The Chaos Company – G4S
I. Death on the Nile
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nonetheless the streets outside the G4S compound are still today hardly more than elongated mud wallows, sculpted by struggling vehicles during the rains, then baked and hardened by the equatorial sun. The compound itself has high cinder-block walls topped by concertina wire; it is narrow and a minute’s walk long. G4S leases the property from a small Lutheran church that abuts it beyond a bamboo fence at its farthest extent. The compound has a dirt parking yard large enough to accommodate a dozen Land Cruisers in a crunch. A sign at the gate imposes a 10-mile-an-hour speed limit, though the space allows for barely half of that. The limit is a London rule, a response to a corporate quest for uniformity. Similarly, health-and-safety managers sometimes fly in to check on standards. The current manager is a woman who does equivalent work for InterContinental Hotels. Some of the men are wary of her, because they relish autonomy, and accept that conditions in the field are neither healthy nor safe.
But the compound seems to pass muster. It has two large generators, which rarely fail together, a private well that delivers relatively clean water, and a septic tank that does not smell. Inside the outer walls, the parking yard is partially bounded by a small, steel-walled radio shack and two large shipping containers converted into offices with desks and computers, and charts on the walls. A satellite dish provides a sluggish Internet connection. The living quarters extend beyond the parking yard on the far side. They consist of a dozen single-occupancy mini-containers and three equally small pre-fabricated houses—all of them set on blocks, covered by wattle shade roofs, and connected by gravel pathways. The rooms have fluorescent lighting and sagging linoleum floors. Each is mostly filled by its furnishings: a narrow bed under mosquito netting, a desk, a chair, a shelf, a small refrigerator, a noisy semi-functional air conditioner, a washbasin, a toilet, and a trickling cold-water shower. I was offered one as a base for my stay in the country. It came with demure nudes on the wall, one of them a Eurasian who was life-size and charmingly shy. The nudes belonged to a previous tenant, a popular young Estonian who intended to marry his girlfriend and move to Los Angeles to study film, but before that signed on for one last year to work for a Danish de-mining concern in Libya, where in 2012 at the age of 31 he was killed by a Chinese-made anti-tank mine—a devilish device equipped with a magnetic proximity fuze that he triggered simply by getting close. Afterward no one at G4S would take his posters down.
On weekdays the compound is usually about half full. On the weekends the population swells as men come in from farther afield for relief for a day or two. When Juba is peaceful and the nights can be braved, a few go looking for distraction in the city’s live-music bars, but most stay inside the wire and take it easy. The compound’s social center is a kitchen under a metal roof, open to the outside high along a bright-yellow wall. There is no company cook, so the men shop and cook more or less collectively. Saturday nights are the special ones, because no work is required on Sundays. Dressed in long sleeves against malarial mosquitoes, glistening with sweat in the infernal heat, the men sit around after dinner drinking Heinekens in the compound’s small open-air bar.
These are serious men, and their casual conversation often involves technical matters in the field, problems in South Sudan, or stories about the deaths and injuries of colleagues—the mistakes that were made, the risks that are never far away. But as the Saturday nights wear on, the men loosen up and begin telling stories at the expense of one another. A particular target when I was there was a young and irrepressible South African named Adrian McKay, fondly known as “Aidy,” who was busily arranging for girls to fall in love with when he went home on leave. One of his targets had asked for college tuition in return, and (after much contemplation) this was a relationship he decided not to pursue. McKay was about 30 years old. He had been a British soldier, and the job for G4S was his first civilian contract. Soon after his arrival he drove with a team across the shoulder of a hill near Uganda and, upon spotting the Nile stretching into the haze below, exclaimed, “Look! I see the sea!” The remark made G4S history. It turned out that McKay did not know that South Sudan is a landlocked country, thought he was in the other Sudan (the one up north), and had had no idea anyway where he was on the map. Booyse said, “Ach, to do this job it probably helps not to be the brightest bulb.” And probably he was right. As measured by ordnance destroyed, McKay was the most productive man in the field.
This is a characteristic of private soldiering. The job is denuded of delusion. At G4S the men know they cannot return home as heroes, or even expect mention if they die. They will have taken equal risks at lower cost than their counterparts among conventional soldiers—the logic of the business requires it—but there will be no talk of their courage and sacrifice. Far from it: outside of their own little circles, they will be greeted with uncertainty and mistrust. They do not speak about this in South Sudan, but it is unmistakable in their culture. Similarly, though every explosive device they neutralize might otherwise have killed—and disposing of them provides satisfaction—they know that, beyond the job of battlefield clearance, they work in an era when, globally, mines are being planted faster than they can be found. The problem is not just that mines are durable and effective but that they are very good at hiding. In South Sudan alone, the combined efforts of G4S and other de-mining groups working under the U.N. have, after seven years, cleared merely 835 square miles of suspect land, with large tracts remaining to be done. Furthermore, new minefields continue to be planted there—some with mines confiscated by the S.P.L.A. from the de-mining groups themselves. In the face of these realities, and with no grand theme to inspire their work—no Jesus Christ, no national flag—the men of G4S do not strain against history but concentrate on the tangible tasks at hand.
