In early February, Karina Mateo, a logistics analyst for Boeing in San Antonio, Texas, was driving to work when she got a WhatsApp message from a random number with the +965 Kuwaiti country code. Mateo took a deep breath as she began to read. Two and a half years ago, her fiancé, Jermaine Rogers, was arrested in Kuwait on drug charges while working for General Dynamics on a contract with the U.S. military. His punishment had recently been reduced from death by public hanging to life in prison. The sender of the message identified himself as an American and fellow inmate at Kuwait’s notorious Central Prison. As usual, the message was brief:
Hey kareena this jermaine friend we had raid police reaching out to u j said tell kiki he loves her and he’s sorry didn’t get to see her bday hopefully we will get moved to block so he can make contact with u in in diff room just passing message also if u could notify embassy we need them here thx and take care please do not message will reach out to u
Mateo still hasn’t told her 8-year-old daughter, Kiahuren, or “Kiki,” that Rogers is in prison. Kiki thinks her father is overseas on a “contract he can’t break.” The truth is too mind-boggling. By most measures, Rogers, 41, is a model American — a man who served his country for more than two decades, first in the Army and then as a defense contractor. He has no criminal record in the United States. In fact, his last job in Kuwait — managing the upkeep of military equipment on Camp Arifjan — required him to have a secret security clearance. Among his family, friends, and colleagues, there’s no doubt he’s innocent. They suggest he may be a victim of racial persecution. Most, if not all, of the U.S. citizens currently being detained in Central Prison are African-American. And each has an eerily similar story to tell.
So why, then, did General Dynamics, Rogers’ employer of nine years, sever ties with him and his family when he got arrested? And why won’t the U.S. government intervene?
Task & Purpose contacted the State Department, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the White House, the Embassy in Kuwait, and five senators in three states in search of answers. Few responded; those who did could not explain why more wasn’t being done to address allegations about Kuwaiti abuse of American detainees, or even say definitively whether U.S. contractors in Kuwait rated the same rights and protections as American service members.
The strategic partnership between the United States and Kuwait is codified in a classified defense pact the two countries signed soon after the end of Desert Storm — an occasion Kuwaitis will celebrate with a national holiday on Feb. 26. Sources who have reviewed the document say that it could hold the key to Rogers’ freedom — which, if true, leaves two equally troubling possibilities: Either the U.S. government is refusing to exercise its authority to liberate its own citizens from the draconian justice system of a major ally, or it’s been outsourcing work to thousands of Americans in a country with a long track record of indefinitely detaining foreign workers for minor or perceived offenses, knowing full well there’s nothing it can do to save them.
“Contractors are worried about getting shot when they go over there,” one former Central Prison inmate, a U.S. Air Force veteran, told Task & Purpose on the condition of anonymity. “What they should really be worried about is going to prison for life.”
Rogers enlisted in the Army in 1994 and was honorably discharged eight years later after an injury left him with metal plates in his back. Like many veterans, he soon transitioned into a career as a defense contractor. In 2006, he began working for General Dynamics at Camp Arifjan, which houses the bulk of the approximately 15,000 American troops stationed in Kuwait. Mateo, an Army veteran herself, also worked on the base, and the two shared an apartment in a town 20 miles south of Kuwait City. She returned to the United States in September 2015. A few weeks later, Kuwaiti police raided the apartment and arrested Rogers.
For a week after the arrest, nobody could tell Mateo why Rogers wasn’t answering his phone. The U.S. embassy in Kuwait had no information, and General Dynamics wouldn’t return her calls and emails. She later learned from one of Rogers’ coworkers that the company had responded to his mysterious absence by simply firing him. A defense contractor who was working on Arifjan at the time told Task & Purpose that word of Rogers’ sudden disappearance spread quickly across the base, but he could recall no effort being made to find him. “Nobody had contact with the guy, not his job or anything,” the contractor said. “People go missing in Kuwait and never found, so we just assumed the worst.” (In an emailed statement to Task & Purpose, General Dynamics spokesman Doug Stone said, “We do not comment on personal matters involving current or former employees.”)
Mateo found the first clue to Rogers’ whereabouts on the internet, in an Oct. 7, 2015, Kuwaiti Times article.
“Criminal detectives arrested an American expat working at Camp Arifjan with 1,400 envelopes of the drug ‘chemical,’ in addition to [Kuwaiti dinar] 72,000 he made from sales,” the report stated. “He confessed to receiving the drugs by courier at Camp Arifjan. He said he also manufactures the drug at home.”
The report didn’t name the suspect, but it included a photograph of a man in handcuffs with his face obscured. Behind him, there was a large pile of a mossy-green substance resembling marijuana, along with stacks of Kuwaiti dinars. The man was definitely Rogers, but Mateo couldn’t make sense of anything else. It was like something out of a movie.
