Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina and Uruguay have stopped sending their military officers to the School of the Americas (SOA), the US army-run Spanish-language military academy. Over the last 60 years, 62,000 officials have graduated from the institution, among them some of Latin America’s most ruthless dictators.
The SOA is losing four countries whose citizens lived through some of its bloodiest teachings, and more withdrawals could be on the way.
Brazil, Chile, Peru and Ecuador are stops on a tour by Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest who runs the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), a watchdog group whose mission is to close the institution indefinitely. In a visit to Latin America in March and April Bourgeois helped convince Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay to leave the SOA, following Venezuela’s January 2005 decision.
In the 60 years since the SOA began training military personnel from 18 countries in the region in low-intensity warfare, counter-insurgency tactics, commando operations, psychological and other interrogation techniques, "all so far from that aim of promoting democracy and educating military personnel in the respect of human rights, the motto with which it was created in 1946," said Bourgeois.
At least 11 Latin American dictators graduated from the SOA, including Argentines Leopoldo Galtieri (1981-82) and Roberto Viola (1981), Bolivians Hugo Banzer Suarez (1971-78) and Luis Garcia Meza (1980-81), Guatemalan Efrain Rios Montt (1982-83), Honduran Juan Melgar Castro (1975-79), Panamanian Manuel Noriega (1983-89), Brazilian Humberto Castelo Branco (1964-67), Uruguayan Gregorio Alvarez (1981-85), Ecuadorian Guillermo Rodriguez Lara (1972-76), and Chilean Augusto Pinochet (1973-90).
Another of the SOA's students was now-deceased Salvadoran army major Roberto D'Aubuisson, who graduated in 1972. D'Aubuisson is credited with founding death squads in El Salvador, one of which was responsible for the murder of Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero en 1980.
But powerful officials in the shadow of Latin American heads of state also received training from the institution, and put the SOA’s teachings to work in the form of regimented assassinations and torture. Vladimiro Montesinos, the "power behind the throne," security advisor to Peru's ex-President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), was a star student at the SOA, as was Manuel Contreras, head of secret services during the Chilean dictatorship, who was responsible for the murders of former army chief Carlos Prats in 1974 and ex-Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier in 1976.
On March 27, Argentina’s Defense Minister Nilda Garré said: "Not only will Argentina not send officials to the School of the Americas, but it is illegal to send them because this ill-fated institution provides training in areas of interior security and the fight against drug-trafficking, and the military are prohibited by law to do that here."
Uruguay's Defense Minister Azucena Berrutti said March 29 that the government of President Tabare Vazquez "has no intention" of sending military personnel to these courses. "This relationship is completely disqualified," she said.
Bolivia, which suffered through two bloody dictatorships headed by alumni of the SOA, was the fourth country to announce that it was pulling its military personnel out of the courses.
"Our personnel will be gradually removed from the dictator-forming school," said Juan Quintana, the Bolivian government’s chief of staff.
"Bolivia's priority is to finance forms of cooperation that allow for our military personnel to be trained in South American countries, marking a new structure of regional security," Quintana said.
"The Venezuelan soldiers will never set foot in that place again," said Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez during a conference in the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew in New York last September, when he announced his decision that he stop sending troops to the school, located in Fort Benning, in the southern state of Georgia. "In that school, for many years, the majority of the most terrible dictators in Latin America were formed."
A brief look at its history shows that the Latin American countries with most extensive lists of human rights violations have also sent the highest number of officials for training in the School of the Americas. Colombia, with 8,679 alumni, tops the list, followed by El Salvador (6,776), Nicaragua (4,693), Panama (4,235), Bolivia (4,049) and Honduras (3,691).
A Latin American movement to close the school began to develop in the 1990s and it resonated quickly in the United States.
In 1996, the campaign in favor of SOA’s closure received a big boost when The Washington Post published an article showing torture manuals and other techniques taught to Latin American military personnel.
The US Congress intervened and demanded that the Pentagon cease the use of the name "School of the Americas."
SOA was legally closed in 2001, the name was changed to The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHISEC.
"It was like perfuming it in a toxic dump," said Bourgeois.