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Talking Points for Lobbying and Media PDF Print E-mail

The US Army School of the Americas has been the center of a storm of controversy for nearly two decades. This training center for Latin American military has turned out more than 61,000 soldiers. Its graduates have been linked to nearly every major human rights violation that has occurred in Latin America since the school’s inception 50 years ago. As the public learned that SOA graduates were responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the Jesuit massacre and countless other atrocities, a tremendous grassroots movement to close the school developed. In 1999, a budget amendment cutting funds to the school passed the House by 30 votes. It lost by a one-vote margin in a House-Senate conference committee. The Pentagon took this threat very seriously and in 2000 introduced a "reform" package changing the name of the school to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Critics were not fooled by this PR campaign and the movement to close the School of Assassins continues.

Talking Points on the Name Change:

"Some of your bosses have told us that they can’t support anything with the name ‘School of the Americas’ on it. Our proposal addresses this concern. It changes the name." Col. Mark Morgan told Congressional aides at a Defense Dept. briefing just prior to the May, 2000 vote.

"The School of the Americas would still be able to continue its purpose," Stated the late Paul Coverdell, influential GA Senator, in an April, 2000 interview with the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. In the same interview, he called the proposed changes to the SOA "basically cosmetic."

In a December, 2000 interview with El Tiempo, Colombian Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez and Commander of the Armed Forces Gen. Fernando Tapias stated that Congress and the U.S. Government had assured them that the School of the Americas will continue to function and that the Colombian military can still train there.


. . . None of the fundamental issues raised around the need to close the SOA have been addressed in the renamed WHINSEC -- not its training methods, nor its lack of oversight, nor the school's record of graduating human rights abusers.

Despite attempts to distant itself from its notorious history, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation has virtually the same vision, mission, curriculum, and oversight practices as the ?closed? School of the Americas. No commission was established to review and re-think the curriculum or methods or any other aspect of the School, and no problem with past methods or results was ever truly admitted. The name change was an effort to silence opposition to the school without accepting accountability for wrong-doing. How can you reform such an undemocratic institution that refuses to acknowledge its past or ever learn from it? .


. . . Past "reforms" have involved only a re-packaging of the same courses.

Previously, the Pentagon responded to grassroots pressure to close the school with a "reform" package that eliminated some of the most notorious courses, such as Psychological Operations, and added new offerings with friendly-sounding names like Engineer Operations. This was not true reform, but simply a smokescreen designed to deflect attention from human rights violations associated with the school. The website of the re-named school offers very little information about the content of the course offerings. Why should we believe the reform rhetoric of an institution with a history of blatant deception?

. . . Keeping the school open under any name sends a powerful anti-human rights message:

This school has a legacy of providing training to some of the most notorious human rights abusers of this hemisphere. SOA graduates have gone on to become dictators, defense ministers and heads of secret police agencies where they have crafted genocidal policies resulting in torture, murder, disappearances and displacement for hundreds of thousands of people. Defenders of the re-named SOA would have us believe that the atrocities are all in the past; but the people of Latin America will continue to suffer the effects of this training for generations. It is not up to those responsible for the atrocities to say, "let’s put this all behind us." Keeping this school open without investigating its connections to past atrocities sends a powerful message to Latin American militaries that the United States is not concerned with human rights. This school must close and there must be an investigation into its role in human rights abuses before the past can be put behind us.

. . . The atrocities continue:

The names of SOA graduates continue to turn up in cases of human rights violations in Latin America.

An October 22, 2003 article in The Brownsville Herald (TX) reported that the notorious Gulf Drug Cartel has hired 31 ex-Mexican soldiers to be part of it?s hired assassin force, The Zetas. According to the Mexican secretary of defense, at least 1/3 of these deserters were trained at the SOA as part of the elite Special Air Mobile Force Group. Their highly specialized and dangerous weapons, training, and intelligence capabilities are now being used to increase the availability of the drugs and terrorize the region. The Mexican attorney general?s office implicates them in dozens of shootouts, kidnappings and executions of police officers.

In June 2002, Colombian police arrested SOA grad John Fredy Jim?nez for the murder of Archbishop Isa?as Duarte in March of that same year.

In April 2002, two SOA graduates, Army Commander in Chief Efrain Vasquez and General Ramirez Poveda, helped lead a failed coup in Venezuela. Additionally, Otto Reich, who sat on the renamed school?s Board of Visitors, met with the generals in the months preceding the coup. During the coup Reich advised business leader Pedro Carmona, who seized the presidency.

In June 2001, SOA graduate and former head of Guatemala?s notorious D-2 Intelligence Unit, Col. Byron Lima Estrada, along with his army captian son, former presidential bodyguard and a priest were convicted of the bludgeoning death of Bishop Gerardi. Human Rights Watch heralded this as, ?the first time a Guatemalan court ruled that army officers cannot get away with murder.? Still, prosecuting human rights violators is a difficult process in which lawyers, judges and witnesses are constantly under threat of violence and death. Two days prior to his murder, Gerardi released a report on wartime human rights abuses that concluded the army was responsible for majority of the war?s 200,000 dead.

. . . SOA graduates are behind the violence in Colombia:

, with over 10,000 troops trained at the SOA, is the school?s largest customer. In 2004, Colombia will send an estimated 337 students to WHINSEC (out of 811 total), while having the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere. According to the State Department?s Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Colombia in the year 2003, ?The Government's human rights record remained poor? Impunity remained at the core of the country's human rights problems?evidence suggested there were tacit arrangements between local military officers and paramilitary groups. ?

