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On the first night of the Republican National Convention, the opening video asserted that America treats all its citizens equally regardless of race. But at the midway point of the event things took a dark turn. Images of razor wire and jail bars flashed. “American hostages,” a deep voice intoned. “Forgotten and wasting away in far-off prisons. Wrongfully detained by foreign governments. Americans were beaten, abused, starved and left for dead. Until President Donald Trump stepped in.” A montage of news clips showed Trump welcoming recently freed Americans at airports and news conferences. Then the feed cut to the White House, where Trump sat flanked by six former prisoners, five of them white, among them a Navy veteran, a missionary and two pastors, who had been accused of crimes including currency smuggling and stockpiling weapons. They thanked him for securing their releases.
Perhaps no other president has made the mistreatment of Americans imprisoned abroad so central to his administration’s identity. The president seems to relish personally elevating these cases into geopolitical issues, even going so far as to threaten Turkey on Twitter with economic sanctions over the imprisonment of Andrew Brunson, one of the evangelical pastors. And after Otto Warmbier, a university student, was fatally brain-damaged while incarcerated in North Korea, Trump made the tragedy integral to the administration’s confrontation with the dictatorship over its nuclear threat, pledging “to honor Otto’s memory with total American resolve” in the 2018 State of the Union address.
“I’m very pleased to let everyone know that we brought back over 50 hostages from 22 different countries,” Trump announced during the convention. “We’re very proud of the job we did.” The video voice-over declared, “No American should ever be left behind.”
But when Nicodemus Acosta, a Black Navy veteran, heard the president’s claims, he knew that this was not the full story. Acosta had recently spent over a year imprisoned in Kuwait for dealing marijuana — a crime he had not committed. But despite his military service and glaring problems with the Kuwaitis’ case, he felt that he’d been completely abandoned by his government. And Acosta knew that he was not alone. Though he had been liberated from Kuwaiti custody, he had left a number of men behind in the emirate’s notorious Central Prison Complex. A total of 28 Americans have done time there for drug offenses over the last five years and received little help from the State Department, whose obligations to them are somewhat limited. And yet the specifics of their cases suggest that more could have been done.
All of these Americans share uncannily similar stories. They were private contractors, supporting American military operations in the Middle East, before being arrested in what were often kick-in-the-door nighttime raids by Kuwaiti police. Some say they were tortured into making false confessions — claims sometimes supported by the State Department’s own records. Most of the contractors say that Kuwaiti police trumped up minor personal drug use into serious trafficking charges, often building off the coerced confessions. All say that they were convicted without due process under Kuwaiti law — assertions that Kuwait’s own police files sometimes support. And they universally complain that the Trump administration has been of little help to them during their ordeals — despite the State Department’s being aware of Kuwaitis torturing Americans.
It’s clear that some of the accused, though not all of them, were not guilty of the charges against them. But regardless, the United States has some basic responsibilities to the welfare of all its citizens imprisoned overseas. And frequently, especially under this administration, it goes above and beyond those obligations. Acosta and the others believe there is a simple reason that their predicament has been overlooked: race. All but three of these contractors are Black; not one of them is white.
This article is a result of two and a half years of reporting and is based on dozens of interviews with the prisoners (over their contraband cellphones), State Department officials, Kuwaitis, the prisoners’ families, private military contractors and experts in international law and military contracting. It draws from extensive State Department records and hundreds of pages of Kuwaiti government files, including police reports. Together, the prisoners’ experiences reveal a failure by the State Department to urgently address systemic Kuwaiti mistreatment of Americans. And strikingly, they point to an unexpected cost of deepening inequality in the United States: As Americans increasingly chase prosperity abroad, they are plunging into risks they do not fully understand.
Like everyone else, Americans in foreign nations are subject to those nations’ laws. Unlike everyone else, Americans have the last remaining military superpower in their corner. But the United States’ response to a citizen’s imprisonment overseas can vary widely, depending on the law in question, our government’s sense of the other government’s legitimacy, our diplomatic needs at the moment and numerous other factors. These prisoners’ welfare is technically the responsibility of the State Department — though actually it has no concrete guidelines for tending to them. It aims to provide biannual health checkups and minor boons, like reading material and vitamins. In exceptional circumstances, the government can play a central role in high-profile cases, as when Americans are used as geopolitical bargaining chips by adversarial nations or when a citizen is able to leverage media attention significant enough to force the government to respond to popular opinion. But most Americans must conduct and pay for their own legal defenses, which often proves overwhelming in a legal system and language they don’t understand.
The exceptions to this rule, however, are individuals representing the United States, like diplomats and soldiers, who are typically shielded by formal agreements between the two nations. Historically, the treatment of American service members incarcerated by other powers, whether during war or peace, has been an issue of great bipartisan concern. But in the last two decades, the American military has increasingly outsourced much of its labor to the private sector, creating a whole new class of citizens working for the nation’s military interests, though not technically enlisted: military contractors. This transformation has weakened the bonds between the American military and those serving it, setting the stage for the ordeals that the 28 American contractors would endure in Kuwait.
