The commander of New Mexico’s National Guard is demanding an apology from the Army brass after dozens of his soldiers in a mostly Hispanic unit were ordered to strip to their gym shorts and searched for gang tattoos while on duty in Kuwait.
Army officials said the searches last May of 58 New Mexico National Guardsmen in a unit called Task Force Cobra were proper and legal.
But Brig. Gen. Kenny Montoya, head of the state National Guard, said he believes ethnicity played a role in the episode — the unit is 55 percent Hispanic.
“I said something wrong was done there, and it was because of race, and I want to make sure it will not happen again,” Montoya said.
Alleged gang tattoos
The search was prompted by an unsubstantiated allegation from a soldier in another unit who complained about gang activity among soldiers in Kuwait. The soldier claimed to have seen gang tattoos among members of Task Force Cobra’s parent unit.
The search, conducted by an agent with the Army Criminal Investigation Division, turned up no gang tattoos. The Army forbids extremist, racist, sexist or vulgar tattoos and prohibits membership in any extremist organization, though the regulations do not specifically mention gangs.
After the incident, the Army recommended discipline against three New Mexico soldiers who objected to the searches. Maj. Kenneth Nava, a spokesman for the New Mexico Guard, said those three were counseled but not otherwise punished.
Richardson decries ‘degrading searches’
After the Albuquerque Journal reported the incident this week, New Mexico’s congressional delegation demanded a full investigation from the Army. Gov. Bill Richardson, the nation’s only Hispanic governor and a Democratic presidential hopeful, said he supports an investigation into the “degrading searches.”
The New Mexico chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens also expressed outrage.
“This is no way to treat our troops that are sacrificing their lives for the cost of our freedom. Racial profiling is reprehensible and should not be condoned,” said Paul A. Martinez, the group’s executive director.
Maj. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said in an e-mail Wednesday to The Associated Press that the Army had just received the call for a full investigation and had yet to respond.
“The U.S. Army, one of the most ethnically diverse organizations in our nation, provides equal opportunity to all our soldiers regardless of race, ethnicity or gender,” she said.
The military previously looked into the incident and cleared the Army of any wrongdoing. It said that before the searches were conducted, the Army was advised by a military attorney that having soldiers remove their shirts to check them for gang tattoos would be legal.
One officer who knew the search was going to be conducted, Lt. Col. Broc Perkuchin, told investigators he thought agents would investigate individuals, not the entire unit.