Several days later, Mateo was in Bahrain. She had decided that neither General Dynamics nor the U.S. State Department intended to track down Rogers, and she’d have to find him herself. Former colleagues in Kuwait were warning her not to come. The authorities, they said, were picking up Americans left and right. They’d almost certainly arrest her because of her relationship to Rogers, too.
But that’s not what ultimately persuaded Mateo to turn around. It was a phone call from a Kuwaiti detective who told her Rogers had been beaten to death.
Three weeks passed before Mateo learned from another contractor that Rogers was alive and being held in Central Prison, a squalid and severely overcrowded jail complex on the outskirts of Kuwait City. The Air Force vet quoted above said he endured so much abuse during the months he spent in Central Prison in 2017 that he no longer has feeling in parts of his right hand and leg. Another former prisoner, a U.S. Army veteran, who asked that we refer to him only as Russell, described the conditions in the prison as “terrible,” adding, “For 11 fucking days, they had me in a small cell with sometimes 70-odd people. One toilet, no soap. They’d just drop off food and bottles of water for everyone to share.”
For Mateo, the joy of finding out Rogers was still alive quickly gave way to another nightmare, as it became clear that the Kuwaiti government had no intention of letting him go. The U.S. embassy gave Rogers a list of phone numbers for Kuwaiti lawyers and wished him luck. Some of the numbers didn’t work. Others were answered by people who didn’t practice law. The attorney who ended up taking his case only spoke Arabic.
For a brief moment, there was hope. The lawyer told Mateo through a translator that the 17 items confiscated from Rogers’ apartment had all tested negative for illegal substances. He was so confident that Rogers would be found innocent that he sent one of his assistants to the sentencing hearing in his place. By that point, however, a bag containing 7 grams of cocaine had been entered into the evidence — by a crooked cop, the lawyer would later tell Rogers’ family.
On Sept. 25, 2016, a judge sentenced Rogers to death by public hanging.
In the weeks and months that followed, Rogers’ family and a handful of supporters inundated State Department officials, politicians, and journalists with desperate appeals for help. They finally got the attention of Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, where Rogers was born, who in October 2016 wrote a letter to then-Secretary of State John Kerry, imploring him to “investigate and demand fair and equitable treatment of Mr. Rogers.” Blumenthal noted “gross violations of due process and fairness in the conviction and sentencing, as well as diplomatic protocol.” Several months later, Rogers’ sentence was reduced to life in prison.
The WhatsApp message Mateo received two weeks ago is the last she’s heard from Rogers or anyone who can at least verify that he hasn’t been killed or hurt. He ended up in the hospital the last time the prison was raided, and American consular officers haven’t been to visit Rogers in the jail since September. (The U.S. embassy website says officers visit inmates “regularly;” however, in multiple emails to family members of Americans imprisoned in Kuwait, U.S. Embassy officials described the visits as “biannual.”) The two former inmates who spoke to Task & Purpose said that the prison raids are carried out by an ultra-aggressive police unit branded “special forces.” “They just come in and beat everyone’s ass,” said Russell.
On Feb. 5, Mateo read an Arab Times article that reported the prison raid “led to the confiscation of 1,056 mobile phones, recharge cards and 301 grams of narcotic substances.” She immediately emailed the State Department and insisted they move Rogers out of the cell block where he’s currently housed, which she and the Air Force vet say has a reputation for being the hub of a major drug smuggling ring. The U.S. Embassy’s office of American Citizens Services told Mateo that “ultimately, only Kuwaitis have the authority to decide where each inmate resides.” That’s what they always tell her.
“Karina is Jermaine’s girl and she’s been fighting hard for him since day one,” the Air Force veteran said. “She’s been a huge blessing. But the sad fact is most of the Americans in there don’t really have people like that.”
On the evening of Oct. 10, 2015, four days after Rogers got arrested, Tyrone Peterson, a U.S. Army veteran and defense contractor, was playing video games at a coworker’s apartment in Kuwait when five plainclothes cops walked through the door. The police searched the apartment and emerged from one of the bedrooms with a shoebox they said contained marijuana. Peterson’s sister, Tylena Peterson, told Task & Purpose that of the four Americans in the apartment, her brother was the only one who caught charges. Even the guys who lived there were let go.
Peterson completed 11 years in the Army as a fuel tanker and served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to his sister. He was sentenced to 15 years. His first appeal was denied in October 2016.
In addition to Rogers and Peterson, there are three other Americans whom Mateo says she knows for certain are currently in Central Prison. All five are African-American, as are the two former inmates — Russell and the Air Force vet — who spoke to Task & Purpose. In April 2016, a U.S. Army veteran and defense contractor named Monique Coverson and her partner Larissa Joseph — both African-American, as well — were released from a Kuwaiti prison after serving 11 months behind bars on what turned out to be bogus drug charges.