When Acosta arrived in Kuwait in 2016, he could have been forgiven for concluding that he was doing so under the ironclad guarantees afforded to soldiers with that hallowed promise of “no man left behind.” He was a veteran who had left the service to go into private military contracting. At Camp Arifjan, the headquarters of many American operations in the Middle East, he manned an I.T. help desk for the thousands of troops at the base. Orientation for his job took place at Fort Bliss, an Army garrison outside El Paso where the military trains contractors up to its standards. The one important difference, as he saw it, was that for the first time in his life he was making real money: more than $100,000 a year. Enough, if he saved, to open up a juice bar near where his young son lived in Virginia.
Previously, this sort of success seemed out of reach for Acosta, who grew up in the Bronx without a lot of money. During his childhood, his father would return home every weekend from working the interstate railways to run him through baseball drills, with the hope that he might make the big leagues. Acosta had promise — but then, at 16, he broke his ankle so badly it required screws and plates to salvage, ending his athletic dreams. He had heard countless stories of his father’s Navy service, so “I was like, ‘I’ll follow you, Pops.’” Not long after graduating from high school, Acosta enlisted. He patrolled bases in Bahrain and Spain for five years, earning a Navy Achievement Medal. He would have happily spent his whole life serving, but as a petty officer he struggled to save for his future on $30,000 or so a year. While stationed in Spain, he talked to veterans who had become private military contractors and earned six figures. When his first tour was finished, he used his military benefits to get a bachelor’s degree and, while separating from his wife, took the first contracting job he was offered. It was in Kuwait.
Acosta was entering a well-established pipeline, constructed over the last two decades, that turns soldiers into contractors. For most of its history, the United States military has been primarily made up of enlisted personnel — something that began to change, incidentally, right around the time the United States became militarily entangled in Kuwait. In 1991, after Saddam Hussein invaded the tiny oil-rich kingdom, America’s colossal Cold War-era military easily drove out Iraqi forces, while employing only a small number of private contractors for specialized roles. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Clinton administration began drawing down the number of active-duty troops, eventually achieving a reduction of over 23 percent, hoping to reap a “peace dividend.” During the relatively quiet decade that followed, when the military needed to quickly bulk up for conflicts, like its involvement in peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, it did so by hiring private contractors and then letting them go afterward, like a retail store’s jettisoning temps after the holiday season. Then Sept. 11 happened.
Even as the United States military rapidly expanded for conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the number of enlisted personnel grew only modestly. Instead, the Pentagon hired hundreds of thousands of private military contractors — so many that a 2019 Congressional Research Service report estimated that during those campaigns “contractors frequently accounted for 50 percent or more of the total D.O.D. presence in-country.” Much attention has focused on contractors wielding weapons, with some critics arguing they are essentially mercenaries and prone to causing incidents like the Nisour Square massacre, during which contractors for Blackwater killed 17 Iraqi civilians. Many contractors, however, perform support functions, like food service, transporting supplies or maintaining computers. Though the number employed by the military has declined significantly since the peak of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, in July 2018 the U.S. Central Command still employed more than 49,000 of them in the Middle East. P.W. Singer, the author of “Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry,” says, “We are a public-private hybrid military now — there’s no going back.”
Today many soldiers leave the service only to return almost immediately in contracting jobs. The private sector offers wages few military jobs can match and more flexibility than a four-year enlistment. Critics point out, however, that such perks come with significant drawbacks; many involve tours in dangerous, unstable parts of the world — U.S. allies with repressive governments or even active combat zones. The trade-off for these high wages is that many contractors do not provide long-term benefits or job security — an exchange of stability for short-term gain familiar to those participating in the wider gig economy. Indeed, the government employs military contractors for many of the same reasons that contractors have become widespread across the private sector: They are cheaper in theory, and can be demobilized when they aren’t needed.
There are nonbudgetary benefits for the government in hiring contractors as well. “The whole point of the private contracting system is to avoid political and legal externalities,” Singer says, though it weakens the once-sacred bond between the military and those serving it. This is, he says, “a feature, not a bug, of the system.” Unlike soldiers, who are often protected under treaties, contractors are technically private citizens, so when Acosta worked in Kuwait, he was just another of the roughly nine million regular Americans living abroad, according to State Department estimates — a population that would be America’s 11th-largest state.
“These men are economic migrants,” says Thomas Crosbie, a Canadian professor at the Royal Danish Defense College who studies military contractors who are killed abroad. In his research, Crosbie found that these contractors tend to be from places with limited economic prospects, with 60 percent coming from rural areas. And the armed services in general draw disproportionately from economically disadvantaged Black communities. Seen this way, stagnating economic mobility and racial inequalities in the United States have conspired to create a new class of itinerant worker, supporting the American military but without its protections.
But Acosta didn’t see it that way at all. Indeed, it almost seemed as if he had not even left America. “Camp Cupcake,” as Camp Arifjan is nicknamed, had Starbucks, Burger King and Taco Bell, as well as plenty of other trappings of suburban American living, which made him feel at home. At the end of the day, he bused back to his apartment in Kuwait City, where he was still surrounded by military culture, as a vast majority of contractors are veterans. After two and a half years of contracting, and also running a side business repairing computers for wealthy Kuwaitis, he was about a year off from having socked away enough money to open his juice bar back home and help raise his son in person.