. . . There is still no adequate tracking of graduates:

Even though the Leahy Amendment requiring screening of applicants applies to some of the students at WHINSEC, both pre and post screening of applicants remains woefully inadequate. Amnesty International?s 2002 report, Unmatched Power, Unmet Principles, details all of the loopholes and gaps that exist in the screening processes. The background screening of applicants nominated for training is inconsistent and variable. The standards for assessing the eligibility of nations that receive training are uneven and often contradictory. The host governments use equally irregular processes of tracking and punishing human rights violations. Another dangerous factor is impunity (or a freedom from persecution in exchange for conditions met, like information) that perpetuates the conditions in which paramilitaries thrive, as in Colombia.

The Department of Defense (DOD) claims that only a small percentage of the school’s 60,000 graduates have been implicated in human rights abuses. In reality, they have no documentation for making this assertion. DOD reports state "The Department of State and Department of Defense have no formal program to monitor School of the Americas graduates for human rights abuse or other crimes . . ." and ". . . there is no formal tracking of School of the Americas graduates." SOA Watch’s painstakingly researched list of human rights violators associated with the school is not comprehensive, just a chilling sample. Only those soldiers who attended the school under the IMET program (about 1/3) are subject to any scrutiny of their human rights records and this information is not made public. The truth is that the DOD has no idea how many of the SOA’s graduates have returned to their countries to commit crimes. Nothing in this "reform" package changed this.

General Talking Points:

THEY SAY: Only a few "bad apples" have committed human rights abuses. The majority of SOA graduates have gone on to have respectable military careers.

WE SAY: Every time a human rights report comes from Latin America, SOA graduates are "front and center." For example, over 2/3 of the Salvadoran officers cited by the United Nations Truth Commission Report for human rights abuses are SOA graduates. Over 50% of the Colombian officers cited in a definitive human rights report on Colombia are SOA graduates, and 40% of the cabinet members under three brutal Guatemalan dictatorships were SOA graduates. It’s not just a "few bad apples."

Moreover, the claim of "few bad apples" cannot be made honestly since it is not substantiated by evidence. There is no tracking of graduates after they leave. In fact, there are no evaluative measures taken to determine the results of training of foreign security forces by the United States. The inability to gauge what alumni do with their skills after being trained, or the overall effect on the human rights situation in the host country makes it impossible to measure the "success" of training programs. The second part of the current legislation to close the school calls for a full investigation to assess education and training programs in Latin America.

THEY SAY: Closing the SOA is old news.

WE SAY: Not true: It still spends millions of US taxpayer dollars and has trained some of the hemisphere?s worst human rights abusers. Teaching ?democracy through the barrel of a gun? coninues to bring suffering to the poor and realities of the host countries create situations where atrocities will only continue.

THEY SAY: The SOA is key to the war against drugs. Counter-narcotics training is the new SOA mission.

WE SAY: The drug-scare tactic is just a smoke screen to allow the School to keep functioning as it always has. Current US drug policy is a failure, both here and abroad. Strengthening the military forces in Lain America does nothing to decrease drug use, drug-related crimes, or change the economic conditions that leave poor farmers few choices to survive other than growing illicit crops. What it does do is provide the kind of combat and counter-insurgency training that has had such devastating human rights consequences in the past. "Cold War, Drug War, whatever they call it, it’s still a War Against the Poor."

THEY SAY: The now-infamous "torture" training manuals released by the Pentagon in 1996 contained only a few egregious passages and were otherwise consistent with US law and doctrine.

WE SAY: These manuals used at the SOA are brimming with anti-democratic content, far beyond just a few passages. From start to finish, they advocate the infiltration of opposition political parties, youth groups, and labor unions. They even view political campaigning as subversive. Instead of promoting democratic ideals, these manuals undermine democracy and weaken civilian institutions. (See www.soaw.org for texts of the manuals.)

THEY SAY: Special training is necessary to fight armed insurgents who "terrorize the region."

WE SAY: What was called counter-insurgency, at the SOA, is still valid military doctrine, only now it is called counter-terrorism. As the lines between counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism and counterinsurgency missions continue to blur, the greater risk is that local forces that receive U.S. military assistance will become involved in human rights abuses. As political dissent, popular uprising, drug trafficking, and many other issues all continue to be lumped together as ?terrorism,? violence will only continue and it is civilians who pay the price.

THEY SAY: The focus of the "new" SOA is respect for human rights and democratic values.

WE SAY: Despite efforts to spin itself as a school for democracy, the SOA/WHINSEC remains primarily a combat school. There is no evidence to support the claim that this type of training has any positive impact on the human rights conditions or the democratization of nations. Human rights abuses and problems with civil-military relations are not, unfortunately, a thing of the past in Latin America. Many countries, like Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico and Venezuela, are still grappling with questions of how to train, respect and institutionalize proper civil-military relations. Further, in the countries noted above, there are serious links and collaboration between the militaries, brutal parmilitary forces and narcotics traffickers. Training that strengthens militaries while giving only window-dressing attention to human rights, rule of law, and civil-military relations issues, as at the WHINSEC/SOA, is not the appropriate response.


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