he knew best, and took the first of his private military jobs, traveling to post-Qaddafi Libya to spend six months surveying the munitions depots there, particularly for surface-to-air missiles. It was dangerous work in a chaotic place, as was the next contract, which took him into the conflict zones of eastern Congo. From there he came here to South Sudan to do minefield mapping and battlefield-ordnance disposal for G4S, a far-flung security company engaged by the local United Nations mission to handle these tasks.
G4S is based near London and is traded on the stock exchange there. Though it remains generally unknown to the public, it has operations in 120 countries and more than 620,000 employees. In recent years it has become the third-largest private employer in the world, after Walmart and the Taiwanese manufacturing conglomerate Foxconn. The fact that such a huge private entity is a security company is a symptom of our times. Most G4S employees are lowly guards, but a growing number are military specialists dispatched by the company into what are delicately known as “complex environments” to take on jobs that national armies lack the skill or the will to do. Booyse, for one, did not dwell on the larger meaning. For him, the company amounted to a few expatriates in the Juba headquarters compound, a six-month contract at $10,000 a month, and some tangible fieldwork to be done. He felt he was getting too old to be living in tents and mucking around in the dirt, but he liked G4S and believed, however wearily, in the job. As he set out for the west, his team consisted of seven men—four de-miners, a driver, a community-liaison officer, and a medic. The medic was a Zimbabwean. All the others were soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the S.P.L.A., now seconded to G4S, which paid them well by local standards—about $250 a month. At their disposal they had two old Land Cruisers, one of them configured as an ambulance with a stretcher in the back.
Four miles out of town, Booyse’s car broke down, and Booyse radioed for help. Juba is a dirt grid on the Nile, a mega-village of several hundred thousand. It lacks municipal water, sewers, and electric power. The company’s compound stands near the center. The radioman there once showed up in a pink suit and tie. He informed Booyse that a mechanic would be dispatched to solve the problem. The arrival time was another matter, and Booyse did not ask. For hours he waited with his team beside the road. Then suddenly the radioman called again—this time about a deadly explosion in a local street market said to be littered with dangerous munitions. The United Nations asked G4S to intervene fast. Booyse commandeered the ambulance and rushed back to town.
The market is called Souk Sita. It occupies a junction of footpaths and dirt tracks in a neighborhood known as Khor William—a garbage-strewn district of shacks and mud huts inhabited largely by impoverished soldiers and their families, and centered on decrepit military barracks belonging to the S.P.L.A. Some of the children there—maybe homeless, and certainly wild—spend their days collecting scrap metal to sell to Ugandan dealers, who occasionally show up in a truck to buy the material for penny-on-the-dollar cash, or for ganja, a potent form of marijuana, apparently laced with chemicals. Routinely the scavenged metal includes live ordnance. That morning the Ugandan traders had arrived as usual, and—in the likeliest scenario—a boy perhaps 10 years old had accidentally detonated a medium-size device while trying to dismantle it. The explosion had killed him and three other boys of about the same age, along with one of the Ugandan adults.
Booyse arrived at Souk Sita at 3:30 P.M., five hours after the explosion. By then the bodies had been taken to the morgue, and all that remained of the carnage was a small crater and some bloody shoes. Booyse’s immediate problem was to remove the visible ordnance before dark, only three hours away, because the place was obviously dangerous and could not be cordoned off. Treading softly among the munitions, he counted three 82-millimeter mortar rounds, two 62-millimeter mortar rounds, seven 107-millimeter rocket warheads, one complete 107-millimeter rocket (fuzed and fired and therefore rigged to blow), seven 37-millimeter anti-tank high-explosive incendiary projectiles, a hand grenade with a sheared-off fuze, and a heavily dented rocket-propelled grenade. He instructed his crew to take a thin-skinned metal box from the ambulance and fill it initially with a few inches of sand to create a stabilizing bed for the ordnance. Over the next few hours he gently laid the items into the box, cradling the pieces and snuggling them into periodic supplements of sand. He drove off with the load at dusk, taking care not to jostle the box on Juba’s atrocious streets, and deposited the lot in a purpose-built bunker at a G4S logistics base on the north side of town.
