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Too Close for Comfort: El Salvador Ratchets Up its U.S. Ties

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  • With all of the hullabaloo focused on CAFTA, Washington is moving ahead with a new police training facility in a troubled Central American country.
  • As U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice astonishes the world by repeatedly describing El Salvador as a “democracy,” she announced at this year’s Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly in Ft. Lauderdale (June 5–7) that plans are underway to develop an International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in El Salvador. The school would yearly enroll as many as 1,500 students from various hemispheric countries.
  • Negotiations for the ILEA come during a period when cooperation among Central American nations on matters of national and international security is already at an all time high.
  • The Salvadoran Ombudsperson for Human Rights, Dr. Beatrice de Carrillo, and the Popular Social Block (BPS), a group led by a Lutheran pastor in El Salvador, are at the head of protests against the launching of the controversial U.S. facility as well as the overall expansion of U.S. influence in the country.
  • Today, El Salvador is the consummate Central American Banana Republic.
  • With full support coming from President Antonio Saca’s rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) -led government, Washington is ambitiously planning for an expanded presence in El Salvador. The State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) is currently in the initial stages of negotiating plans with Salvadoran officials to establish an International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) at La Comalapa, with the potential for additional use of an existing Salvadoran police training headquarters in Santa Tecla. A counterpart facility in Peru is under consideration, though no concrete steps have yet been taken in that direction.

    Establishing the ILEA in Latin America has been a crucial, longstanding State Department strategy for consolidating Washington’s influence in the western hemisphere. The ILEA in El Salvador would realize a strategy whereby the U.S. would have a variety of training instructors in Latin America, additionally featuring the Pentagon’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The facility shed its former title of School of the Americas (SOA) in 2001, in a cosmetic public relations tactic aimed at separating it from an unsavory past. Unlikely enough, unless the progressive notion gains ascendancy in the current negotiations for the ILEA Latin America and guarantees the inclusion of a specific clause banning the involvement of military personnel, ARENA’s compromising agreement to host the civilian police training school in El Salvador could ultimately lead to a broadening of the school’s already 360 degree scope and have it become a new U.S. military influenced outlet. This grave possibility will become increasingly urgent as the freshly baptized military training school WHINSEC continues to decline in influence.

    The ILEA Mission
    ILEAs – there are four others worldwide – have been established, usually without great controversy, in regions where the history of U.S. intervention has been marked by a much lower profile. The overarching goal of the INL in establishing these police training schools at its best is to improve transnational cooperation on security matters, democratic rule and lawful proceedures in any given strategic region. The State Department’s statement of purpose proclaims that through the ILEAs, it is seeking to “buttress democratic governance through the rule of law; enhance the functioning of free markets through improved legislation and law enforcement; and increase social, political, and economic stability by combating narcotics trafficking and crime.”

    Generally, the ILEA instructors are largely part of an international task force, the curriculum is primarily developed by the U.S. and costs are shared bilaterally between the U.S. and the host nation. ILEAs use a variety of courses to train police leadership with the expectation that they will in turn go on to professionalize their forces. The first ILEA was set up in Budapest by the State Department in 1995 under President Bill Clinton, in response to a shifting geopolitical scene that saw many countries emerge from Eastern Block communism without wholly qualified security forces. The ILEA Budapest has caused few problems since its founding. In Latin America, however, the State Department’s attempt to secure a site for the ILEA has been a mounting struggle, on a hill of its own making. El Salvador’s problematic newfound openness to the institution is indicative of ARENA steering the country into increasing dependency on the U.S.

    The Breadth of Salvadoran Compliance
    El Salvador showed its capacity for harmonizing to U.S. policy goals long before entering negotiations for the ILEA Latin America. ARENA has been institutionalizing its compliance with Washington’s policy initiatives in the country regardless of any resulting harm to Salvadoran national interests or the genuine developmental needs of its society. Dollarized since 2001, El Salvador was the first country in Central America to ratify the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and is the only Latin American nation still maintaining troops in Iraq. Additionally, it already plays host to a U.S. military base at La Comalapa as well as an FBI installation, which both operate with the stated purpose of dealing with Salvadoran youth gangs’ links to drug trafficking in the U.S. The ILEA’s goals overlap with those of the institutions it already has ensconced in El Salvador.

