Latin America and the Caribbean

September 1995

The Bloody Legacy of the US Army School of the Americas

By W. E. Gutman

Getting rid of someone is easy. Destroying popular aspirations takes more effort but you can always count on a volunteer or two to do the dirty work. For money; favors; influence; power--mostly power. When conventional methods-- elections, plebiscites, national referenda--fail, or when the results threaten the oligarchy, the US Army's School of the Americas, a shadowy but formidable war factory billeted at Fort Benning, Georgia, can help. There are not petty bureaucrats here, taking up space and stealing time until retirement. The SOA is a model institution. Its instructors and students are recruited from the cream of Latin America's military establishment. The curriculum includes: counterinsurgency, military intelligence, interrogation techniques, sniper fire, infantry and commando tactics, "irregular" and psychological warfare, jungle operations, among the most bellicose specialties. But Latin American soldiers at the SOA are not always trained to defend their borders from foreign invasion. They are taught--at US taxpayers' expense--to make war against their own people, to subvert the truth, silence poets, domesticate unruly visionaries, muzzle activist clergy, hinder trade unionism, hush the voices of dissidence and discontent, neutralize the poor, the hungry, the dispossessed, extinguish common dreams, irrigate fields of plenty with the tears of a captive society, and transform paladins and protesters into submissive vassals. Even if it kills them.

For the past two years, a group of US legislators, led by Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II (D-MA), have vowed to shut down the facility/ "SOA graduates include dictators and soldiers implicated in gross human rights violations in Latin America," says Kennedy. "[Continued operation of] this facility suggests that the US has blessed such excesses. The SOA costs [the US] millions of dollars a year and identifies us with tyranny and oppression." In 1993 Kennedy sponsored an amendment to the House Defense Appropriations Bill calling for an end to the training provided at the SOA. The measure was defeated. Reintroduced in 1994, the amendment was again rejected. This time the defeat was sustained by a sixfold increase in the number of abstentions from the preceding year.

Founded in Panama in 1946--and relocated in 1984 to Fort Benning when Panamanian President Jorge Illueca evicted it-- calling it "the biggest base for destabilization in Latin America"--the SOA has trained over 60,000 Latin American and Caribbean basin soldiers. It has also produced some of the region's most despicable tyrants. The SOA is expected to graduate about 750 students in 1995.


When the military go on feeding frenzies in Latin America, as they are wont to do with unsettling regularity, accusing fingers often point to Washington. This is what happened in 1989, when a Salvadoran army patrol burst into the Central American University and murdered six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter. Some of the victims were executed lying face down on the ground. Human rights groups were quick to accuse the US of aiding and abetting El Salvador's military regime. This was not an idle allegation. Nineteen of the 27 Salvadoran officers who took part in the massacre by a UN Truth Commission report were graduates of the SOA. In fact, almost three-quarters of the Salvadoran officers implicated in seven other bloodbaths during El Salvador's civil war (including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero 15 years ago this month) were trained by the SOA. The elite institution has left its mark everywhere in Latin America: Of the 246 officers cited for various crimes in Colombia by a 1992 international human rights tribunal, 105 are SOA graduates.

The three highest ranking officers who supported former Guatemalan President Serrano's 1993 attempted coup are graduates of the SOA--including former Defense Minister Jose Domingo Garcia and the sinister presidential chief of staff, Luis Francisco Ortega Menaldo. In 1976, Ortega, then a captain, took a military intelligence course at the SOA. Other Guatemalan big-name SOA graduates include current Defense Minister, Gen. Mario Enriquez and Congress President, Gen. Jose Efrain Rios Montt. A former president of Guatemala (1982-83) Montt is best remembered for his "beans or bullets" policy--beans for the obedient, bullets for the rest.

