South American militaries have been sending soldiers to the U.S. for “ethics” and “human rights” training for years, but history shows that many of these alumni go on to become notorious torturers and murderers, not defenders of peace.
Students from the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly School of the Americas) and students from the Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School conduct a joint assault on a simulated narcotics camp during a field training exercise. (Photo: U.S. Navy)
RABAT, Malta — In 2009, just a year before Sebastián Piñera became president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet approved the training of 211 Chilean recruits at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA).
Between 1999 and 2010, Chilean governments sent a total of 1,205 recruits to the school, with Bachelet remaining at the helm of cooperation with the U.S.-based institute that has graduated scores of alumni involved in human rights violations under Chile’s dictatorship era from 1973 to 1990.
Despite the macabre reality inflicted upon Chileans during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, the Concertación governments of the center-left, allegedly embarking upon a democratic future for Chile, retained ties with the school that produced torturers such as Miguel Krassnoff Martchenko, who, according to torture survivors, never concealed his identity while subjecting his victims to brutality.
Bachelet’s father, Gen. Alberto Bachelet, who was loyal to socialist president Salvador Allende, was tortured to death by the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (the National Intelligence Directorate, also known as DINA). Bachelet herself was detained and tortured by DINA, later fleeing into exile and returning back to Chile in 1979.
Under Bachelet’s first presidency (2006-2010), Chilean cooperation with the U.S. expanded, especially following her one-year stay at Fort Lesley J. McNair, in Washington, D.C., which provided the prelude to Bachelet’s military and surveillance investment. Socialism quickly eroded into opportunism, with the country’s first female president emphasizing Pinochet’s legacy of oblivion as she extended diplomatic maneuvers to former DINA torturers, even praising generals allegedly involved in the torture that contributed to her father’s death.
Piñera also sent recruits to train at WHINSEC and furthered U.S. military collaboration in 2012 by opening a military training center at Fort Aguayo in Concón, Chile.
From the SOA to WHINSEC
Established in 1946 in Panama, the SOA was responsible for training over 64,000 South American soldiers, many of whom later became notorious torturers and murderers in death squads. According to former Panamanian President Jorge Illueca, the SOA was the “biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.”
Expelled from Panama in 1984, the SOA relocated to Fort Benning, Georgia, and was renamed WHINSEC in 2001, allowing for an apparent termination of the previous program through dissociation. In reality, however, WHINSEC retained its SOA foundations and the U.S. Department of Defense has shielded the institute from criticism and outcry with regard to the school’s historical link to human rights violations.
In its mission statement, WHINSEC claims to have been founded upon the Charter of the Organization of American States and pledges to “foster mutual knowledge, transparency, confidence, and cooperation among the participating nations and promote democratic values, respect for human rights, and knowledge and understanding of U.S. customs and traditions.”
These values, according to WHINSEC’s website, are imparted through a three-lesson Ethics Program, as well as the Democracy and Human Rights Program — the latter dealing with “the universal prohibitions against torture, extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances.”
A far cry from protecting human rights
CIA and U.S. Army manuals detailing torture techniques translated into Spanish and utilized by the SOA are a far cry from anything containing human rights protections. Indeed, as SOA Watch explains, “These manuals advocated torture, extortion, blackmail and the targeting of civilian populations.”
The manuals, written in the 1950s and 1960s, “were distributed for use in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru, and at the School of the Americas between 1987 and 1991.” Indeed, in-depth research and testimony from torture survivors relay more than just a depiction of torture practiced by SOA graduates in South America during dictatorship eras, such as Chile under Pinochet. Sadistic torture practiced upon detainees at Abu Ghraib is also reflective of the CIA torture manuals and torture previously carried out on detainees in South America.
Since 2000 and the renaming of the SOA, other crimes linked to SOA graduates have come to light.
Col. Byron Lima Estrada was convicted in June 2001 of murdering Guatemalan Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi following the publication of a report insisting the Guatemalan army was responsible for the murder of almost 200,000 people in the civil war that took place from 1960 to 1996.
Two SOA graduates, Venezuelan Army Commander in Chief Efrain Vasquez and Gen. Ramirez Poveda, were involved in the failed 2002 coup against President Hugo Chávez. According to SOA Watch, Otto Reich, then-assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, was “appointed as a WHINSEC board of visitor member to ‘oversee’ democracy and human rights curriculum, as well as operations at the school.” Reich was also deeply involved in the planning of the coup against Chávez.
In 1999, Bolivian Captain Filiman Rodriguez had been found responsible for the kidnapping and torture of Waldo Albarracin, director of the Bolivian Popular Assembly of Human Rights. In 2002, Rodriguez was accepted for a 49-week officer training course at WHINSEC.
In May 2014, a detailed report by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Colombia-Europe-U.S. Human Rights Observatory highlighted U.S. military assistance to Colombia between 2000 and 2010. According to the report, which studies extrajudicial killings committed by the Colombian Army Brigades, U.S. intelligence assistance to Colombia “supported units that had adopted a strategy conducive to extrajudicial killings.”
Colombia requires its officers to undergo training at WHINSEC. The 2014 report states that out of 25 Colombian graduates from 2001 to 2003, 12 had either been charged with “a serious crime or commanded units whose members had reportedly committed multiple extrajudicial killings.”
It should be remembered that Plan Colombia, signed by U.S. President Bill Clinton, was translated into “moral and political support” by Colombian Gen. Mario Montoya. Between 2000 and 2010, U.S. assistance was considered a factor which influenced the staggering total of 5,673 extrajudicial killings — all of which occurred with impunity, lack of judicial mechanisms, rewards for the murders and the role of national leaders such as Montoya providing a safety net for those complicit in the atrocities.
As regards WHINSEC in Colombia, an academic on the Board of Visitors is quoted in the report as stating, “So if a student of mine leaves an ethics class and engages in criminal activity does that make me or my university liable for her activity?”
This attitude summarizes the lack of accountability surrounding WHINSEC. The dissociation from the school’s history under its original name — the SOA — is merely a premise for distancing the institution from the atrocities committed by its students and graduates.
History, however, tells a different story. While WHINSEC continues to emphasize what it describes as a commitment to human rights by citing a mere eight hours of instruction in the subject, research, such as the report on Colombia’s extrajudicial killings, reveals a reality that goes beyond the cosmetic reforms employed by the institution.