    Whatever Happened to the ILEA South?
    The U.S. has had to search gingerly to come upon a western hemisphere country that would agree to its terms for an ILEA to be based there; strategic considerations were largely made to defer to finding a nation with the political will to host the institution. After Panama rejected the project, negotiations with Costa Rica almost came to fruition in 2002 but ultimately foundered in what could become an extremely useful case study for El Salvador’s critics of the ILEA. Tom Browne, an INL official, emphasized to COHA that one reason for the initiative’s failure was that Costa Rica “wanted a different type [of a] curriculum, [at that time they desired] more of a theoretical type of training than a hands on type of training.” However, in 2002, the greatest source of discord was the important fact that the U.S. obstinately refused to sign a clause barring military instructors or armed forces personnel from the program. Moreover, the U.S. was in the process of withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court at the time and was demanding diplomatic immunity from prosecution for the academy’s U.S. personnel. The distribution of the ILEA’s costs was also perceived by many Costa Ricans as being grossly unfair.

    According to a June 18, 2002 U.S. State Department press release, John Danilovich, then U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica, suggested at an initial signing ceremony that the U.S. choice of Costa Rica as a host country recognized “the country’s record as a stable democracy, promoter of the rule of law, and regional model in education.” His statement reflected an awareness of the prerequisite for a U.S. police training facility abroad, which had been spelled out by the Reagan administration in a Congressional amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA). In 1974, Congress had acted favorably on provision 660 of the FAA to ban U.S. training of foreign police forces, after a controversial link between U.S. police training and human rights abuses and torture had become evident in several Latin American programs, especially in Uruguay. Even though exemptions to the ban were already being made on a case by case basis, the Reagan administration amendment lifted the ban to allow for training in any bona fide democratic country without glaring human rights violations.

    In El Salvador, ARENA Glances at the Mirror and Thinks it Sees a Shiny Costa Rica
    Though El Salvador, with its ghastly modern history and endemic human rights violations dating back to the matanza of 1932, hardly meets the criteria of the Reagan administration’s amendment, it is now making boasts that it is a regional examplar of good governance and sound policing. Its claims are strikingly similar to those put forth in 2002 by advocates of the ILEA in Costa Rica, as once again ARENA is deftly using El Salvador’s alliance with Washington to safeguard its immediate political objectives. On June 10, the National Center for U.S. – El Salvador Sister Cities reported Saca’s remarks that “all Salvadorans should feel proud that the United States has chosen us” to host the ILEA. The Center also reprinted a statement by Jaime Francisco Vigil, Director of the Salvadoran National Public Security Academy (ANSP), in which he suggested that the choice of El Salvador was made, in part, because its police force is the “most honest, nearest to the people, and is not corrupt like in other parts of the world.” To the contrary, during the height of the Salvadoran civil conflict, tens of millions of dollars were passed under the table to senior officials of the Salvadoran security forces by U.S. embassy officials. The Salvadoran Ombudsperson for Human Rights, Dr. Beatrice de Carrillo, serves at the head of on office which was institutionalized at the end of the Salvadoran civil war to monitor human rights abuses; she has written a long report on the corruption and the poor human rights record of the Salvadoran police force, and energetically opposes her government’s plans for the ILEA. She thereby joins with the denouncement of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) as well as of the multi-organizational Salvadoran Popular Social Block (BPS), in opposing the ILEA.

    Military Silhouettes on the Police Academy’s Horizon
    In reports and off-the-record conversations, State Department officials hem and haw as to why exacly El Salvador was chosen for hosting the ILEA, as it is obviously not a thriving democracy despite President Bush’s repeated praise to the contrary. As of yet, there have not even been token assurances, similar to the ones Danilovich ultimately made in reference to the proposed Costa Rican academy, that this ILEA would be “strictly civilian,” which is a promise that should be writ in stone before Salvadoran authorities allow the school to become concrete. While the INL likes to involve Department of Defense (DOD) personnel in their training activities because of their topical expertise, there are substantive reasons to warrant safeguards against U.S. military instruction in a civilian police training facility. If the U.S. human rights record in police training is poor, its military record is even worse. The detention centers of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are only painfully relevant, high profile contemporary examples of the kind of moral quagmires that were routinely seen in El Salvador in the 1980s, when the U.S military unremittingly complied in boldly scrawling history with the blood of El Salvador’s civilians. Andres Conteris, president of Non-Violence International and long time ILEA monitor, could have been justified in using strong language when he accused the U.S., in a COHA interview, of being “a known trainer in torture technologies.”