To unwind after 12-hour workdays, Acosta and other military contractors would party in private apartments, as there were no bars; Kuwait is a dry country with a legal system partly based on Islamic jurisprudence, and simply being intoxicated in public is illegal there. Nevertheless, at these events, marijuana was widely available. It didn’t seem like a crazy thing to partake. Even some Kuwaitis that Acosta knew smoked. Besides, his American citizenship and his military association made it seem as if he were shielded. At least until one night in late August 2018, when Kuwaiti police broke into his apartment.
It was about 1:30 a.m. when Acosta snapped awake to glass shattering. Sarah Floyd, another American contractor, who was staying over, guessed that a lock had been broken off the porch door. Lights flipped on, blinding Acosta. The 29-year-old was confronted by an Arab man wearing work boots and a baseball cap, holding up a police badge. About 10 young policemen in street clothes backed him up. The lead officer threatened to charge him if he didn’t reveal information about a drug dealer he called the Emperor and tell him where the “kilos” of drugs were stored. Acosta protested that he had no idea what they were talking about.
As the head cop interrogated Acosta, the rest dumped out his dresser drawers, cabinets and even tubes of Quaker Oats, until every inch of his floor was littered. When the officer asserted they had video of him dealing, Acosta worried that what they actually had was footage of him smoking recreationally on his porch. How bad could it be, he figured, to admit to possessing enough weed for a few blunts? In the United States, he’d just get a slap on the wrist.
“All I do is smoke,” Acosta told them. “If I show you what I have, will you let me go?”
The police suggested to Acosta that he would just be deported, so he directed them to his oven, where they found two glass Mason jars and a grinder. Acosta and Floyd maintain that there was at most enough marijuana in the jars to roll a dozen joints; grainy photos in the police report show only a small number of buds in the jars. And yet, the interrogator warned that if he didn’t reveal the “rest” of the drugs, he would get 25 years in prison.
Acosta wondered aloud how that was possible.
“This is Kuwait,” Acosta recalls the officer answering. “We can do what we want.”’
Still, he figured they were bluffing, even after he and Floyd were driven to Kuwait’s Drug Enforcement General Department, where he was ordered to sit in an office filled with messy stacks of paper and sleeping computers. Around 3 a.m., guards abruptly led in a tall, thin Black American with shoulder-length dreadlocks, dip-dyed blond. It was Kelvin Lowe, a contractor with whom Acosta had recently become friendly. Lowe was in his work clothes, a red Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt and khakis — but he was barefoot and limping. That’s when Acosta realized something was deeply wrong.
About a month before his arrest, Acosta had been at a party in Kuwait City, where he met Lowe. They passed a joint and later started texting, making plans to smoke together. Lowe was arrested three days before Acosta, when a building manager smelled marijuana smoke coming from his apartment and called the authorities. Police records suggest they discovered a backpack containing a small amount of weed in three baggies, a grinder, several empty containers, a food-wrapping device and an electronic scale. It seems that the Kuwaitis also found on his phone the messages between him and Acosta, which led to Acosta’s arrest.
In the office, events took a dark turn. According to Acosta, Lowe and Floyd, the police now demanded to know why Lowe had told them that Acosta was a dealer, since he didn’t seem to be. Lowe denied ever saying this, insisting the cops had misinterpreted their text messages. The interrogator called him a liar and struck him. Then, several policemen dragged Lowe into the hallway and started bashing his feet and legs with a stick, the culmination of what Lowe says was several days of physical abuse. As this happened, another officer continued interrogating Acosta, who tried to keep his nerve as the violence unfolded within view.
When the interview concluded, Acosta was told to stand, and four policemen marched him down a hallway to a dusty dead end, where old desks, chairs and filing cabinets were piled up. The officers ordered him to sit on the floor, and handcuffed his feet and ankles together. Then they slid a wooden pole through the cuffs, and when they lifted the pole and laid it across the tops of two filing cabinets, he found himself dangling by his wrists and ankles, looking up at his captors. A light-skinned officer with a shadow of a beard started yelling: “Where drugs? Where drugs?” Each time Acosta answered “I don’t know,” he was kicked or punched. Acosta estimated he spent about 15 minutes as a boxing bag, but what was truly agonizing was having all of his 200-plus pounds suspended by the cuffs. His fingers swelled and turned white. Finally, he told them he would confess.
Once Acosta had been set down, however, he refused to follow through — he even says he threatened to fight back if they tried to hang him up again. Eventually, the police escorted him to a windowless cell where several dozen prisoners slept on the grimy floor, including Lowe. He found a spot nearby and lay down. Acosta had thought of himself as a member of the American military, but as he languished with prisoners from South Asia, Africa and the poorer Middle Eastern countries, it was clear that Kuwait viewed him differently.