In the morning he returned with his team and continued with the surface cleaning, gathering scrap metal into piles, and finding plenty of small-arms ammunition. Two days later, when I first met him, he was still at it—a bearded figure in sunglasses and bandanna working with one of his de-miners in intense heat while the rest of the crew went door-to-door to ask about other munitions and to try to establish the identities of the victims. Booyse invited me into the work area, saying, “It’s probably safe—just please don’t bang your feet on the ground.” We stood by the crater. He guessed it had been made by a medium-size mortar. His de-miner swept a patch of ground with a detector that squealed loudly. Booyse raked the patch and uncovered a spoon, a nut, a nail, a twisted wire bundle, and several AK-47 rounds. Leaning on the rake and sweating, he said, “Ach,you just get more and more the more you go down.” But the chance of finding anything large was small. The door-to-door search was hardly better. That morning the team had found five pieces of unexploded ordnance, but two had disappeared before they could be collected. Most of the residents questioned had professed ignorance, and a few had demanded cash. With more fatigue than humor Booyse said, “Because, you know, the African five-point plan is ‘What’s in it for me?’ ”
Four days after the accident, the names of the dead remained unknown, and the South Sudanese government could not be roused to care. This was now high on the list of concerns, because for the U.N. no job is finished until the paperwork is complete. With Booyse busy securing the market, G4S managers decided that someone should go to the morgue to see what could be learned directly. For this they enlisted the company’s indispensable man, a typically tall Dinka named Maketh Chol, 34, who first went to war in 1987 at the age of 9, and now—in street clothes, as a serving S.P.L.A. lieutenant—works as the chief liaison officer and fixer for G4S. The Dinka constitute the dominant tribe of South Sudan, whose men are born to rule and taught to disdain menial labor, but Chol is not just one of them—he is also a member of LinkedIn. On his page he lists G4S as a recreational company, but that is merely a mistake. Feel free to contact him directly if you have a good commercial idea. Beyond his duties at the headquarters compound he is an energetic entrepreneur. Among his ventures already, he owns a sewage-trucking company that empties the septic tanks of certain establishments in town and disposes of the waste somewhere somehow. And he would be a good partner in other affairs. He speaks at least four languages. He is reliable. He has a wife and three young children whom he supports in Kenya because the schools are better there. He spent 20 years in a particularly brutal liberation war—two million dead among huge populations uprooted—but he seems not to know that he should be traumatized.
He invited me to accompany him to the morgue. It occupies a small building behind the so-called Juba Teaching Hospital, a facility overwhelmed by needs. We parked our Land Cruiser a short walk away and approached a small group of people waiting somberly on a concrete veranda. An old ambulance waited beside them with its rear doors open, exposing an empty interior and a battered steel floor. Chol quietly got the story. When word of the explosion spread through Juba, it caused no immediate concern, because so many children are wayward now, and in recent memory so many went to war. But after four days without sight of two young cousins, a family in Khor William began to fear the worst and sent two emissaries—an uncle and aunt—on a trip to the morgue. These people were Nuer, traditional adversaries of the Dinka, who had been nominally integrated into the government—some of them as members of the presidential guard—but were increasingly marginalized. The aunt was 20, the uncle somewhat older. At the morgue, the uncle left the aunt outside and went inside alone.
There he found—his nephews lying dead in front of him. He recognized the other boy too. He was a kid from the neighborhood, but the uncle did not know his name. The shredded remains of the fourth boy—the one who apparently triggered the explosion—had been taken away, as had the Ugandan man. The uncle arranged for transport of the remaining three back to the neighborhood for immediate burial. The morgue lacked power and refrigeration, so decomposition had set in fast, and the stench was strong. Chol collected names from the staff. The dead Ugandan was Malau Daniel, maybe 24 years old. The boy who had been shredded and taken away was James Fari Lado, about 10, a Mandari from the cattle country north of town. The two cousins were Garmai Biliu Ngev and Lim Sil Koh, both 13 and from Khor William. The name of the last boy, their friend and neighbor, remained unknown.
A door opened. Workers in surgical masks carried out the dead boys on metal stretchers, and flopped them into the back of the waiting ambulance. The corpses were naked, hunger-thin, and younger-looking than 13. Their blood had smeared the stretchers and dribbled red trails across the ground. They lay loosely intertwined with their mouths stretched open in ghastly screams, their teeth contrasting sharply with the color of their skin. The driver shut the ambulance doors and prepared to leave. The aunt began to sob, her shoulders heaving. The uncle stood by helplessly, holding his hand over his heart. Chol offered them a ride, assisted the aunt into the front seat, and followed the ambulance as it set out through the city traffic. The uncle and I sat in the back on benches along the side. In Khor William, out beyond the S.P.L.A. barracks, the ambulance climbed a hillock and parked in the shade of a tree for the burial; we climbed another hillock to the Nuer encampment. As we arrived at the huts the aunt began to wail. A crowd of women rushed from their households, shrieking and crying around the mothers, who collapsed to the ground.
