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Teaching Torture
Congress Quietly Keeps School of the Americas Alive
by Doug Ireland
July 25, 2004
First Published in LA Weekly

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Remember how congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle deplored the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib as “un-American”? Last Thursday, however, the House quietly passed a renewed appropriation that keeps open the U.S.’s most infamous torture-teaching institution, known as the School of the Americas (SOA), where the illegal physical and psychological abuse of prisoners of the kind the world condemned at Abu Ghraib and worse has been routinely taught for years.

A relic of the Cold War, the SOA was originally set up to train military, police and intelligence officers of U.S. allies south of the border in the fight against insurgencies Washington labeled “Communist.” In reality, the SOA’s graduates have been the shock troops of political repression, propping up a string of dictatorial and repressive regimes favored by the Pentagon.

The interrogation manuals long used at the SOA were made public in May by the National Security Archive, an independent research group, and posted on its Web site after they were declassified following Freedom of Information Act requests by, among others, the Baltimore Sun. In releasing the manuals, the NSA noted that they “describe ‘coercive techniques’ such as those used to mistreat the detainees at Abu Ghraib.”

The Abu Ghraib torture techniques have been field-tested by SOA graduates — seven of the U.S. Army interrogation manuals that were translated into Spanish, used at the SOA’s trainings and distributed to our allies, offered instruction on torture, beatings and assassination. As Dr. Miles Schuman, a physician with the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture who has documented torture cases and counseled their victims, graphically wrote in the May 14 Toronto Globe and Mail under the headline “Abu Ghraib: The Rule, Not the Exception”:

“The black hood covering the faces of naked prisoners in Abu Ghraib was known as la capuchi in Guatemalan and Salvadoran torture chambers. The metal bed frame to which the naked and hooded detainee was bound in a crucifix position in Abu Ghraib was la cama, named for a former Chilean prisoner who survived the U.S.-installed regime of General Augusto Pinochet. In her case, electrodes were attached to her arms, legs and genitalia, just as they were attached to the Iraqi detainee poised on a box, threatened with electrocution if he fell off. The Iraqi man bound naked on the ground with a leash attached to his neck, held by a smiling young American recruit, reminds me of the son of peasant organizers who recounted his agonizing torture at the hands of the Tonton Macoutes, U.S.-backed dictator John-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier’s right-hand thugs, in Port-au-Prince in 1984. The very act of photographing those tortured in Abu Ghraib to humiliate and silence parallels the experience of an American missionary, Sister Diana Ortiz,” who was tortured and gang-raped repeatedly under supervision by an American in 1989, according to her testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.

The long history of torture by U.S.-trained thugs in Latin and Central America under the command of SOA graduates has also been capaciously documented by human-rights organizations like Amnesty International (in its 2002 report titled “Unmatched Power, Unmet Principles”) and in books like A.J. Langguth’s Hidden Terrors, William Blum’s Rogue State and Lawrence Weschler’s A Miracle, a Universe. In virtually every report on human-rights abuses from Latin America, SOA graduates are prominent. A U.N. Truth Commission report said that over two-thirds of the Salvadoran officers it cites for abuses are SOA graduates. Forty percent of the Cabinet members under three sanguinary Guatemalan dictatorships were SOA graduates. And the list goes on . . .

In 2000, the Pentagon engaged in a smoke-screen attempt to give the SOA a face-lift by changing its name to the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) as part of a claimed “reform” program. But, as the late GOP Senator Paul Coverdale of Georgia (where SOA-WHINSEC is located) said at the time, the changes to the school were “basically cosmetic.”

The lobbying campaign to close SOA-WHINSEC has been led by School of the Americas Watch, founded by religious activists after the 1990s murder of four U.S. nuns by Salvadoran death squads under command of one of SOA’s most infamous graduates, Colonel Roberto D’Aubuisson. Lest you think that the school’s links to atrocities are all in the distant past, SOA Watch has documented a raft of recent scandals postdating the Pentagon’s chimerical “reform.” Here are just a few of them:

In June 2001, Colonel Byron Lima Estrada, an SOA grad who was head of Guatemala’s bloody D-2 intelligence unit, was convicted of Guatemalan Bishop Gerardi’s murder by bludgeoning — two days after the bishop released a report concluding that the army was responsible for a majority of the 200,000 killed in his country’s civil war.

In April 2002, two SOA graduates (Army Commander in Chief Efrain Vasquez and General Ramirez Poveda) helped lead a failed coup in Venezuela. The notorious Otto Reich, a failed Bush-administration appointee who sat on the renamed school’s Board of Visitors, met with the generals in the months preceding the coup.

In June 2002, Colombian police arrested SOA graduate John Fredy Jimenez for the murder of Archbishop Isaias Duarte in March of that year.

In 2002, Bolivian Captain Filiman Rodriguez took a 49-week officer-training course at WHINSEC. But in 1999, he’d been found responsible for the kidnapping and torture of Waldo Albarracin, then director of the Popular Assembly for Human Rights, by a commission of the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies.

In 2003, Salvadoran Colonel Francisco del Cid Diaz was a student at WHINSEC. But the colonel commanded a unit that shot 16 residents from the Los Hojas cooperative of the Asociacion Nacional de Indígenas and threw their bodies into the river in 1983. In 1992, the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommended prosecution of Col. Cid Diaz for the murders.

Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) has spearheaded opposition in the House to SOA-WHINSEC, but his amendment to the Foreign Operations appropriation killing money for the school (which had 128 co-sponsors) was withdrawn at the eleventh hour last week after a bipartisan agreement limited the number of amendments that could come to the House floor. The last chance for killing the school’s money this year now rests with the Senate — but when we called Senators Boxer and Feinstein, past SOA critics, to ask them what they planned to do, the response was a deafening silence from their offices. In light of SOA Watch’s extensive lobbying, our elected representatives can’t claim they don’t know of the school’s record on torture. So this episode calls to mind Mark Twain’s observation that “there is no distinct, native American criminal class — except Congress.”

SOA Watch has called a mass vigil/protest for November 19 through 21 at the school’s home in Fort Benning, Georgia, expected to be led by Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon and Dead Man Walking author Sister Helen Prejean.

Doug Ireland is a New York-based media critic and commentator whose articles appear regularly in The Nation, Tom, and In These Times among many others. This article first appeared in the LA Weekly.

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