A Dismal Record
The School of the Americas / Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (SOA/WHINSEC) is a military instructional facility that has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers, police, and security-related civilians in counterinsurgency, psychological warfare, and interrogation techniques since its inception in 1946. Many of the brutal military dictators and their staff during the period known as the Dirty Wars of the 1970’s and 1980’s in Central and South America were graduates of the SOA. In 1996 it was revealed that manuals advocating torture and other inhumane tactics against civilian populations had been employed at the SOA and were distributed to several Latin American countries.
The school’s extensive list of criminal graduates includes Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galteri, two of the most notorious members of Argentina’s ruling military Juntas. Other alumni were Manuel Noriega, the intelligence officer turned dictator of Panama, and 19 members of Battalion 3-16, the Honduran army unit which terrorized and killed scores of its own civilians during the 1980s. While dozens of countries have sent personnel to the SOA over the years, Colombia has had the largest contingent of soldiers trained at the American facility. The destructive influence this has had in Colombia was made clear when over half of the 237 human rights violations reported there in 1993 were committed by SOA graduates. The considerable number of kidnappings, tortures, murders, and massacres committed by SOA graduates provides irrefutable evidence that Latin Americans have grievously suffered from skills taught at this American military facility.
Moved to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1984, the SOA has continued its controversial training while cloaked in a veil of secrecy by U.S. authorities. Although the U.S. had knowledge of many of the atrocities occurring in Latin America throughout the 1980’s, they continued to train members of the military dictatorships in the region, some of whom were committing these odious crimes. Organizations such as the School of the Americas Watch, founded in 1990, have been tirelessly fighting for the closure of the school and the release of information on its graduates to this day. In an effort to silence these protests and to sanitize the SOA’s reputation, the Pentagon lobbied for legislation that would initiate a name-change for the facility to improve its severely compromised reputation. In 2001, the school reopened under its new name (WHINSEC), purportedly with a new focus on “promoting democratic values, [and] respect for human rights.” However, in reality, this represented a change in name only, and the actual activities of the school remained centered on military training with only meager programs dedicated to human rights education. Most recently, several leaders of the military coup in Honduras, which ousted the democratically-elected president, Manuel Zelaya, were trained at SOA/WHINSEC, highlighting the enduring negative impact that the school has had on Latin America.
The Ongoing Battle
On June 25, 2009, it seemed that the human rights community had scored a victory as the House of Representatives passed amendment 263 to the National Defense Authorization Act, by a vote of 224-190. The amendment required the public disclosure of information on students and instructors at SOA/WHINSEC for the years 2005 and forward. However, because the Senate did not approve a similar amendment, members of both legislative bodies had to negotiate the final language of the bill in a Conference Committee. On October 8, 2009, the committee agreed to incorporate a modified version of this amendment into the final version of the bill: information on students and instructors at SOA/WHINSEC would be released for 2009 and 2010, but the same information would not be released for the years 2005 through 2008. This information includes the names, ranks, countries of origin, and courses attended by the students and instructors.
The final version of the measure represents only a partial victory, given that information on teachers, students, and activities at the school from these four years will remain classified. In addition, the Secretary of Defense retains the right to withhold the release of the information deemed critical to national security. Pam Bowman, the legislative coordinator for the School of the Americas Watch, emphasized the skeptical feelings of advocates on the final version of the amendment, saying they are “hopeful and encouraged by the decision made,” but disappointed by the limited nature of the final language.
The release of this information, while indicating progress, still appears to be another insincere, papering-over maneuver by Washington to address its role in perpetuating human rights violations in the hemisphere. The fact that Washington will still be withholding information on its training of Latin American military personnel for the four years between 2005 and 2008 raises concerns over whether they have something to hide. In addition, the amendment fails to address the fundamental question of whether the facility should remain open, which further indicates that Washington, despite having a solid Democratic majority, is continuing to skirt its commitment to safeguard human rights.
However, there is hope that the disclosure of the sought-after information and the publicity that it may bring with it will lead to further inroads in the fight to close SOA/WHINSEC. Since the amendment was approved, several additional Congressmen have pledged their support for H.R. 2567, the Latin America Military Training Review Act, which would close the facility, bringing the total number of cosponsors to 80. In 2007, human rights proponents narrowly missed closing SOA/WHINSEC by falling 6 votes short in the House of Representatives. The disclosure of new information as a result of the recent legislation and the continued effort of groups such as the School of the Americas Watch, which will be holding a three day vigil at Fort Benning in November, may generate the additional support needed to shut down the SOA for good.