El SalvadorHuman Rights

School of the Americas: The Spirited Campaign Against the SOA-WHINSEC Continues with Critics and Advocates to be Heard

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Introduction: A Disgraced Institution?

The School of the Americas is an institution rarely spoken of in a positive light. This less-than-reputable academy was created at the beginning of the Cold War epoch as a U.S. military training facility for Latin America’s armed and police forces. The School of the Americas (SOA) would grow to become a magnet for negative criticism of United States policy and its reliance on local military regimes to keep leftist elements in check. The base was originally installed in Panama after World War II as a Latin American training center for U.S. ground forces, but broadened its mission and adopted a new name in 1963. The institution moved to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1984 after the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty, in part because of local pressure against having the U.S. sponsored facility remain in Panama. The SOA operated until 2001 and trained over 61,000 soldiers and officers throughout its existence.

A disturbingly large cluster of the school’s graduates have resurfaced over the years to gain notoriety for committing violent human rights abuses. Some were guilty of committing tortures, massacres, and other egregious human rights crimes during the “Dirty War” in Argentina or by government forces during El Salvador’s Civil War. Others eventually became legendary for their outrages at the command of oppressive Salvadoran, Bolivian, Guatemalan, and Brazilian regimes. The conduct of these tainted graduates earned the SOA a bleak reputation in both the U.S. and Latin America for producing human rights abusers who could be counted on to wreak havoc in their own countries.


Concentrated criticism of the school began in earnest after a Salvadoran military death squad containing SOA alumni executed six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s daughter during the Salvadoran Civil War in 1989. A U.S. activist rights group formed called the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), which stages large public protests against the SOA and zealously lobbies for the institution’s closure. A scandal erupted in 1996 following the release of information that “torture manuals” were allegedly used to instruct SOA students in the use of pain procedures to obtain information. The school would eventually be shut down due to resulting public pressure and reopen under a new name in 2001. In its place Congress authorized the creation of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), which replaced the SOA in form but not necessarily in function. Critics of the institution claim that this new organization is the same institution in everything but name, and that it will continue its old function of training. The SOAW advocates for the WHINSEC’s closure through annual demonstrations at Fort Benning and by continually supporting legislation in Congress that would slash the school’s funding.

The charges hurled against the SOA/WHINSEC (the SOAW uses the names interchangeably) puts a damning mark on the image of U.S. foreign policy throughout Latin America, but despite allegations that the school specializes as a human rights abuse training center, the institution still may not fully deserve the “School of Assassins” sobriquet that the SOAW propagates. In the past, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) has cited the SOA as a detrimental extension of U.S. regional policy that is better off closed, to be succeeded by a program that sponsors the democratic rights and social welfare of the people of Latin American. COHA maintains that the current U.S. emphasis on military programs like WHINSEC—and the nature of current civilian and military links to Latin America in general—needs to be drastically revised to allow for a more effective and mutually beneficial relationship. Yet, while the existence of the SOA/WHINSEC may be a reflection of a Washington policy that we, along with other people and organizations have found objectionable; the school is not the deliberate training ground for villains that is at the core of the SOAW’s longstanding claim. Rather, it can be argued that the institution should be shuddered because the somewhat misguided notion of its original mission has been met. Although the WHINSEC’s current curriculum is strikingly different from the SOA’s, the school warrants being closed because its legacy of training dishonorable graduates is not reflective of today’s hemispheric realities in which the US and Latin America now finds themselves.

U.S. Policy in Latin America and WHINSEC

The School of the Americas Watch is an organization with a self-assigned watchdog role, whose founder, Father Roy Bourgeois, is a U.S. Navy veteran and Catholic priest. He became an ordained priest in 1972 and later joined the Maryknoll order, where he spent five years in Bolivia aiding the poor. He became a tireless critic of U.S. foreign policy and founded the School of the Americas Watch after the 1990 Jesuit murders, as two of the priests were his personal friends. Since 1995, his group has staged annual demonstrations outside the school’s campus at Fort Benning, Georgia on the anniversary of the murders. Though largely peaceful, many of the protesters, including Father Bourgeois himself, have been arrested over the years for knowingly trespassing onto the fort’s grounds. Some have even faced up to six months in jail for these acts of civil disobedience. The SOAW’s central claim is that “Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, ‘disappeared,’ massacred, and forced into refugee [sic] by those trained at the School of Assassins.”1 Its solution is to therefore close the school.