Some two million foreigners make up approximately 80 percent of Kuwait’s work force. The oil-rich nation provides such lavish benefits that some citizens don’t have to work. Many of these migrants are exploited or worse — so much so that in recent years, the Philippine government has twice banned its citizens from working in the country. Though Acosta was not sweeping floors or building skyscrapers, he was essentially helping Kuwait outsource its defense. After being easily overrun by Iraq in the gulf war, Kuwait let America build military bases there partly for protection from its more powerful neighbors. As Acosta struggled to sleep, he began to reassess his standing in Kuwait — and in America.
Without any windows or a clock it was impossible to track the passage of time in the cell. Acosta and Lowe waited impatiently for the American Embassy to rescue them. But outside, there was no effort to intervene. This was in part because the Drug Enforcement General Department regularly holds foreigners incommunicado for longer than they are allowed to under Kuwaiti law, but also because Lowe’s girlfriend had to spend six days calling and emailing the embassy about his disappearance before it responded. At some point, guards came for them. They were shackled hands and feet, directed into a van, and eventually unloaded at a drab government building. In an upper-floor office, they were seated in front of a young Kuwaiti man dressed in a traditional white robe, head scarf and sandals: Jassim al-Mesbah, a prosecutor, who would now conduct an interrogation to determine the charges against them.
The Americans struggled to understand al-Mesbah’s English; his translator, who often seemed to be distracted by her smartphone, didn’t speak much better. According to a transcript of the interrogation, al-Mesbah opened by summarizing the police reports of the arrests and noting that the police had written that the Americans had confessed to dealing drugs — something both strenuously deny, though they admitted to personal use. Then al-Mesbah unpacked two backpacks containing the evidence seized from their apartments. He balanced Acosta’s two Mason jars on a scale to arrive at a weight of just over two and a half pounds of “a suspicious substance” within, which he recorded in his report.
Two and a half pounds would indeed be a significant amount for which there is little reasonable explanation besides trafficking. However, Acosta says the prosecutor weighed the marijuana while it was inside the two Mason jars, adding the weight of the glass, despite his protests.
“There’s absolutely no way you could get two pounds of weed into two small Mason jars,” says Tom Dean, a lawyer specializing in cannabis-related crimes. Even mechanically compressed into a brick, two pounds would fill a large backpack, and the buds pictured in the Kuwaiti police report are uncompacted, with plenty of breathing room in the jars. Five experts who reviewed the photos concurred that they showed what is unlikely to be more than an ounce of marijuana — just a fraction of the weight that al-Mesbah recorded.
Nevertheless, this estimate seems to have formed the foundation for the trafficking charges al-Mesbah brought against Acosta and Lowe. In fact, in the whole of the prosecutor’s report, nothing explicitly links Acosta to exchanging drugs for money — no witness accounts, no photos, no videos, no text messages, nothing. Al-Mesbah’s secondary evidence seems to have been the approximately $55,000, mostly in Kuwaiti dinars, discovered in Acosta’s apartment, which the police report states Acosta confessed was “the proceeds of their sale of narcotics.” Acosta says he did no such thing. In fact, according to the Kuwaitis’ own transcript, Acosta explained to al-Mesbah that this money represented savings from his job and payments from his work as a freelance computer repairman for rich Kuwaitis. He says he also received a substantial monthly housing stipend from his employer. Indeed, this was much of the money he was saving so he could open a juice bar in Virginia. And it isn’t all that unusual for contractors to keep cash on hand rather than in a foreign bank in the unstable Middle East.
Al-Mesbah, who did not respond to requests for comment, may have been harsher with Acosta because of the items seized with Lowe, especially the food-wrapping machine, scales and containers, which seemed to suggest Lowe could have been dividing up marijuana to sell. (According to the transcript, Lowe claimed that the food-wrapping machine was for food and that he used the scales to make sure he wasn’t cheated when purchasing marijuana, not when selling it.) But, importantly, Lowe was only accused of having a few ounces of weed, not enough to suggest a large trafficking operation. To make his case, al-Mesbah appears to have cut and pasted together Acosta’s artificially inflated weight and Lowe’s paraphernalia. He charged both Americans with trafficking, which could put them away for decades in Kuwait’s strict legal system.
The next day, Acosta and Lowe were extracted from the cell and politely walked without handcuffs to a well-appointed office, where a robed Kuwaiti official and a besuited American consular officer sat beside a large wooden table. In the meeting, the Kuwaiti official claimed that Acosta and Lowe had been well treated. Both began to protest: Lowe rolled up his shirt to show the bruising on his chest; Acosta explained that he still couldn’t feel his wrists. The embassy official made notes that Acosta “had bruising all over his body,” as did Lowe. Furthermore, he added that “the pattern of mistreatment described was similar to other cases at the detention center”; by 2020, the State Department would record at least nine “credible cases” of Americans being tortured in a similar manner. The officer moved the conversation on, and after about 20 minutes, he dismissed the two. Acosta was shocked at how unhelpful he was.