Mateo said she can recall only one white American being held in Central Prison during the time Rogers has been there — “but just briefly.” Russell said the only non-African-American he ever saw “was Arab.”
Of course, with such a small sampling, it’s impossible to prove the existence of institutional racism in a country 8,000 miles away. But from Russell’s vantage point, it certainly seemed as if Kuwaitis at every level of the criminal justice system shared a very specific idea of what an American criminal looks like. “I brought it up all the time and the police would be like, no, no, no,” he said. “It was fucked up.”
There are also striking parallels between the way the different cases have unfolded. Rogers’ lawyer told his family that the initial batch of evidence taken from his apartment tested negative for narcotics, yet he was convicted of manufacturing and trafficking cocaine. Likewise, a lab determined that the substance authorities claimed to have seized from Coverson and Joseph’s apartment was K2, a legal substance in Kuwait at the time. However, according to a local NBC affiliate in Detroit, where Coverson is from, “by the time went to trial, that one ounce of K2 had become a pound of hash.” Tylena Peterson says her brother was the victim of the same scheme. “Mysteriously, as the months the 1 oz of Marijuana turned into 200g,” she wrote in a Change.org petition started the spring of 2016.
Both Russell and the Air Force vet described similar scenarios: A police search turned up empty-handed, but somehow they were charged with trafficking drugs.
Russell said that after police raided his ninth-floor apartment, a plainclothes cop appeared with a “big ass bag of weed” in his hand. “They told me I threw it out the window and that’s why it was on the first floor,” he said. Surveillance cameras ultimately debunked that accusation, but just getting that footage in front of a judge, Russell said, cost $15,000 — the first of many legal expenses that eventually left him completely broke.
“The maximum time they could hold me was seven months,” he said. “They held me seven months to the day. I went to prison Jan. 28, and they put me on a plane back to the U.S. on Aug. 28.”
Kuwaiti authorities told both Rogers and Russell that they had been watching the men sell drugs for months. The Air Force vet said they told him the same thing, and used that in place of hard evidence to charge him. The stamp on his passport showed that he had not been in Kuwait nearly as long as they claimed they had been surveilling him; that fact was enough to get him out of prison on bail, but not to get him out of the country. So he smuggled himself out.
“There are a lot of Americans over there, guys who have already been forgotten,” he said. “I know one guy who has been stuck in Kuwait for like 9 or 11 years. Stuck like chuck.”
There are other prevailing themes: stories of abusive prison guards, dangerously overcrowded jail cells, bad plumbing, dismissive consular officials, entire savings accounts vanishing into the coffers of ineffectual, non-English-speaking lawyers, and parents going weeks and even months without knowing whether their sons or daughters are dead.
There are also the attendant feelings of helplessness, betrayal, bitterness, and despair. For many, the lack of support from the U.S. government has been extremely disorienting. These are veterans, after all. These are men and women who fought for the rights and freedoms they are now being denied — the same people whom politicians go to great lengths to publicly love and support. Where are they now?
On Feb. 13, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attended a conference in Kuwait City to discuss efforts to rebuild Iraq following the U.S.-led coalition campaign against ISIS. Rogers was only a few miles away. Tillerson may have even known he was there.
In December, Blumenthal sent Tillerson a letter about Rogers’ predicament, reiterating everything the senator had told the previous secretary of state. “I continue to have serious concerns about the violations of due process and fairness of the conviction and harsh sentencing, as well as the gross disregard of diplomatic protocols by Kuwaiti officials,” Blumenthal wrote.
The State Department replied nine days later: “The U.S. Embassy in Kuwait continues to monitor Mr. Rogers’ case and has raised it with the government of Kuwait at the highest levels.” That response was similar to the one Task & Purpose received from a State Department official when if asked if Tillerson had discussed Rogers’ case with Kuwaiti officials: “We received Senator Blumenthal’s letter. The Embassy, including the Ambassador, has raised his cause with the Government.”
The big question remains: If the United States wanted to get Rogers and the other American defense contractors out of Central Prison, could it?
The answer may be buried in a 1991 classified document called the Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA), a pact that outlines the conditions of the strategic alliance between the United States and Kuwait. The DCA contains a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which “provides that U.S. forces in Kuwait be subject to U.S. rather than Kuwaiti law,” according to a recent Congressional Research Service report. What is not known — at least to the public — is whether the SOFA extends to American civilian personnel contracted to support U.S. military operations in Kuwait. But multiple sources who’ve reviewed the agreement told Task & Purpose that there’s enough flexibility in the way it’s worded to cover contractors, if the United States so desired. If that is indeed the case, it’s either a lack of U.S. incentive or aptitude — or both — that is standing between the Americans incarcerated in Kuwait and a chance to prove their innocence in an American court of law.