It was a rough scene. Chol was still missing the name of the cousins’ dead friend. He asked women standing near the grieving crowd. They indicated a cluster of huts a short distance away and said the men there might know. Leaving our vehicle behind, Chol and I walked to the huts, where the men came out to meet us. These were the Nuer presidential guards. Only a few were in uniform, and several were drunk. They were wary of Chol, this Dinka who towered over them asking questions that might have been traps. Finally one of them volunteered that the dead friend was known only as Gafur, and that his mother had been missing for days. That was enough for Chol, and we started back toward the vehicle. The men kept pace with us and the group grew larger. The mood turned ugly, subtly at first, then with accusations that we had allowed the boys to die. Chol calmly kept explaining his role, even as we got into the Land Cruiser and, after several tries, got the engine to start. The men had surrounded the car, but eventually they parted, and we rolled away slowly, down past the S.P.L.A. barracks and toward the center of town.
On a main street we passed a convoy of ambulances moving in the opposite direction. They were carrying victims from villages attacked by insurgents the night before. The insurgents were from a despised group called the Murle, and led by a former political candidate named David Yau Yau, who was angry because he had lost a rigged election. The men under Yau Yau’s command were perhaps less interested in politics than in the chance to capture women, children, and cattle. Merely two years after official independence, South Sudan was fracturing as a country, but the names of the Souk Sita victims could be inserted into the U.N. forms, and for G4S the day had been a success.
II. The Rules
Maps that show the world to be wholly divided among sovereign countries, each with meaningful boundaries and a central government, reflect an organizational model that has never been practical in many places and now seems increasingly obsolete. Globalization, communication, fast transportation, and the easy availability of destructive technologies have something to do with this, as does the fact that all systems eventually tire, and the future cannot be thought up in classrooms. For whatever reason, the world everywhere is getting harder to manage, and governments are increasingly unable to intervene.
Into the void left by governments’ retreat, private-security companies have naturally arrived. The size of the industry is impossible to know, given difficulties with definitions and the thousands of small companies entering the business, but in the United States alone security guards may now number two million, a force larger than all the police forces combined, and during the war in Iraq private military contractors sometimes outnumbered U.S. troops, as they do in Afghanistan today. Globally the private-security market is believed to exceed $200 billion annually, with higher numbers expected in the coming years. A conservative guess is that the industry currently employs about 15 million people. Critics worry about the divisive effects of an industry that isolates the rich from the consequences of greed and at the extreme allows certain multi-national companies, particularly in oil and mining, to run roughshod over the poor. People also object in principle to the industry’s for-profit intent, which does lead to abuses and seems to be an unworthy motivation when compared with the lofty goals ascribed to government. Nonetheless history has amply shown that national governments and aspirants to national power routinely commit abuses far greater than private security could. Furthermore, for the purpose of understanding the industry, the important point is this: the growth of private security is determinedly apolitical. These companies provide a service that people of whatever bent can buy.
G4S stands out primarily because of its size. To place it in perspective, the company fields a force three times larger than the British military (albeit mostly unarmed), and it generates revenues of $12 billion annually. That said, the head offices in England are impressively small. They occupy a boxy building in Crawley, a bland service town near Gatwick Airport, as well as the fifth floor of a modern multi-tenant building in central London, close to Victoria Station. Both locations are brightly lit and tightly controlled, with escorts required beyond the reception areas, apparently because of regular protests that some British activists manage to fit into their busy protest schedules. Currently the main point of contention seems to be the company’s role in Israel, where G4S supplies surveillance equipment to checkpoints and prisons, and in Palestine, where it provides security to supermarkets in the Jewish settlements.
