Empire Files: The U.S. School That Trains Dictators and Death Squads
Abby Martin investigates this notorious school that is largely hidden from the American public; its crimes around the world, its star graduates, why it exists and the movement to shut it down. Featuring interviews with School Of the Americas Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois and other SOAW leaders. Watch more on teleSUR
ABBY MARTIN: For the last 25 years, people from all over the U.S. have converged at the gates of the Fort Benning U.S. Army base in Georgia. They come with thousands of crosses inscribed with different names, many of them children and elderly, each memorializing a death at the hands of right-wing governments in Latin America in the second half of the 20th century.
It was an era of fascistic political repression, where it didn’t matter if you were an unarmed university student or a peasant with a rifle. Anyone who questioned those in power was butchered. Largely hidden from the American public, several high-profile incidents in El Salvador in 1980 turned a spotlight on unparalleled political violence.
Oscar Romero, the beloved archbishop of San Salvador, a city of almost 2 million Catholics, was deemed a subversive by El Salvador’s military dictatorship. On March 24, 1980, while still at the church pulpit just after delivering mass, Archbishop Romero was murdered in front of hundreds by a government sniper. 250,000 people attended his funeral. There more snipers from the national army began firing on the peaceful crowd, and detonated bombs. Upwards of 50 civilians were killed. It showed how brazenly the right wing would act, how serious the price for simply saying the wrong words. That same year, another horror made headlines.
Four American churchwomen, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel were part of a clergy to aid the poor in countries where massacres of civilians were rampant. On December 2, 1980, they were stopped by the Salvadoran National Guard. All four were taken at gunpoint by the soldiers to be raped and tortured. They were killed by being hacked to death.
With human rights scandals mounting, the empire continued to frame everything as a simple battle between good and evil.
VOICEOVER: El Salvador, for example, is nearer to Texas than Texas is to Massachusetts. Central America is simply too close and the strategic stakes are too high for us to ignore the danger of governments seizing power there with ideological and military ties to the Soviet Union.
MARTIN: The attacks on church officials prompted other clergy members to go to El Salvador to investigate, including Fr. Roy Bourgeois, a young priest who had recently been exiled from Bolivia by a right-wing government for working with the poor. But what they found in El Salvador led them right back to the United States.
FR. ROY BOURGEOIS: I was more fearful in El Salvador than I was in Vietnam. I spent a year in the military in Vietnam. I have never seen such abuse of power, such brutality of a military. I thought Bolivia was bad. This was far worse. There was no accountability. How could they rape and kill nuns who were working with the poor? How could they assassinate a bishop in church, who was talking about the poor?
What got us started was to see our country deeply involved, giving about a million dollars a day in military aid. The guns that were killing people was paid for by our tax money. But the big thing, when we learned that those who did the killing not only used our guns, they were trained in the United States at the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.
MARTIN: The killers were trained at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, or the SOA, which has existed at Fort Benning, Georgia, since 1984. It was first established in 1946 and hosted in U.S.-controlled territory in Panama before falling out with one of the school’s star graduates, notorious Panamanian dictator and cocaine trafficker Manuel Noriega.
The SOA operates under the United States Southern Command, one of the empire’s massive military units designated to control each part of the world. The official insignia for U.S. SOUTHCOM is even the Spanish galleon, like the one Columbus and other colonizers used to ravage the region. According to its website, the school’s region is to provide doctrinally sound military training to the nations of Latin America, while promoting democratization and human rights in order to maintain military to military cooperation in the region.
Yet democracy and human rights quickly went by the wayside. The link between the School of the Americas and widespread war crimes in El Salvador was undeniable. The 1992 United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador found SOA graduates prominent among both the rank-and-file and leaders of all the most high-profile assassinations and massacres. One report found that on March 12, 1981, U.S.-backed death squads massacred everyone they could find in the village of El Junquillo. Over 70 civilians were murdered, 40 of them children. All of the women in the village were raped before being executed, including girls under the age of 12. Of the three officers cited by the UN, two were SOA graduates.
