The scholar who accused US military personnel of sexually abusing more than 50 minors without evidence hit back at media last week, saying several outlets “muddied [his] good name and intellectual prestige,” and did so out of “laziness.”
Last month, Colombia Reports and US news website Fusion revealed that the claim made by Professor Renan Vega in a historical study commissioned by the government and FARC peace delegations turned out to be groundless.
In the report on root causes of the 50-year internal conflict and its victims, co-authored by a dozen Colombian academics, the scholar wrote that US soldiers and military contractors sexually abused 53 young girls in 2004 – a claim Vega later was forced to admit he had no evidence for.
The refuting of the claim was subsequently published on news website Pulzo and political analysis website La Silla Vacia, which called Vega’s baseless accusation a “historical blunder.”
However, the embattled scholar said that media outlets like Fusion, La Silla Vacia and Colombia Reports were trying to misinform the public and effectively end adequate investigations of US conduct in Colombia.
Vega said on May 13 that he is the victim of “malicious” and “personal” attacks by the media, which reported on the erroneous claim in his report.
“The attacks have focused on the case of Melgar, which occupies just half a page in an essay of 60 pages,” Vega said. “Despite the scandalous nature of the case … it is not the worst that appears in the report.”
He continued: “Why does the discussion focus on only two paragraphs that constitute the section of ‘sexual imperialism’, and not the remaining 59 pages of my report?” the scholar asked.
The origin of the scandal
The 809-page document — published by the Historic Commission on the Colombian Conflict and its Victims — was released in February this year.
The report aims to help negotiators determine who is responsible for the more than 7 million victims of the armed conflict between leftist rebels and the state while they are negotiating peace in Havana, Cuba.
Vega focused his part of the study on the American military, writing, “there exists abundant information about the sexual violence, in absolute impunity thanks to the bilateral agreements and the diplomatic immunity of United States officials.”
Without citing sources, the historian claimed that “53 underage girls were sexually abused by mercenaries who moreover filmed [the abuse] and sold the films as pornographic material.”
The claim caused a firestorm in US media and prompted a quick response from the US Army, which said it had “no record” of the rape cases.
An army spokesman told ABC News and Fusion that authorities would “investigate any credible allegations.”
Colombia Reports and Fusion began parallel investigations into this and other cases of possible sexual abuse and, based on revising video material and visits to Melgar, found that Vega’s claim was most likely an urban myth.
Two weeks ago, Vega, who is head of the Social Science department at the Pedagogical University in Bogota, admitted to Fusion he had no evidence to substantiate his claims.
The scholar told the news website that he got the victims number from local media reports from 2004, and also from a 2007 thesis paper on US military contractors written by a masters student at the Free University in Berlin, Germany.
“I didn’t have an opportunity to do fieldwork,” Vega told Fusion. “I’m not a journalist or a sociologist … and I was asked to limit the number of pages. So I relied on the sources that I just told you about.”
In his public response to his apparent false claim, Vega lashed out at the media who he called “lazy,” accusing outlets like Fusion, Colombia Reports La Silla Vacia of trying to divert attention away from the “terrible impact” of US intervention in Colombia through “malicious” and “personal attacks.”
“The report, like its author, have been the target of a malicious and personal attacks, which has distorted its content and objective,” Vega said in his seven-page response to the media reports.
“The attacks have focused on the Melgar case, which occupies only half a page of a 60-page essay,” the scholar stressed.
“Despite the scandalous nature of the claim, which left a historical record, it is not the worst thing that appears in the report,” said Vega.
Moreover, said Vega, whether his claim is true or false, “the underlying theme is ignored. There are sexual abuses, and those responsible (officials, citizens and troops) are shielded by agreements of impunity, which have been ratified by the Colombian government and would represent a shame and disgrace for any decent country. This underlying theme is what media like La Silla Vacia and Colombia Reports are trying to distort and ignore.”
The reports are “trying to hide the forest with a tree,” he added.
The media focus on the false claim about the US’ ‘sexual imperialism’ in Colombia is partly due to “the laziness of journalists,” said the historian, adding that reporters are “possessed by a syndrome of sensationalism, instead of serious, rigorous and measured analysis.”
Vega vs. the media
This website, alongside Fusion, opened a still-ongoing investigation into possible sexual abuse by the US military in other regions of the Andean country during which they found Vega’s claims were likely based on an urban myth – other allegations of sexual abuse emerged.
Colombia Reports Editor-in-Chief Adriaan Alsema, subsequently published a column in which he said he regretted having published Vega’s accusations, claiming, like Vega, it had drawn attention away from other allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct.
“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,” Alsema stated.
La Silla Vacia then called the credibility of the historic report in question, as there appeared to be no adequate peer review of the work that could have spotted Vega’s false claim.
In spite of being informed about Colombia Reports’ ongoing investigation on sexual abuse, Vega said media sought to “avoid any investigation or charges” of US military personnel’s “criminal activity, and close the investigation like they are doing with the sex crimes.”
The editor of Colombia Reports responded to this by saying Vega “should take responsibility”, as “he allowed presumption to neglect the scientific method.”
La Silla Vacia went as far as headlining their article on the scandal as ‘The historic blunder of Renan Vega,’ on May 8.
However, according to Vega, that website has a history of stigmatizing him.
“We remember that La Silla Vacia, from the moment that the Historic Commission on the Colombian Conflict and its Victims was created, proceeded to draw up a diagram that classified each of its members from ‘extreme-left’ to ‘extreme-right’ and of course I appeared on the ‘extreme left,’” stated Vega.
“Upon the release of the final report, once again La Silla Vacia proceeded to categorize – without considering the consequences this could have in a country like Colombia – each member of the commission, ascribing us to either the FARC or the government,” the scholar said.
“With this background it is not surprising that La Silla Vacia is involved in the blunder we discussed in this article which has muddied my good name and my intellectual prestige,” he added.
‘Do not misinform’, Vega tells media
“One can recommend to the journalists of la Silla Vacia and Colombia Reports … a little restraint and sanity, and hopefully this negative experience serves to document about the logic of the work of the historian, because this would help them a lot in their daily work, which is in terms of ethics, not to misinform and distort,” said Vega.
Respuesta a los Infundios de la Silla Vacía (Renan Vega)