Photo of American military boots via Creative Commons.
There’s increasing recognition these days of the widespread problems of sexual assault in the military. But how does that culture of sexual violence spread out from the military to impact civilians? A new report by an independent Colombian commission on violence reveals a troubling pattern: the report says that American military personnel sexually assaulted civilians with impunity.
In a rare move, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group worked together to establish a commission to investigate violence in their country. Their 800-page report, released last month, says that U.S. soldiers and military contractors sexually assaulted 54 Colombian girls from 2003 to 2007.
The assaults took place largely in and around the small town of Melgar and were concentrated at the Tolemaida Air Base, according to the report, where the soldiers and contractors filmed their crimes and sold them as pornography. None of the assailants faced criminal charges, however, as they were protected by the diplomatic immunity proffered by the bilateral agreement governing their stay.
Renan Vega, a professor at the National University of Colombia at Bogota, authored the section of the report which focused on the U.S. military’s involvement in the region. He wrote, “There exists abundant information about the sexual violence, in absolute impunity thanks to the bilateral agreements and the diplomatic immunity of United States officials.”
In particular, Vega’s report details a 2007 case, which sparked widespread outrage at the time, involving a 12–year-old girl who was allegedly drugged in Melgar and kidnapped to the military base by U.S. Sergeant Michael Coen and contractor Cesar Ruiz. The two are said to have raped the girl and uploaded film of the crime to a pornography site. When the immunity agreement prevented Colombian prosecution, Coen and Ruiz were flown back to the U.S. with promises that the duo would be tried in military court. To date, however, they faced no consequences for the acts.
Colombian troops at the Tolemaida Air Base, where American military personnel allegedly assaulted 54 local girls.
That’s true of all the alleged assailants detailed in Vega’s reporting. The U.S. forces came to Colombia by joint agreement to fight drug producers there and help the national government in their battle against FARC, which was then ongoing. Though the U.S. forces and employees enjoyed immunity, local citizens spoke up about assaults. According to the Colombian daily newspaper El Tiempo, locals filed 23 formal complaints were made about the issue in 2006, with an additional thirteen being made in 2007.
Despite the report’s explosive revelations, the disclosures have received scant attention in the U.S. media, with no major outlets reporting the story. The website Talking About Colombia ruefully contrasts this silence to the avalanche of attention greeting recent news about DEA agents having held “sex parties” with prostitutes in the same country.
As of yet, the U.S. government has not announced plans to investigate these allegations, despite the official and authoritative nature of the report A petition has started on the website Force Change, urging the Obama Administration to act on the report’s findings.
These disturbing allegations reflect the silence around rape within the military’s culture here in United States too. Recent documentary The Invisible War revealed the armed services as a place where sexual assault is rampant, punishments target victims rather than perpetrators, and offenders advance in the ranks unimpeded while those who suffer assault are often weeded out.
Coast Guard member and rape survivor Kori Cioca and her husband, Rob, in a sill from the The Invisible War. Credit: Cinedigm/Docurama Films
A 2014 survey of U.S. military service people found that 20,000 out of 170,000 people had been sexually assaulted within the past year. Of those who’d suffered assaults, one in four filed complaints. While horrific, these numbers sadly marked a sharp improvement from 2012, when 26,000 soldiers reported having been assaulted, and only one in eight made formal complaints.
Charges like those in the Colombia report demonstrate the grim outcome of sending people steeped in sexual violence, and cloaked with immunity, to police another country. Like the atrocities at Abu Ghraib and crimes like the ones Coen and Ruiz are accused of belie the notion of the U.S. military a force for moral good in foreign countries. Instead, once again, members of our forces are said to be carrying out dehumanizing sexually aggressive acts with impunity.
The 54 allegations of rape detailed by Vega in the Colombian report are not the only assaults U.S. forces in the region are said to have committed. Local newspaper El Turbian wrote of 37 additional minors sexually assaulted by military personnel and contractors from the States whose stories, because they could not be independently verified, were not included in the official document.
According to the Colombian government, 7,234 women registered as victims of sex crimes during their country’s long conflict, a legacy of violence and suffering the U.S. is sadly a part of, despite refusal to acknowledge it.
To observe the disparity in how those alleged assaults have played out for their assailants and survivors, one need only survey the aftermath of the Coen/Ruiz incident. The family of the girl involved fled the town of Melgar for Medellin soon after the alleged crime became public, saying harassment and threats from U.S. forces made their lives in the town unlivable.
Like the victimized soldiers in The Invisible War, the family received no redress or chance at justice for the violations they claimed occurred. Instead, they were driven out.
Leela Ginelle is a trans woman playwright and journalist whose work appears in PQ Monthly, Bitch, and the Advocate.