The protesters could not have picked a more difficult target for their concerns. Because it is a public company, G4S is subject to shareholder pressure, but as investors must know, its very reason for being is to stand firm in the face of trouble. Furthermore, this has always been so. The enterprise dates back more than a century, to 1901, when a cloth merchant in Denmark founded a 20-man guard company called Copenhagen-Frederiksberg Nightwatch. Shortly thereafter the company was acquired by its own accountant, a man named Julius Philip-Sörensen, who understood the first of three simple rules that continue to shape the industry today. Rule 1 is that in a business built of low-value-added units (labor consisting of single watchman-nights) it is essential to expand the volume, and this is best done by absorbing existing companies, which come with workers and customers in place.
Subsequent to the founding of the original night-watch company, the story of acquisitions, spin-offs, and name changes is complex but can be reduced to a few essentials. Denmark remained neutral during World War I and prospered by selling to both sides. For Philip-Sörensen, business was good, and it remained so after the war. Two decades later, the fate of the company during the Nazi occupation of Denmark is not clear—the record is blank here. Julius Philip-Sörensen died a wealthy man, in 1956, just as the family moved into the British market by buying up small security ventures there. In 1968 it merged four of the British concerns into an amalgam called Group 4, under an adroit third-generation scion named Jörgen Philip-Sörensen. By following Rule 1 about expansion, Group 4 grew large in a short time, enveloping armored-car and cash-management services, and in the 1980s moving into markets in South Asia and the Americas, among other places. In the early 1990s, while pioneering the private-prison business and prisoner-escort services in Britain, the company suffered some damage to its reputation after eight detainees escaped during the first few weeks of the contract and others rioted in an immigration detention center under the company’s control. For a while, Group 4 was mocked in the press. Years later, having tightened the corporate reins, Jörgen Philip-Sörensen pointed out that, however poorly Group 4 had performed, the British government generally performs worse—with more escapes and riots, and at greater expense. This leads to Rule 2 of the industry: Security is an inherently messy business, but a company need only to perform better than the government to make the case for its offerings.
By 2002, after another merger and now known as Group 4 Falck, the company had 140,000 employees and activities in more than 50 countries, with annual revenues of $2.5 billion. It continued to acquire businesses, such as the American private-prison-and-security company Wackenhut. Then, in July 2004, came the big one—a merger with a British giant named Securicor, which itself had started as a night-watch service in 1935. The resulting conglomerate, called Group 4 Securicor, leapt to the front of the industry, with 340,000 employees working in 108 countries, generating $7.3 billion in annual revenues. The youthful boss of Securicor, Nicholas Buckles, was brought in as the chief executive officer of the new concern. Buckles was 44 at the time—a charismatic man who came from a modest background and drove a Volkswagen bug to work. He had joined Securicor as a project accountant 20 years before and through force of personality had propelled himself to the top. In 2006, after two years of consolidation, and now firmly at the helm, he completed the rebranding of the company as G4S, and accelerated its expansion with no limits in sight: 400,000, 500,000—why not a million employees? Buckles wanted G4S to become the largest private employer in history.
Time would show that he was perhaps overconfident, but the share prices responded to his ambition, making G4S a darling of the London exchange. The company kept growing. Primarily it provided guards—to businesses, government buildings, college campuses, hospitals, gated communities, condominiums, rock concerts, sporting events, factories, mines, oil fields and refineries, airports, shipping ports, nuclear power plants, and nuclear-weapons facilities. But it also provided back-office police support, roving patrols, fast-response squads, emergency medical services, disaster-relief services, intruder- and fire-alarm installation and monitoring, electronic-access control systems (including at the Pentagon), security-software integration, airport-security screening, bus- and train-system security (including fare-evasion monitoring), engineering and construction management, facilities management, prison management (from maximum-security through immigrant and juvenile detention), courtroom prisoner escort, prisoner transport, immigrant repatriation, and the electronic tagging and monitoring of people under house arrest and restraining orders. In addition, it had a global cash-management arm that serviced banks, stores, and automatic-teller machines, provided armored cars and secure buildings where the bills could be held and sorted, and offered international transport security for jewelry as well as cash.
