With scores killed in a bloody agrarian conflict surrounding its plantations in Honduras, the World Bank-supported company Corporación Dinant is hard at work these days defending its image.
The company now uses a high-end Washington publicity firm and has fired off letters to the news media, denouncing its critics and rejecting a damning World Bank audit. Among the many defenses the company has offered is its work with Col. Charles “Don” McFetridge, an American expert in corporate security and human rights.
However, the mention of McFetridge, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army, evokes a separate battle over human rights and widespread violence that occurred far from the Bajo Aguán valley in Honduras where Dinant operates.
McFetridge served as the U.S. Defense Department’s attaché in Indonesia in the dying days of the Suharto regime, whose military was trained and supported by Washington despite notorious human rights abuses.
McFetridge’s critics have portrayed him as a forceful advocate for what they describe as an immoral American military buildup of Indonesian forces involved in disappearances, torture and attacks on civilians. McFetridge does not dispute that he supported close military relations with the dictatorship, but he contends that isolating Jakarta would not have encouraged reform.
McFetridge’s time in Indonesia was enmeshed in arguments about the local military’s responsibility for violence, pitting policy goals against possibly inconvenient realities. Sixteen years later, his work for Dinant in Honduras may raise similar dilemmas as the company faces accusations of ties to death squads and targeting of its foes.
When the United States finally severed military relations with Indonesia in 1999, over military violence surrounding an independence referendum in East Timor, American policy was at last officially recognizing what human rights activists and others had been saying for years.
The Indonesian military “either can’t or won’t stop the violence,” President Clinton conceded shortly after the United States had informed Jakarta that it was ending all military ties.
Interviews with former U.S. Embassy officials suggest that bitterness over this internal policy conflict has not faded with time.
Edmund McWilliams, who served as political counselor at the U.S. Embassy from 1996 to 1999, frequently clashed with McFetridge over human rights. “Certainly at least in my knowledge of him he was not at all sensitive to what we would consider the most fundamental human rights concerns,” McWilliams said.
“I would see him essentially going to dismiss human rights claims in order to serve what he would consider the more important agenda.”
McFetridge rebuffs his critics emphatically.
“I strongly advocated for reform of the Indonesian armed forces and noted that the most effective voices inside the military for reform came from foreign-, especially U.S.- and Australian-trained, officers. The current democratically elected president of Indonesia, for example, is a graduate of U.S. military training,” he wrote in an email, referring to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
McFetridge’s work these days consists largely in advising extractive industry clients on how to maintain their security while respecting human rights by adhering to voluntary guidelines.
Dinant told 100Reporters that it had retained outside help after “massive and illegal invasions of our lands carried out by armed groups” beginning in 2009.
That year, a military coup ousted President Manuel Zelaya and led to spiraling violence and crime in the country. More than a hundred mostly poor peasant farmers have died in an ensuing agrarian conflict, according to human rights workers.
Roger Pineda, a spokesman for Dinant, said that the World Bank’s International Finance Corp. introduced the company to McFetridge, presenting the former colonel “as someone with high credentials to assess companies facing security challenges.”
“As far as Dinant’s concerns, we believe his expertise has been of enormous help to our company in order to improve our security staff performance,” Pineda wrote in a letter.
An IFC spokesperson said McFetridge had 13 years of experience in advising companies around the world on security and human rights. In 2008, McFetridge co-authored a “toolkit” on implementing the voluntary guidelines on human rights.
Congress Takes a Stand
During his time at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, McFetridge’s work fell in the middle of a controversy that continues to divide American officials.
Does U.S. military aid embolden human rights violators and entrench impunity? Or, to the contrary, is it the only way of exerting any positive influence?
Following the Indonesian military’s 1991 massacre of more than 270 civilians in East Timor, the U.S. Congress voted to cut off military aid under International Military Education and Training, or IMET, the program most often used for foreign training courses.
But Congress only thought it had put a stop to this. When continued training was exposed in 1998 under a separate program, the so-called Joint Combined Exchange Training program run by U.S. Special Forces, lawmakers in both parties denounced it as a “loophole,” a “dramatic end run,” and a “violation of Congressional intent.”
Diplomatic cables held by the National Security Archive, a research organization in Washington, show that at high-level meetings during the final months of Suharto’s rule, American and Indonesian officials were straining to maintain military ties in face of U.S. lawmakers’ opposition — which they hoped to reverse.
Officials from both countries were eager for Indonesia to pursue U.S. training and equipment by using other training programs to circumvent the ban on IMET.
McFetridge sat in as the note taker in one such meeting in November of 1997 when Jan M. Lodal, then the principal deputy U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, told Edi Sudrajat, Suharto’s defense minister, that “we want to reestablish the closeness we had enjoyed at times in the past,” and that the Clinton administration was “committed to working with Congress” to make this happen.
