Editor’s note: Subsequent to the publishing of this story, which The Daily Beast based from the official Colombian report (PDF in Spanish), Fusion and other media outlets reported that the the specific number of allegations involving U.S. personnel against Colombian minors has been called in to question and can’t be verified by Prof. Renán Vega, the author of the section of the report. The BBC reported on May 6 that in addition to the U.S. military’s investigation into these allegations, the country’s Ombudsman said he would also investigate. The government’s Colombian Family Welfare Institute called for the 53 girls allegedly raped to be located and identified. The Daily Beast is investigating further as well.
U.S. soldiers and military contractors stationed in Colombia allegedly sexually assaulted as many as 54 Colombian children between 2003 and 2007, according to a report commissioned by the Colombian government and the FARC leftist rebel group. But none of the Americans have been prosecuted because of bilateral agreements and diplomatic immunity, the report alleges.
Spokespeople for the U.S. Army told The Daily Beast that they’ve seen no evidence of such crimes.
The report is part of a historical analysis by Colombia’s “Historical Commission for the Conflict and Its Victims.” It’s aimed at establishing “causes and violence aggravators” of the conflict between the government and rebels. Up to 220,000 people have been killed and 5.7 million people displaced since 1965 in the fighting, which negotiators are trying to end in peace talks under way in the Cuban capital. The section detailing American involvement in the conflict was edited by Renán Vega Cantor, a leftist professor of history at la Universidad Pedagógica Nacional de Bogotá.
“In Melgar and neighboring Girardot,” he wrote, “53 minors were sexually abused by mercenaries, who also filmed and sold the tapes as pornographic material. Also in Melgar, a contractor and a sergeant in the United States raped a 12-year-old girl in 2007. Both their activities, as well as their immunity, contribute to the insecurity of the population in conflict zones.”
“There is abundant evidence of sexual violence and total impunity, thanks to bilateral agreements and diplomatic immunity of U.S. officials,” Vega continued, “part of sexist and discriminatory behavior known as ‘sexual imperialism’ similar to what happens in other places where U.S. military forces are stationed.”
He added: “Cases of sexual assault perpetrated by soldiers and military contractors of the United States must be investigated throughout Colombia and the guilty parties punished.”
The peace talks in Havana are deliberately closed to the public to facilitate the negotiations, so getting specific information about the stances of the government or FARC is difficult. Multiple requests for clarification on Bogotá’s stance on the report were not fulfilled. Attempts to reach the High Commissioner for Peace, Sergio Jaramillo Caro, were likewise unsuccessful.
The U.S. Army, however, told The Daily Beast that no credible evidence had been found to warrant an investigation but said further inquiry is possible.
“The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command is currently coordinating with Colombian authorities and plans on conducting criminal investigations into credible allegations of sexual assault or criminal acts committed by U.S. soldiers while in that country,” Army spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith wrote in an email. “We take this issue very seriously and will aggressively pursue all credible allegations.”
Sexual violence against women in Colombia is endemic. The 54 cases alleged against U.S. military personnel would be a tiny fraction of the cases in the 50-year conflict. The vast majority of sexual violence against women has been at the hands of the Colombian army, and FARC and other paramilitary groups, who have routinely used rape as a weapon of war. Forced abortions and sterilizations are also used.
The National Victims Unit in Bogota has registered 7,234 Colombian women as victims of sexual violence in the conflict between the government and leftist rebels. It’s a woefully small reflection of the actual, enormous number of victims.
A 2009 report from Oxfam found that between 60 percent and 70 percent of all Colombian women have been subjected to some form of violence, whether physical, psychological, sexual, or political—about three cases every two hours. Perhaps as many as 90 percent of such crimes go unreported. “It is impossible…to quantify, even as an approximation, the actual number of women who are or have been victims of some form of sexual violence in the 50 years of the armed conflict,” the report found.
Military cooperation between Colombia and the United States goes back decades—and has long given American troops diplomatic immunity. A 1974 Military Missions Agreement grants “United States personnel and their dependents the privileges, exemptions, and immunities accorded to the administrative and technical staff of a diplomatic mission under the Vienna Convention.”
But that cooperation was radically expanded under Plan Colombia, Washington’s $7.5 billion program to help Bogota fight drug cartels and leftist rebel groups like the FARC and National Liberation Army, or ELN.
