Crimes against volunteers vex Peace Corps

By Lisa Rein

Published: August 20

A Peace Corps volunteer had been raped in Bolivia and wanted justice. Within hours, Julie De Mello was on an airplane from Washington to meet the victim.

De Mello, employed by the Peace Corps inspector general as a senior federal agent investigating crimes against volunteers, worked with the 23-year-old victim, Erin Bingham, to sketch the attacker. De Mello went with Bingham to a police lineup, hired a lawyer to represent her and worked with local police to track down witnesses.

De Mello believes her advocacy helped convict the rapist in 2008. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Today, a Peace Corps volunteer who is the victim of a violent crime is likely to get a far less aggressive U.S. government response. De Mello quit three years ago, after the agency grounded her and the four other investigators who routinely traveled abroad to help local police investigate.

The Peace Corps in 2008 moved the responsibility for working with local police from the inspector general’s office to its own in-country security staffers, most of whom have little or no law enforcement training but who are already on the scene in the host countries. After the change, the rate of prosecutions in sex crimes involving volunteers dropped slightly, records show.

New system is defended

Peace Corps officials say the system is working, and spokeswoman Allison Price said it is difficult to draw conclusions from incomplete statistics kept by the agency. She said the decision to move crime response to local security staffs “was made to ensure a proper alignment of functions,” but she declined to elaborate.

“We take the security of all volunteers seriously,” said Edward Hobson, chief of the Peace Corps’ Office of Safety and Security and a former forensic investigator in Orlando. “If a volunteer chooses to pursue legal options after a crime, we stand beside them every step of the way.”

Victims and critics say the change was among many missteps the Peace Corps has made in protecting its 8,655 volunteers and trainees. The humanitarian organization, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary, has come under fire in recent months for its handling of sexual assaults and the death of a volunteer in West Africa. The young woman, Kate Puzey, was killed days after she told Peace Corps staff that a fellow teacher was molesting students.

In May, Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams acknowledged problems and promised changes at a congressional hearing, where lawmakers and crime victims complained that the Peace Corps suffers from a “blame-the-victim” culture.

Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.), chief House sponsor of a bill that would force the Peace Corps to give sexual assault victims more support, said in an interview that he did not know the Peace Corps had shifted responsibility for crime investigations to in-country security personnel.

“It would seem to me that in criminal cases, you need trained officers responding rather than people who have other duties,” he said.

Peace Corps staff members operate in each of the 77 developing countries where volunteers are posted. They function separately from the U.S. embassies and include security officers who handle many duties. Often, they have no law enforcement background.

Former agents and inspectors general at the Peace Corps said they believe that shifting responsibility to the security staff lessened the chances that crimes will be solved.

“We just felt like this was going to be a travesty and tragedy for volunteers to not have an advocate,” De Mello said.

Peace Corps volunteers always have faced dangers abroad. Volunteers reported more than 1,000 rapes, attempted rapes and sexual assaults from 2000 to 2010, statistics show. Because many crimes go unreported, Peace Corps officials believe the real numbers are higher.

But when volunteers become crime victims, the U.S. government cannot prosecute in a foreign country. It can, however, pressure local authorities - as the federal agents did. That responsibility now falls to the Peace Corps’ local security officers. U.S. Embassy staffers may help, but their resources are limited.

Volunteers in developing countries often deal with police officers who are overloaded with work and undertrained, and they get no special treatment. “A [Peace Corps] volunteer would not be any higher on the totem pole than anyone in the country who was a victim of a violent crime,” said Henry Mulzac, a former detective who worked on the inspector general’s team.

The Peace Corps contends that the number of arrests in crimes against volunteers has remained about the same since responsibilities were shifted. About a third of the reported cases resulted in arrests when the inspector general’s office handled the cases; the percentage remains the same today.

Prosecutions on decline

But the drop in sexual assault cases that result in prosecutions - from about 60 percent to 46 percent, according to figures provided to a congressional committee - underscores what critics call a serious step back for volunteers.

Inspector General Kathy A. Buller last year questioned how effectively the current system is in protecting volunteers. In a report, Buller wrote that the “lack of a comprehensive security policy” could not “ensure consistent support to volunteers.”

But Buller, who was hired in 2008, said in a statement that her office should not be investigating crimes and that the shift of responsibility was appropriate. Otherwise, she said, her office “would be responsible for reviewing a program under its administration,” creating a conflict.

Peace Corps officials say they have made improvements that Buller recommended: Local security programs are now reviewed more thoroughly, and security staffs are offered online training, they said.

The inspector general’s office first took responsibility for investigations in 2003 as the Peace Corps faced several unsolved slayings. Walter Poirier, a volunteer in Bolivia, disappeared in 2001 and was never found. Congressional auditors and news accounts criticized the Peace Corps’ response.

The inspector general’s office hired local lawyers and signed an agreement with the Defense Department to perform autopsies when a volunteer died. Legal cases were laid out in detail in reports to Congress. Dozens of cases were prosecuted.

Julia Campbell, a volunteer from Fairfax County, disappeared in 2007 in a remote village in the Philippines. She was found slain 10 days later. An investigator trained in criminal searches broke the case, working with the Philippine army. Campbell’s killer was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

But by 2008, Peace Corps leaders concluded that the watchdog office should drop the investigative role. Then-Director Ronald A. Tschetter said local police should handle criminal investigations. The inspector general should focus on waste, fraud and abuse, he said.

Geoffrey A. Johnson, then the acting inspector general, argued that Tschetter’s approach would not be as effective. “The majority of law enforcement agencies where Peace Corps programs operate are severely understaffed, undertrained, underpaid and ill-equipped,” he wrote in protest in a memo to Tschetter.

Volunteers and their families have continued to complain about problems dealing with local police forces, and some believe the decision to rely on in-country security staffs has seriously hampered the quest for justice.

Bingham, the volunteer raped in Bolivia, allowed The Washington Post to use her name in praising the work of DeMello. (The Post normally does not identify victims of sexual assault.)

Without a trained investigator, she said, her case would have languished. Prosecutors in the small city where she was attacked had never tried someone for rape - let alone used DNA evidence in court, DeMello said.

“Julie was so experienced,” Bingham said. “She fought so hard for me in all aspects.”