Americans should be able to count on help from Washington if they run into trouble overseas.
Millions of Americans travel overseas every year, whether it’s across the border to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls or Tijuana or to more exotic locales. But nobody expects to die violently while abroad, and especially not a 17-year old.
That’s what happened to Alex Villamayor.
Villamayor was an American citizen living with his father in Paraguay. As the summer wound down, he made plans to begin his freshman year of college in Bethesda, Maryland. But first, he accepted an invitation to spend a weekend at the family ranch of a teenage friend in Paraguay.
That weekend ended with Villamayor dead of a gunshot wound to the head.
Paraguayan authorities were quick to rule the death a suicide. But this didn’t make any sense. There was no gun residue on Villamayor’s hand, and the gun was placed in such a way that it would have been nearly impossible for him to have fired the shot.
Moreover, Alex appeared to be a happy kid — an honors student — with a supportive family. As far as the people closest to him could tell, he was going places in life and seemed excited about the future.
The Villamayor family did what every family is supposed to do in a terrible situation like this: They contacted the American embassy and asked officers there to press for a proper investigation. But the Paraguayan authorities had already botched the case.
Under intense pressure from the Villamayors, the case was reinvestigated and the cause of death was changed to homicide. But the area where Villamayor died wasn’t sealed off. Witnesses weren’t interviewed. And the classmate who’d invited Alex to the ranch fled the country.
Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy said it would “monitor the situation.” I’ve worked in American embassies around the world, so let me tell you what that means: They don’t intend to do anything.
Indeed, all the embassy did was send a diplomatic note to the Paraguayan government asking for “clarification” of the investigation.
The family then contacted their elected officials.
Maryland Senators Ben Cardin and Barbara Mikulski wrote back saying that the embassy was “working with the family” on the case, apparently not even realizing that it was the family who contacted the embassy in the first place.
Cardin’s staff even had the gall to send a follow-up letter saying that they’d “spearheaded a call to the embassy.” Mikulski’s office didn’t even pretend to be interested in the case.
To his credit, Representative Chris Van Hollen has taken up the case and pressed the State Department for action. And that begs the question: Where’s the State Department in all this?
The State Department’s Office of Overseas Citizen Services should be all over Paraguayan authorities to fully and properly investigate this case. They aren’t. They’re “monitoring the situation” too.
Senators Cardin and Mikulski should be hounding the State Department to do its job. They aren’t.
What’s going on? Citizens of the strongest country in the world should be able to count on help from Washington if they run into trouble overseas. Instead, they’re taking their lives into their own hands.
OtherWords columnist John Kiriakou is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He’s also a former CIA counterterrorism officer and former senior investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.