How the US enables human rights abuses in Colombia

The indiscipline among American contractors in Colombia sets a disturbing example

May 4, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Aug. 26, 2007, Olga Lucia Castillo’s two daughters went into the Zona Rosa in Melgar, Colombia, to buy food. Her younger daughter, 10 years old at the time, returned home alone. She told her mom that her older sister, age 12, disappeared with two men. The men, a U.S. Army sergeant and U.S. government contractor, allegedly took Castillo’s daughter to Colombia’s German Olano air force base, where they drugged and raped her.

“Sometimes,” Castillo told Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, “it’s better to die than to run away. But I cannot die until I find justice for my daughter, for me.”

Castillo has fought for justice ever since but has been met with intimidation by Colombian security services and locals sympathetic to the government. She and her family ultimately left Melgar. Her daughter has attempted suicide three times since the assault.

Colombia’s prosecutor confirmed that the girl was sexually assaulted and issued arrest warrants for both men. But under the U.S.-Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement, both men enjoyed diplomatic immunity and were immediately repatriated to the United States.

Status of forces agreements (SOFA), like the one that effectively freed the two men, establish the rights of foreign militaries operating in host nations. For the U.S., that typically includes some form of immunity for crimes committed as part of a service member’s official duty, with jurisdiction falling under U.S. courts. In most countries soldiers may be prosecuted by the host nation for crimes committed against non-SOFA personnel outside official duty. In Colombia, however, U.S. soldiers enjoy full diplomatic immunity, meaning they cannot be prosecuted under Colombian law and may only be expelled from the country.

These arrangements often lead to tensions with host countries. In 2001, after five years of painstaking negotiations, the United States and South Korea signed a revised SOFA. Jurisdiction proved one of the more contentious issues: South Korean citizens have long bristled at what they perceive as a violation of South Korean sovereignty, and despite expanded South Korean jurisdiction in the new SOFA, their frustrations surface every time a U.S. service member commits a crime, such as the 2002 incident in which two 14-year-old girls were killed by a U.S. Army bridge-laying vehicle. Under the SOFA the incident fell under U.S. military jurisdiction and was ruled an accident, and the soldiers involved were found not guilty of negligent homicide. South Koreans were furious.

Highlighting South Korea’s continued skepticism, a 2011 article in a South Korean newspaper cautioned that the SOFA could create “a moral hazard among [U.S. troops], giving them the wrong idea that they could go unpunished.”

And unpunished they go. A recently released independent report (PDF) commissioned by the Colombian government and FARC rebels as part of ongoing peace negotiations suggests that the 2007 rape was far from an isolated incident. The report alleges that 54 underage girls were sexually assaulted by U.S. soldiers and government contractors from 2004 to 2007. The U.S. government claims to have investigated only the one incident involving Castillo’s daughter, although that claim is disputed by Colombian officials.

The report and numerous similar incidents from recent years call into question U.S. military leadership in Colombia and its ability to execute key components of its mission. The incidents provide a telling example of what can happen to discipline in the absence of accountability — the moral hazard cited by the South Korean paper.

The worst part? Neither the United States nor Colombia is likely to press very hard for change. 

No accountability

The U.S. Army has said that it is looking into the allegations, but nothing has come to light yet. In an email to The Daily Beast, Army spokeswoman Cynthia O. Smith said, “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.”

These parameters allow the U.S. to set a very bad example in a country they purport to be helping. Colombia is the third-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. It has received $9.3 billion in assistance over the past 15 years — over and above a multibillion-dollar covert assistance package — under Plan Colombia, a controversial military and diplomatic program to combat drug cartels and leftist insurgent groups such as FARC. Testifying before Congress in 2001, Robert Newberry, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, touted the success of U.S. forces’ working with the Colombian military to improve human rights and accountability. 

Failing to investigate US personnel for alleged crimes calls into question the military’s ability to train responsible and accountable foreign militaries.

But accountability in the U.S. for Plan Colombia is thin. Congress has reduced by 75 percent the amount of security assistance tied to meeting specific human-rights-related criteria in Colombia. Meanwhile, human rights abuses in the country remain far too common. Colombia’s attorney general is investigating 2,000 extrajudicial executions by security forces and probing 80 members of Columbia’s legislature for their connections to paramilitary forces; internal security services answering directly to the president have been implicated in aggressive tactics against domestic human rights organizations.

That the Colombian military has made so little progress in improving accountability and respect for human rights should come as no surprise. The U.S. military, there to train the Colombians in just those arenas, provides a woefully inadequate example. In April 2005, five U.S. soldiers returning from anti-narcotics work in Colombia were detained for smuggling 18 kilograms of cocaine into the United States. Also that year, two soldiers were arrested for attempting to sell 31,000 rounds of ammunition to right-wing paramilitaries. If charges were filed in either case, they have not been made public.

More famously, in 2012, 12 U.S. military personnel attached to President Barack Obama’s advance team were found to have hired prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, part of the now infamous Secret Service scandal. The event came to light after a public dispute over payment between a Secret Service agent and a prostitute. Nine of the military personnel involved were given nonjudicial punishments — typically confinement to quarters, loss of pay or a reduction in rank.

The investigation into the Cartagena incident concluded in a report that military and civilian leaders “did not create or foster an atmosphere of tolerance for prostitution or marital infidelity.” That claim seems untenable. With these recent allegations — at least one supported by an official Colombian investigation and arrest warrant — it is impossible to argue that the U.S. military does not have a leadership problem in Colombia. That no credible investigation has been conducted suggests that leadership at almost every level of the U.S. military in Colombia is failing and fostering a sense of impunity.

Failing to investigate U.S. government and military personnel for alleged crimes not only damages the United States’ image abroad. It calls into question the U.S. military’s ability to train responsible and accountable foreign militaries.

Respect for human rights ranks high among the objectives the military identifies for security assistance and foreign internal defense (FID) operations. According to a U.S. military FID manual on tactics, techniques and procedures, “In many FID combat situations, the moral high ground may be just as important as the tactical high ground.”

In Colombia the U.S. has lost the moral high ground but continues to reap strategic and political benefits from easy access to Colombian bases and influence with Colombian military leaders. In light of how past cases were handled, the arrangement is unlikely to change. The United States has little interest in drawing more attention to its controversial assistance to Colombia, much of it covert, and its support for a regime that has almost entirely disregarded human rights and accountability. But in turning a blind eye to crimes committed by its troops, the U.S. is essentially validating corruption and indifference in the Colombian military and ensuring Plan Colombia’s failure.

Jonathan Levinson is a freelance journalist based in Mexico City. He spent five years as an infantry officer in the U.S. Army and has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University, where his research focused on non-state and hybrid actors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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