Somehow the Salvadoran military topped this horrific massacre tenfold. On December 11, 1981, they surrounded the village of El Mozote and held every person inside at gunpoint. Men and young boys were separated and brought into rooms to be brutally tortured. Women and girls as young as ten were brought into other rooms to be raped. In the end, every single person was executed, an estimated 800 civilians. Even the children as young as two years old were hung from trees with their throats slit. Twelve officers were cited by the UN. Ten were SOA graduates.
Nobody was safe. In 1989, soldiers raided a priest’s residence at a university in San Salvador. Six Jesuit priests who were scholars at the university were the target. Lieutenant Espinoza Guerra, graduate of the Officers’ Cadet Course at the SOA, ordered all of them executed. Twenty-seven officers in total are cited for their role in the massacre. Nineteen are SOA graduates.
These acts of extreme terror on civilians, what we could compare to today’s ISIS massacres, were not simply carried out by lower-ranking foot soldiers, but rather the school’s star pupils were the ones giving the orders. Jorge Videla, military dictator of Argentina from 1976 it 1981, and graduate of the SOA, ordered wanton torture, at least 9,000 deaths, and the disappearances of an estimated 30,000 people. His regime also kidnapped at least 500 babies from political opponents.
Army major Roberto Arrieta is another notorious SOA grad thug who ruled over El Salvador from 1980 to 1985. All in the name of fighting communism, Arrieta’s death squads massacred an estimated 30,000 civilians during the country’s civil war. Also known as Blowtorch Bob, Arrieta had a preference for using a blue-hot blowtorch on his victims’ limbs and genitalia during interrogations. He was also the principal mastermind behind the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. In Chile, Augusto Pinochet’s notorious U.S.-backed reign of death featured many SOA graduates.
But let’s just focus on Miguel Krasnoff, leader of Pinochet’s secret police. All-star grad Krasnoff led a group called DINA that was charged with kidnapping, torturing, and assassinating left-wing activists who were organizing against the horrendous Pinochet regime, which rounded up and tortured over 40,000 people. 1965 cadet SOA grad and CIA agent Vladimiro Montesinos became Peru’s counterintelligence head, intensifying Peru’s prosecution of anyone that could possibly be perceived as a threat. Montesino directed an anti-communist death squad called the Colina Group in the ’90s that committed several grotesque massacres of peasant farmers, trade unionists, and alleged leftists.
School of the Americas hall-of-famer Gen. Hugo Banzer Suarez was trained at the SOA when it was based in Panama. After masterminding a violent uprising against leftist leader Juan Torres, with the financial backing, of course, of President Nixon, Suarez ruled Bolivia with an iron fist from 1971 to 1978. The Banzerato terror regime closed universities, banned all political activity, and targeted the poor, including the execution of at least 80 peasants protesting price hikes in 1974. Its henchmen arrested 3,000 dissidents, killed 200, caused over 100 disappearances and tortured at least 2,000 others in literal horror chambers that existed in the bowels of the Ministry of the Interior.
1950 SOA graduate Efrain Rios Montt, former military dictator of Guatemala, ran a barbaric reign of terror from 1982-1983. Backed militarily by the U.S. and personally endorsed by President Reagan as a great man who wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans, Montt became the first Latin American leader to be convicted of genocide in 2013 for his role in the systematic execution of over 1,700 indigenous Guatemalans. Montt’s scorched earth campaign wiped out up to 90 percent of communities, and oversaw the rape and torture of countless other victims throughout a string of military massacres.
Maria Luisa, daughter of a victim of Montt’s genocidal rule, tells her story.
MARIA LUISA ROSAL: So my father, Jorge Alberto Rosal Paz y Paz, was disappeared on August 12, 1983. in 1985, two years after his disappearance, after an unrelenting search for my father, my mom too became a target for the military. And she, she made the difficult decision to leave the country.
