New Evidence on the “School of the Americas”

[ Below is a new contribution to the evidence damning the so-called “School of the Americas,” run by the U.S. Army in Ft. Benning, GA. –doclalor ]

New Research Findings Further Incriminate the Notorious SOA/WHINSEC

Last Updated 3/23/04 by SOA Watch

Introduction —

Since 1990, Latin American human right and justice advocates have worked to make known the human rights violations committed by graduates of the US Army School of the Americas. These include the high profile killings of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, the 4 U.S. Churchwomen in El Salvador, the 6 Jesuit priests and their coworkers in El Salvador, the El Mozote Massacre in which 801 people were killed in one day, the assassination of Bishop Gerardi in Guatemala following the release of his truth commission report linking the Guatemalan Army with the vast majority of human rights abuses.

In response to the mounting campaign to bring the truth about foreign military training to Congress and to the public, and in connection with the revelation of the so-called “torture training manuals[1]” that were used at the SOA, in 1999 the US House of Representatives voted 230-to-197 to close the SOA. In response, the Department of Defense (DoD) mounted its own campaign and convinced Congress that the school, which it previously stated needed no reform, could be reformed by teaching human rights and democracy. On January 17, 2001 the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (known by the acronyms WHISC and WHINSEC) was opened in the same facility with virtually the same curriculum as the SOA.

Continuing in our efforts to close the SOA/WHINSEC, today we bring important new data. They provide more detail about the superficialities of reforms at the school, the implausibility of real reform in the future, and the continuing pattern of support for human rights abusers in Latin America. We bring these finding along with a Dear Colleague letter by Rep. McGovern, inviting Members of Congress to join him in co-sponsoring H.R. 1258, “The Latin America Military Training Review Act, which calls for the suspension of the SOA/WHINSEC and the investigation of training needs in Latin America.

Point 1 – “None of the fundamental issues raised around the need to close the SOA has been addressed in the renamed WHISC – not its training methods, nor its lack of oversight, nor the school’s record of graduating human rights abusers.”

Words from a 1995 Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) study undermine the claim that the Army planned to close the SOA and create a completely new institution –the WHINSEC– with a new mission. The main objective was to have the public forget about negative publicity surrounding recent horrifying public revelations.

After the infamous “torture manuals” used by the SOA became public knowledge in 1996, Congress ordered the General Accounting Office (GAO) to look into the SOA and a DoD initiative to strengthen institutions involved in defense and security activities in Latin American countries. That GAO study referenced the earlier TRADOC study and developed recommendations concerning the future of the School of the Americas[2].

TRADOC acknowledged “concerns about the School in the post-Cold War period have surfaced, driven in part by adverse publicity over human rights violations associated with past students of the School.” The study determined “that negative publicity about the School would probably continue and that a new name for the School may be an appropriate way to break with the past.” It also suggested that the Departments of Army and State study the desirability of establishing a Western Hemisphere Center for research, study, and instruction.

The GAO report was done as a result of grassroots pressure on the U.S. Congress and on the Army to be accountable for the SOA, but the Army’s response was to view these serious concerns as a “public relations” matter and to paper over the problem. The fundamental issues of human rights abuses have never been addressed. The Army has been able to keep the SOA open under a new name, never being accountable for the first 50 year when over 60,000 soldiers were trained at the School and an unknown number of human rights violations were perpetrated by these graduates when they returned to their home nations. For this reason it is important to request the establishment of a new, joint congressional task force to conduct an assessment of the kind of education and training that is appropriate for the DoD to provide to military personnel of Latin American nations (as called for in HR 1258), and to investigate the accountability of the SOA in past human rights offenses (as called for by Amnesty International[3].)

Point 2 – “The failure of the U.S. Army to deal seriously with the record of the SOA, the most intensely scrutinized aspect of US military training in Latin America, raises questions about the quality and emphasis in the vast array of other training programs.”

In a recent master’s thesis conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison[4], Katherine McCoy studied the question: “Does U.S. Military training help improve human rights in other countries by providing a powerful alternative example of how to be both effective and professional, or erode human rights by providing the legitimacy and resources to perpetuate abuses?” [5] The statistical analysis was based on a sample of nearly 12,000 SOA graduates from six countries (Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru and Panama) during the period from 1960-2000. Using data on the human rights records of these graduates, the study tracked them over the 40-year period to determine what effect SOA training had on graduates’ human rights records.

The Army, the DoD and other supporters of the SOA, and now the WHINSEC, have argued that this school and training of this kind are essential for the professionalization and democratization of Latin American militaries. Further, they have argued that any evidence of human rights violations committed by graduates, as argued by those in opposition to the SOA/WHINSEC, do not constitute a pattern, but simply “a few bad apples.” Recognizing that those “bad apples” exist, those in support of the training of Latin American militaries have argued the following:

  • “The way to do away with human rights violations is to expose foreign militaries to the modern, professional training embodied by the U.S. military.” (McCoy)
  • “The more professional training a soldier has, the less likely he is to violate human rights. Similarly, the more professional training a soldier has, the greater his respect for democracy and the rule of law.” (McCoy)
  • “Applied to the case of the SOA, then, these arguments predict that exposure to professional training through the SOA would reduce a soldier’s chance of committing a human rights violation or engaging in other illegal behavior, and that soldiers with the greatest exposure to this type of training should have the lowest chances of committing such crimes.” (McCoy)
  • The result of Katherine McCoy’s study found the opposite. First, McCoy found that graduates who took more courses were more often the perpetrators of human rights violations (see graph).
  • Second, McCoy statistically analyzed the data to see if this could be explained by other factors — type of SOA training, civil wars or dictatorships in the soldiers — home nations, the cold war period and decade attending, and the soldiers’ rank. Even after controlling for these variables through regression analysis, soldiers who took two or more courses were almost four times more likely to have committed human rights violations than soldiers who took one course. These results are highly statistically significant. “Hence when reviewing differences in rates of human rights abuses among graduates of the School of the Americas, we find that the worst offenders are students who took more than one class at the SOA — this suggests that more courses in fact result in much higher rates of abuse.” (McCoy)
  • “Another key finding of this study is that, contrary to the Army’s claim that the School of the Americas has corrected past faults and that professional standards have been raised over time to promote the highest respect for human rights, there is no statistical evidence that students who attended the SOA in the 1990s were less likely to engage in human rights violations than those who graduated in the 1960s — the absence of any indicator that SOA graduates improved over time with respect to human rights raises the possibility that recent reforms have not managed to curb existing patterns of human rights violations.” (McCoy)

These results raise serious questions about the nature and effectiveness of the training done at the SOA. Because the training provided has never been analyzed or scrutinized, and because past reforms did not result in statistical changes in human rights violations, we cannot assume that the current “reforms” have done any better. The U.S. Army, the DoD and the U.S. Congress have failed to deal with the record of the SOA. Therefore, no “reforms” will result is significant or substantive change in the training or democratization of Latin America or Latin American militaries.

Point 3 – “Human rights abuses and the problems with civil-military relations are not, unfortunately, a thing of the past in Latin America.”

WHINSEC claims that their applicants must undergo a stringent 5-step vetting process. “Specifically, Chiefs of Missions should ensure that all nominees for training or travel grants, military or civilian, in country or in the U.S., are scrutinized for records of human rights abuses, corruption, or criminal activities that would render them ineligible or inappropriate for U.S. training programs.”

In practice, however, the screening process for applicants to WHINSEC is seriously flawed. There are a number of students with well-documented prior histories of human rights abuses in their home countries subsequently studying at the WHINSEC, including the following:

  • From El Salvador: In 1983, Colonel Francisco del Cid Diaz (then a 2nd Lieutenant) commanded a unit that forcibly removed 16 residents from the Los Hojas cooperative of the Asociacion Nacional de Indigenas, bound and beat them, shot all 16 at point-blank range and threw their bodies in the Cuyuapa River. This is a very well known, very high profile and notorious massacre, and cited in the annual State Department Human Rights Country Reports throughout the 1980s. The case was also investigated by, and included in the final report of, the El Salvador Truth Commission established under the Salvadoran Peace Accords.
    The El Salvador Supreme Court granted amnesty to all defendants, but in 1992 the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights stated that there was substantial evidence that Col. del Cid Diaz and the other ranking officer present gave the orders to execute, and recommended that the Salvadoran government bring them to justice. Instead of facing justice, we find that Col. del Cid Diaz was at the WHINSEC in 2003, and was also enrolled in SOA in 1991 and 1998.
  • From Bolivia: In 1997 Captain Filmann Urzagaste Rodriguez was one of those responsible for the kidnapping and torture of Waldo Albarracin, then the director of the Popular Assembly for Human Rights in Bolivia and now the Human Rights Defender (Ombudsman). In 1999 the Bolivian Chamber of Deputies Commission in charge of investigating the case passed it, together with all the evidence, to the ordinary courts for investigation and prosecution. The case was also the subject of a well-known petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (that has not yet been acted upon). In 2002, Urzagaste Rodriguez, now a Major, took a 49-week officer training course at the WHINSEC.
  • From Colombia: Three Colombian police officers under investigation for personal use of counter-narcotics funds took courses at the WHINSEC at nearly the same time as the investigation. In June 2002 the Colombian Attorney General’s office, at the request of the U.S. Government, opened a “disciplinary” investigation into alleged activities of corruption by members of the Colombian National Police, including Captain Dario Sierro Chapeta, Lt. Col. Francisco Patino Fonseca, and Captain Luis Benavides Guancha. The first two attended the WHINSEC in 2002, and Benavides Guancha was there for 18 weeks in 2003. (It is yet to be determined if the charges against the 3 were brought before, during, or after acceptance at the WHINSEC.)

Human rights abuses and problems with civil-military relations are not a thing of the past in Latin America, and many are well documented. The fact that students with known human rights violations and problems of corruption are attending an institution that advertises itself as conducting a thorough background investigation prior to acceptance undermines the claim that the WHINSEC “teaches” respect for human rights, or that it is serious about claiming to train “only personnel of unquestionable character.” To the contrary, these cases can be interpreted as the WHINSEC’s –or more seriously the U.S. military– rewarding of human rights violators with the honor of studying in the United States.


[1] Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group, “Declassified Army and CIA Manuals Used in Latin America: An Analysis of Their Content,” 1997,

[2]United States, General Accounting Office, School of the Americas: U.S. Military Training for Latin American Countries, document no. NSIAD-96-178 (Washington: GAO, August 22, 1996)

[3] Amnesty International, Unmet Power, Unmatched Principles: The Human Rights Dimensions of US Training of Foreign Military and Police Forces, 2002.

[4] The program is consistently ranked as one of the top Sociology program in the country, largely because of its rigor in statistics. (McCoy)

[5] McCoy, Katherine, Trained to Torture: A Statistical Analysis of Human Rights Violations Committee by Graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas, 1960 — 2000, submitted to the University of Wisconsin – Madison in partial fulfillment of the Master of Science Degree, 2003.

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