    The Civil War’s Dismal Surfacings
    During the Salvadoran civil war of 1980 – 1992, Washington backed the government party with training and more than $6 billion in military and economic aid in order to contain the power and influence of the increasingly formidable Marxist FMLN. A 1993 UN Truth Commission later determined that 90 percent of the violence that was committed during the Salvadoran war was not by the much maligned leftist rebels, but rather by El Salvador’s Christian Democratic government (later to be replaced by ARENA) and associated death squads. Additionally, the war’s most dramatic killings and incidents of torture could all be linked to Salvadoran military personnel trained at the paradigm of U.S. hemispheric military training, the SOA. Two of the three implicated in the 1980 murder of Archbishop Romero, 19 out of 27 cited by the UN Truth Commission for complicity in the 1981 massacre at El Mozote, and ten of the twelve responsible for the 1989 murder of six Salvadoran Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter, were trained at the SOA. Washington initially denied that the mass executions at El Mozote and in surrounding villages had ever taken place; however, 500 dead bodies of civilians were ultimately identified along with the unknown remains of hundreds more. Truncated exhumation efforts in the main village were sufficient to unearth the remains of at least 143 bodies and revealed that 131 had belonged to children under the age of 12, with it being estimated that six years was the children’s average age.

    The Bedrock Argument for U.S. Hemispheric Policy: Blanket Trust
    U.S. intervention in the Salvadoran civil war supported the Salvadoran government’s strategy of targeting villages thought to harbor leftist sympathizers. This in turn led to massive displacements which eventually ignited the gang problems which are the very dragon that the U.S. is trying to slay today with its expanded presence in El Salvador. Nevertheless, proponents of stepped-up military or civilian hemispheric training efforts carry a confidence in U.S. paternalism that is tantamount to blind conviction. In an example that does not bode well for El Salvador, David Kirsch reported in a 1990 Covert Action Quarterly article the response of Elliott Abrams, then Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, to a question posed at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing: Would cattle prods be included in U.S. overseas police assistance to Costa Rica? “I think that [the Costa Rican] government has earned enough trust, as I think we have earned enough trust, not to be questioned, frankly, about exporting torture equipment,” he said. “But I would certainly be in favor of giving it to them if they want it.”

    A Call for Constraints
    In securing its country’s approval for the ILEA, ARENA will likely play on national fears that any frustrating of Washington’s demands could trigger widespread deportations of Salvadorans living in the U.S. and result in a ban on their vital remittances now being sent back home. This strategy has served ARENA well in justifying CAFTA, and it has helped ensure the necessary political support to keep Salvadoran troops in Iraq and maintain the party’s hold on the presidency. Partisan Washington diplomats, too, have a history of calculatedly exacerbating Salvadoran fears with intimidating remarks. According to a 2004 PBS report, Roger Noriega, the Assistant Secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, warned the Salvadoran electorate that “we know the history of [the opposition party, the FMLN], and for this reason, it is fair that the Salvadoran people consider what type of relations a new government could have with us” if they voted for the FMLN during the upcoming election. In drumming up support for the ILEA in El Salvador, Washington might well revisit this time-tested strategy.

