“Torturers are not born that way: someone educates them, trains them and supports them.” This statement belongs to a report by Amnesty International as part of its campaign to eradicate torture. The same report states that there are over 150 military training centres in the world whose job it is to provide training to foreign armed forces. Protected by secrecy and without any independent control, these centres have the potential to “facilitate human rights violations”.
Such is the case of the infamous School of the Americas, a US Army education facility aimed at training members of Latin American armed forces which has been operational since 1946. Many of its graduates have taken part in military dictatorships throughout the continent and have been accused of committing crimes against humanity using the counter-insurgency methods they were taught at the school. The School of the Americas is not an anomaly, but an integral part of US foreign policy that reached as far south as Argentina.
As we commemorate a new Día de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia (the anniversary of the 1976 coup d’etat) this Saturday 24th March, it is worth remembering the role the School of the Americas played in the country’s recent history.
The Cold War And The National Security Doctrine
“America for the Americans” is a phrase commonly used to summarise the so-called ‘Monroe doctrine’. In his State of the Union address in 1823, US president James Monroe set out what would become the US policy towards the rest of the American continent to this day: by rejecting the intervention of the European powers in the continent, America would become part of the US’s sphere of influence.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the political, cultural, economic, and military influence of the US on the continent expanded. The onset of World War II accelerated the process, already underway, of military cooperation, and favoured a common defence policy based on continental solidarity. Thus, the 1947 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance stated that any foreign attack on one of the signatory states would be deemed an attack on all of them.
In the 1960s, US policy towards Latin America shifted as the Cold War intensified and the success of the Cuban revolution brought the communist threat to its backyard. The fight against communism -or any political movement identified as such- became the number one objective for the US. The role of the Latin American armed forces within the continent and even within their own countries was then redefined to achieve this objective: their main aim became to guarantee internal stability.
The National Security Doctrine, whilst not written down or systematised, is considered to be a military doctrine developed by the US government and instilled into Latin American soldiers through training centres such as the School of the Americas. Many trace its origins to the counter-insurgency teachings of the French military, who developed their own doctrine to fight against the resistance of the independence movements from their former colonies in Algeria and South East Asia.
The most important aspect of the National Security Doctrine, the one which shaped all the policies developed under it, was the idea that social conflict and armed struggle in Latin America (and the so-called Third World in general) was not the result of internal factors, but of communist infiltration by groups backed by the USSR. This way, all internal conflicts were redefined as being part of the bigger threat of the Soviet Union against the US, thus justifying US intervention. This intervention, however, was not direct. As military involvement by the US was generally not supported at home, especially after the Vietnam War, the training imparted to Latin American soldiers and the redefinition of the role of the armed forces sought to prepare them to carry out their job as regional ‘police’ within their own borders.
‘Torturers Are Not Born That Way…’
Leopoldo Galtieri (Argentina), Roberto Viola (Argentina), Hugo Banzer (Bolivia), Manuel Noriega (Panama), Juan Velasco Alvarado (Peru), Omar Torrijos (Panama). What reads like a ‘who’s who’ of Latin American dictators is but a small fraction of the long list of graduates from the School of the Americas.
The School, ran by the US Army, first opened its doors in 1946 in Panama. Back then, it was called Latin American Training Center, Ground Division and its objective was to train Latin American soldiers in war and counter-insurgency techniques. In 1950 it was moved to its definite location in Panama, Fort Gulick, and Spanish was adopted as its official language. It would remain in Fort Gulick until 1984 when it was relocated to the US. In 1963 it was renamed United States Army School of the Americas, the name by which it would become internationally known.
According to the NGO SOA Watch, since 1946 the school “has trained over 64,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics”. Many of these were involved in military regimes across the continent in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. More recently, graduates from the school participated in the attempted coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2002, and the coup that deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009.
What exactly did the soldiers learn in their visits to the School of the Americas? In 1991, seven Spanish-language Army manuals, based partly on lesson plans used by instructors since 1982, were released to the US Congress and in 1992 two CIA manuals used for training in Latin America were added. These texts included material from CIA and US Army manuals written in the 1950s and 1960s and had titles such as ‘Revolutionary War and Communist Ideology’, ‘Terrorism and the Urban Guerrilla’, ‘Handling of Sources’, and ‘Interrogation’.
