by: Letizia Armendáriz

At present, only some States have contracts with private military and security companies (PMSCs) outside their borders or are massive exporters of PMSCs. Yet, the vast expansion of the private military and security industry at the international level – as seen in the conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan – has led to the growing acceptance and legitimacy of private security at the domestic level. The proliferation of private security companies is a widespread phenomenon in nations across Europe and North America. The example of the private military and security industry (PMSI) in the US and the UK shows that public acceptance and legitimization of private security services at the national level is a prelude for supporting their use in the international arena.

Though different in nature, the international and domestic private military and security industries produce similar risks and problems. Thus for instance, in both cases the legitimate use of force is removed, to a greater or lesser extent, from the State-controlled public domain; one result is the creation of private security zones not accessible to all citizens – private neighborhoods at the national level, and green zones in international conflict areas. The range of services for sale is increasing and, depending upon their nature, many may affect individuals’ fundamental rights and freedoms (e.g. investigation agencies, interrogation of detainees, armed protective services). Unfortunately, lack of regulation and adequate oversight have resulted in grave violations of these rights.

In Spain, the use of private security has been mainly domestic, with contractors providing logistical and security services to the Spanish military, as well as providing surveillance and protection for private persons and goods. In recent years, several reports indicate that PMSCs registered or with headquarters in Spain have also provided military and security services abroad. Furthermore, the Spanish policy regarding private security is undergoing important modifications.

A first major change was the amendment in 2009 of the 1994 Regulation of private security, permitting personnel of private security companies to provide protective armed services on board Spanish merchant ships sailing in high risk zones (see RD 1628/2009, 30 October). While providing these services, they are allowed to use weapons of war, which are otherwise prohibited to non-military personnel, thus making them more like military contractors than regular security guards such as those that protect shopping malls.

The second alteration was the announcement on June 14th, 2013 by the Spanish Council of Ministers of a new law regulating the activities of private security companies. The draft law, which must still be discussed in the parliament, will replace the current Law on Private Security (1992), which is out-of-date regarding issues such as cyber-security. But the new law is also a clear reaction to recent scandals concerning activities of detective agencies, which will be subjected to strict controls and sanctions under the new law.

More importantly in terms of privatization policy is how the draft law will modify principles regarding the relationship between public and private security. From now on private security services will be primarily complementary to public security, where previously (as established by the 1992) law they were primarily subordinate; although the text makes it clear that they will still remain under the control of public security. Practically this means quite a wide door for the expansion of the sort of services that can be outsourced to private security companies. Indeed, the draft law has already expanded the scope of private security by regularizing services including the perimeter surveillance of prisons, private investigation services, and technical consultancy.

In the UK and US, the privatization of such services took place years ago and was a key feature of the industry before it stepped into the international market. It remains to be seen which direction the profitable Spanish industry now takes.