As the U.S. defense attaché, McFetridge was in regular contact with Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, a Suharto son-in-law who commanded the feared special forces unit known as Komando Pasukan Khusus, or Kopassus. Prabowo is now a candidate for the Indonesian presidency, whose unsavory past has become a campaign issue.
Kopassus reportedly received U.S. training under the JCET program on nearly 30 occasions between 1991 and 1998 — in sniper skills, rapid infiltration and other areas — despite allegations of torturing and killing civilians.
But with scandal looming in early 1998, U.S. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen personally toured the Kopassus base near Jakarta. There, the red berets performed some of their trademark tests of manhood, such as exposing themselves to scorpions and bats, according to The Washington Post.
Prabowo had long enjoyed close relations with the American military and is a graduate of American officer training courses at Fort Bragg and Fort Benning.
He has, however, also reportedly been unable to obtain a U.S. entry visa due to his human rights record. (A State Department spokesman would only say that visa applications are reviewed individually under federal law.)
McFetridge attended another meeting in November of 1997 with Stanley O. Roth, an assistant U.S. secretary of state. There, Prabowo showered the U.S. with praise and said he wanted to buy U.S. training through the Foreign Military Sales program, yet another means of getting around the IMET ban.
Still, according to a declassified cable, Prabowo said “somebody” in the State Department or Pentagon had blocked the FMS request. Roth promised to look into the hold up.
The National Security Archive cables do not make clear what McFetridge’s own professional views on Prabowo were at the time.
But McWilliams said McFetridge was enthusiastic about Kopassus and Prabowo.
“That was perhaps the blackest part of the security forces and Prabowo and Don had a close relationship,” he said.
To McFetridge, who described his interactions with McWilliams as “acrimonious at best,” his former colleague’s assessment is deeply unfair.
McWilliams and others were in no position to know his true feelings about Prabowo, McFetridge said in a lengthy email.
“I personally investigated allegations of human rights incidents and, on more than one occasion, convinced the Indonesian authorities to conduct their own investigation that led to arrests, courts-martial and prison sentences,” he wrote.
“I believed then as now that the most effective way to improve and reform an institution is through education.”
In his work for Dinant in Honduras, McFetridge concluded in 2011 that the security setup did not comply with strict World Bank regulations on private guards, notably in that Dinant had not performed a risk analysis.
According to the organization Rights Action, more than 100 targeted killings, with many bearing the hallmarks of death squad activity, occurred in the Bajo Aguán between 2010 and early 2013.
In his email to 100Reporters, McFetridge described the situation in the Bajo Aguán as complex.
“You should already be aware that Dinant’s courageous, unilateral initiative to withdraw the firearms from their guard force was answered by the murder of one of their defenseless security guards and the illegal seizure of Dinant land,” he said.
The company announced in May that it was disarming its private guards but that it had built on-site barracks for the Honduran military’s Xatruch Joint Forces, whom human rights activists accuse of a high degree of violence.
Pineda said last month that the killing happened “about two weeks ago” but this could not be independently verified.
McFetridge recommended that 100Reporters contact Barbara S. Harvey, a former colleague of both McFetridge and McWilliams who served as deputy chief of mission at the embassy until 1997.
Harvey, now retired, told 100Repoters she was a friend of McFetridge, whom she described as “entirely honorable.”
McWilliams, on the other hand, was another story: “I found him very difficult,” she said.
“I felt it was very helpful to have people who were new” to the country, said Harvey. “Ed McWilliams had his mind up before he even got there.”
Harvey said that she felt compelled to instruct the political section to avoid bias in its reporting. Harvey also made clear that she and McWilliams had been on opposite sides of the key question of the day.
McWilliams told Washington that proponents of training were unable to cite any evidence for their claim that it led to reforms.
But according to Harvey, it may be the only hope.
“The only way to influence people is to have contact with them,” she said. “Every reformer in the Indonesian military was trained either by the United States or to a lesser extent by Australia.”
Vetting for Human Rights
Congress took a different view in 1997 when it adopted the so-called Leahy Law, a set of statutes that outlaw security assistance to foreign units known to have engaged in violations of human rights.
“I understand why it was passed. I have problems with it,” said Harvey.
McWilliams said the acrimony within the embassy, with Harvey in particular, arose out of conflicting policy goals.
“She very conscientiously worked to advance the interests of a Suharto-Washington relationship,” said McWilliams. “Within six months it became obvious to me that a lot of the Indonesian military’s abuses in not only West Papua but East Timor were going unreported by the embassy.”
“As a consequence, we had a difficult relationship.”
In 1998, the year Suharto resigned, McWilliams received the American Foreign Service Association’s Christian Herter Award for “constructive dissent.” After his retirement in 2001, he became an activist on human rights issues in Indonesia.
Close Ties Prompt Scrutiny
As the drama of the Suharto resignation played out, the activist and journalist Allan Nairn wrote an article in The Nation accusing McFetridge of “close and friendly” contact with Col. Chairawan, commander of Group 4, the Kopassus subunit believed responsible for the kidnapping and disappearances of pro-democracy activists.