One of the most striking features of these texts is the lack of distinction between legitimate and legal opposition movements and armed guerrillas. The ‘Counterintelligence’ manual defines as potential counterinsurgency targets any groups or political parties “that have goals, beliefs or ideologies contrary or in opposition to the National Government” or the US. It then recommends the creation of black lists to include “enemy agents” and “subversive persons”, including political opposition leaders and “collaborators and sympathisers of the enemy”. The suggested solutions to the enemy presence include infiltrations into enemy groups and population control techniques such as curfews, military checkpoints, house searches, issuance of ID cards and rationing. Detention procedures compliant with the rule of law are ignored. According to the analysis carried out by NGO Latin American Working Group (LAWG), “throughout the manuals there is discussion of detaining suspects without mention of proper procedures for arrest, obtaining admissible evidence, trial and conviction. There is no mention of warrants or the right to contact an attorney or any comparable local laws. In fact, it is recommended throughout that detainees be kept in isolation and not be allowed to contact anyone.”
The declassified CIA manuals are even more crude. Whilst the Army manuals try to keep up appearances by making references to documents such as the Geneva Convention, the CIA’s “Human Resource Exploitation Manual” has an entire chapter dedicated to coercive interrogation techniques. The aim of these techniques, they explain, is to induce psychological regression in the prisoner, defined as “a loss of autonomy, a reversion to an earlier behavioural level”. The “three major principles involved in the successful application of coercive techniques” are physical weakness, dependency and intense fear and anxiety. To achieve this, the manuals indicate that suspects should be held incommunicado and should be deprived of any kind of normal routine in eating and sleeping. Interrogation rooms should be windowless, soundproof, dark and without toilets. Causing fear by threatening the prisoner is included as a technique in this chapter, as the manual indicates that the threat to inflict pain is often more effective than the feeling of pain. Other coercive techniques discussed in the manual include prolonged constraint, prolonged exertion, extremes of heat, cold, or moisture, deprivation of food or sleep, disruption of routines, solitary confinement, deprivation of sensory stimuli, hypnosis, and use of drugs or placebos.
This type of training has had serious consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. US backing for Latin American dictatorships has been widely documented, but what the manuals from the School of the Americas show is the true and chilling extent of the intervention. It did not only consist of political support: it went as far as teaching the soldiers how to torture prisoners.
Even those who did not suffer the application of these ‘coercive techniques’ on themselves or their loved ones, those who were oblivious to it all or those who had not been born yet suffered the consequences of State-sponsored terrorism. The social and economic outcomes of the Latin American dictatorships are still being felt by many to this day. The techniques taught at the School of the Americas were but a means to an end: to subjugate the opposition to the massive social and economic changes introduced by the dictatorships from the 1970s onwards.
‘Different Name, Same Shame’
In 1984, Panamanian president Jorge Illueca denounced the School of the Americas as the biggest base for destabilisation in Latin America and evicted the US army from Fort Gulick, a step which was part of the broader process put in motion by the Panama Canal Treaty and which involved the progressive withdrawal of US forces from Panama.
The School of the Americas was then reopened in Fort Benning, in the US state of Georgia. In 2001, and after the public outcry caused by the release of the training manuals, the school closed down and was replaced by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). SOA Watch and other human rights NGOs have been publicly denouncing WHINSEC ever since, as they consider it to be “the School of the Americas under a different name”. There has been no critical assessment of the way the school was conducted and therefore no real changes to its objectives, procedures and lack of independent control.
Many NGOs advocate for the closing of WHINSEC, with SOA Watch at the forefront of the struggle. The sole purpose of SOA Watch, based in Washington DC and with offices in Latin America, is to push for the closure of the School of the Americas, under whatever name it may be called. Founded in 1990 after the massacre of six priests and two women by School of the Americas graduates in El Salvador, this NGO has been working relentlessly through demonstrations and nonviolent protest to achieve their goal. Last November, during a yearly vigil, a SOA Watch activist was arrested for breaking into the grounds of WHINSEC in Fort Benning, and later condemned to six months in prison. Unlike the school educators, hundreds of anti-WHINSEC activists throughout the years have had to face justice and serve prison time.
Despite their efforts, an average of 1,000 students per year (mainly Latin American) continue to attend WHINSEC for training on counterdrug, urban terrain, major combat and joint operations. The school receives a budget of US$14m annually.
The most promising gesture regarding the School of the Americas has not come from the US, but from the Latin American governments. Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, and Bolivia have all decided in recent years to stop sending soldiers for training at Fort Benning. This goes to show that, whilst changing the 200-year long foreign policy of a world super power may not be easy, only the autonomous decisions of a strengthened and united continent can save millions from being at its mercy.