It was a moment when Guatemala was experiencing military rule. And the 1999 UN Truth Commission report, Guatemala: Memory of Silence, that was presented in 1999 actually cites that the School of the Americas was a key institution for the training of the soldiers that were committing many of the human rights violations that included not just murders and kidnappings and tortures, but disappearances, which are crimes against humanity, and the scorched earth campaigns which resulted in the massacres of hundreds of villages.
MARTIN: You mentioned earlier how your story is, sadly, not unique. 45,000 disappearances in Guatemala alone, during that time. Why do you think your family was targeted, first your father and then your mother?
ROSAL: The counterinsurgency tactics that were used in Guatemala to silence the population really targeted anybody who opposed the government in anyway, shape, or form. This means labor organizers who are trying to organize, educators who are, you know, denouncing the educational system, or doctors who are accusing the government of being responsible for the high levels of malnutrition in the country, et cetera. So it was very easy to become a target. Anybody who opposed the government in any way could be targeted.
MARTIN: Clearly this had devastating impacts on your family. You said that your mother was then targeted, you were forced to flee the country. Talk briefly about the impacts on your personal family, and then just Guatemala as a whole, from this reign of terror that took place.
ROSAL: Our family was essentially ripped apart, because many of us had to flee to different, different places. In our case we never returned to Guatemala. We now return to visit, after the peace accords were signed. We petitioned for asylum. My mom petitioned for asylum. I was, I was two years old when I came to this country. My brother was 13 months. My mom petitioned for asylum. Her case was–our case was denied repeatedly. And we even had a, a deportation order at one point.
And it was hard at this time because also, remember, the United States is backing the civil wars that were occurring in Central America. So for, for a family or anybody to receive asylum, not only do you have to have a well-founded fear of persecution, basically saying that if I return to the country that I am fleeing from I will die, I will be killed, the country you’re fleeing to has to recognize this. And how inconvenient would that be for the United States Congress, the United States government, that’s funding and training and backing the very conflict we’re fleeing from?
MARTIN: The inconvenient truth for the empire is that it was ensuring that political repression, torture, and terrorism continue throughout Latin America to maintain economic hegemony.
For decades, foreign companies freely gobbled up the resources and wealth of the region. Massive American mining, oil, and agricultural corporations own most of what came out of these lands. Precious minerals, fuels, and crops. They gave crumbs from the table to a select elite which they allowed to grow wealthy, and backed with political and military support in exchange for securing access to the country’s riches. The rest were sentenced to a life of squalor, working to death for billionaires.
However, history has shown that lords cannot rule over serfs forever. At the turn of 1950, those living in abject poverty under the boot of corporate control began to rise up. When profits were challenged and the empire’s puppets couldn’t take care of the problems themselves, they sent their military to keep chosen dictators in charge. Dozens of U.S. military interventions, including coups, shaped the region. But the tide of people’s power was a force too big for even the world’s biggest military. With so much at stake for the corporate giants, a major military initiative was needed to secure economic domination. The School of the Americas became an essential force for the empire, to prevent the people of Latin America from deciding the future of Latin America.
So it went to work churning out thousands of puppets and proxies to do its bidding. Since 1946 over 64,000 officers, cadets, and non-commissioned officers have graduated from the SOA from 23 countries across Latin America and the Caribbean. Many went on to lead the military units that will go down in history as the most heinous, far right-wing death squads of our time. Training manuals used at the school, declassified after relentless grassroots pressure, showed they officially trained horrific tactics like torture, blackmail, extortion, execution of detainees and the targeting of civilian populations.
It’s less about what they were teaching students there, but why. The doctrine of the empire is not just to use its military as defender of its business interests, but cultivating indigenous military forces to act in tandem.
SPEAKER: In Central and South America I think we have, like, 19 democracies today, and 10 years ago we had five. So it’s been an explosion of democracies. We have played a role in that. We think we’ve played an important role in maintaining that engagement with the military, which is the primary institution in Latin America.
