UNITED STATES: America's terrorist training camp

December 5, 2001


George Bush has said that anyone who "houses and supports terrorists" is themselves a terrorist — so maybe people should take a look in the US president's own backyard to find one.

Fort Benning, Georgia, is the site of the US's very own home-grown terrorist training camp. For more than five decades it has been the "school of excellence" for over 60,000 military personnel and law enforcement officials who have come from Latin America to learn the tricks of the torture trade, all paid in full by the US taxpayer.

The place is the School of the Americas, where generations of Latin American soldiers have learned from text books, written in Spanish and prepared by the US military, how to torture, extract information, recognise areas under the control of insurgent groups, and silence dissent.

Graduates from the SOA have gone on to use the techniques learned there to rape, intimidate, torture and exterminate civilians in numbers far greater than those killed on September 11 — yet all done in the name of "defending democracy".

The SOA was established in 1946 in Panama to cement the US's military, political and economic dominance over Central and South America, under the guise of "fighting communism".

It is not known exactly how many SOA graduates have been involved in human rights atrocities — the number continues to grow as new evidence comes to light.

But it is not hard to find links between the SOA and human rights abuses. Those countries with the worst human rights record have the highest proportion of SOA graduates: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Bolivia and Guatemala.

In the five years between 1961 and 1966, nine Latin American governments were overthrown by their militaries, leading the SOA to become known as both the School of Coups and the School of the Assassins. In 1984 it was forced to moved to the US, a condition under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty.

Of the 10 presidents in Latin American countries who graduated from SOA, all took power through illegal coups.

Nineteen of the 27 El Salvadorian officers responsible for killing eight people at Central America University were SOA graduates, as were almost three-quarters of Salvadoran officers involved in a death-squad murder of nine students and one professor, as were at least four Honduran officers accused of organising the notorious Battalion 316 death squad.

In Colombia, 105 out of 246 officers accused of human rights violations have SOA credentials, as do 10 of 12 Salvadoran officers accused of massacring 900 civilians in El Mozote village — the list goes on.

In the documentary Inside the School of Assassins, one SOA graduate admitted "They would bring people in from the streets [of Panama City] to the base, and the experts would train us on how to obtain information through torture ... They had a medical physician, a US medical physician, which I remember very well, who was dressed in green fatigues, who would teach the students ... [about] nerve endings of the body. He would show them where to torture, where and where not, where you wouldn't kill the individual."

Coming under fire after a series of public revelations about the murder and torture conducted by its graduates, the SOA closed down on December 15, 2000, only to be reopened on January 17, 2001, as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC).

Sharing almost exactly the same goals and curriculum as the SOA, the WHIS us different only in the inclusion of several compulsory human rights components.

The US Department of Defense used these subtle changes to dismiss critics and to wage a propaganda campaign to clean the slate. At the opening of WHISC in January, deputy defence secretary Rudy de Leon said "To those who say [the change] is cosmetic, I turn to them and say they're trying to ignore the professionalism of the men and women of the armed forces of the United States".

SOA Watch, a "faith- and conscience-based group committed to non-violence" opposition to the school, has questioned the motives behind the changes.

In a report, Critique of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the group asked "By repealing the original congressional authorisation for the SOA, the bill closes the School of the Americas on paper. Inexplicably, however, it does so with no word of analysis. Why close a school that is without fault? Why open another that is, for all intents and purposes, identical except for the name?

"The opening of the new school is not grounded in any critical assessment of the training, procedures, performance, or results (or consequences) of the training program it copies. Further, it ignores congressional concern and public outcry over the SOA's past and present link to human rights atrocities."

Despite defenders of the WHISC claiming that any atrocities are all in the past, graduates from the school continue to tear at the foundations of Latin America — the "war on drugs" in Colombia being a perfect example.

The US's Plan Colombia is providing US$1 billion in emergency military aid to the country, ostensibly for anti-drug operations but primarily for use against left-wing rebels who are gaining ground and support.

The Colombian military has been accused of more human rights abuses than any other in Latin America — and Colombian military personnel still make up the highest percentage of SOA graduates.

The FBI's own definition of terrorism is "violent acts ... intended to intimidate a civilian population, influence the policy of a government, or affect the conduct of a government" — a definition which leaves no doubt that the SOA was, and the WHISC is, about training soldiers for exactly that purpose.

The only distinction that can be made between al Qaeda's camps and that at Fort Benning is the loyalties of the graduates.

[For more information on the human rights abuses committed by SOA graduates and the campaign against the WHISC check out the School of the Americas Watch website <http://www.soaw.org> and the Latin America Working Group website at <http://www.lawg.org>.]

From Green Left Weekly, December 5, 2001.
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