Training Assassins

September 25, 2007

On November 18 and 19, well over 10,000 people will gather just outside the main gate of the Ft. Benning military base to voice their opposition to the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA). Following impassioned testimonies of survivors of violence in Latin America, thousands plan to defy federal law and the warnings of Ft. Benning authorities by marching onto the base (home to the SOA) in a solemn "funeral" procession.

The vigil commemorates the November 16, 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter—killed execution-style—by Salvadoran security forces. Happening as it did nine years after the 1980 rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen and the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, this heinous crime carried a powerful message—that no one in war-torn El Salvador was safe from the systematic state repression that engulfed the country. A U.S. Congressional task force, led by Rep. Joseph Moakley (D-MA), investigated and reported that 19 of the 26 officers responsible for the 1989 massacre were trained at the SOA. The facility remains a potent tool for U.S. hegemony in Latin America, but its continued existence is also a symbol for the impunity and denial associated with U.S. Cold War policies.

The SOA was established in Panama in 1946, ostensibly "to bring stability to Latin America." Over the years, its curriculum has included counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. In 1996, following public and Congressional pressure, the Defense Department was forced to reveal that SOA's Combat Intelligence training manuals had advocated executions, torture, blackmail, and false imprisonment. In one manual, the "celebration of national and religious festivals" is cited as "indication of an imminent guerrilla attack" deserving military attention. The manuals also recommend targeting those who "sympathize with or participate in demonstrations or strikes," or who make "accusations that the government has failed... to meet the basic needs of the people."

Such tactics and training are not aberrations. They are a fundamental part of a counterinsurgency campaign in which Latin American security forces systematically employ ruthless brutality to incite terror and to suppress dissent. The School of the Americas has for long been so notorious that by 1984 it was already dubbed the "School of Assassins" by leading Panamanian newspapers and others advocating the expulsion of the school from Panama. That year, it was forced out of Panama under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty. Subsequently, the Pentagon quietly resettled the school at Ft. Benning, Georgia where it operates today, training some 1,000 Latin American soldiers annually, at a cost of millions of dollars to U.S. taxpayers.

The SOA's roster of graduates and faculty reads like a "Most Wanted" list. Among the more than 500 cited in human rights reports are a dozen dictators, and numerous drug traffickers and death squad leaders from countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, Honduras, Chile and Colombia. The list includes those responsible for the murders of over 900 civilians at El Mozote, of Archbishop Romero, and the four U.S. churchwomen—all in El Salvador. It also includes one of two officers cited in the bludgeoning death of Bishop Juan Gerardi in Guatemala. Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega and Peru's recently deposed intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, appear on the list as well.

In Nicaragua, thousands of Somoza's ruthless security forces made up the bulk of soldiers trained at the SOA in the 1970s. In El Salvador, two-thirds of the officers cited in a 1993 United Nations Truth Commission report as responsible for the worst atrocities during the country's civil war were trained at the SOA. At least ten of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet's top advisors were trained there. In Guatemala, SOA graduates Benedicto Lucas García, Efrain Ríos Montt and Hector Gramajo led a scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign that resulted in over 200,000 Guatemalans killed and disappeared. The pattern is clear: SOA training has consistently been associated with the worst violence and human rights abuses in modern Latin American history.

The pattern continues. In response to the indigenous uprising in Chiapas, Mexico became the top client at the SOA, after only a small number of Mexicans had graduated from the school. To date, at least 18 SOA graduates are top military officials in the counterinsurgency campaign in southern Mexico. Colombia, the country with the worst human rights record, has the highest number of SOA graduates. A Human Rights Watch report released earlier this year found SOA-trained officers responsible for numerous atrocities from 1997 to 1999, and directly linked them to brutal paramilitaries who tortured and dismembered their victims. Additionally, a 1993 report cited 247 Colombian military officials for gross human rights violations. Over half were SOA graduates.

The notoriety of the 1989 Jesuit massacre and subsequent investigation jump-started a movement to close the SOA, which had benefited for decades from a shroud of obscurity. The annual November commemoration began in 1990, but during the first few years the number of protesters was small. Then in 1995, 13 protesters (including a 74-year-old nun) were arrested and sent to federal prison simply for marching onto the open base. This created a firestorm of publicity, and by 1997 the numbers jumped to over 2,000, with 601 participating in civil disobedience. Again the authorities responded by sending 25 people to prison, but this only served to galvanize the movement. In 1998, over 7,000 rallied, and more than 2,300 crossed the line.

Grassroots lobbying and ongoing protests greatly heightened Congressional awareness and concern. In 1999 the House voted 230 to 197 to cut a crucial portion of SOA funding. However, that decision was overturned a few weeks later by a single vote in a House-Senate Conference Committee. Undaunted, 12,000 people gathered at the gate last November, almost half risked arrest and nine were sent to prison.

Under intense pressure after the close call in Congress, the Pentagon reacted this year with a ploy to keep the school operating by closing it, then immediately reopening it under a new name. Even SOA supporters called the changes "cosmetic," and Rep. Moakley assessed the effort pungently: "It's like pouring perfume on a toxic waste dump." Moakley offered an amendment to keep the school closed and to create a bipartisan Congressional task force to investigate links between SOA training and human rights abuses. After intense lobbying by the Pentagon and the Clinton Administration, the amendment was narrowly defeated. SOA graduates thus continue to serve as enforcers of a U.S. foreign policy that has wreaked havoc and death throughout Latin America.

Linda Panetta is the founder and Director of SOA Watch/Northeast and producer and director of the award winning documentary "An Insider Speaks Out!" Randy Serraglio is the Director of SOA Watch/Southwest. He served a six-month prison sentence in 1998 for his activism to close the SOA.

Tags: US foreign policy, School of the Americas, US military, military training, violence

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.