A training camp for dictators

October 12, 2011

Rose Aguilar, the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW in the Bay Area, reports on ongoing efforts of activists to shut down the School of the Americas.

ON APRIL 8, 1993, a Newsweek investigation about the Fort Benning, Ga.-based U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), also known as the "School of Dictators," "turned up hundreds of less than honorable graduates linked to military death squads." They include at least six Peruvian officers who killed nine students and one professor at a university near Lima in 1992, and four of five senior Honduran officers accused of organizing a secret death squad called Battalion 316 in the early 1980s.

In September 1996, under intense public pressure, the Pentagon was forced to release SOA training manuals advocating torture, extortion, blackmail and the targeting of civilian populations. On September 21, the Washington Post's Dana Priest broke the story:

Used in courses at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, the manual says that to recruit and control informants, counterintelligence agents could use fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings, false imprisonment, executions and the use of truth serum, according to a secret Defense Department summary of the manuals compiled during a 1992 investigation of the instructional material.

The annual protest against the School of the Americas drew more than 20,000 people
A 2008 protest against the School of the Americas drew 20,000 people

At the time, Democratic Rep. Joseph Kennedy, an advocate of shutting down the SOA, said the manuals "show what we have suspected all along, that taxpayers' money has been used for physical abuse. The School of the Americas, a Cold War relic, should be shut down."

In the 1990s, there were extensive investigations exposing the SOA's practices and its connections to brutal dictators, but over the past decade, the reporting has largely diminished. Even though efforts to shut down the SOA continue, it's rarely mentioned in the national dialog about U.S. foreign policy and torture.

Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, associate professor of justice and peace studies at University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, and author of School of Assassins: Guns, Greed and Globalization, believes the absence of reporting is largely due to the chilling impact of 9/11.

"We were very close to having the Pentagon close the School and were in touch with the SOA shortly before 9/11," he says. "The attitude now is, 'We can do anything we want, anywhere we want,' and I think there's been a stifling of critical news reporting, not just on the SOA, but on many related issues.

MAYBE THAT has been accelerated by the election of a Democratic president who has not followed through on many of his commitments, including this issue."

"Not much has changed under Obama," says Nico Udu-gama, field organizer with SOA Watch, an independent organization that seeks to close the SOA through vigils, fasts and demonstrations. "Militarization in Latin America has increased. People are still mobilizing even though you don't hear about it in the news."

Back in April, hundreds of human rights activists marched to the White House to call on President Obama to close the SOA. Udu-gama and 26 fellow activists were arrested after staging a die-in on the sidewalk in front of the White House to raise awareness about the hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans who've been murdered, tortured, raped, disappeared and forced into exile by SOA graduates.

On August 15, 69 members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama asking him to sign an executive order to close the SOA, but he's been largely silent on the issue.

The signatories, including Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), write that the closure would result in an annual savings of $18 million.

The letter states, "In 1999, when the U.S. House of Representatives voted by a bipartisan margin to close the SOA, the Pentagon moved the following year to close the SOA one morning and the very next morning open the WHINSEC, on the same site, with many similarities as its predecessor."

WHINSEC, the new name, stands for Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. "Before its closure, the Pentagon said the name was tainted," says Udu-gama. "The new name was a media tactic designed to divert public attention. It's the same school in the same building with the same instructors."

"It was a brilliant move on their part," adds Professor Nelson-Pallmeyer. "It's a stupid move because if U.S. foreign policy planners had decided to let it close, it would have taken attention away from the broader issues of U.S. foreign policy in which the U.S. has backed dictators in many parts of the world for long periods of time."

ORIGINALLY ESTABLISHED by the U.S. Army in the Panama Canal in 1946, the military training school moved to Fort Benning, Ga., in 1984. Since its creation, the SOA has trained over 64,000 Latin American soldiers, including 10,000 from Colombia.

"The results in that country are absolutely devastating and shocking," says Udu-gama, who lived in Colombia for four years. "Thirty of the 33 brigade commanders of the Colombian Army were trained at the SOA and in those regions where they operated, extrajudicial executions almost doubled."

Professor Nelson-Pallmeyer says there is a direct relationship between SOA graduates and human rights atrocities through Latin America. They include over two-thirds of human rights violators named in the UN Commission report, the head of the central death squads and secret police in Guatemala, the military leader responsible for the disappearance of 20,000-30,000 Argentinians and many of the officers connected to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

SOA Watch in Chile, which is composed of a group of family members of assassinated politicians, requested a meeting with President Obama when he visited in March. The U.S. Embassy said they "would consider, but Obama has a very busy agenda."

Over the past 15 years, popular movements in Latin America have successfully stood up to U.S. imperialism and neoliberal economic policies, including free trade agreements. The governments of Bolivia, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina and Costa Rica have all severed ties with the SOA.

In March, WikiLeaks released cables that exposed a six-month campaign, in which the U.S. embassy in Costa Rica, the Pentagon and the SOA pressured the Costa Rican government to reverse the decision, which "stunned" senior security officials. The cables describe a meeting among Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, SOA Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois and SOA Watch Latin America Coordinator Lisa Sullivan Rodriguez as "The Problem."

Costa Rica does not have an Army, but according to SOA Watch, some 2,600 Costa Rican police officers have been trained at the school.

SOA Watch's Udu-gama sees the SOA as a microcosm of U.S. foreign policy. That's why so many people have dedicated their lives to changing the culture of militarization, exposing the SOA's practices and, ultimately, shutting it down. Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois founded SOA Watch in 1990 in a tiny apartment outside the main gates of Ft. Benning. Today, the movement brings together religious communities, students, teachers, immigrants, veterans, and many others.

The next major SOA Watch action is scheduled for November 18-20. There will be workshops, a vigil outside the gates of Fort Benning, Ga., a funeral procession and a Veterans for Peace march.

"Why continue the public efforts to close it?" asks Professor Nelson-Pallmeyer. "When you don't have accountability, you have impunity and what we've seen is a dramatic spread of many of the tactics that were perfected and used at the School of the Americas. They have been revealed to be central to U.S. foreign policy elsewhere."

First published at Truth Out.

Further Reading

From the archives