Instead of spurring a serious investigation into alleged sexual abuse carried out by the US military in Colombia, I feel my recent reporting on the scandal has been a disservice to my readers and to victims. Here’s why.
In February, the Historic Commission on the Armed Conflict released its report on the causes and aggravators of Colombia’s 50-year-long armed conflict between leftist rebel groups such as the FARC and the state.
I believe I was one of maybe a handful of people who actually read the report. It was more than 800 pages and no normal person with an actual job has the time to read through such dry lecture.
I dreaded the exercise myself too. After reading the first pages, I got horribly bored and asked an intern to divide the report into topics; the first being the United States, as the majority of our readers are from that country.
That way I hoped I was able to get to information more quickly without having to first read up about rural reforms proposed during the “Liberal Republic” in the 1930s, and other stuff that would never end up with a reader anyway.
When I received the piece about the United States, the first thing I noticed was the claim of Professor Renan Vega that the US had been raping and filming 53 minors in Melgar in 2004, and had raped a 12-year-old girl in the same town three years later.
Colombia Reports had already in 2009 reported about the 2007 rape case, and after a quick online verification I found no confirmation of the 2004 case, so I decided against publication of the accusation.
In late March, however, I changed my mind.
Newspaper El Tiempo again published the heartbreaking story of Olga Castillo, whose daughter was raped — allegedly by American military men — in Melgar in 2007.
I subsequently did a more thorough search on Google and found media reports from 2009 and 2013 in which more accusations of sexual abuse came to the surface. I also found El Tiempo media reports from 2004 confirming Vega’s claim, but in a much less conclusive manner.
With now several independent sources claiming sexual abuse, I decided to write the story, and to lead with the accusation that had most political and scientific weight: the 2004 Melgar case mentioned in the historic report.
The piece I wrote basically summed up the different accusations of sexual abuse as previously published in the historic report and in Colombian media.
Because I hadn’t personally verified any of these stories, I kept it off the front page, foreseeing the shit storm it could cause if picked up by mainstream outlets before a serious verification exercise had taken place.
Please understand that Colombia Reports is a tiny organization that runs with minimum resources. We could not possibly substantially verify the claims ourselves. We simply don’t have the money or human resources to travel to Melgar or Tumaco while maintaining our daily news production.
I emailed the US embassy to alert them about the article, giving them the opportunity to defend themselves against the accusations if they wanted to.
The embassy, understandably, decided to remain publicly quiet for the time being.
However, the story was immediately picked up by RT and TeleSur, respectively the Russian and Venezuelan state media whose governments have an interest in making the US and its military look bad. Both media outlets bluntly copied and pasted the information, not even accurately.
This follow-up to my story was the opposite of what I hoped for. The last thing I wanted was that garbage propaganda outlets like RT and TeleSur hijacked my work for their crappy political agendas.
Next in line was the Daily Mail, a sensationalist British paper with a track record of taking journalistic ethics or elegance with a pinch of salt. As can be expected from a sensationalist rag, this paper also just bluntly copy-pasted my story, not even bothering to look up the actual historic report or mentioning the less outrageous, but equally interesting claims from other years and sources.
I then received an indignant email from someone who said to have inside information on an investigation carried out by American officials in 2004. I called up the source and he urged me to investigate further, claiming that the DVDs that had gone around in Melgar in 2004 did not contain members of the military or Dyncorp and that the girls in the video weren’t recognized as locals.
I promised the guy to verify the claim, now worried that the shit storm could even be worse; it could be that the integrity of the historic report was compromised and thus rendered worthless while claims of sexual abuse not mentioned in the report were ignored.
Enter US media
Just a few days after my initial publication, US media watchdog FAIR published a story denouncing the lack of attention in American media on such a potentially scandalous story.
I felt this was unfair and commented on the article, stressing that these were just claims, not facts, and that a verification exercise was necessary before this could be presented to large audiences. I felt it was good practice that mainstream media hadn’t picked up on the story because nobody had taken the time to adequately check the veracity of the elusive and dispersed claims.