Task & Purpose contacted both the U.S. State Department and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, but received little clarity. “Questions of the Status of Forces Agreement are best addressed to DoD,” a Department of State official said in an email on Feb. 14. Half an hour later, a representative of the Office of the Secretary of Defense replied to the same query: “I encourage you to get in touch with the US Department of State, which provides consular services to US citizens abroad and can answer your questions about status of forces agreements.” The Pentagon representative added, “I’m not sure why the Department of State would refer you to us about a diplomatic agreement.”
Ultimately, the Office of the Secretary of Defense won the game of bureaucratic hot-potato, and the State Department offered a formal response. “Generally speaking, Status of Forces Agreements define the legal status of U.S. Department of Defense personnel, activities, and property in territory of another nation,” the official informed us. “While we decline to comment on specific provisions in individual SOFAs negotiated with partner nations we can confirm that the Department of State continues to provide consular services to Mr. Rogers.”
The two former inmates and Mateo say that those “consular services” amount to little more than half-hearted gestures of support. “I saw the Embassy three times after my arrest,” recalled Russell. “They show up and ask you all these questions and act concerned, and honestly, man, I didn’t see them do one thing.”
The Air Force vet was more blunt. “The U.S. Embassy was shit,” he said. “When I got out on bail by myself, I called them and said I needed to get out of the country. They told me that embassy is not a restaurant and they don’t have a laundry list of services to offer us. So I started doing what I needed to do.”
Task & Purpose tried to contact the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait repeatedly by phone and email, but was unable to reach anyone. When we emailed the country officer who had been providing Tylena Peterson with sporadic updates about her brother as recently as May 2017, we received an automated response that the email address could not be found.
Laurence Pope, a 31-year veteran of the Foreign Service and a former U.S. ambassador to Chad, suggested the frustrations of the inmates and their families are not unjustified.
“The State Department and the Embassy in Kuwait, if only visiting biannually, are not living up to the definition of ‘regularly’ in their own rules and regulations,” Pope told Task & Purpose. “It’s also surprising that [Rogers] hasn’t been given a lawyer who can speak English and can communicate with his family. I think that’s quite wrong, and an indication that the embassy is not providing adequate support to him and his family. He’s effectively being denied legal representation.”
The city of Killeen in central Texas has been Mateo’s homebase since the Army assigned her to Fort Hood more than a decade ago. It was her last duty station before she left the service in 2010, after two deployments to Iraq — the first during the 2003 invasion. As a contractor, she does the same logistical work she did in the Army, and she still rotates through the usual war zones. Even her stateside gigs can feel like deployments, including the one she has now. Every other Friday, she makes the two-and-a-half hour drive from San Antonio to Killeen, where Kiki lives with her aunt. By Monday afternoon, Mateo is back at Boeing, clocking in for the second shift. She works 12 days on, two off.
The national security world is more or less a closed ecosystem. Defense corporations depend on the armed forces to feed them a constant supply of trained and able-bodied veterans like Mateo — people who possess not only the specific job skills the industry requires, but also the tolerance for long hours and a willingness to work in dangerous places. And the military increasingly relies on defense contractors to do the things that service members used to do. At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, contractors outnumbered troops in both theaters. According to one report, more than 2,000 contractors were killed in those conflicts between 2001–2010, accounting for 25% of all U.S. fatalities during that period. But contractor deaths are rarely mentioned in the news.
That’s intentional. The lack of public outcry suggests that the system is working how it’s supposed to. There’s no telling how many American defense contractors are currently being detained in Kuwait or the dozens of other countries where they support U.S. military operations. By outsourcing the War on Terror, the U.S. government has managed to push it far beyond the view of ordinary Americans; officials can safely turn a blind eye to Rogers’ predicament without risking a peep out of the talking heads on CNN or Fox News. If Rogers, Peterson, or the other Americans in Central Prison were still soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, the U.S. response would likely be much more forceful.
“Americans don’t get too fussed over wounded or dead contractors, unlike Marines,” said Sean McFate, a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of The Modern Mercenary, who worked for years as private military contractor. “They’re disposable people. So they get kicked to the curb. This is the price…of outsourcing.”
The two former Central Prison inmates who spoke to Task & Purpose say their experiences in Kuwait left them feeling like men devoid of allies. They are paranoid, and understably so. The Air Force vet made three attempts to flee Kuwait after posting bail. The first time, he hired someone to smuggle him across the Persian Gulf on a private boat, but the waters were too heavily patrolled. Next, he bought a used YZ250 Yamaha dirt bike and tried driving through the Arabian Desert — “There’s a checkpoint every 7 miles, so that’s as far as I could go.” He wouldn’t say how he finally made it out, except that it involved a brief but tense layover in Germany and “growing out my beard, disguises, and all that.”
“Nobody gave a shit, bro. Nobody,” he said. “I literally had to outsmart an entire country by myself.”