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US Army Will Investigate Allegations of Sexual Abuse by Soldiers and Contractors in Colombia

Recent reports reference the alleged sexual abuse of more than 50 Colombian girls in the town of Melgar in 2004, by members of the US military and civilian contractors.

by Samuel Oakford
Apr 9 2015, 12:15pm

Photo by Fernando Vergara/AP

Just weeks after a Department of Justice investigation revealed that DEA agents participated in "sex parties" in Colombia funded by drug cartels, the US Army has announced it will soon begin its own inquiry into allegations of rampant sexual abuse among members of the US military and contractors in the South American nation, according to a government spokesperson.

Rumors of abuse by US personnel have long circulated in Colombia, where American soldiers and civilian contractors have been employed for decades in joint anti-narcotics efforts. The subject received increased scrutiny in February, when the Colombian government and FARC rebels released a commissioned report on the history of their half-century conflict as part of ongoing peace talks.

The report referenced the alleged sexual abuse of more than 50 Colombian girls in the town of Melgar in 2004. According to local media reports at the time, the incidents, which took place near a large Colombian military base, were tied to Americans stationed nearby. The abuse, Colombian newspaper El Tiempo reportedwas videotaped and turned into pornographic films.

The brief passage in the report that referenced the allegations was first reported in the English-language press by the publication Colombia Reports. The author of that article, Adriaan Alsema, later said he published the report because, "I think it's important the claim is verified."

"This is not evidence and may not be presented as a hard fact," he wrote in a comment on the media website FAIR. But the US Army appears to believe the claims warrant investigation.

"We take this issue very seriously and will aggressively pursue all credible allegations," US Army spokesman Christopher Grey told VICE News. The reports of mass abuse at the hands of Americans in Melgar, Grey said, "are new allegations that we have no record of being reported."

'I remember at the time there was a stink because videos were being sold on the street, apparently showing some really horrible pornographic treatment of these young women and girls.'

Whatever transpired, the notion that the US armed forces were unaware of the allegations is implausible, Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, told VICE News.

"I remember at the time there was a stink because videos were being sold on the street, apparently showing some really horrible pornographic treatment of these young women and girls," Isacson said.

But Colombian authorities, including then-president Álvaro Uribe, had no desire to pursue an investigation, he claimed.

The US has been heavily involved in eradication and interdiction measures in the Andean country since the introduction of Plan Colombia, a $9 billion aid package aimed at strengthening military drug enforcement efforts, in 2000.

Grey said another notorious case, that of a 12-year-old girl who was reportedly abused by a soldier and civilian contractor in 2007, had been deemed unfounded by army investigators.

"CID special agents attempted to interview a victim in Colombia, but her attorneys declined the opportunity for our agents to interview their client," he said.

Colombian authorities, however, determined that a sexual assault had taken place. Both American suspects, Sgt. Michael Coen and a civilian contractor named Cesar Ruiz, were spirited out of the country under diplomatic immunity and never faced charges in the US.

The announced army investigation comes just weeks after the DOJ released a lurid and damning account of cartel-funded "sex parties" it said were frequented by American drug enforcement agents in Colombia. The romps, according to the department's Office of the Inspector General, took place at "government-leased headquarters" and were so loud that neighbors complained.

The DOJ report concluded that the federal agents, despite their protestations of ignorance, "should have known the prostitutes in attendance were paid with cartel funds." In addition to having their sexual bacchanals financed by drug money, the agents were found to have received lavish gifts from their drug kingpin sugar daddies.

Related: DOJ report reveals DEA agent 'sex parties' funded by Colombian drug cartels. Read more here.

Neither the parties, which were deemed to have put sensitive government information at risk, or regular visits to brothels by agents were reported at the time  — partly due to the belief held by a DEA inspector that "prostitution is considered a part of the local culture and is tolerated in certain areas."

The army investigation and DOJ findings only add to an American PR nightmare in Colombia that began in 2012, when reports emerged that Secret Service agents and members of the military had frequented brothels in the coastal city of Cartagena prior to President Obama's appearance at that year's Summit of the Americas.

Isacson said that by this point Colombians are largely accustomed to the antics and sexual indiscretions — or crimes — of the diplomatically-protected American community in the country.

He recounted regularly encountering members of the US military and civilian contractors during trips to coca-growing regions in the country since the late 1990s. "Wherever there was [eradication] spraying you could always see them," Isacson said. "It was hard to get a chance to talk to them, because they weren't allowed to talk to people. They were always roughhousing, and a lot of them acted like children."

The World Health Organization recently determined that Plan Colombia's preferred herbicide, glyphosate — commonly known as Roundup — has the potential to cause cancer in humans. And though acreage devoted to the production of coca destined for cocaine has fallen in recent years, up to 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the US still originates from Colombia.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford