Colombia

Investigations, questions swirl around reports of U.S. military sexual abuse

Colombian Armed Forces Commander, Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez, left, and Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon, right, lead a tour for U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, center, at the Tolemaida military base, in Melgar, Colombia, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. Hagel is on a six-day, three-country trip to South America. Hagel will also travel to Chile and Peru, where he will attend a conference of defense ministers from the Americas.
Colombian Armed Forces Commander, Gen. Juan Pablo Rodriguez, left, and Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon, right, lead a tour for U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, center, at the Tolemaida military base, in Melgar, Colombia, Friday, Oct. 10, 2014. Hagel is on a six-day, three-country trip to South America. Hagel will also travel to Chile and Peru, where he will attend a conference of defense ministers from the Americas. AP

U.S. and Colombian authorities are investigating allegations that more than 50 children may have been sexually abused by U.S. military personnel or contractors from 2003-2007, even as questions about the veracity of those allegations began to surface.

On Thursday, Chris Grey, spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID), said his department had no record of the alleged crimes, but that they were working with Colombian officials to “look into the allegations.”

In addition, U.S. Ambassador Kevin Whitaker said that the embassy had investigated the reports in the past, without any results, but that it would reopen the case if new evidence came to light.

“I have a zero-tolerance policy on these issues,” he told RCN news Thursday. “I’ve been here for one year and I’ve separated four people from the embassy who have violated my ethical standards.”

The allegations resurfaced earlier this year when government and guerrilla peace negotiators in Cuba released a series of essays looking at the historical causes of the country’s 50-year civil conflict.

In a portion focused on U.S. involvement, Renán Vega, the head of the social science department at Colombia’s National Pedagogic University, dusted off allegations that U.S. soldiers and contractors sexually abused 54 under-aged girls from 2003-2007. According to the report, the victims were from the towns of Melgar and Girardot — near the Tolemaida Air Base where U.S. officials were stationed — and pornographic films of the encounters were being sold.

In an interview with Miami’s Fusion last week, Vega acknowledged that his source for the information was a local television broadcast and that it could not be confirmed. He also said that the accuracy of the figure shouldn’t distract from the broader problem of U.S. officials hiding behind immunity to avoid prosecution. (The Miami Herald has unsuccessfully tried to contact Vega by phone and email for more than a month.)

Vega’s report also underscored a better-documented case from 2007, when a U.S. sergeant and a contractor were accused of sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl.

Without referring to the case specifically, the Army said it investigated the incident at the time.

“The allegations were unfounded by CID and legal authorities as well as by local authorities,” Grey said. “Furthermore, CID Special Agents attempted to interview a victim in Colombia, but her attorneys declined the opportunity for our agents to interview their client.”

Local officials are taking the issue seriously. Colombia’s Institute for Family Welfare has instructed its officials to scour the towns looking for potential victims.

“These acts are abominable and we reject them,” Institute Director Cristina Plazas Michelsen said in a statement. “We’re asking all the women to come forward, because you know that impunity is one more form of violence against women.”

Colombia has been the backdrop for several high-profile sex scandals involving U.S. officials. Earlier this year, the U.S. Office of the Inspector General released a report detailing how Drug Enforcement Agents participated in sex parties paid for by local drug cartels. DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart resigned in April, shortly after the report was released.

In addition, more than a dozen military members and Secret Service officials were reprimanded for hiring prostitutes in the run-up to the 2012 Summit of the Americas conference in Cartagena, Colombia.

If these new allegations prove to be true, the perpetrators will not be able to hide behind their official immunity, Colombia’s Public Ombudsman Jorge Armando Otálora said in a statement.

“Child pornography is a transnational crime,” he said, “and there are mechanisms enough to guarantee justice and avoid impunity, regardless of diplomatic immunity.”

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