In Honduras, five ranking officers who organized--with US complicity--the secret death squad known as Intelligence Battalion 3-15 in the mid-1980s are SOA graduates. They include Generals Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, Daniel Ball Castillo, Luis Alonzo Discua and Juan Lopez Grijalva. An America's Watch report has charged Lopez with involvement in a death squad. Captain Pio Flores, whose house was used as a detention and torture center, took four courses at the SOA. Colonel Amilcar Zelaya, from whose residence muffled screams were regularly heard, also attended the school. Battalion commanders Luis Alonzo Villatoro Villeda and Adolfo Diaz took courses at the SOA, as did Lieutenants Segundo Flores Murillo and Noel Corrales. Murrillo's specialty was interrogation and torture.

The three highest ranking officers convicted in February 1994 of murdering nine university students and a professor in Peru are all SOA graduates--as is the commander of the Peruvian military who dispatched tanks to block an investigation.

Also known as the School for Dictators (and dubbed--less kindly but with more acronymic consistency--the School of Assassins) the SOA has sired a number of favorite sons destined for historical scrutiny. Among them:

-- Omar Torrijos of Panama, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador and Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru--all of whom overthrew constitutionally elected civilian governments.

-- Leopoldo Galtieri, ex-head of Argentina's junta--defeated in the Falkland "Dirty War" against the British. Galtieri's military advisers helped establish Honduras' Battalion 3-16.

-- Hugo Banzer Suarez, Bolivian president in the 1970s-- crushed dissident clerics and suppressed tin miners with savage zeal.

-- Roberto D'Aubuisson, late Salvadoran death-squad leader-- plotted the assassination of Archbishop Romero and may have participated in the El Mozote massacre of 900 men, women, and children.

-- Manuel Noriega, ex-dictator of Panama--serving 40 years in a US penitentiary for drug trafficking.

-- Honduran generals Humberto Regaldo Hernandez (linked to Colombian drug cartels) and Policarpo Paz Garcia (led a corrupt regime in the 80s). Hernandez was inducted into the SOA Hall of Fame in 1988.

-- Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas--chief of Guatemalan intelligence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when thousands of political opponents were assassinated.


Not as eminent but equally adept at making war, wielding in some cases formidable regional or local power, and exceeding the limits of their own authority, a number of SOA graduates have been known to take on less redoubtable foes. In Guatemala, a nation described by a high-ranking US Embassy official as "a fractured society--politically, economically, culturally and ethnically--probably the most corrupt in Latin America," crimes against street children have long made international headlines but were never stanched. Unwanted, unloved, disposable, society's chaff, ubiquitous and growing in numbers, they continue to pay the price of civil strife and poverty and feudalism and social decay; enduring illegal detentions and beatings, often for petty crimes, including those motivated by hunger.

According to Bruce Harris, executive director, Covenant House Latin American Programs, "1994 was a banner year for a country more preoccupied with bananas and coffee than human live. It produced the highest number of extrajudicial executions of street children in Guatemala this decade--13 in all." Gathered by the legal aid office of Casa Alianza, Covenant House's Latin American branch, fresh evidence points to waves of mindless retribution by a constabulary gone amok and overlooked by a judicial system disinclined to obey Guatemala's very own constitution, let alone the international human rights accords to which it is a party.

Julio Caballeros Seigne, SOA Class of 1960 (Infantry Arms, Tactics and Army Documents) may have to answer for many of these children's lives. Head of the Guatemalan military at Nebaj, Quiche province, where some of the worst atrocities were committed against the campesinos, he is generally blamed for the displacement of over one million persons, many of them orphaned children, and for spurring an urban migration which continues to strain the country's moribund economy. Former head of G@ (military intelligence), he was twice chief of the National Police (1985, 1990), a semimilitarized corps with a reputation and lengthy record of human rights abuses, many against defenseless minors. In 1993 he was named Customs Chief.