MARTIN: Spreading democracy became a codeword for slaughtering people who demanded political rights, or advocated even meager improvements in conditions for the poor. Socialists and non-socialists, armed resistance and unarmed resistance, protesters and priests, indigenous farmers and university scholars, all were labeled communists, thus justifying the extermination of them and their families.
BOURGEOIS: Many in our country with power saw what was going on in Latin America as a threat to their wealth and power. They could lose it. And therefore–of course, they are not going to go out and torture people. And kill. This is where the military is essential. They won’t do the dirty work. Oh no, no. They’ll talk the macho talk, we’ve got to go and, we have to–we have to go off to Vietnam, we have to go fight. No, no, they’re not going to go. They will send young men and others to do their killing for them. They’re cowards, basically.
And so, so the School of the Americas was justified. And it was at a distance. They didn’t really see the blood. They didn’t hear the screams of someone tortured. They used others to do their dirty work for them. But it was all about an addiction to power, as many of us saw it. The biggest course there, counterinsurgency. Who are the insurgents? They were the landless farmers, the campesinos, who were doing what we would do if we were going to bed hungry at night and seeing our children die before their time. You begin to speak out, organize, and call for a living wage. They were the targets.
The churchwomen who were coming back to the U.S., you know, every now and then, to inform members of Congress what was going on there, they were the targets. Religious leaders. Especially labor leaders, union leaders. University students. Healthcare workers. Anyone that would be calling for reform, a living wage, healthcare. Running water. Adequate housing. Communista. You are a communist.
MARTIN: The shock of learning what was being done in our name led Fr. Roy, along with a coalition of faith-based leaders, to form the watchdog organization School of the Americas Watch from a small apartment literally a few feet from the gates of the school. Soon after, ten activists staged a 35-day sit-in and hunger strike outside the main gate. This direct action would be the first of many.
BOURGEOIS: We went into the headquarters of the School of the Americas and we took blood from us, drawn by a nurse, and it was the very first action. We wanted to make a statement. And we threw our blood on the photographs of the instructors, and some of those who were trained there. So that’s [all] of the Hall of Fame people. And we had a, we had a letter. This blood is a symbol of the blood that’s being shed. And it’s also to express our solidarity with the people of these countries who are being killed and made to suffer because of this training. We stand with them.
And of course, we were arrested, brought to trial, and sent to prison for a year and a half. But something happened. So we went to prison, and they thought, somehow, this would stop. It was just the beginning.
MARTIN: This act of civil disobedience helped propel the School of the Americas into the national spotlight. Even mainstream publications like the Washington Post and the New York Times covered it honestly, as a school for would-be dictators that instructed how to torture and kill.
They began holding annual vigils at the gate of Fort Benning, and engaging in a variety of other tactics to expose the school of assassins.
BOURGEOIS: Once our movement started growing from 10 to 1,000, to 5,000, to 15,000, to 20,000, it was amazing when we would gather here to–it, you know, within some time of course, it wasn’t overnight. Took a lot of work. And there was no one way to organize, to build a movement. We needed a lot of people doing a lot of things. We had to go to Washington in the spring to lobby. We fasted on the steps of the Capitol. Thousands of people had to call their members of Congress.
MARTIN: Due to immense pressure, Congress was forced to act. In 2000, lobbying efforts by the SOA watch pushed Congress to come within just a few votes of closing the school. The Pentagon knew its tool was at serious risk.
So the empire rebranded itself, like it always does, by putting a new name on the same shame. After closing its doors for only one month, the School of the Americas was officially reopened in January 2001 as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC. Despite the rebranding campaign, activists remain steadfast to close the school once and for all. Through 20 delegations to SOA sponsored nations, SOA Watch has already convinced five countries’ leaders to pull their troops from WHINSEC, including Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.
ROSAL: The SOA is not just a school, it’s this idea. It’s, it’s this evil idea that says, U.S. can and will and should control the region.