Founded under President Clinton, the program was expanded by President Bush in 2004, doubling the number of military advisers from 400 to 800 and increasing the number of contractors from 400 to 600. The 2009 U.S.-Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement grants the U.S. access to “three Colombian air force bases, located at Palanquero, Apiay, and Malambo. The agreement also permits access to two naval bases and two army installations, and other Colombian military facilities if mutually agreed.”
The Bush-era DCA also says the United States “shall undertake all necessary steps to ensure that United States personnel and their dependents covered by this paragraph are investigated, with the cooperation of the Colombian authorities, for crimes allegedly committed in Colombian territory, and, if warranted, are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Many of the alleged assaults by U.S. personnel occurred around the town of Melgar, about 67 miles southeast of Bogota, where some U.S. personnel were stationed as part of Plan Colombia.
And this not the first instance of accusations against American troops in Colombia. In 2005, five U.S. soldiers were arrested at a military base in Texas for attempting to smuggle 35 pounds of cocaine from Colombia. They were initially arrested in Colombia, but were not tried there under the terms of the 1974 agreement, despite calls from Colombian officials for their extradition.
In another instance that same year, two soldiers were arrested in Colombia for allegedly attempting to sell up to 31,000 rounds of ammunition to right-wing paramilitary groups. The Colombians handed the men over to the U.S., which flew them out of the country.
It is not clear if the soldiers in both cases were later prosecuted in the United States.
In the most explosive allegations in Colombia, Vega wrote, up to 54 young women and children were allegedly drugged and taken back to bases, where in some cases the abuse was alleged to have been filmed and sold as pornography. In the most notorious case, Colombian prosecutors accused a U.S. Army soldier and a defense contractor of drugging and raping a 12-year-old girl in 2007 after taking her back to a military base in Melgar where they were stationed.
The alleged victim’s mother recently told El Tiempo, Colombia’s biggest daily newspaper, that on the evening of Aug. 26, 2007, her two daughters, 12 and 10, went to buy food in downtown Melgar. A couple of hours later, the younger daughter returned alone, saying her older sister had disappeared after going into a nightclub to use the bathroom. The two U.S. military men left her in a park the next morning, according to several witnesses, El Tiempo reported at the time.
Afterward, the mother went to the base to confront the men who she says raped her daughter. “The response was, ‘Your daughter is a little whore; nothing happened here,’” she told El Tiempo.
According to McClatchy, the two men were not arrested. Instead, they were flown out of the country under diplomatic immunity and have never been prosecuted despite attempts by Colombian prosecutors.
The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID) would not confirm the names of the two men allegedly involved, chief of public affairs Christopher Grey told The Daily Beast in an email. “The allegations were unfounded by CID and legal authorities,” he 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.”
The mother told El Tiempo that a man from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command visited her and asked her to sign a paper in English. She did not sign, she told the newspaper, because she feared it was a trick to sign away her right to compensation. She also said the man had a pistol with him.
Grey disputed that characterization of the encounter. “One of our CID Special Agents did speak to the mother of the victim,” he wrote. “That agent is fluent in Spanish. Again, I am not confirming any identities to protect the rights of all involved. The agent was there to obtain a witness statement in order to fully investigate the allegations. Everything he presented to the woman was in Spanish. After interviewing her, he asked her to sign her statement. This was in no way a ‘waiver’ of any type. Additionally, the agent was not armed at the time of the interview. We strongly reject any claims that this was anything but a very professionally conducted witness interview concerning the allegations.”
Colombia Reports, an English-language news site based in Medellin, wrote that the alleged rape victim, her sister, and mother later left Melgar, saying they wanted to escape from “forces loyal to the suspects” threatening the family.
“Sometimes it’s better to die than to live fleeing,” the mother told El Tiempo. “But I cannot die until I find justice for my daughter, for me.”
Other Colombian media outlets, among them El Turbion, reported that as many as 90 cases of sexual violence against women and children in total may have been committed between 2004 and 2007 by U.S. personnel. Grey said the Army had no knowledge of those alleged crimes.
“The other allegations that have been recently reported are new allegations that we have no record of being reported,” he said.
It’s a problem the United States military faces around the world. There are hundreds of cases of alleged sexual assault of civilians by U.S. military personnel and contractors in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and elsewhere. However, American personnel are rarely disciplined under the local legal systems and often receive little more than letters of reprimand from the chain of command.