In the BBC-produced documentary, They Shoot Children Don't They?, Caballeros charged Harris with "wanting justice at the snap of a finger," and complained that he was "making too much of a fuss about the death of one child." The child, 13- year-old Nahaman Carmona Lopez, was beaten to death five years ago by four of Caballeros' officers. His death galvanized international attention and paved the way for a widely publicized series of legal proceedings by Harris against his executioners. To his credit, Caballeros did order some of his men investigated, but he blamed the judicial system, rather than inept sleuthing, for its failure to secure binding convictions.

Arrogant and self-deluded, Caballeros may have underestimated the resolve of dedicated human rights activists to take on abusive regimes. At this writing, Casa Alianza has 191 criminal suits in the Guatemalan court system against 120 policemen and 30 soldiers. Arrest warrants have been issued against 18 policemen. Urged by Harris, the European Parliament has vowed to impose economic sanctions against Guatemala.

A member of the extreme right-wing Revolutionary Party, Caballeros, who lost a bid for a congressional seat, makes no secret of his political aspirations and his commitment to a return to military rule in Guatemala. Iit is widely believed that several former administration cabinet members itching for a political comeback favor such a takeover. In an open letter to his "Querido Juan Pueblo" (Beloved John Q. Public) in Siglo Veintiuno (21st century), Caballeros blames "dirty, rich politicians" for the country's chronic problems. Given that the wealthy in Guatemala (as elsewhere in Latin America) have traditionally supported the military, Caballeros was being more than disingenuous. Playing on short memories and growing public discontent to agitate the masses, in military parlance it's called disinformation, a technique taught at the SOA under a different appellation.

Long-simmering rumors that the Guatemalan military has been involved in various criminal activities burst into the open last month when a number of high-ranking officers, among them Col. Carlos Rene Ochoa Ruiz, SOA Class of 1969, were charged with drug trafficking, car theft, and murder. Cited as a cocaine exporter, Ochoa has so far evaded US extradition efforts.

Next door, in Honduras, the early 1980s witnessed political violence of a level unknown in earlier decades as the civil conflict in El Salvador and Nicaragua spilled across its borders. Many "disappeared" after their abduction or were summarily executed by death squads. Seven men, including the late Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, SOA Class of 1978, were accused of taking part in the "disappearances" of dozens of Hondurans. Alvarez was also charged with abuse of authority, homicide, assassination, torture and hindering due process of law. In a recent interview, his widow, Lillian de Alvarez, justified her husband's excesses, saying he had "fought against disloyalty and terrorist organizations." Former armed forces intelligence chief Leonidas Torres Arias, SOA Class of 1962 and 1971 (Commando Operations), who had accused Alvarez of complicity in the "disappearances," was dishonorably discharged in 1982. Rumors persist that Torres was involved in arms and drug trafficking and murder. Vigilantism against "delinquents"-- a euphemism of sizable elasticity generally reserved for the destitute and the hungry--continues to claim lives in Honduras. Last month, Regional Police Chief Lt. Col. Angel Arnoldo Cabrera, SOA Class of 1979 (Class Leader, Commando Tactics), was accused of heading a death squad specializing in the assassination of "known criminals." Cabrera has denied the charges and threatened to sue for libel.

To reports of irregularities in detention procedures and the torture of detainees during interrogation by the Fuerza de Seguridad Publica (FUSEP), particularly at the hands of its military branch, was soon added evidence of intimidation and harassment of members of human rights groups, lawyers, members of the Catholic clergy, trade unionists and the press. Relations between the armed forces and the press deteriorated when a group of journalists filmed a murder scene in the provincial city of San Pedro Sula. The killers were identified as members of the armed forces. The journalists were threatened. One was attacked. Another had to flee Honduras.