The SOAW’s outspoken credo is that the SOA/WHINSEC encourages or even trains its students to torture, rape, assassinate, abduct, massacre, and otherwise deliberately oppress Latin American civilians. The SOA’s defenders insist that the curriculum being followed at the WHINSEC show that this allegation is largely unsupported and entirely unfair. The most recent data from 2007 shows that of WHINSEC’s 1,076 students, 520 were enrolled in “NCO Professional Development” programs, 352 were studying in “Counter-Drug” or “Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement” programs, and the remainder attended “Military Financing” or “Counter-Terrorism” programs.2 (The list of courses is available in detail online, and the courses are open to the public.)3 These enrollment numbers clearly show that the institution’s current focus is on drug control. Col. Gilberto Perez, who was commandant of the WHINSEC until 2008, flatly stated in a 2006 public information forum that, “There were no abuses. We have never taught torture.”4 The WHINSEC maintains that its institution is open to the public, and is welcome to having civilians directly observe classes, talk to professors, and tour the grounds.

During an interview, Lee Rials, the WHINSEC’s Public Affairs Officer since 2001, insisted that “the major courses focus on advancing the officers of professional [Latin American] militaries, and training those professionals in counter-drug techniques.” Rials also went on to refute the claim that WHINSEC represented only a cosmetic change to the SOA, arguing that, “There are two differences between WHINSEC and SOA. First is the law that created us, and the second has to do simply with relevance. SOA was an institution for its day; WHINSEC is an institution for ours.”

The law Rials referred to was section 911 of H.R. 5408, the 2001 National Defense Authorization Act. That act closed down the SOA and provided for the creation of WHINSEC in its place. While representing a structural and administrative overhaul, the most noteworthy change that has come to distinguish the two institutions from one another is that “the curriculum of the Institute [WHINSEC] shall include mandatory instruction for each student, for at least eight hours, on human rights, the rule of law, due process, civilian control of the military, and the role of the military in a democratic society.” This mandate is followed very seriously in practice: all students of the WHINSEC are required to take human rights classes in order to graduate.

In preparing this study SOAW founder Father Bourgeois was also interviewed regarding his allegations against the institute. When asked why his organization continues to call for the shutdown of WHINSEC after reforms had been made, Bourgeois replied that, “It’s still a combat school; it still trains men with guns. You don’t teach democracy in the military.” Instead of spending taxpayer dollars on the controversial task of training Latin American militaries, Bourgeois suggested that training educators or healthcare providers would be much more beneficial. “Every dollar spent on a weapon is one dollar not going to the poor,” he added.

It should be noted that the actual costs of operating the WHINSEC are a tiny fraction of the hundreds-of-millions of dollars expended on military aid to Latin America each year. The operating budget for the WHINSEC in 2008 was USD 13.5 million5 , compared to the USD 445 million that is a part of the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement aid budget for Latin America military and anti-drug efforts in 2011.6 Suspending WHINSEC’s funding would therefore not significantly alter the nature of the militarized U.S.-Latin relationship, and his critics would insist that a successful campaign against the WHINSEC alone would not address Father Bourgeois’ underlying concerns about where U.S. aid is allocated.

Causality or Coincidence?

In light of the WHINSEC’s relative circular transparency, its open-door policy for civilian over-sight, and the complete lack of evidence toward any indication to the contrary, it is safe to say that the current institution’s curriculum is not a major factor in encouraging human rights abuses as outlined by the SOAW. Since the institution was reformed, there has been no reason to believe that the WHINSEC is teaching controversial practices to its students. However, can the same be said about the SOA before the WHINSEC reforms were institutionalized, and if so, would these reforms be enough to redeem its history?