Consular officers tasked with prison visits are generally junior members beleaguered by many other responsibilities, whose preparation for dealing with such situations mostly consists of a day or two of classroom instruction and role-playing a few scenarios at the Foreign Service Institute. But the accused men also felt that the various consular officers they encountered, whom they remembered as largely white, assumed they were guilty — and those feelings may have been justified. “The default assumption” among the officers is that they “were picked up for some sort of just cause,” said an American official, who asked for anonymity to candidly discuss the matter. Acknowledging that some cases were not given the attention they needed, the official said: “Racism is on such a subconscious level. These guys are so much easier to forget about.” (Representatives of the State Department, White House and National Security Council vigorously denied that the prisoners’ race influenced the handling of their cases and asserted that the government had done everything in its power to help them.)
American soldiers posted abroad are normally covered by a Status of Forces Agreement, which formalizes the terms under which troops live in a foreign nation — and which generally stipulate, as is the case in Kuwait, that American soldiers will be prosecuted under American law, which would have likely given Acosta a comparatively light sentence. Such agreements, however, do not usually cover contractors, an intentional decision made by the United States when negotiating these agreements. In Kuwait, where contractors are essentially interchangeable, the government decided it’s easier to replace a contractor than protect him. Shortly after his arrest, someone visited Acosta and told him his last check from his employer, Vista Defense Technologies, would be going to his father. That was it.
At first, Acosta and Lowe were the only Americans in their pre-sentencing cells, but as the months passed more began arriving. These included two longtime contractors, Roctavius Bailey and Corey Jones, and three more who asked that their names be withheld. As they compared notes, they came to understand that the Kuwaitis had been trying to catch an American drug dealer known as the Emperor, and that each time Kuwaiti police picked up an American, they would beat him and search his phone until they got the names of more Americans, whom they would then arrest and abuse for more names, and so on. (Some at the State Department would come to have a similar view of the situation.) Though Acosta sometimes wondered if his comrades were as innocent as they claimed, he also knew that an injustice had befallen him, and that there were eerie echoes among their cases.
Finally, in February 2019, Acosta got his day in court. Friends on the outside had hired him a lawyer, though she did little to help Acosta understand the byzantine process. (This was a common complaint among the Americans.) He hired a new lawyer before his trial, and from a cage beside the bench, he watched the judge fiddle with his phone throughout the arguments and struggled to get his translator to explain what was being discussed in Arabic. He was found guilty of drug trafficking, as well as the lesser sentence of personally using marijuana, and sentenced to 25 years — a “life” sentence in Kuwait. Lowe received a similar sentence.
Lowe’s lawyer told me that Kuwait had recently been convulsed by a drug-use epidemic, fueled by foreigners bringing narcotics into the country, and that authorities may have punished the Americans harshly to make an example of them. But there are also other factors that probably influenced their fates. Kuwaiti society holds negative stereotypes of Africans; performers in blackface appeared on national TV as recently as 2018. The most common stereotypes of Black Americans — according to the contractors and an American official — were those put forth by Hollywood films and American TV shows popular in the Middle East; Kuwaiti officials were accustomed to thinking of Black men as criminals and drug dealers. The contractors, some of whom had gone overseas at least in part to escape American racism, found they were still being haunted by the ghosts of their homeland.
And there was another factor that might have influenced the Americans’ fate. Kuwaiti law-enforcement officers are often offered rewards for confiscating drugs, such as promotions and monetary bonuses, sometimes scaled to the size of the seizures. In one exceptional 2019 case, several officers were awarded over $250,000 for capturing about 10 million narcotic pills. Trying to imagine why a Kuwaiti official might weigh a small amount of marijuana inside a glass jar to increase its weight only requires an acknowledgment that self-interest can often overwhelm morality, especially if an authority is already prejudiced against a suspect.
Acosta and Lowe were relocated to the long-term wing of Kuwait’s Central Prison Complex, a series of interlinked windowless buildings warehousing some 6,000 prisoners, located beside an industrial zone on the fringe of Kuwait City. There they were placed in a dormitory occupied mostly by Indians and Sri Lankans, as well as Jermaine Rogers, a 43-year-old American with a linebacker physique and a monkish demeanor. Rogers was in his fourth year of incarceration, and he took the newcomers under his wing. He pointed out which guards were abusive and who could help the newcomers procure contraband cellphones. He steered them away from the methamphetamines sold by other prisoners. And he laid out the hierarchy among the inmates crammed into the five connected cells in their block of the prison: Kuwaitis on top, and then the economic migrants to the emirate, descending from Middle Easterners from less prosperous countries to Muslim South Asians, like Pakistanis, followed by Hindu Indians and Africans, many of whom were effectively housekeepers for those higher up. The tiny minority of Americans, he explained, were outside this pecking order and survived by backing one another up.
Together, Rogers, Acosta, Lowe and three others who soon joined them created an American redoubt in a stand of three concrete bunk beds. They draped blankets around the beds for privacy, and kept their few possessions stuffed into shopping bags, always within arm’s reach. They pooled funds sent by their families to buy raw chickens and vegetables from the prison commissary so they didn’t have to eat from the communal trays of food fought over by poorer prisoners. They hired an Indian prisoner to cook for them. They did push-ups and spent the rest of the time watching TV, taking turns on a PlayStation and sleeping as much as possible.