While there have been no "disappearances" under the present (Carlos Roberto Reina) government, serious human rights violations persist and many of the victims are among Tegucigalpa's more than 1,000 street children. Last October, this writer went to Honduras to investigate allegations of police brutality against street children, to corroborate recurring charges that minors are routinely--and illegally--incarcerated with adults, and to document long- held imputations that Honduras's military justice system wantonly disregards the nation's highest laws. Under pressure from Bruce Harris, six minors detained without arraignment for three days and three nights with adults at the Seventh Precinct, including a 10-year-old, were first transferred to an empty cell then quietly released. Hastily convened, a radio interview with Harris and an Amnesty International dispatch accusing Honduran police of illegally imprisoning minors soon made headlines in Tegucigalpa. Police Chief Jorge Alberto Rodas Gamero, SOA Class of 1975 (Infantry) and Class of 1982 (Military Intelligence) made known his displeasure. Calling the Casa Alianza shelter "a nest of thieves," and its wards "delinquents," he agitated the downtown business community, fomenting an angry demonstration in front of the shelter. Two weeks later, the shelter's director was threatened with expulsion. Coerced by Chief Rodas, the Honduran press mounted a fresh offensive against Casa Alianza. meanwhile, investigations into charges stemming from the illegal detention, mistreatment, torture of minors in 1993 against the former military intelligence chief, SOA graduate Lt. Col. Marco Tulio Ayala Vindel, were postponed "indefinitely." Ayala currently heads FUSEP's propaganda machine.

Not to be outdone, the Hondurans military have renewed their attacks on the Reina administration for trying, "once again, to damage its credibility and reputation." Reina's efforts to reduce military influence have been met with death threats and a recent [failed] assassination attempt. Among sympathizers of the military, is A. Manuel de Jesus Castillo, SOA Class of 1975 (Military Intelligence). Castillo, one of the attorneys of former Honduran President Rafael Leonardo Callejas, was expelled from the SOA for misconduct. According to private sources, over 30 percent of all living Honduran SOA graduates are still "pulling strings." The SOA has trained over 5,000 Honduran soldiers and officers.


Breathtaking mountain vistas. An idyllic climate. Unspoiled rain forests. Golden beaches stretching along two coasts. A rich fauna and an exuberant flora. Costa Rica has it all, and then some. But what makes Costa Ricans proudest of all, what they enjoy reminding the world, is that their small Central American nation has had no army since its abolition in 1948. Look again.

A document obtained through the Freedom of Information Act lists nearly 2,500 Costa Rican soldiers and officers who have trained at the SOA since 1949. Among the courses taken: military intelligence (the second most popular specialty after military police and infantry training), psychological warfare, sniper and commando tactics, airborne, engineering combat and construction, jungle operations, mortars, "irregular warfare," counterinsurgency, "nuclear war and military pedagogy," mine-sweeping, basic weapons and combat trauma medicine.

Costa Rica has also contributed instructors to the SOA, most recently Lt. Wilbert Mora and Capts. Juan Calvo, Jorge Alfaro Nunez, Luis C. Calvo Calvo and Carlos Alberto Castro. The last two ended a two-year stint in January. Lt. Col Walter F. Novaroo Romero, SOA Class of 1989 (Psychological Warfare) a Costa Rican, is the SOA base sub-commandant.

Asked to comment, Maj. Gordon Martel, SOA Public Affairs Officer, who pinch-hit for base commandant Col. Roy Trumble, dismissed any inference of impropriety in the existence of a military presence in Costa Rica. "This is a kind of police force not unlike the [US] National Guard. Its members are trained to perform civil and rural guard duties. They also go on drug interdiction missions."