The SOAW claims that a number of “notorious graduates” received objectionable training at the school before they committed well-documented human rights violations.7 Although the SOAW provides a large list of questionable SOA alumni, the information presented by the SOAW is not always complete regarding many of their high profile graduates. The SOAW claims that these human rights abusers and oppressive dictators attended the SOA, but cross referencing the graduates with the actual classes they took at the SOA reveals that the link between their training and their crimes is tenuous and sometimes appears to be completely irrelevant.

One high profile leader showcased by the SOAW, the late Roberto D’Aubuisson Arrieta, was a notorious Salvadoran military officer and later a brutal political extremist who ordered the torture and slaughter of civilians during the Salvadoran Civil War. Yet the SOAW’s own database shows that D’Aubuisson’s only connection with the SOA was his enrollment in a Radio Operations class, a course he took at the SOA ten years before joining the Salvadorian military.8 As WHINSEC’s public relations spokesman Lee Rials observed, “What does learning radio operations and telephone communication have to do with the things he did? Nothing.”

Another example cited by the SOAW concerns general and Argentine president Leopoldo Fortunato Galtieri Castelli, who was one the countries oppressive military dictator from December 1981 to June 1982 during the ill-fated Malvinas/Falklands War. Rials confirmed that, while he was indeed an SOA graduate, “Leopoldo Galtieri attended an engineering course at the SOA in 1949 when he was a 23-year-old lieutenant.” He went on to add his personal opinion on the matter, noting, “Do you really think a U.S. Army trainer pulled him aside and said, ‘Now Leo, in 30 years from now when you’re a general in Argentina…’ Of course not, it’s a complete non-sequiter.”

Even members of El Salvador’s notorious Atlacatl Battalion, the Salvadoran Army’s notorious counter-insurgency unit that was known for its brutality and its involvement in the murder of the six Jesuit priests and others which spurred SOAW’s formation, were not comprehensively trained by the SOA. Rials noted that SOA records indicate “the Atlacatl group itself was not taught as a unit. Students come here as individuals. The notorious grads of the SOAW took different courses at SOA at different time periods. There is no way to link the courses at the SOA to the massacres.”

To back up his claim, Rials pointed to the 1993 “Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador” which investigated the murders that took place during the Salvadoran Civil War.9 Of the 29 people named as being involved in the murders, 20 had some affiliation with the SOA. Although this fact may be initially shocking, records from the SOA shows that out of these 20 soldiers, three individuals took courses at the SOA after the murders, and four took courses 19 years before the murders. This still leaves a sizable number of soldiers trained at the SOA that took part in the murders, but the academic profiles on these graduates show that the majority of classes taken by the Atlacatl members were Cadet or Combat Arms Officer courses.10 These combat courses are best explained by the U.S. Cold War policy of providing military aid to the Salvadoran government to fight jungle warfare leftist guerrillas such as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which the Atlacatl Battalion was created to counter.

The man who actually ordered the murder of the Jesuit priests, Col. René Emilio Ponce, was completely unaffiliated with the SOA. The Center for Justice and Accountability, a UN and Amnesty International-supported NGO that identifies human rights abusers, does not hold the SOA accountable in any way for the massacre.11 According to Rials;”There is simply no cause-effect relationship between the [SOA/WHINSEC] and human rights violations.”

These few examples are not intended to comprehensively exonerate all graduates of the SOA. While there is a very real possibility that Cold War SOA students were taught controversial practices to combat guerilla threats, it is obscured by the sensational information circulated by the SOAW. The SOAW is hurting its own cause by confusing correlative and causative relationships and by reducing all SOA graduates into a single archetypical bad-guy. The group’s oversimplification of U.S.-Latin American military aid helps polarize support, but it does not add credibility to an otherwise legitimate argument. The SOAW is spending too much time vilifying a rather irrelevant institution while it could be directly challenging the leadership that helped form it. If they want to make a substantial difference in hemispheric welfare, the SOAW may want to revise its message from the populist standpoint of being zealously against the School of Assassins, to a more reasoned approach of questioning the policies and effects of U.S.-supported militarization.