Nationwide the number of victims is difficult to know, though it is obvious that accidents generally go unreported because many of the most vulnerable people are isolated villagers who are actively rebelling against the state. The Aswa clinic, however, is not isolated. It stands near South Sudan’s only paved highway, a two-lane ribbon financed by the United States that connects Juba to the Ugandan border. After two people were killed there by a mine, the U.N. responded by bringing in G4S, which has been using a de-mining machine to clear the land and release it for normal use. De-mining machines are armored bulldozers or tractors that push a heavy chain flail or a rotating tiller and chew up everything in their path to a depth of several inches. They are fast only when compared with the excruciating progress made by human de-miners using handheld minesweepers and kneeling in the dirt with probes.
And 7.3 square miles is 19 million square meters of land. Because each square meter offers about six discrete possibilities for the placement of a small mine, G4S had signed on to clear 114 million potential mine locations—in steaming, undulating, stream-cut, bushy, high-grass, malarial, snake-infested terrain. The trick, therefore, was to refine the map and define the areas where the machines would never need to go. A company manager named John Foran came down to oversee the job. Foran is a kindly Irishman, now 58, who began as an apprentice carpenter and spent 30 years in the British Army, starting as an enlisted man and ending as a major. As a corporal he fought in the Falklands, where he earned the British Military Medal for dragging wounded soldiers from a minefield under enemy fire. Over the subsequent years he worked as a combat engineer in 14 countries and in several conflict zones. Within G4S he was remarkable for his moral authority and intelligence. During the first months of the project in Aswa he watched how the nearby villagers lived and moved, and he walked the land with them, asking himself these questions: Where do they seem happy to go? Where do they hunt freely? Where do they fish? Where have they farmed? Where are they cutting trees now? Also: What would have made sense militarily, and who in the villages was there at the time? What do they remember? Sometimes people were confused, or demanded to be paid, or were unaware of known dangers adjacent to their habitual trails, or falsely claimed the presence of mines because they wanted the machines to till their fields. But by the end of the first season, Foran was able to start writing off large areas as safe—an observational process that, up to now, has allowed for the return of nearly 11 million of the original 19 million square meters, without so much as touching a shovel to the ground. That leaves, however, about eight million square meters, or 48 million potential mine sites, to be handled by mechanical de-mining.
The day base for operations is a dirt yard in front of the Aswa-clinic ruins, with a couple of shade tents and a latrine out back. By the time I arrived, at the start of the fourth and current season, G4S had mechanically cleared three million square meters of the most suspect land—around the clinic and along stream banks and gullies. In the process it had detonated 660 mines and uncovered 231 unexploded munitions. The main de-mining machine was a remote-controlled Mini MineWolf 240, operated from an armored all-terrain troop carrier called a Casper, which followed along behind it carrying a de-mining crew and the MineWolf operator. It was carving an exploratory grid through brush and pushing the pattern forward toward a rocky outcrop in the distance, where a concentration was believed to lie. The man in charge was a taciturn Bosnian named Hajrudin Osmanovic, who at age 43 had been at war nearly all his life, suffering traumas that visibly still haunted him but obviously did not interfere with the job. He worked without respite. He spoke halting English. He gave me the mandatory safety briefing in a manner that meant he apologized. Reading from a checklist, he said, “O.K. (1) Do not run in minefield. (2) Do not pick up anything in minefield. (3) Do not stray. (4) Do not distract de-miners when they are working. (5) In case of explosion, stay where you are. Do not move. Inspect yourself. Stay still. Wait for instruction. (6) In case you are not sure where you are—in cleared area or un-cleared area—stop. Do not move. Wait. Call for help.” He then briefed me on the casualty-evacuation plan. To paraphrase: (1) Stay calm. (2) Exit minefield in Casper. (3) Lie on stretcher in Land Cruiser. (4) Drive to U.N. hospital in Juba. (5) Do not die.
The minefield was extremely hot and required regular retreats even by acclimatized Africans. At night we ate under a tent canopy and slept in a stifling cinder-block barracks left over by a Turkish road-construction crew. Osmanovic spoke at length about his past and mentioned his desire to return for good to Bosnia someday, perhaps to start a business. But he was skeptical about the nature of government there—all of the regulation and corruption—and this held him back. The truth is he was happy enough just staying in Aswa and chipping away at the mines by the clinic. On his Sundays off he often drove through the minefields to the ruined bridge, where he fished in solitude. He never went to Juba if he could help it. He had a largely autonomous existence here in the obscure center of an Africa where few non-Africans go. Perhaps the greatest draw of the private soldier’s life is a culture that leaves men well enough alone.
