Drugs and death in Afghanistan: What happened to Spc. Juan Torres?

Army Specialist Juan Torres had his whole life ahead of him. At 25, Torres (known as John to most of his family and friends) had an accounting degree from the University of Houston and a good job waiting for him back home. He had savings in the bank and was planning his wedding to his girlfriend of seven years, Elizabeth Wise.

Torres was close to the end of his eight years of reserve and active service. He had served in Kosovo and Hungary, and received four medals, including the Army Achievement Medal for his “motivation, energy and technical expertise.” He was in good health. He didn’t smoke or do drugs, and had strong relationships with his family and numerous friends.

On July 12, 2004 — just weeks before he was due to come home to Houston after his yearlong duty in Afghanistan — Torres was found dead in a shower/latrine at Bagram Air Base. The cause of death was a self inflicted gunshot wound to the head … or so the Army says.

His family and fiancée say there is no way he would have taken his own life. And several soldiers who served with John at Bagram told the family that the Army is either not telling the whole story or is not telling the truth at all. The family wants answers. So far, the Army hasn’t provided them.

Spc. Torres’ father, also named Juan, is a hotel worker who came from Argentina 26 years ago. He lives in a modest home near Chicago. He goes to antiwar demonstrations carrying a sign with a photo of his handsome, dark-eyed son, hoping his case will get some attention.

Torres had just returned from the demonstration at the president’s inauguration when the World interviewed him at his home, Jan. 23. With a hoarse voice, exhausted by the drive back from D.C. and the turmoil he has lived with since his son’s death, Torres reviewed the many questions troubling him and his family.

He had spoken to his son by telephone just a day or two before John’s death. “‘Daddy, I’m so glad — I will be out of here in a couple of weeks,’” Torres said, mimicking his son’s upbeat tone. “He told me, ‘Daddy, there are so many drugs here. I tell the people, ‘Don’t use the drugs.’”

Torres said they spoke about John’s upcoming marriage to Elizabeth, planned for August in Las Vegas, and the family’s plan to visit Argentina.

John had also called his mother and his fiancée the day before his death, excited about his impending return home.

The next thing Torres knew, he got a call from his daughter in Houston, July 13. “She told me, ‘Daddy, daddy, something happened. John is dead.’ The Army didn’t say what happened. I didn’t know if it was the Taliban or what. I went to Houston for the funeral.”



A story that doesn’t add up

The Pentagon initially said John died of “non-combat-related injuries,” and released no details to the family. It wasn’t until Torres enlisted the help of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) that the family finally got the Army autopsy report. The report ruled John’s death a suicide and said a note had been found at the scene. The Army said it was retaining the note, and the weapon it said was involved, pending completion of an investigation.

John’s sister, Veronica Santiago, 27, says Army spokespeople had implied to her and her mother that the note indicated Elizabeth had wanted to break their engagement. But Wise says she never said or wrote any such thing.

Wise, 22, is a junior in accounting at Sam Houston State University, and also works at a fast food chain. The two first met when they worked at Marshall’s together. They had been talking about getting married for “almost a year,” Wise told the World in a phone interview. “We didn’t want to get married just because he was leaving.”

“The idea of a note kind of freaked me out,” Wise said. “I hadn’t e-mailed him in a while because we talked every day — the only time we missed was if I worked a double shift.”

Just the day before John’s death, she said, they discussed their plans to rent an apartment north of Houston while she finished school. At John’s funeral, his captain told Wise she had joked with John about his plans to pick out wedding rings. “She told him to let me pick out the rings,” Wise said.

John was “one of the most compassionate, caring and giving people I’ve known,” she said. He had experienced the suicide of a friend and the anguish it leaves behind, and had told her, “That’s the most selfish thing a person could do.”



‘Don’t believe what the Army’s telling you’

Veronica Santiago told the World that, at the funeral, July 20 in Houston, the captain, who was one of her brother’s superiors at Bagram, “hugged me and said, ‘I’m really sorry. Don’t believe what the Army’s telling you.’”

A month later Santiago received a call from the captain. She told Santiago she had important Criminal Investigation Division (CID) documents, and that “it was going to be ‘a big deal.’” Santiago said, “She kept saying that” over and over. The captain told John’s mother she was going to write a long letter about the case, but to date the family has not heard anything more from her.

