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Why the School of the Americas is a Black Eye on Democracy

The Torture Academy

by ELIANA MONTEFORTE

In the next few hours, Congress is scheduled to vote on the McGovern-Lewis amendment that, if passed, could close down the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly and better known as the School of the Americas (SOA). The SOA, an immensely controversial U.S. military training facility, for decades has been used to instruct Latin American military personnel in order to professionalize their skills. It officially had its name changed by Congress in December 2000, to be reopened the following month as WHINSEC. The name-change was entirely at the Pentagon’s request, and was selected upon the recommendation of private political consultants as a public relations stunt to get rid of the poor public image that the acronym SOA instantly conjured up. At the same time, Pentagon officials were sending out a barrage of phone calls in a full press campaign on the Hill to save the institution from being discarded by Congressional reformers.

The Military Academy Where the Gothic Arts Have Been Taught
The SOA first held classes in 1946 in Panama, and remained there until it was evicted from its Canal Zone location and moved to Fort Benning in 1984. This was done as a result of the upheaval brought about by the Canal reverting to Panamanian control due to the Carter-Torrijos Treaty of 1977. Over the past 59 years, the SOA has trained more than 60,000 soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. In 2006, WHINSEC offered its lectures to an estimated 670 students. It is not surprising that the largest group of its students were recruited from Colombia, a country which over the years has been vilified for its egregious human rights violations.

Military of Terror

The military educational facility has been continuously referred to as the "School of Assassins", since the Panamanian newspaper La Prensa first labeled it as such. It also has been revealed that torture techniques and coup procedures, prepared by Pentagon personnel, had become part of the SOA’s regular curriculum. The school also has been dubbed the "School of Dictators" and the "Nursery of Death Squads," since rumors first circulated that training manuals promoted interrogation techniques that violated human rights and habeas corpus standards as defined by the U.S. military’s own protocol. Since its founding, SOA graduates have never entirely escaped notoriety for authorizing the raping, torturing and assassination of upwards of tens of thousands of Latin American civilians who had been victimized by death squads under the command of SOA alumni.

Former Panamanian President Jorge Llueca stated when the SOA was located in Panama, it was "the biggest base for destabilization in Latin America." Also, education organizations such as Third World Travel were among those who had observed that "today, America’s image as a defender of democracy and justice has been further eroded by the SOA."

SOA graduates have been implicated in atrocities committed in almost every Latin American country, including El Salvador, Honduras, Argentina, Peru and Guatemala, especially during the 1980s, when savage military dictatorships controlled the region. For example, this included Robert D’Aubuisson, who according to a 1993 United Nations Truth Commission Report, was a central figure behind the death squad activities which were implicated in many extrajudicial killings in El Salvador, including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. D’Aubuisson attended the SOA in 1972. The 1980 massacre of El Mozote, which took the lives of 900 men, women and children in El Salvador, was carried out by the Atlactl Batallion much of whose leadership received training at the school.

Former leader of the Argentine junta Leopoldo Galtrieri was also a SOA graduate and has been judged as one of those most responsible for the "disappearance" of thousands of Argentine citizens who opposed repression as well as supported the right of dissidents to speak out. Honduran General Humberto Regalado Hernandes, also a SOA alumnus, has been connected with Colombian drug cartels and became one of the highest ranking officials of a Honduran death squad active in the early 1980s. Additionally, foreign Jesuit priests and two Salvadorian women on the Central American University Campus, were murdered by a small band of Salvadorian security forces and their SOA-led command.

An Initiative to Fight Back

The Center for International Policy has estimated that the current annual cost of keeping WHINSEC’s doors open is $7.5 million, much of which is funded by U.S. tax dollars. Since WHINSEC’s finances are mainly provided by the U.S. Defense Department, the Pentagon has engaged in frantic lobbying on the Hill in order to maintain the organization’s annual budget.

Currently, the School of Americas Watch (SOAW), a non-profit human rights initiative based in Washington, is campaigning to close down WHINSEC due to its tawdry past. If history is any guide, some of its students undoubtedly will continue to march away from the institution having learned the wrong kind of skills. The human rights abuses that WHINSEC graduates went on to commit within their home countries, are simply too many for the impact to be considered only coincidental and not organically linked to the very core of the institution.

The goal of SOA Watch over the years has been to shut down this training facility by calling for legislation to cut its budget. This year an initiative has been launched to draft an amendment which has now been attached to the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill by Congressional Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass) and John Lewis (D-GA) which advocates curtailing funds for the military school-in effect closing it. This is the vote that is scheduled for today. In previous years, this had been a battle that was carried on by Representative Robert Kennedy (D-Mass) who has made the fight against the SOA one of his most committed causes. A vote to shatter WHINSEC was taken last year but failed by 15 votes due to the opposition of 35 congressional representatives, some of whom eventually lost their seats in last year’s mid-term elections.

Apologists for the SOA argue that despite its questionable past, the school’s current curriculum now emphasizes human rights as a critical component of the institution’s military philosophy. SOA’s defenders also scold the institution’s critics for not presenting convincing evidence to prove that human rights violations actually have been committed by SOA graduates. They also insist that even so, the entire school should not be held responsible for the inappropriate actions of a few of SOA’s bad apples.

But the SOA Watch and others mobilizing to close the institution have brought a sufficient amount of national attention to challenge its right to exist. For instance, a lack of transparency afflicts WHINSEC’s legacy. Despite funds allocated to track the professional conduct of SOA graduates over the past four years, WHINSEC has failed to monitor these tracking obligations.

The Terrorism Factor

In recent years, the U.S. has used the threat of terrorism to justify the importance of U.S. lead training of Latin American armed forces. The Bush administration has supported the expansion and modernization of the region’s armed forces and linking them to U.S. security requirements. The U.S.-leased base situated at Manta, Ecuador is an example of this. The SOA is part of the rationale of the U.S. using such host country facilities, as the one located there and which Quito insists must close down by 2009 when the U.S. lease is over, for Washington’s security purposes. Another cooperative effort in jeopardy is the annual Pacific Ocean naval maneuver, UNITAS, and various other joint exercises aimed at stopping the infiltration of drugs, gangs and terrorism from Latin America into the U.S. The aforementioned UNITAS Pacific naval exercises are also being used as a means for the U.S. to establish better relations with Latin America’s military establishments. Ironically, the current support being mobilized to save WHINSEC has resulted in the activation of some undemocratic extremist militants who, under the banner of anti-U.S. nationalism, may be prepared to commit terrorist atrocities against their own people, and perhaps some day to turn their newfound skills against the U.S.

The continuation of White House backing for the SOA and its Fort Benning heir, not only goes against America’s legacy of democracy and civilian control over military forces, but contradicts other U.S. foreign policy initiatives aimed at stressing the peaceful resolution of conflict. It further symbolizes a possibly major political setback to Latin America’s current quest for substantive democracy rather than the faux version which Washington seems to favor with its continued operation of WHINSEC.

ELIANA MONTEFORTE is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.