IV. A Question of Control
Buckles remained aggressive nonetheless. In 2010, G4S had signed on to provide 2,000 guards for the upcoming 2012 London Olympics—a doable proposition and potentially a boost for the brand. At the end of 2011, however, the British government decided that a greater force would be required, and G4S lunged for it—now on very short notice—by signing a $439 million contract to provide 10,400 guards for the Games. It went without saying that these people would be crisply uniformed, well groomed, well trained, non-discriminatory, upbeat, clean, courteous, healthy, strong, heroic if necessary, ethnically diverse, English-speaking, drug-free, sober, timely, obedient, and possibly churchgoing. How exactly G4S planned to find such people, willing and able to work full-time for only the short duration of the Olympics, was unclear even to G4S. The result was a public spectacle just weeks before the Games, when G4S had to admit that it could provide at most 7,000 guards in time, and the British government responded by bringing in 3,500 soldiers to supplement the security—all this amid howls of outrage in Parliament and the tabloid press. Buckles found himself in the wrong sort of glare, standing before the House of Commons, forced to absorb the insults of grandstanding politicians, to apologize abjectly, and to agree on camera that his security program had turned into “a humiliating shambles.” Between penalties, payouts, and the inability to collect, G4S lost $135 million on the deal.
Other incidents, however, raise serious questions about inherent limits of control, particularly for a company that fulfills public functions and by its nature invites skepticism and distrust. In Canada, a member of a five-man G4S armored-car crew shoots the other four, killing three, and runs off with the money. In Scotland, a G4S guard on duty at a medical conference kills a delegate by beating her with a fire extinguisher after she complains about having to present her security pass. Even more significant are the incidents that occur within the high-risk areas of private prisons and military operations, because these are precisely the areas where one could presume that operational management would be the tightest.
One of the more worrisome cases occurred in 2009, a year after the company acquired ArmorGroup, when a G4S employee in Baghdad sent an anonymous e-mail to the London office, warning about a former British soldier and civilian contractor named Daniel Fitzsimons, who had just been hired to work in Iraq. The informant wrote that Fitzsimons was unstable, had been fired from a previous job in Iraq after punching a client, was facing firearms and assault charges in Britain, and posed a threat to people around him. It turned out that he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic-stress disorder. According to the BBC, the concerned employee wrote, “I am alarmed that he will shortly be allowed to handle a weapon and be exposed to members of the public. I am speaking out because I feel that people should not be put at risk.” No one at G4S wrote back. On the eve of Fitzsimons’s arrival, the employee sent another e-mail, writing, “Having made you aware of the issues regarding the violent criminal Danny Fitzsimons, it has been noted that you have not taken my advice and still choose to employ him in a position of trust. I have told you that he remains a threat and you have done nothing.” Again he received no reply.
Soon afterward, Fitzsimons got to Baghdad and to the G4S compound, where he was issued a weapon. The next day, after drinking and arguing, he shot and killed two G4S soldiers, a Scotsman and an Australian, and also went after an Iraqi, whom he wounded. Fitzsimons was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 20 years in an Iraqi prison, where he is now. With the mother of the dead Scotsman calling for accountability, G4S provided a maladroit response. A spokesman claimed that the vetting of Fitzsimons “was not completed in line with the company’s procedures,” but then added somewhat contradictorily that the procedures had since been tightened. As for the e-mails, the company was aware of the allegations but said that “no such emails were received by any member of our HR department.” The response seemed to have been crafted by lawyers worried mostly about the consequences in court of statements made in public. But many felt that in this case the company had lost control.
Venturing into war zones is by definition a high-stakes gamble. One of the company’s diciest undertakings is its work for Chevron Oil in Nigeria, in the Niger Delta. Chevron operates there cheek by jowl with rebellious villagers who live amid pollution as the company exports oil and wealth while paying royalties to a corrupt Nigerian government. After the occupation of a refinery by 600 women in 2002, Chevron hired a South African security company called Gray to tighten things up. Gray had previously been acquired by Securicor, which then merged with Group 4 to create G4S. Eventually the contract, which has been lucrative, evolved into a counter-insurgency operation. Today, G4S deploys fast-response patrol boats armed with mounted machine guns, crewed by expatriates, and carrying Nigerian naval personnel to do whatever shooting might be required. Similar arrangements for rapid-reaction squads exist on land. The Nigerian forces involved are technically under government command, but their salaries are paid by G4S. The setup mirrors the one in South Sudan, where active-duty S.P.L.A. soldiers on the G4S payroll are effectively under the company’s control, although in Nigeria the chance of a G4S fiasco is obviously much higher.
