Update, Mar. 31, 2015, 5:43 p.m.: On March 27, journalists at the McClatchy newspaper chain published an article stating that the Pentagon continued to pay one of the foreign military officers described in this article after his U.S. visa was revoked. Details are below.
Carlos Alberto Ospina Ovalle was deep in the Colombian mountains in the autumn of 1997, directing an Army brigade in a major offensive against a group that Washington formally designated that year as terrorists, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. He achieved some battlefield successes, and five years later, he was appointed chief of the Colombian Armed Forces.
Flash forward to earlier this month: Ospina Ovalle was in a military classroom in Washington, lecturing at the National Defense University to an elite group of U.S. and foreign military officers and civilians from a podium set before a row of Latin American flags. Colleagues at the school, which is chartered by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, say Ospina Ovalle is particularly respected there for his experience under fire and his deep knowledge of counterterrorism strategy.
In recent weeks, however, a less heroic portrayal of Ospina’s past has caught up with him, provoking controversy over his presence in the United States among lawmakers on Capitol Hill and within the Obama administration, and new expressions of concern from Washington’s community of Latin American specialists.
The controversy concerns allegations that back in 1997, Ospina’s Fourth Brigade allowed a pro-government militia to sack the village of El Aro in northern Colombia, brutally killing several people, including some children, and leaving others missing. One shopkeeper was tied to a tree, had his eyes gouged out, and his tongue removed, according to witness reports at the time cited by human rights investigators. Dozens of homes were destroyed, and more than a thousand cattle were stolen.
The controversy also concerns whether the National Defense University, the nation’s premier joint military educational institution, adequately vets its hires from foreign forces for potential involvement in human rights abuses. State Department officials have privately protested its apparent lack of diligence, and the Pentagon may soon be changing its procedures, according to multiple government sources.
“Reports that NDU hired foreign military officers with histories of involvement in human rights abuses, including torture and extra-judicial killings of civilians, are stunning, and they are repulsive,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, in a statement to the Center for Public Integrity. Leahy is the author of the “Leahy Law” prohibiting U.S. assistance to military units and members of foreign security forces that violate human rights.
“I have sought, and have yet to receive, an explanation from the Defense Department,” said Leahy, whose aides began discussing NDU’s hiring of Ospina and several other controversial foreign military officers with Obama administration officials after inquiries by the Center for Public Integrity. “We need to know whether any such individuals remain at NDU or in the United States, and what guidance is in place to ensure that this does not happen again.”
A spokesman for the Pentagon, Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, said he could not comment immediately for this story but that defense officials were preparing a response.
The NDU Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, where Ospina Ovalle taught from 2006 to 2014 before moving to another academic center at the university’s campus in Washington, D.C., has itself been rocked by controversy in recent years. A nonpublic report in 2012 by a U.S. Army colonel, appointed by the Center’s director in response to persistent staff complaints, concluded that “a hostile work environment exists”; that its staff had displayed “a lack of sensitivity towards the use of derogatory language”; and many employees felt its leaders routinely retaliated against those who questioned them.