A case debunked, but truth is elusive | PostIndependent.com

A case debunked, but truth is elusive

Esther Cepeda
Staff Photo |

CHICAGO — In mid-April, I wrote about official allegations that American soldiers and contractors based in Colombia had sexually assaulted dozens of young girls between 2003 and 2007, with some of the attacks being taped and sold as pornography.

Those allegations have been debunked.

The shocking charges had been included in an 800-page report released in February by the Colombian government and the rebel group FARC. They’ve now been discredited by the same news outlet, Colombia Reports, an English-language publication based in Medellin, that initially reported on them in late March.

It turns out that the specific incidences that were detailed in the government’s historical truth commission report were simply unfounded.

In the weeks after the initial reporting on the government’s February document — and lack of mainstream media interest in the story — Colombia Reports teamed up with Fusion Media Network, a joint venture of Univision and Disney/ABC, to do the difficult legwork of hunting down the historian who researched the information that went into the government report and finding victims or their advocates to go on record about the allegations.

What they found was, well, atrocious.

According to Adriaan Alsema, editor in chief of Colombia Reports, the historian who had written the paper, Renan Vega of the National Pedagogic University in Bogota, admitted that he got his information from scattered secondary sources and had no case files or identified victims to support his estimate that up to 53 minors had been assaulted in the town of Melgar.

“The scholar in this historic report didn’t do even basic fact-checking,” an exasperated Alsema told me in a phone interview. “I mean, it’s not like this was a magazine where everybody contributes an op-ed. This was a historic report put out by the government and it, at least the part that was written by this professor, is garbage.”

In an interview with Manuel Rueda, Fusion’s Mexico and South America correspondent, Vega defended himself: “The important thing is not to get stuck on that number, but to understand the context behind these cases.”

There are multiple contexts to consider.

First, and most important, is that there are issues with America’s two-century relationship with Colombia. And they’re rarely given any media play despite how much money and manpower the United States has invested in making that country and its surrounding region safe, in accessing natural resources, and in fighting drug production and trafficking.

Only juicy scandals — the Secret Service agents who got busted partying with prostitutes in Cartagena prior to President Obama’s visit in 2012 and last March when DEA agents stationed in Colombia were found to have attended sex parties financed by local drug dealers — spur meaty U.S. coverage of Colombia or any other Latin American country.

Second, there have been other allegations of crimes perpetrated by Americans stationed in Colombia.

“There was pornography that was made in Melgar in 2004 with young women and professional porn actors from the U.S., there are women who are preyed upon and impregnated by Americans then left with children and no support. And, for that matter, there is a case in which a then-12-year-old girl from Melgar was drugged and raped, but whose suspected American rapists were taken out of Colombia,” Alsema told me. “The U.S. Army has called this case ‘unfounded’ — so basically the Army has promised to look into the cases which we’ve already determined are untrue, but have denied a case in which local authorities actually have reports of a documented rape and a U.S. Army sergeant and a contractor are suspects.”

Alsema is disgusted by the whole thing, from the sham report to the lack of journalistic interest in getting to the bottom of all this, to the damage real and fake allegations cause.

“It’s very important to get these stories out and get them right,” Alsema said. “Colombia was always quite pro-American, but stories like this fuel the fire against Americans — they’re getting a horrible reputation about how they treat women. [Increasingly] there is this picture of American men and, whether we’re talking a military guy, a contractor or civilian, people will say, ‘whatever, it’s a gringo.’”

Everyone should be concerned about our interests and reputation in Latin America — let’s start by paying attention to what happens there.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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