There hasn’t been one yet, but doubts remain about the controllability of the situation, and of G4S. Last May, having successfully weathered the Olympics storm, and all the other scandals before and since, Nicholas Buckles resigned after the company issued a profit warning and share values fell by 15 percent. Buckles’s replacement was a buttoned-down outsider named Ashley Almanza, who announced his intention to expand further into Africa and South America. Meanwhile, in October 2013, the South African government took over the running of a G4S maximum-security prison after charges that the guards were so uncontrolled and under-manned that they had taken to torturing prisoners. G4S denied the allegations, but on a higher level some shareholders remain concerned.
V. His Lucky Day
In return the South Sudanese were noticeably ungrateful. One afternoon at the Souk Sita market a man indicated the pile of debris that Booyse had raked up, and asked if he could take the stuff away. Booyse said, “Take whatever you want. It’s not mine anyway.” The man walked over to the pile, contemplated it for a while, tried to move some objects, came back to Booyse, got a cigarette from him, then cursed him to his face and walked away. Booyse shrugged it off. He said, “The feeling is that we don’t belong here. It’s not about race. It’s about the fact that we’re not South Sudanese.” Alongside a building where Booyse had parked, another man approached carrying a plastic chair and indicated the spot occupied by the car. He said, “I want to sit there.” Booyse understood him to mean it was his country now, and he could do what he pleased. Booyse moved the car.
Booyse had predicted the trouble. He had said, “I can’t see into the future, but I can tell you there’s shit coming.” He was an eight-day drive north of Juba, in the town of Bentiu, when civil war erupted in the south. Bentiu is the bedraggled capital of a South Sudanese state called Unity, and is considered important because of oil fields nearby. It has a dirt runway and a small U.N. base protected by Mongolian troops. Booyse’s camp occupied a field by the runway, near a Mongolian outpost consisting of a few soldiers with armored fighting vehicles inside a barbed-wire fence with a gate. As tensions mounted, Booyse decided to break camp and relocate to the outpost, a few hundred yards away. At dusk, with the packing nearly finished, the airport erupted in heavy gunfire. Caught in the open, Booyse and his men sought shelter behind a large fiberglass tank, which offered no protection against shrapnel or bullets but would perhaps help hide them from view. Over at their outpost the Mongolians had disappeared into their armored vehicles and were shooting in apparent confusion, using mounted guns. Night fell. The firing ebbed and flowed, sometimes with mortar and R.P.G.’s being used. In the distance, an ammunition depot began to burn, sending rockets into the sky.
Then, suddenly, four or five soldiers appeared out of the darkness with weapons raised. They seemed to be Nuer, if only because some of Booyse’s de-miners, all of whom were Dinka, began to cry. This was exactly how thousands of people were dying. The leader stuck the muzzle of his rifle up Booyse’s nose and held it there for 20 full seconds, which seemed 60 times that long, and then said in good English, “This is your fucking lucky day,” and took his soldiers away. Booyse had had enough. Determined to reach the relative safety of the Mongolian outpost, he got his men into the team’s two Land Cruisers and, with lights extinguished, drove through the firefight, rolling over bodies and smashing through the outpost’s gates to shelter among the armored vehicles.
That was the worst of it. Later that night, during a lull, they drove in an armored convoy to the U.N. base. Eventually G4S chartered an airplane that evacuated them to Juba. There, they crowded into headquarters with all the others who had come in from the field. Maketh Chol had lost several family members in the killings, but otherwise everyone had escaped unscathed. Khor William was in ruins and littered with ordnance again; 30,000 people, mostly Nuer, were sheltering in Juba in two U.N. refugee camps, one of them the G4S logistics base on the north side of town. A few days later most of the men were flown to Entebbe, and from there to Nairobi and home. A skeletal staff remained in Juba to occupy the compound and anchor G4S for all the business to come.
The men sent home were retained on salary, and told to stand by. They knew that in all likelihood they would return—as indeed they did, in February. Had that not worked out, they would soon have gone to some other post. Enterprises such as G4S are now a part of the international order, more permanent than some nation-states, more wealthy than many, more efficient than most. Indeed, an argument can be made that U.N. peacekeeping forces would be more effective and less expensive if they were constituted from the best private-security companies. Had G4S owned the responsibility in South Sudan, it is unlikely that any U.N. base would have been overrun. This is not about ideology, and it is not intrinsically good or bad. The world is getting harder to manage, and the world is a very big place.