MARTIN: And the empire has not ceased is attempts to destabilize and control Latin America. The left-wing shift across the region today that challenges Western business interests poses the same threat to U.S. hegemony that it always did. Big oil, mining conglomerates and agribusiness giants like Monsanto need military force to protect their plans. Under WHINSEC, the school’s continued its subversion of democracy unabated, and the slough of SOA graduates churned out annually still engage in the same types of covert warfare.
In 2009, leftist Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a U.S.-backed coup. SOA Watch confirmed that four out of the six generals involved were trained at the School of the Americas. In the two years following the coup, at least 460 people have been killed or disappeared under the armed forces of another SOA graduate, General Osorio Canales. In 2015, at least 160 graduates of the school were Honduran soldiers.
For decades, SOA graduates have engaged in an unspeakable amount of human rights atrocities. And the offenders who committed the atrocities are protected by a blanket of impunity, both by the U.S. and from their own governments. Instead, the surveillance state is much more concerned with the people who want to close the SOA.
According to FOIA documents obtained by the Partnership for Civil Justice fund, the FBI has been conducting surveillance on and infiltrating SOA Watch for at least the last ten years. SOA Watch national organizer Hendrik Voss talks about the extent of the spying.
HENDRIK VOSS: Earlier this year SOA Watch received 429 pages of documents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, from the Atlanta field office, that showed that the FBI has observed its movement, monitored its movement, for at least ten years, from 2000-2010. It uncovered that we had undercover officers who infiltrated the movement, who came to the protest, pretended to be SOA Watch activists, made relationships with people who also were here to protest the School of the Americas, and reported back to the FBI. It is, yeah, a lot of pages that really show that the FBI is a political police force.
MARTIN: Why do you think the FBI honed in on a group that stresses nonviolent action, and mostly consists of nuns and someone like Fr. Roy?
VOSS: All the files that the FBI, that we have from the FBI, show that, they over and over state also that what they found was that it’s a peaceful, nonviolent movement. But still, they came back year after year to observe us. And the excuse that they were using was that maybe there might be some militant group that is infiltrating the protest. But with that kind of argumentation you could infiltrate everything and strip everybody’s civil liberties by saying oh, maybe something might happen at some point.
MARTIN: What do you think the School of Americas symbolizes for the U.S. empire?
VOSS: It’s a Pentagon’s tool to control the people and the resources of the Americas. And the only way they can do that is through military repression. So that people who are rising up, who are fighting for what’s right, who are demanding better conditions, better economic conditions, better living conditions, that they are being pushed down by SOA-trained graduates.
MARTIN: After 25 years of sustained action at the gates of Fort Benning, organizers are broadening the struggle and moving next years’ action to the border, especially in light of the revelation that SOA started training ICE agents this year.
ROSAL: You see this plight of refugees from Central America, but 300,000, 350,000 that came to the United States, now that number is in the millions. And repeatedly people are asking for asylum, petitioning for asylum, because they’re fleeing as a result of the impact of militarized U.S. foreign policy today. And many cases now, they’re being deported. And many people in Central America, who have their, who’ve had their asylum case denied, are now being murdered in their country when they, when they’re deported.
BOURGEOIS: It’s about, really, saving their lives and the lives of their children. It’s so bad. If they stay, they die. They die from violence, or from hunger. And so they do what we would do. They flee. For life.
MARTIN: The refugee crisis from the region continues to worsen, where a staggering three out of every four unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border in 2014 were from Central America. Many of the people fleeing for their lives are from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Long-term consequences of America’s dirty wars that paved the way for this instability.
Giving its role in known atrocities and acts of genocide, the fact that the school remains open today is abominable, and its mere existence exposes the imperial arrogance of the Pentagon. Not only does this school of assassins need to close, now, but all victims need to be recognized and compensated for their losses. Closing this school would not only mean closing a dark chapter for so many millions of victims, but part of a larger fight to stop the U.S. from using its military to control the destiny of the world.
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