Another soldier told the family that drugs were rampant at Bagram, and that she herself had used drugs there. According to Santiago, the soldier said she had seen drug sales taking place in a room at the base, with large amounts of cash on a table. The soldier said she believed Spc. Torres must have seen something he didn’t approve of, and paid with his life. Santiago said her brother was a person who spoke out if he saw something he didn’t approve of. “Knowing him, he would have told somebody, he would have made it known.”

Later, Santiago said, the soldier told the family she did not want to become involved in their efforts to dig into the death because she feared getting into trouble. Subsequently, a reporter seeking to call her found her phone had been disconnected.



Drugs and Afghanistan

Afghanistan is awash in opium and its derivative, heroin. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the country accounted for 87 percent of the world’s opium supply in 2004. Since the U.S. invasion in October 2001 drug commerce there has increased dramatically. The UN committee says it now amounts to about $2.8 billion, or roughly 60 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. Time magazine quotes a Kabul diplomat saying, “Without money from drugs, our friendly warlords can’t pay their militias. It’s as simple as that.”

The possibility of a drug problem at Bagram was discussed by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh in an April 12, 2004, article in The New Yorker. Hersh wrote, “Since the fall of 2002, a number of active-duty and retired military and CIA officials have told me about increasing reports of heroin use by American military personnel in Afghanistan, many of whom have been there for months, with few distractions.” A “former high-level intelligence officer “told Hersh that the problem was centered among the logistical and supply units stationed at Bagram. “The Pentagon’s senior leadership has a ‘head-in-the-sand attitude,’ [the officer] said. ‘There’s no desire to expose it and get enforcement involved.”

Tod Ensign of Citizen Soldier told the World, “The command hates the appearance of drugs. A commander will do anything to not have a drug scandal on his base — it’s a career-killer.”

Army CID personnel in such hotspots have a conflict of interest, said Ensign, because one of their jobs is “making the commander look good.” He said CIDs are known among lawyers for employing “sleazy, thuggish” methods. “I wouldn’t trust anything they do,” Ensign said. “They might want to cover up, or they might use draconian measures to snuff [a problem] out.”



Family seeks help

Frustrated with the lack of cooperation and information from the Army, Juan Torres also got in touch with Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois last fall. Durbin and Emanuel asked the Defense Department inspector general to investigate.

Last November, in response to those inquiries, the inspector general’s office said it was looking into the matter. That was the last the family has heard.

Spokespeople for Emanuel and Durbin said this week they were still waiting for the Pentagon’s findings. They declined to comment further on the case.

Pentagon inspector general spokesperson Gary Comerford confirmed last week that they had received a letter from Durbin and were “currently working on that,” but “wouldn’t confirm or deny” the existence of an investigation.

Tod Ensign notes that, on the ground, inspectors general (IGs) report to their unit’s superior officer, who has a direct interest in the outcome of the investigation. IGs are “tainted” by conflict of interest, said Ensign. Furthermore, most members of Congress defer to the military and tend to be afraid to challenge them, he said. “Until you have an external review,” an independent investigation, “you’re never going to feel confident.”

In December 2004, an Army casualty assistance officer in Illinois assigned to work with Juan Torres wrote a summary of the “unusual circumstances” surrounding Spc. Torres’ death. He e-mailed it to contacts at the 85th Division IG to “respectfully request assistance if there is anything that can be done from within IG channels.”



Troubling questions

Among the 16 suspicious points outlined by the officer: Fellow soldiers were afraid for their lives if they talked about John’s death. One soldier said he saw Spc. Torres enter the shower with a towel and no weapon. Some said they had yet to be interviewed concerning John’s death. Witnesses said they were ordered to burn much of John’s personal belongings. Soldiers said John’s rifle was turned in at Fort Hood, instead of staying at Bagram for the investigation. Fellow soldiers said there is a cover-up and CID is involved.

In 1993, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a series on 40 families who disputed military rulings that their sons’ deaths were suicides or accidentally self-inflicted. In many of these cases the soldier had come across drug dealing or gun running on military bases or ships. The reporter found a “pattern of perfunctory and incomplete investigations.” Dozens of families were denied essential information about the deaths of their loved ones. Many families maintained that the military disregarded evidence that their sons might have been murdered.

The Torres family is determined to pursue the truth. Juan Torres said, “I want to be in peace — me and my family.”

Terrie Albano (talbano@pww.org) is editor of the People’s Weekly World; Susan Webb (suewebb@pww.org) is a member of its editorial board.click here for Spanish text