All this, however, was not enough for Buckles. In his drive for expansion he strove to go not just wide but deep. He understood that G4S is in the business of handling risk, and that its low-value-added problem (those single watchman-nights) was due to the fact that it operated primarily in countries that were already tame. It was obvious that a higher-value product could be sold in places where the risks were greater—in Africa, for example, or in the war-torn countries of Southwest Asia and the Middle East. This can be summarized as Rule 3 for the industry: A direct correlation exists between levels of risk and profit. By now the conflict in Afghanistan had been simmering for years, the one in Iraq was nearing its peak, and contractors were reaping fortunes from British and American funds. In 2008, Buckles plunged in with the $85 million purchase of a British enterprise called ArmorGroup, which had started as a high-end personal-security company and had gone early into Baghdad, where it had grown into a full-range armed force, pursuing not just its traditional functions but dangerous activities including convoy escort and base defense. Such companies have little to do with the cartoon image of mercenaries—bands of killer elites raising havoc and toppling regimes—but they have been heavily engaged in combat nonetheless. By the time of the G4S acquisition, 30 ArmorGroup employees had been killed in Iraq.
ArmorGroup had a de-mining and ordnance-disposal division. One of its specialists was a former British Army captain named Damian Walker, who is now a director of business development at G4S in London. Walker, 41, is a compact, good-looking man who never married, because his frequent deployments interrupted every love affair he ever had. He graduated from the University of Manchester with a degree in civil engineering, worked for a period at a customer-service center for Barclaycard, grew bored, joined the British Army, spent two years in training as a Royal Engineer, went into Kosovo with NATO, and spent the first few weeks primarily dealing with dead bodies on the chance—sometimes the case in Northern Ireland—that they were booby-trapped. Over the following years Walker served in Bosnia and Afghanistan between training stints (underwater de-mining, surveillance) back in Britain. Along the way he was awarded the Queen’s Gallantry Medal for a series of actions, including using a Leatherman multi-tool to defuse an unexploded American bomb in a chemical factory in Kosovo, and, at significant risk to himself, neutralizing a German bomb from World War II that was discovered in a suburban backyard in Reading, west of London. He left the army in 2003, went to Australia for a year to work for a friend selling bomb-squad gear and training, and in January 2005 joined ArmorGroup, which sent him to Iraq to manage a program that was destroying seized munitions. The war was heating up then, and Baghdad was unsafe. Walker stayed for 16 months, living in the company’s fortified compound near the Green Zone but venturing out regularly, by preference in discreet soft-skinned cars. Passersby sometimes sprayed gunfire at the compound walls, and one morning an Iraqi man was found dead outside the gate with a knife stuck in him and a note warning those on the inside that they would be next. Walker shrugged it off as a bluff. Like the other ArmorGroup contractors, he carried three weapons: a pistol, an MP5 carbine, and an AK-47. Mostly this guaranteed that he would die rather than be taken prisoner.
In 2005 a peace agreement in Sudan brought the long civil war to an end, and the North began to withdraw its forces, ceding de facto independence to a new country, South Sudan. In 2006 the United Nations awarded a contract to ArmorGroup to go after unexploded ordnance there and start mapping and clearing the minefields. Walker joined another of the company’s top hands to build the Juba operation from scratch.
It was a tough job, living in tents, surrounded by raids and fighting, saddled with former rebel fighters, many of whom seemed to have been picked by the S.P.L.A. for their very undesirability and now had to be sorted out, trained to some sort of standard, and put into the field fast—all this under expatriate contractors, most of whom would have gone elsewhere if they could have. The initial camp stood east of the Nile a short drive outside of town. Conditions were primitive, with meals mostly of beans and rice. Baghdad seemed luxurious by comparison. One morning after a night of gunfire they discovered that a village just up the road had been sacked and burned. The S.P.L.A. claimed implausibly that the attackers were Ugandans from the Lord’s Resistance Army—a standard explanation for South Sudanese disunity. The following night another nearby village was destroyed. Walker decided to relocate. The provisional government obliged by designating ArmorGroup’s employees as internally displaced persons (I.D.P.’s), and qualified them to pitch their tents in a safer area, on a narrow patch of ground sandwiched between a leper colony and a field of bounding mines. For several months it became the home of ArmorGroup in South Sudan, until the company was able to occupy a dilapidated house in town. This was the operation that G4S absorbed in 2008, when Buckles decided to go deep by going to war. Walker had left ArmorGroup by then to consider a safer line of work, but he was persuaded to return, and he headed G4S in South Sudan for the next three years, deploying de-mining machines for the first time, supervising the move into the current headquarters compound, finding ways to shed the worst of the S.P.L.A. soldiers, overseeing the effectiveness of as many as 19 teams in the field, demolishing ordnance, and releasing previously declared hazardous land as effectively de-mined.