The FAIR article seemed to spur US media like VICE and the Nation to run the story, this time without clear political bias, providing the merit for news outlets to send a reporter to Colombia to verify the claims, and see whether crimes had taken place and if so to which extent.
US Army investigation
To my surprise, the US Army immediately after announced to ABC News that it would investigate the 2004 Melgar case, explicitly discarding the 2007 Melgar rape and ignoring the surfaced media allegations that sexual abuse had been taking place between 2003 and 2007, and in 2013.
The curious thing is that according to my source, this investigation took place 11 years ago already and the conclusions had long been drawn.
I contacted the US army unit to offer my assistance, making sure they were able to reach me if they intended to actually investigate.
In spite of the brief media storm in the US and the formal investigation, Colombian mainstream media stayed quiet. US media didn’t seem interested in checking the veracity of the claims, so I decided we should have a go ourselves, starting with Vega.
Finding out scholar is suspicious
The newsroom and I sent three requests for an interview with the professor, but without success. According to his university’s communications department, Vega “has his own media” and doesn’t talk to journalists. “His” media proved to be radical leftist websites.
I subsequently sent a very angry email to the university rector, demanding the university’s ethics commission to investigate the scholar. I felt indignant that someone calling himself a scholar can make such outrageous accusations in such an important report and refuse to hand over evidence or even respond an email.
I also tried to get in touch with the main author of the report, but also without success.
My friend Manuel Rueda (Fusion) and I decided we would carry out our own investigations.
We met up with Olga Castillo, the mother of the girl who was raped in Melgar in 2007. The mother showed us the evidence she had of the involvement of a US sergeant and a Dyncorp employee, and showed us video material, possibly corroborating the 2004 Melgar porno allegations.
Several other sources, both American and Colombian, confirmed the claim that videos featuring Americans and Colombian women or girls had been on the market in Melgar in 2004.
Manuel then traveled to Melgar to talk to other locals and local authorities, trying to find testimonies or evidence that would corroborate the claim made by Vega in the historic report.
In the meantime, the Colombia Reports newsroom began sending out information requests to regional prosecution offices, human rights offices and victim organizations across the country to see if other complaints of sexual violence exist. According to several credible sources, these complaints do exist, however, none of them involved the rape and filming of 53 girls from Melgar. There simply existed not one complaint from Melgar, not even with victims’ rights groups we asked.
Once all the requests were sent out, I put myself to watch hours and hours of porn that could potentially contain military personnel. I was able to rule out the involvement of military men in all but three videos. The bulk contained known porn actors who were filming amateur porn in Colombia and other Latin American countries at the time. However, in the remaining three videos there was no clear evidence or even a credible indication of military involvement.
Rueda returned from Melgar empty-handed, without videos, without testimonies, with no confirmation from any authority, but with much less sensational accounts of injustices about for example the failure of US contractors to pay child support to Colombian women they had impregnated while stationed in the South American country.
At that point we knew that Vega was a hack and had compromised the integrity of the historic report by allowing the promotion of his worthless politically biased, almost xenophobic presumptions to outweigh the importance of finding out the truth.
However, at that point it also became clear that sexual abuse most likely did take place (as would be statistically probable), but that this would involve an accumulation of incidents spread over Colombia’s entire national territory in the approximately 15 years that Plan Colombia had been in force.
Scholar admits to being a hack, compromising integrity of report
Fortunately, Rueda was able to get in touch with Vega last week and met up with him at the university. During that interview, Vega admitted to not having a shred of evidence and only knowing about the alleged Melgar abuse “from TV.” He didn’t remember where on TV he saw the accusation.
According to the scholar, he “doesn’t have the time” for fact checking.
By then, it had become obvious that Vega’s claim was most likely based on an urban myth that had entered the historic report because the commission allowed a hack to publish his garbage without any peer reviews.