Guards controlled the gate to the cellblock, but the place was more or less run by the inmates. This lawlessness could be terrifying; the inmates would brawl over card games. But in other ways it worked to the Americans’ advantage. With enough money, they could procure almost anything from outside, like smartphones. And with these, they surfed the internet and communicated with friends and family late at night — daytime in America — when the guards were least active. Acosta would talk with his 6-year-old son, telling him the reason he had missed Christmas was that he had an unbreakable contract. Rogers used his phone to speak frequently to his five children in the States and to regularly communicate with his partner, Karina Mateo.
Mateo had transformed Rogers’s life. Before meeting her, he joined the Army to get out of his poor corner of North Carolina, was discharged after a back injury around the turn of the millennium and then struggled to get by on $13 an hour at the Texas arm of a military-contracting corporation. Then, in 2006, he transferred to Kuwait, where he made more than four times his Stateside salary armoring Humvees for the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. More important, he met Mateo, also a veteran and contractor. The two fell in love.
But then in late 2015, Kuwaiti police arrested Rogers, accusing him of being a major drug trafficker. Rogers claims that, when the police searched his home, they found two bags of synthetic marijuana that actually belonged to a friend of his roommate’s, and that police increased their weight by mixing in herbal teas taken from his kitchen cabinets. He claims they also planted seven grams of cocaine. At the station, he says, the police handcuffed him to a chair, tipped it back so he was supine and then hammered on his feet with a rod — abuse he says he reported to the embassy. (The State Department maintains no record of Rogers’s making such allegations, and his Kuwaiti police files do not show telltale signs of misconduct, like the photos in Acosta’s.) He was eventually sentenced to death by public hanging.
At first, Mateo expected the embassy to rescue Rogers, but when she realized this wasn’t happening, she took matters into her own hands. From Texas, where she moved a few weeks before he was arrested, she coordinated with Rogers, other imprisoned men and their families to wage a phone-and-email campaign for their freedom. Knowing that veterans locked away overseas have long been high-profile causes, Mateo cast her net wide, emailing or calling by her estimate about a thousand people, including the White House, the office of every member of Congress, the N.A.A.C.P., veterans’ NGOs, numerous media organizations and celebrities like the Kardashians. This resulted in some victories: The Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal contacted the State Department on behalf of Rogers, and Rogers’s death penalty was commuted on appeal to life in prison.
And in early 2018, Mateo managed to catch the interest of the military-news website Task & Purpose, which published detailed accounts of Rogers’s and several other veterans’ allegations of their abuse. The journalist Adam Linehan, who wrote the pieces, says: “Not a single politician lifted a finger.”
In 2019, Mateo had a momentary burst of hope. A dream team of conservative lobbyists, including Neil Bush, son of former president George H.W. Bush, and Brian Ballard, a top fund-raiser for President Trump, had become involved in a campaign to free an individual imprisoned in Kuwait at the same complex as Rogers. Only that person was Marsha Lazareva, a Russian business executive, who was accused of defrauding investors, including the Kuwaiti port authority, of huge sums. Politico reported that in the first quarter of 2019, her Kuwaiti business partners spent $2.5 million on this lobbying effort in Washington — “nearly as much as major American companies such as AT&T and Verizon spent,” the article notes — resulting in five members of Congress calling for an investigation into the matter, suggesting economic sanctions against Kuwaiti officials might be justified. Mateo and the American prisoners inundated Lazareva’s team with messages, unsuccessfully. A friend of Acosta’s even door-stopped Bush at one of Lazareva’s hearings in Kuwait, and the friend said that Bush promised to look into the case, but did not answer follow-up calls or emails. (Representatives of Bush declined to comment.)
Eventually Mateo concluded that her efforts had failed for a simple, if intractable, reason: “It’s all about who you are, and how much you’re worth.”
Though the imprisoned contractors couldn’t compel the Trump administration to take action for them, State Department records show that their message had registered, and illustrate the extent to which officials let them slip through the cracks, despite knowing their health was in danger. Rogers’s band was just one of several groups of Americans scattered throughout the complex, who all kept in touch through their contraband cellphones. But there was one American, in a separate cell block, whose full name they didn’t even know. The few times that Rogers made contact with this isolate — during group visits with consular officers and at the health clinic — Rogers tried to engage him, but it was, he said, “like talking to a corpse.” The man seemed as if he hadn’t bathed in a very long time and was often missing pieces of clothing. When Rogers offered to get him basics — like pants — or connect him with his people on the outside through his cellphone, the man brushed him off.
This man, Justin Morrison, had chased the American dream to Kuwait, like Rogers and the rest. His life’s trajectory was derailed early on, when he was caught with a dime bag of weed as a high schooler. The best work he could find was cooking at a pizza joint near his home in Fayetteville, N.C. Eventually, a friend got him a job at the motor pool of nearby Fort Bragg, an experience he leveraged into contracting in Kuwait around 2007. There, he was making good money for the first time in his life — but after being seriously injured in an automobile accident, he returned to the States. He ended up sleeping in his car while searching for employment in the oil fields of North Dakota. Before long, he signed another contract in Kuwait. In August 2017, he attended a rave out in the desert. Afterward, when he pulled his convertible Mercedes up to his home and walked in, the police ambushed him. Kuwaiti officials informed the American Embassy that he had been arrested with about 17 pounds of marijuana.
