MEDELLIN, Colombia — A woman who says her 12-year-old daughter was raped by an American soldier in Colombia is asking President Obama to not let her case “disappear” after the U.S. Army dismissed her claims.
Olga Castillo has been struggling for years to convince Colombian and American officials to prosecute U.S. Army Sgt. Michael Coen and contractor Cesar Ruiz for sexually assaulting her daughter. Castillo claims the two men drugged the girl in a nightclub in August 2007 then smuggled her inside a military base in Melgar, Colombia.
In an interview on Tuesday, Castillo lashed out at U.S. Army spokesman Chris Grey who told USA Today last week that military investigators had travelled to Colombia and looked into her daughter’s case but concluded the allegations are “unfounded.”
“I feel very hurt,” Castillo told Fusion. “I don’t understand why this man says this when there is proof from forensic [scientists] that my daughter was raped.”
Grey spoke about Castillo’s case after announcing the army will probe recent allegations made in a Colombian government report that U.S. soldiers and contractors sexually assaulted 53 other girls in Colombia between 2004 and 2007. He said there has been no record of any of the attacks.
Castillo believes her daughter wasn't the only victim. “They are women made of flesh and bone whose childhoods were damaged and who are still suffering from what was done to them,” she said.
Castillo's case is well-known in Colombia; she is one of the few family members of the alleged victims to step forward and publicly accuse U.S. soldiers of committing sexual crimes.
The 41-year-old mother said that shortly after she went public about her daughter’s case, a Colombian government investigator told her to flee her hometown of Melgar because “dangerous” men were looking for her.
Castillo had to abandon an events decoration business she ran, and now makes a meager living as a tattoo artist traveling to small town fairs around the country.
“This case changed everything for us,” she said.
Castillo initially took her case to Colombian authorities. But the case reached a dead end when prosecutors in Bogota told her American soldiers and other military personnel are granted immunity from legal prosecution in Colombia under an agreement between the two countries.
In 2009, the U.S. Embassy in Colombia told the Miami-based El Nuevo Herald the army did not find “enough evidence” to prosecute Sgt. Coen and Ruiz, a Mexican-born contractor.
Both men were flown to the U.S. in December 2007, a few months after Castillo said her daughter was raped.
In an email, Grey told Fusion that army investigators had tried to interview Castillo’s daughter, but that Castillo and her lawyers “declined the opportunity” for U.S. agents to interview the victim.
“We take this issue very seriously and will aggressively pursue all credible allegations,” he said.
Castillo tells a different story. She said that in 2008 she sought help from the U.S. Embassy and was approached by a Colombian-born U.S. Army investigator. Castillo said the man told her to meet him at a police station in Bogota, where he asked her to sign a document in English, a language that Castillo doesn’t understand.
Castillo said she asked the man to translate the document.
“The paper said that I was not looking for remuneration, that I did not know the two men [the rape suspects],” she said. ”They were trying to shove the incident under the rug.”
Castillo refused to sign the document and told the man he could not question her daughter, who was 12 at the time, if a lawyer was not present. She said the man had a gun strapped to his waist during the meeting and constantly showed her he was armed.
“He was threatening me,” Castillo said. “He was trying to pressure me into signing that paper.”
The U.S. army confirmed that a meeting between Castillo and a special agent who is “fluent in Spanish,” took place. But in an email Grey rejected any claims that Castillo was harassed during the interview, he added that the special agent was not armed.
Grey said that Castillo was asked to sign her statement but was never presented with documents in English, or pressured to desist from her accusations against the military.
“We strongly reject any claims that this was anything but a very professionally conducted witness interview,” the army spokesman said.
Castillo says she has received several death threats since she accused Coen and Ruiz of raping her daughter.
To avoid more threats, Castillo has moved to different cities three times since she first made her accusation seven years ago. She currently lives in a windowless room tucked into one of Medellin’s many slums. Because of security concerns, she prefers to no longer live with her daughter, who has never spoken to the media or had her picture published in the local press.
Castillo's daughter is now 20 and lives with her boyfriend in another city, hundreds of miles away from Medellin.
The case has taken a heavy toll on Castillo and her family.
“I used to be a very social woman, I worked hard doing events decoration and I used to have lots of friends,” Castillo said.
“Now, I don’t have any friends. I live with with only a few things, because each time I have to flee somewhere I have to leave everything behind,” Castillo added, her eyes filling with tears.
Castillo says her daughter has tried to commit suicide three times since she was raped, and never got a job. “She never leaves her house. She sleeps in the day and stays awake at night, like an owl.”
Castillo is hoping that human-rights groups in the U.S. will take an interest in the case. She wants her daughter’s claims to be heard either in a U.S. court or at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an international institution where governments can be sued for negligence.
“I hope Obama realizes that American soldiers are going to other countries and committing lots of crimes,” Castillo said. “Look what they did to my family, look how they left us, we don’t have anything in material terms, but I have my daughters and they are alive.”
“All I want is justice,” she added. “Girls in our country have to be respected.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.