U.S. Army criminal investigators will soon probe allegations that American military personnel and contractors sexually assaulted more than 50 Colombian girls in a town next to a military base. Among the accusations, which stretch back more than a decade, are claims that soldiers and contractors filmed the sexual abuse of minors in 2004, with the videos of the attacks eventually ending up on the town’s streets and sold as pornography. The charges are likely to add to the widespread perception of impunity for U.S. personnel and their alleged crimes in Colombia and the region.
Chris Grey, a U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command spokesman, told me in an email that American investigators will coordinate with Colombian authorities to examine “allegations of sexual assault or criminal acts” committed by U.S. soldiers while in Colombia. “We take this issue very seriously,” he said, “and will aggressively pursue all credible allegations.”
USA Today reported on the Army's investigation last week. Spanish-language outlets, such as Univision’s “First Impact” program and Colombia’s largest daily paper, El Tiempo, covered the claims of the assaults and pornographic videos in 2004 and 2005. The abuses have only recently garnered attention in various outlets in English following their mention in a report commissioned by the Colombian government and FARC rebels (as part of the ongoing peace talks) on the history of the armed conflict in the country.
A previous accusation of sexual assault by a U.S. serviceman and a contractor, also mentioned in the commissioned report, proved to not be credible, Grey said. While he said he could not confirm or validate any names that other reports have published, this is likely a reference to one of the most well-known cases of alleged sexual assault by foreigners in the country, in which a twelve-year-old girl—in the same town where the filmed assaults supposedly took pace—claimed she was kidnapped and raped. News reports indicate that, contrary to the view of U.S. investigators, Colombian officials believed at the time that the charges were credible. The United States removed the suspects from Colombia under diplomatic immunity, despite the fact that Colombian prosecutors determined the girl had been raped and issued warrants for the men’s arrest, according to a 2009 investigation by a Miami Herald affiliate. “I am not going to rest until justice is done; this [crime] must have a punishment,” the victim’s mother said. She reiterated this last month in an interview with El Tiempo, which reported that the daughter has attempted suicide multiple times.
Further allegations dating to 2013 hold that U.S. soldiers regularly solicited prostitutes as young as age twelve in the Pacific coast port town of Tumaco. “Totally certain, and ask anyone. The authorities stay quiet about this matter,” a resident told Caracol Radio in Colombia. Said another: “If one goes and reports [this to the authorities], it becomes a security problem. Here we live in silence, we are even afraid to speak.”
No U.S. government investigation has comprehensively evaluated the extent and veracity of these abuse claims against the U.S. military and contractors. Yet other U.S. agencies in Colombia have come under recent scrutiny as well. Last month’s report by the Department of Justice’s watchdog made several scathing claims about Drug Enforcement Agency officials’ conduct. For several years, the report says, a “foreign officer allegedly arranged ‘sex parties’ with prostitutes funded by the local drug cartels for these DEA agents at their government-leased quarters.” (The inspector general report doesn’t name a specific country, but the Washington Post said a U.S. official confirmed it was Colombia.) These officers most likely knew who was financing their escapades; despite denials by the agents, “information in the case file suggested they should have known the prostitutes in attendance were paid with cartel funds,” the reports states.
Worse than the drug cartel-funded sex parties were allegations that “three DEA [agents] in particular were provided money, expensive gifts, and weapons from drug cartel members.” For their antics and alleged dealings with the cartels, the agents were suspended for as much as ten days. Their excuse for their behavior? A DEA investigator told the watchdog agency that prostitution is “considered a part of the local culture.”
American media erupted in 2012 when, in the days preceding the sixth Summit of the Americas, Secret Service agents and military personnel in the coastal city of Cartagena brought prostitutes back to their hotel rooms—legal in Colombia but an asinine move diplomatically. “We’re representing the people of the United States,” Barack Obama said after news of that incident broke, “and when we travel to another country I expect us to observe the highest standards.” Many of these officials were disciplined or fired. The latest round of allegations comes just in time for this year’s Summit of the Americas, slated for this week in Panama. You can expect America’s allegedly high standards in the region to be a topic of conversation.