    The State Department’s Herculean push for the Salvadoran ILEA is also particularly inappropriate as it undermines current area efforts in favor of regional autonomy. The Central American countries are showing a record level of cooperation in their own initiatives to strengthen the rule of law as well as cooperate among themselves on a range of other activities. On June 30, regional leaders met in Honduras to solidify plans for pursuing a transnational security force, create a Central American passport and establish common visa requirements. Calls for a U.S. role did not focus on increased intervention from Washington, but rather reminded the U.S. of its major role as a drug importer and consumer, and consequent responsibility to cooperate in solving the area’s narcotics problems. When COHA focused on this recent acceleration in Central America’s own security initiatives in its talk with Browne, he responded by observing that the ILEA Latin America would be useful because the curriculum being developed “covers all sorts of crime” and is a “very broad based curriculum,” and “maybe has some synergies with the other issues but it covers everything under the sun.”

    The INL’s Strategy by Numbers: the “Multiplier Effect”
    With its vast curriculum and 1,500 students a year, the ILEA Latin America will not be merely another SOA; it will have a good deal of clout on its own. It could dwarf WHINSEC in terms of numbers reached. WHINSEC trains only 700 to 1,000 students a year, and numerous Latin American countries have recently stopped sending students altogether.

    The State Department’s INL already has a respectable reach. For example, as Jonathan Farrar testified on May 25, 2005 before the House International Relations Committee, the INL maintains a Guatemalan Regional Anti-Narcotics Training Center that provides room for students from 12 other hemispheric countries, “organized or financed over 120 training courses” for more than 6000 Mexican law enforcement personnel in 2004 alone. The INL also prioritizes police training, with the most questionable success, in such unhinged and intractable locations as Haiti and Colombia.

    However, with few constraints and with its massive impact, the ILEA would be a unique and formidable consolidation of power that would institutionalize what is now a roving lack of direction. Given the additional appearance that systematically gauging the effects of the school is of no great concern to the State Department – they are content with predicting, in Farrar’s words, that the institution will be a “way to achieve a multiplier effect for [their] investment” – it is imperative that greater oversight infiltrate the negotiation process for the ILEA Latin America.

    A Proposed Rebuttal to the Planned Academy
    Given State Department officials’ insistence that negotiations are still preliminary and that curricular development is still underway, Vigil’s comment that the first course will begin this July 25 appears to have been somewhat premature. Those opposed to the ILEA have substantial momentum and conceivably enough time in which to influence the negotiation process in a progressive direction. With the ILEA Latin America, Washington will almost certainly maintain the inflexible attitude it takes when it comes to negotiating its proposals. As Conteris put it in describing the unraveling of the ILEA South, Washington decided to “pick up the marbles [in Costa Rica] and go home” rather than offer concessions to transparency and anti-military safeguards. For the antagonists of the ILEA Latin America, this provides some room for hope.

    Opposition efforts in El Salvador to the hemispheric ILEA just might repeat previous successes in deterring the facility’s ability to strike roots in Panama, Costa Rica and El Salvador’s steamy political habitats, given the Bush Administration’s seeming inability to compromise when it comes to Latin America both on small as well as large issues. What the Salvadoran opposition must do now to succeed is press hard in its own right and at the same time capitalize on U.S. recalcitrance.

    For More Information:

    “Academia regional formará a 1,500 policías al año.” El Diario De Hoy. 7 June 2005.

    “Central America, U.S. join to fight gang crime.” Reuters. 30 June 2005.

    Danner, Mark. “The Truth of El Mozote.” A Reporter at Large. The New Yorker. 6 December 1993.

    Farrar, Jonathan. “Transparency and the Rule of Law in Latin America.” House International Relations Committee, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Washington DC. 25 May 2005.

    Green, Eric. “Costa Rica to House Law Enforcement Academy for the Americas.” Washington File. 18 June 2002.

    “Human Rights Concerns Regarding the Proposed International Law Enforcement Academy in Costa Rica (ILEA-South).” Washington Office on Latin America. January 2003.

    Kennedy, Edward. “HR 611: To close the United States Army School of the Americas.” 105th Congress. House of Representatives, Washington DC. 5 February 1997.

    Maass, Peter. “The Salvadorization of Iraq?” New York Times Magazine. 1 May 2005.

    “¡No to International Police Academy in El Salvador!” Popular Social Block. 18 June 2005.

    United Nations Security Council. Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador. 15 March 1993.

    “U.S. proposes international law enforcement academy in El Salvador” National Center U.S. – El Salvador Sister Cities. 10 June 2005.