When consular officers first visited Morrison in jail shortly thereafter, he appeared normal, if dispirited, and he told them, according to their report, that he “probably deserved whatever he got.” He refused to sign a Privacy Act waiver, a legal form that would allow the embassy to discuss his case with others, and requested they not contact anyone on his behalf.
Back in North Carolina, Morrison’s parents, who have asked not to be named, were frantic. All they knew was that their son was locked up in a Kuwaiti prison: State wouldn’t tell them anything beyond the most basic details. Eventually, they got in touch with an American who had been imprisoned with Morrison, who told them what had eventually befallen their son: When Morrison was being roughly moved between cells, he pushed a guard. At least three guards then beat him into submission with their batons. After that, the man said, Morrison changed.
Indeed, the next time the consular officers saw Morrison, in November 2017, he was a different man. “No clear grasp on reality,” they wrote. Soon, a Kuwaiti court sentenced him to 15 years, probably while he was not mentally competent to stand trial. At their modest brick ranch house, Morrison’s mother kept his place at the table set with plates, an upside-down champagne glass, and a candle. “You just have to encourage yourself,” she told me. Around two years passed without the Morrisons hearing from the State Department about their son. As the Morrisons saw it, their government had abandoned him.
Morrison’s circumstances, meanwhile, were dangerously deteriorating. Rogers heard from several other prisoners that a long-simmering conflict between Morrison and some Iranians on his block led to a brawl. In the aftermath, a group of guards pinned Morrison down and jammed a stun gun repeatedly into his head, until he foamed at the mouth. That, as Rogers understood it, was the point at which Morrison became reclusive, taking whatever food he could scavenge from the public pan into the disgusting shared bathroom to eat privately, and started talking to the walls.
American prisoners repeatedly alerted embassy officers about Morrison being in danger, starting in early 2018. But they had known about this for months. Ultimately, it would be around 11 months between when consular officials first recorded that Morrison had “no clear grasp on reality” and the next time they would see him. During this time, they tried to visit him on six occasions, but failed for a variety of reasons, including twice because, guards told them, he “would not put on pants.” Finally, in October 2018, Morrison was escorted to meet consular officers. He was dirty, unshaven and not wearing shoes. He denied his name was Justin, spontaneously laughed to himself during conversation and declared he was “fine because he writes on the walls in his cell and the walls talk to him.”
Embassy officials could have taken this disturbing encounter as a prompt for forceful action, immediately pressing their Kuwaiti counterparts on the issue. They could have used it as leverage in a long-running effort to have Kuwait sign a prisoner-transfer agreement, a common legal framework the United States maintains with about 90 other nations, which allows for citizens convicted abroad to be repatriated to American prisons, where the cases against them can be re-evaluated. Instead, the officers did very little, asking prison officials to formally assess Morrison’s mental health. A Kuwaiti psychiatrist reported that Morrison was fine. Consular officials visited Morrison again in December, concluded this wasn’t true and noted that the issue should be elevated up the chain of command. In the end, though, no one saw him again for more than six months, at their next routine visit. State Department officials, citing Morrison’s lack of a signed Privacy Act waiver, refused to discuss his case. But all evidence in his case file suggests he was more or less forgotten.
At the same time, the State Department was recording increasing numbers of Americans being brutalized by Kuwaiti law enforcement, especially by those from the Drug Enforcement General Department. One prisoner alleged abuse in 2017, six did in 2018 and at least one more did in both 2019 and 2020 — though the actual numbers may have been higher; an American official told me that at least four more instances could have been added to the tally, except that the State Department declined to do so for various technical reasons. (Americans weren’t suffering alone: After a Kuwaiti was reportedly tortured to death by the same police unit, six officers were suspended.) American officials protested this mistreatment to Kuwaiti officials to little effect: Each time, the Drug Enforcement General Department would conduct its own investigation, then deny any abuse had occurred. The Kuwaiti Embassy in Washington said, “We are presently working with the United States Embassy in Kuwait to carefully examine any complaint of abusive conduct,” but declined to answer specific questions. Officials in Kuwait’s Drug Enforcement General Department and Ministry of Interior did not respond to requests for comment, though read-message trackers indicated that the queries were opened.
Acosta appealed his sentence, and in July 2019, when his day in court finally arrived, he was surprised to be taken into a private room before the hearing. The new judge asked him for the truth. After Acosta again repeated that he had just smoked, the judge informed him that his trafficking charges would be dropped and that he was only going to be punished for using — reducing his life sentence to four years. “I just looked at him, like: What the hell just happened?” Acosta said. Lowe’s sentence was similarly mitigated. Acosta was ecstatic but perplexed about his sudden turn of fortune.