Understandably, Maj. Martel must have recited SOA's standard catechism. The rationale, however, is tenuous. In Costa Rica, as in the rest of Central America, police and army are indistinguishable and interchangeable. One is tempter to speculate--given the nature, complexity, and sophistication of the courses taken by Costa Rican students at an elite combat school such as the SOA--that "civil and rural guard duties" are clever euphemisms crafter for public consumption. For this nation of three million, such intensive training looks more like a state of continuous mobilization and combat readiness than an attempt to keep peace in the streets or to preseve nature's virgin beauty against human predation. Moreover, a narcotics surveillance radar network donated and installed by the USA has since fallen in disuse, allegedly the victim of cost cutbacks. Creditable sources suggest that the facility may have been shut down because it threatened to drastically diminish the flow of drug money into the private coffers of high-ranking government officials. Such action, at a time when Costa Rica has been cited as a benevolent land bridge between Colombia's cartels and North America, invalidates Maj. Martel's argument and raises legitimate suspicion. Out of 2,500 graduates, fewer than a dozen took the so-called "counter-narcotrafficking" course. Measured against the hundreds of students who have trained in intelligence, counterinsurgency, infantry and military police, drug interdiction does not appear to be a burning preoccupation in Costa Rica at this time.

Costa Rica's reputation as nature conservator and premier tourist attraction has obscured a less than sterling human rights record. As recently as 1993, the Cobra Commando, a shadowy paramilitary group, was keeping the narcotics pipeline open and terrorizing indigenous Indians in the Talamanca jungles. Once a thriving and proud people, caught between the sword and the cross, Costa Rica's Indians have dwindled to a precious few and may be headed for extinction. This could explain Costa Rica's reluctance to acknowledge the very existence of an antecedent civilization.

"The SOA is seriously hindering the establishment and strengthening of democracy in Latin America," charges Father Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest who spent two years in prison for spearheading protests against the school. Bourgeois, who heads SOA Watch, a grassroots organization that keeps close tabs on the school claims that "the SOA does not screen soldiers who are assigned to it. Known perpetrators of serious war crimes come and go as they please." Indeed, a number of officers cited in the 1993 UN Truth Commission attended the SOA after they had committed atrocities. "Funded by US tax dollars," Bourgeois argues, "the SOA steals from the poor. Graduates return to their countries to enrich the rich and to keep the poor in their place."

Defenders of the SOA, which operates on a $42 million-a-year budget (the school recently underwent a $30 million renovation), insist it is getting a bum rap. Maj. Martel rejects all criticism. "The SOA is a legitimate military institution where legitimate military skills are taught. It is not the school's fault that a fraction of graduates has engaged in reprehensible behavior"--a plea echoed by Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Sam Nunn (D-GA). Congressperson Sanford Bishop (D-GA), who represents the Fort Benning area, goes a step further. He argues that the SOA has actually promoted democracy in Latin America. These are by and large obscurantist arguments that even the Pentagon stops short of endorsing. Guaranteed anonymity, a senior analyst told this writer that the SOA "has systematically encouraged the transplantation of military structures into, and facilitated the propagation of military power and objectives against, legitimate civilian governments."


The future of the SOA may hinge not so much on ethical but on prosaic considerations, including looming cutbacks in military spending. It will be hard to explain why the SOA should survive when several dozen military bases in the US are now on the chopping block, "to maintain a maximum state of readiness with existing financial resources." In what way is the SOA indispensable to a maximum state of readiness? What future conflicts is it preparing to thwart in Latin America when it brags of having helped reestablish democracy in the region?

Public tolerance for the absurd may also help bring down the SOA. To soak up US culture and values, SOA students are routinely treated to baseball games, excursions to Disney World and other perks, all compliments of US taxpayers. It is doubtful that a term or two at a school which teaches, among other useful tricks, how to filet a human being in less time than it takes to read this sentence, can imbue a Latin American with the "Jeffersonian perspective." Most of these soldiers have cultivated a dark view of priests, social workers, journalists, and liver intellectuals. To them they are all dangerous subversives. Even the parsimonious (12 hours) "human rights" course offered guest instructors in considered mere gringo rhetoric to be swiftly discarded as a hindrance to more practical objectives.


Connecticut-based journalist, W. E. Gutman is currently on assignment in Latin America.

Copyright 1995 Z magazine.


See related webpage regarding Argentina's "Disappeared": The Vanished Gallery

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