On Friday, Fusion published Rueda’s article exposing Vega’s lack of evidence that would support such a serious accusation. I published something similar on Saturday, again stressing that indications of sexual violence do exist and that there is the possibility one or two Americans involved in Plan Colombia had been abusive in Melgar, and that investigations in Caqueta and Tumaco from where other allegations arose, require investigation.
This time, both US and Colombian media remained quiet.
I emailed the embassy again, informing them we had closed our investigation, expressing my regret that our initial contact had been under such crappy circumstances. I again stressed that there do exist indications that sex crimes have taken place, but that Vega’s particular claim was essentially a hoax.
I did this because the US Army had only committed to investigating Vega’s accusation, not any of the other allegations. To verify all this, a more forensic approach would be necessary and there was no way we could investigate each allegation with the intensity of the Vega claim.
I angrily emailed the hack scholar, sending him a child’s explanation of the scientific method and a bunch of other implicit insults while offering him a column on CR to defend his lack of ethics. I was furious that this pseudo-scholar had tricked me into spreading untruths. I was depressed after having watched so many hours of disgusting, predatory porn and having involved traumatized victims for no purpose other than to find out we had been had.
On Monday, I informed the newsroom that the Melgar investigation had been closed, and that we would follow up on the allegations from Tumaco and other places in a slower pace.
End of story, I thought, relieved I no longer had to watch depressing porn and could focus Colombia Reports’ few resources on the daily news cycle and other investigations that had gone on hold.
Colombian media wake up
But then came Tuesday and the website of El Tiempo ran exactly the same story I had written five weeks earlier and had since then discarded as an apparent hoax. The Colombian media account didn’t even mention the official army investigation, ignored the remaining allegations and Colombia Reports’ and Fusion’s conclusion that no credible evidence exist to support Vega’s bogus claims.
The story proved to be from Spanish news agency EFE. Other mainstream Colombian media, who had completely ignored the more than evident storm in the US for five weeks, published the same story and suddenly Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office and the Child Welfare agency called on the Foreign Ministry to demand the Americans to begin an investigation they supposedly had begun but allegedly already finished in 2004.
Sadly, in our investigation we had called exactly these offices weeks earlier to inquire about complaints. Neither one has responded to our requests for information. In fact, not one Colombian human rights or prosecution office has sent us any information.
Strangely, the Ombudsman’s Office is supposed to defend the human rights of Colombians and the Family Welfare institute is supposed to protect children’s rights in Colombia. If anyone has data on alleged abuses of minors by Americans, it would be these offices. So why did they not open investigations when we called them? Why did they not help us in our investigations? Why do they ask the alleged perpetrator of the crime to investigate its own alleged crimes against Colombians’ basic rights they are supposed to defend? That doesn’t make sense, does it?
You can pretty much figure out what’s next. Colombia’s Foreign Ministry is likely going to receive an update from the US Army saying they have concluded the investigation of Vega’s accusation and that this accusation proves to be false, as the embassy allegedly already found out in 2004 and had been reported by Fusion and Colombia Reports on Friday and Saturday.
The remaining credible allegations of misconduct or even abuse will remain in impunity as nobody seems to want to take up the responsibility of going through the diffuse claims carefully.
Additionally, rather than having a debate on the integrity of the historic report that was supposed to give a historic account on the responsibility of crimes mainly committed by the FARC and the Colombian state, Colombia is now looking at crimes committed by the Americans while the report is about the suffering caused by the guerrillas and the past X administrations.
Meanwhile, I feel terrible that my initial report on Vega’s bullshit claim has only contributed to the spreading of dishonest political propaganda, rather than contribute to the understanding of the conflict and the complex involvement of the US, its military and its military contractors.
I profoundly regret having published my initial story. I feel that in effect, I have provided a disservice to my readers, to Colombia, and to victims who are now even less likely to find justice.
The only way this can be turned around is by Colombian authorities like the Ombudsman’s Office and the Family Welfare Institute assuming their responsibility and carry out their own investigations, parallel to the one the American army says to be carrying out. Or by American and Colombian mainstream media doing their fucking job.
Until then, alleged child molesters are back in their American neighborhoods, making them a potential domestic threat.