What had happened was that people at the State Department had begun to be questioned about the contractors’ fate. In June 2019, I got in touch with the State Department about Acosta and the other men’s cases, after which it finally began to take discernible actions on their behalf. Between July and November, American officials met with their Kuwaiti counterparts 11 times to discuss the abuse, a result of which was that the Kuwaiti prosecutor general finally agreed to open a new investigation. And about three weeks after my first inquiry, American consular officers saw Morrison for the first time in more than six months and initiated legal steps to bypass his lack of a Privacy Act waiver and get him medical treatment. An American official said that my investigation was raised repeatedly during internal State Department discussions about how to handle the cases. Another individual, who discussed these cases with senior Kuwaiti officials, said, “My impression was that senior Kuwaiti officials, knowing that there would be attention coming, wanted to make sure the weak cases were dismissed, so that if and when the [expletive] hit the fan, they had a defense.”
Furthermore, Bill Richardson, the former ambassador to the United Nations who now runs a nonprofit organization that negotiates the release of Americans held overseas, had become involved. In summer 2019, I sought expert commentary from him, and after learning of the situation, he decided to take up their cases. Through the autumn of 2019 and 2020, he advocated with numerous high-level American and Kuwaiti officials for their release, including personally discussing their cases with the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States several times and eventually speaking with Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, after which the American Embassy in Kuwait was increasingly pressured to resolve the issue. The men’s release “would be of mutual interest to both governments,” Richardson argued, and “needs to be handled as a humanitarian issue.”
After Acosta’s trafficking charges were dropped, he was allowed to enter a rehab program that effectively reduced his four-year sentence to just a few months. In early October 2019, Acosta’s cellmates clapped as he hugged everyone goodbye and distributed all his possessions, from his watch to his extra uniforms. The day before he was released, in the hallway connecting the cellblocks, he ran into the Emperor, the supposed American drug dealer at the center of the web of arrests. The Kuwaiti authorities had caught the Emperor with over $3 million worth of drugs, they say, including cocaine, and sentenced him to death. (A representative for the Emperor asked that he remain anonymous for his safety and said that while he did have some marijuana, law enforcement sensationalized his case by portraying him as a bigger trafficker than he was.) Acosta and many of the men believe they were collateral damage in the Kuwaiti police’s search for this man. Was it possible that none of this would have happened if not for him? No matter, they were still both Americans. They hugged. The next day Acosta walked to freedom with a few books and the clothes on his back.
Lowe was also freed around that time, leaving behind at least 11 Americans imprisoned for drug crimes, including Rogers, Morrison, Bailey, Jones, Gabriel Walker, Tyrone Peterson and five others who asked not to be identified. Then, in early 2020, a new American ambassador arrived in Kuwait: Alina Romanowski, a career Middle East hand. Romanowski pushed her Kuwaiti counterparts to sign a prisoner-transfer agreement. On the day that she was sworn in, the embassy sent a diplomatic note demanding that Morrison receive proper psychiatric treatment, hoping that this would lead to a pardon. In February, Morrison was finally transferred to a Kuwaiti psychiatric hospital, and consular officers noted that he was now “smiling” and looked to be “in better physical health,” though his mental-health issues persisted. The embassy logged more actions on his behalf in the first quarter of the year than it had recorded making for him in all of 2017 and 2018 combined.
In June, as the pandemic infiltrated the Central Prison Complex and threatened the lives of the American prisoners, especially Rogers, who has a weakened immune system from a hereditary kidney ailment, Romanowski formally requested the release of all the Americans on health and humanitarian grounds. Through October, however, the Kuwaitis refused to grant it. Ambassador Romanowski said the prisoners’ cases were “very much a high priority” and strenuously denied that race had anything to do with their treatment. But in the give-and-take of diplomacy, whatever the administration was willing to do to free these men has been insufficient — and minuscule compared with what has been done for the likes of Warmbier, Brunson and others. Rogers’s third and final appeal has been denied, and he faces many more years in prison. In September, Morrison was returned from the psychiatric hospital to the Central Prison Complex. Around that time, the Emperor lost his last appeal. There are no more legal barriers to his execution.
I finally met Acosta face to face in early November 2019. During our hours on the phone while he was imprisoned, he seemed to me preternaturally composed. But as he warily scrutinized the other patrons at a cheerful diner near a Virginia naval base, I could see that the experience had exacted a toll. Over brunch, he described the difficulty of putting what had happened behind him. He had recently taken his son trick-or-treating, but when the time came for parting, his son clung to him, shaking. “It wasn’t a normal cry,” Acosta said. “He doesn’t know if he’ll see me again.” Acosta’s goal now was to be there for his son, but he was also considering contracting again, probably in Europe. Lowe, too, was seriously thinking about signing another contract. This time they knew the risks, but the incentives drawing them overseas were just so strong.
As our meal ended, Acosta wondered aloud whether the United States had a place for him, especially after it failed to defend him while he was incarcerated. So many things had combined to make him feel stateless — institutionalized racism, the nation’s forever wars, the offshoring of the middle class, the privatization of the military’s responsibilities to those working for it and an administration unwilling to do much for him and his comrades — it was a question that seemed impossible to succinctly answer. He kept scratching at a fresh wrist tattoo: the name of the grandmother who helped raise him, who died while he was imprisoned. It had become infected. Even after drinking several mimosas, he did not seem to fully relax. If he did stay, he told me, it would only be because of his son. A month in America had already made it clear: Though he didn’t know exactly where home was now, this was no longer it.