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Army Reviewing Rape Charges Against U.S. Troops In Colombia

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith. In recent years, the country of Columbia has been the scene of scandal for U.S. security officials. Last month, a Justice Department investigation found that DEA agents were attending sex parties with Colombian prostitutes. That follows a similar incident a few years ago when members of President Obama's Secret Service team were sent home after partying with prostitutes. And now, the government of Colombia has issued a truth commission report on the country's civil war that alleges multiple cases of sexual abuse by U.S. troops or military contractors. Some call it an exaggeration, but many Colombians are pushing for justice. Journalist John Otis reports from Bogota.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: On the streets of Bogota, thousands march this week to support peace talks between the government and the FARC guerrillas. But they also wanted to honor the victims of the 51-year-old conflict. Those victims include thousands of women and girls who were sexually abused mostly by Colombian soldiers, paramilitary groups and guerrillas. But the truth commission report claims that Americans or other foreigners employed by U.S. companies supporting the Colombian military sexually abused at least 53 underage girls in the mid-2000s. The case that's received the most attention involves the 12-year-old daughter of a Colombian woman named Olga Castillo. Castillo carried out her own investigation and is still demanding justice.

OLGA CASTILLO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Castillo tells me that in 2007, her daughter was drugged and taken to a Colombian military base where she was raped by a U.S. Army sergeant and a military contractor. Christopher Grey, a spokesman for the U.S. Army's Criminal Investigation Command, says his unit determined that the rape allegations were unfounded. Still, his office is investigating the new allegations in the Truth Commission report. We take this issue very seriously and will aggressively pursue all credible allegations, Grey told NPR in an email. In the lengthy government report, the allegations make up just one paragraph, which was written by a FARC appointee to the Truth Commission. A spokesman for the Colombian Attorney General's office said there's no record of widespread sexual abuse by U.S. military personnel in the mid-2000s. That's also the view of Keith Sparks, a U.S. military contractor who's been working in Colombia since 1999.

KEITH SPARKS: During my tenure as a country manager with DynCorp, we had at one point up to a thousand employees. And there was never, on my watch, any accusations of rape or anything that I heard about.

OTIS: Still, some experts say the accusations are troubling in light of other scandals involving Americans. In 2005, for example, several U.S. soldiers were arrested for smuggling cocaine and selling ammunition to paramilitaries. Shortly before President Obama's visit to Cartagena, a dozen members of his Secret Service team were sent home for partying with prostitutes. And last month, a U.S. Justice Department investigation found that members of the Drug Enforcement Administration had attended sex parties with Colombian prostitutes. Adam Isacson is a security policy analyst at the independent Washington Office on Latin America.

ADAM ISACSON: Even more troubling, these sex parties that the DEA agents were repeatedly holding were often funded by narco-traffickers themselves and that the DEA agents were leaving their laptops and blackberries and secure communications in the room with the prostitutes who, you know, probably might have had some incentive to actually get their hands on some of that information so it's a big security risk.

OTIS: Given these episodes, perhaps it's no surprise that many of the people marching in the street on behalf of the war's victims say they believe the sex abuse allegations. For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Bogota, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.