Nairn told 100Reporters that McFetridge’s communications with Chairawan occurred as the kidnappings were being carried out. But he couldn’t say what, if anything, Chairawan had actually told McFetridge.
“They were doing this as Kopassus was committing the crimes,” Nairn said. Chairawan, whom Nairn interviewed for his article, “didn’t provide the details in those conversations.”
McFetridge said he had never had the chance to respond to Nairn’s allegations at the time because he was then still in uniform and prohibited from speaking to the news media. Given his role as defense attaché, contact with Indonesian military officers was part of his job.
“Mr. Nairn quoted Col. Chairawan as saying he knew me (true, we had met) and that I spoke to him in Indonesian (also true since Col. Chairawan did not speak English),” wrote McFetridge.
“I was acquainted with Col. Chairawan and that is all. There were no ‘communications’ with him and to infer that I was in ANY way a party to, knowledgeable about, encouraging, participating, advising or approving of the actions of Chairawan is an egregious distortion and a slander by innuendo,” he said.
Relations with Prabowo, the Kopassus commander and Suharto son-in-law, were a frequent sticking point.
McWilliams claimed McFetridge had deliberately withheld information about the deaths of innocent civilians in a 1996 raid by Prabowo to free hostages held by separatists in West Papua province, then known as Irian Jaya.
“McFetridge and I got into quite a tussle. They didn’t want my cable going out,” he said.
Rubbish, said McFetridge.
“His recollection of the incident is in error,” he wrote.
“Unlike Mr. McWilliams, I actually visited the site of the alleged incident, interviewed separately the village chief and the local school teacher to get the best information possible. This I reported in detail and accurately, based on those interviews.”
Prabowo’s disgrace in 1998 marked a turning point, however.
Kopassus abducted 23 opponents of the Suharto regime, many of whom were never seen again. This occurred between 1996 and early 1998, with Prabowo in command for most of that time, according to a classified account written ten years later at the U.S. Embassy and published recently by WikiLeaks.
Some who were released spoke of “beatings, electric shock and underwater submersion.” In disgrace and with Suharto out of power, Prabowo was dismissed from the military in 1998 by an ethics panel, which found him guilty of failing to obey orders.
The Past Returns
With Indonesia’s coming election and Prabowo surging in recent polls, his opponents in recent days have put his human rights record front and center in the presidential race.
The former armed forces commander Gen. Wiranto — who is a longtime Prabowo rival and is currently supporting the leading candidate Joko Widodo — announced to the news media on June 19 that Prabowo was in fact responsible for the kidnappings and was discharged for this reason.
Prabowo refused to address the claim directly the following day, according to The Jakarta Post. But in a recent televised debate, he said, “I am the strongest defender of human rights in this republic.”
Efforts to reach Prabowo through his personal website and Facebook page were unsuccessful. His election websites denounce human-rights-based criticism as smear campaigns designed to derail his candidacy.
Back in 1998, American officials became convinced of Prabowo’s involvement.
McFetridge, who left the Jakarta embassy in 1998, acknowledges that it took him longer than McWilliams to point the finger at Prabowo. But he says this was a result of deliberation and an effort to avoid any rush to judgment.
“McWilliams was guessing at the time. He had no source with access to know what had happened,” wrote McFetridge. “In that case he guessed correctly; in others did not.”
“I did not report assumptions and guesses as facts. When I had evidence, I reported the facts accurately, promptly and fully as I did in this case.”
After the fall of Suharto, the U.S. transferred its hopes to Wiranto, who was made the head of the armed forces, hoping that the new commander would at last be the one to bring genuine reform.
But they later grew suspicious that Wiranto and other senior military leaders were secretly controlling militias who were attacking and killing civilians in East Timor in advance of a 1999 independence referendum, according to the journalist Dana Priest.
Priest reported extensively on U.S. relations with Indonesia for The Mission, a 2003 book on the growing military role in shaping and conducting U.S. foreign policy.
Australian signals intelligence reports leaked to The Sydney Morning Herald in 2002 revealed that Kopassus and Indonesian intelligence gave orders and stayed in regular contact with a key militia leader. Kopassus units set up covert operations in East Timor and later reportedly formed hit squads.
Days after the referendum, the U.S. severed all military relations as East Timor convulsed with violence.
Despite the resumption of military ties with the Indonesian army in 2005, the U.S. resisted the urge to work with Kopassus again until 2010, when the Obama administration lifted a ban on contact with the unit.
But according to Priest, the pro-engagement crowd among American officials, including McFetridge, were notably slow to recognize what had been plain to outsiders.
“He is typical of the military people who dealt with the Indonesians at the time,” Priest told 100Reporters.
“What is clear from my reporting is that McFetridge, like the other military officials who dealt with the Indonesians, consistently gave the Indonesian leadership the benefit of the doubt,” she said.
“I have to think that this made it more difficult for him to see the problems that were happening at the time,” she added.
“Other people’s eyes were open long before.”