Law Protecting Soldiers Undermines War on Terror

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 12, 2005 10:30 PM

WASHINGTON -- What happens to U.S. soldiers who are charged with aiding and abetting an international terrorist organization?

That question is on the minds of a lot of Colombians these days after U.S. Warrant Officer Allan N. Tanquary and Sgt. Jesus Hernandez were arrested by Colombian police last week allegedly attempting to sell 40,000 rounds of ammunition to Colombia's murderous right-wing paramilitaries. The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, listed by the State Department as an international terrorist organization, has committed some of the worst atrocities in Colombia's four-decade-old conflict.

The country's chief prosecutor, Edgardo Maya, sought to detain the two U.S. soldiers for 24 hours while judicial authorities determined whether or not Colombian law enforcement could prosecute them. But even before Maya got his answer, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe had the officers turned over to U.S. custody.

Uribe had little choice. Not only did he feel bound by immunity agreements to protect U.S. service personnel in his country, Uribe clearly didn't want to upset relations between Colombia and its multibillion-dollar benefactor.

Last week's arrests make seven U.S. military personnel publicly implicated in violations of Colombian law in less than two months. In March, four U.S. service members were accused of smuggling cocaine aboard a military aircraft. Around that time, Colombians also learned about another Army sergeant believed to be involved in the deaths of two Colombian soldiers.

Needless to say, it has been an embarrassing couple months for U.S. officials in Colombia. No one is more disgusted than Ambassador William Wood, who has insisted publicly that "immunity does not mean impunity.'' Wood has further suggested that Washington would be open to discuss the terms of current immunity accords and that Colombian prosecutors would have access to Tanquary and Hernandez.

Colombians, who will be watching closely whether the ambassador and the U.S. government can make good on such promises, are rightly skeptical of the justice served to U.S. military personnel who violate Colombian laws.

Back in 2000, the former commander of the U.S. military's counter-drug mission in Colombia, U.S. Army Col. James Hiett, was tied to a drug-smuggling case in which his wife used the embassy's mail system to send drugs to New York. Army investigators cleared him of any wrongdoing. Later, however, he pleaded guilty to failing to turn in his wife for drug-money laundering and was sentenced to five months in prison. Had he been a civilian, he would have received, at the very least, a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.

More recently, Colombian judicial authorities have been investigating the hit-and-run deaths of two Colombian soldiers. Colombian authorities say a U.S. Army sergeant drove the vehicle that killed the men. Reportedly, the U.S. government conducted two investigations and concluded that there was no evidence against the sergeant -- all without Colombian prosecutors' involvement.

In a recent editorial, Colombia's largest daily newspaper, El Tiempo, decried the Tanquary-Hernandez episode as over the line, and called for revisions to immunity agreements with the United States. Otherwise, the editorial writer argued, Colombians who have fought hard to end lawlessness will believe that their government gives the "unexplainable'' impression that it condones criminal behavior.

The frustration Colombians feel is just the tip of a growing discomfort in Latin America over Washington's aggressive pursuit of immunity agreements, more recently as part of efforts to shield U.S. service personnel from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

Yet Gen. Bantz Craddock, commander of the U.S. military's Southern Command, testified before Congress in March that Washington's eagerness to protect U.S. soldiers abroad is undermining U.S. military relations with key countries in the region. It is an "unintended consequence,'' Craddock warned, of the 2002 law that shields U.S. troops and also withholds military and economic aid from those countries that don't sign immunity agreements.

Today 11 countries in the Western Hemisphere, including Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, can no longer participate in U.S. funded military education and training programs because they refuse to sign bilateral agreements protecting U.S. service personnel from extradition to The Hague. "We now risk losing contact,'' Craddock said, "with a generation of military classmates in many nations of the region, including several leading countries.''

In December, Congress piled on additional sanctions, suspending nearly $27 million in U.S. aid designated for promoting democracy and economic growth as well as for fighting corruption, organized crime and terrorism to countries that didn't sign the ICC agreements. Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chairman of the appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, has said that such penalties reduce the effectiveness of a "tool of diplomatic influence,'' potentially hamstringing foreign policy priorities, including the war on terrorism. As Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., and a member of the House International Relations Committee, said, "there has to be a better way.''

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.

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