The Nefarious “Torture Manuals”

The greatest damage to of the School of the Americas’ image, and the rallying banner for the SOAW today, was the Pentagon’s 1996 release of the SOA “torture manuals.” These training documents, compiled entirely in Spanish, were drafted in the mid-1980s and were apparently used by instructors at the facility from 1989 to 1991.12 Containing extremely questionable material sanctioning extortion, interrogation, and kidnapping; these manuals were not submitted to Army or Department of Defense authorities for review. The Pentagon found that instructors at the SOA “incorrectly assumed that the information in the manuals was consistent with approved doctrine.”13 Nevertheless, the Department of Defense made them available to the public in September 1996, stating; “The review found that about two dozen isolated phrases, sentences or short passages, out of 1,100 pages in six manuals, were objectionable or dubious.”14 Upon the release of the “torture manuals” (which can be read at the SOAW website) Father Bourgeois told reporters that, “We are hoping, the Pentagon’s revelation, made public, will force Congress to say `No more. Let’s shut this place down.'”15 In his view, this was the damning evidence the SOAW needed, proof that the institution was teaching its students to abuse human rights, and that the disclosure legitimized his movement to close the school down.

The Pentagon’s review of the manuals in its 1991-1992 report, titled “Report of Investigation, Improper Material in Spanish-Language Intelligence Training Manuals,” predictably came to a different conclusion. The review noted that the manuals were illegitimately rehashed from old 1960’s Foreign Intelligence material used during the Cold War.16 It also revealed that the manuals were not approved by the DOD or the Pentagon, and stated “It is incredible that the use of the lesson plans since 1982, and the manuals since 1987, evaded the established system of doctrinal controls. Nevertheless, we could find no evidence that this was a deliberate and orchestrated attempt to violate DOD or Army policies.”17 Regardless of if this statement is true or not, it was an incredibly weak defense for an already troubled institution.

Whether or not the manuals were used to teach depends on who you ask; while the manuals were clearly a grave military oversight that ignited media frenzy, their actual significance has been ex-tensively debated. The Pentagon, WHINSEC, and Rials all have suggested that “there is also no indication that they were ever used in practice,” while SOAW and Father Bourgeois argue that they are undeniable proof that the SOA was teaching illegal practices. Although it was inexcusable that these manuals managed to evade official review, it remains debatable whether the use or non-use of these manuals would have affected the outcome of the future massacres. The material outlined in the manuals does not advocate mass murder, and it is hard to believe that the brutal Atlacatl Battalion, which had a particular talent for brutality, needed U.S. training to figure out how to murder unarmed civilians.


Whether the School of the America facilitated human rights abuses will likely to continue to re-main frustratingly uncertain. Nevertheless, despite its parent institution’s history, it is apparent that today’s reformed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation does not promote human rights abuses. The WHINSEC may not currently utilize objectionable material, but that has not stopped the SOAW and Father Bourgeois from continuing their activism. Father Bourgeois said, “This school is still about [America] holding on to the power of the military in these [Latin American] countries. The U.S. has played an important role in keeping these oppressive militaries well-armed and well-trained, but you can only oppress people for so long.” Bourgeois insisted that “America has, over the years, been exploiting the cheap labor of [Latin America.] The U.S. is on the side of oppressing those masses; we’re addicted to guns and weapons.” The main aim of closing the WHINSEC is “to distance ourselves from the past” he said.

Although there are some serious grey areas of the SOA’s teaching practices, it clearly is not the intent of the U.S. Department of Defense to produce human rights abusers, and it most certainly did not train the “notorious graduates” in the tactics that would wreak political and humanitarian havoc in the years to come. Blame for those atrocities should be primarily assigned to the men who perpetrated them, though the SOA can be faulted for not looking at the human rights violations track record of the governments it trained. Even if the U.S. did overlook the history of the military personnel it was training, it would have been be a policy decision on the national level, not a decision of the SOA itself.

Despite what critics say, the SOA is closed, and the WHINSEC appears to be destined for a much more modest and appropriate role in light of the current administrations hemispheric policy. Closing the school itself will not change U.S. foreign policy, nor will it alone bring on a positive change in the welfare of Latin American citizens. If activists such as today’s SOAW followers want to see fewer U.S. weapons and U.S. trained soldiers flow into to Latin America, they should direct their energy at the source of U.S.-Latin American decision-making policy in Washington, not the WHINSEC’s application of it.

References for this article can be found here