AMERICA'S TERRORIST TRAINING CAMP
October 30, 2001
"If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents,"
George Bush announced on the day he began bombing Afghanistan, "they
have become outlaws and murderers themselves. And they will take that
lonely path at their own peril." I'm glad he said "any government", as
there's one which, though it has yet to be identified as a sponsor of
terrorism, requires his urgent attention.
For the past 55 years it has been running a terrorist training camp,
whose victims massively outnumber the people killed by the attack on New
York, the embassy bombings and the other atrocities laid, rightly or
wrongly, at al-Qaida's door. The camp is called the Western Hemisphere
Institute for Security Cooperation, or Whisc. It is based in Fort
Benning, Georgia, and it is funded by Mr Bush's government.
Until January this year, Whisc was called the "School of the Americas",
or SOA. Since 1946, SOA has trained more than 60,000 Latin American
soldiers and policemen. Among its graduates are many of the continent's
most notorious torturers, mass murderers, dictators and state
terrorists. As hundreds of pages of documentation compiled by the
pressure group SOA Watch show, Latin America has been ripped apart by
In June this year, Colonel Byron Lima Estrada, once a student at the
school, was convicted in Guatemala City of murdering Bishop Juan Gerardi
in 1998. Gerardi was killed because he had helped to write a report on
the atrocities committed by Guatemala's D-2, the military intelligence
agency run by Lima Estrada with the help of two other SOA graduates. D-2
coordinated the "anti-insurgency" campaign which obliterated 448 Mayan
Indian villages, and murdered tens of thousands of their people. Forty
per cent of the cabinet ministers who served the genocidal regimes of
Lucas Garcia, Rios Montt and Mejia Victores studied at the School of the
In 1993, the United Nations truth commission on El Salvador named the
army officers who had committed the worst atrocities of the civil war.
Two-thirds of them had been trained at the School of the Americas. Among
them were Roberto D'Aubuisson, the leader of El Salvador's death squads;
the men who killed Archbishop Oscar Romero; and 19 of the 26 soldiers
who murdered the Jesuit priests in 1989. In Chile, the school's
graduates ran both Augusto Pinochet's secret police and his three
principal concentration camps. One of them helped to murder Orlando
Letelier and Ronni Moffit in Washington DC in 1976.
Argentina's dictators Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri, Panama's
Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos, Peru's Juan Velasco Alvarado and
Ecuador's Guillermo Rodriguez all benefited from the school's
instruction. So did the leader of the Grupo Colina death squad in
Fujimori's Peru; four of the five officers who ran the infamous
Battalion 3-16 in Honduras (which controlled the death squads there in
the 1980s) and the commander responsible for the 1994 Ocosingo massacre
All this, the school's defenders insist, is ancient history. But SOA
graduates are also involved in the dirty war now being waged, with US
support, in Colombia. In 1999 the US State Department's report on human
rights named two SOA graduates as the murderers of the peace
commissioner, Alex Lopera. Last year, Human Rights Watch revealed that
seven former pupils are running paramilitary groups there and have
commissioned kidnappings, disappearances, murders and massacres. In
February this year an SOA graduate in Colombia was convicted of
complicity in the torture and killing of 30 peasants by paramilitaries.
The school is now drawing more of its students from Colombia than from
any other country.
The FBI defines terrorism as "violent acts... intended to intimidate or
coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government, or
affect the conduct of a government", which is a precise description of
the activities of SOA's graduates. But how can we be sure that their
alma mater has had any part in this? Well, in 1996, the US government
was forced to release seven of the school's training manuals. Among
other top tips for terrorists, they recommended blackmail, torture,
execution and the arrest of witnesses' relatives.
Last year, partly as a result of the campaign run by SOA Watch, several
US congressmen tried to shut the school down. They were defeated by 10
votes. Instead, the House of Representatives voted to close it and then
immediately reopen it under a different name. So, just as Windscale
turned into Sellafield in the hope of parrying public memory, the School
of the Americas washed its hands of the past by renaming itself Whisc.
As the school's Colonel Mark Morgan informed the Department of Defense
just before the vote in Congress: "Some of your bosses have told us that
they can't support anything with the name 'School of the Americas' on
it. Our proposal addresses this concern. It changes the name." Paul
Coverdell, the Georgia senator who had fought to save the school, told
the papers that the changes were "basically cosmetic".
But visit Whisc's website and you'll see that the School of the Americas
has been all but excised from the record. Even the page marked "History"
fails to mention it. Whisc's courses, it tells us, "cover a broad
spectrum of relevant areas, such as operational planning for peace
operations; disaster relief; civil-military operations; tactical
planning and execution of counter drug operations".
Several pages describe its human rights initiatives. But, though they
account for almost the entire training programme, combat and commando
techniques, counter-insurgency and interrogation aren't mentioned. Nor
is the fact that Whisc's "peace" and "human rights" options were also
offered by SOA in the hope of appeasing Congress and preserving its
budget: but hardly any of the students chose to take them.
We can't expect this terrorist training camp to reform itself: after
all, it refuses even to acknowledge that it has a past, let alone to
learn from it. So, given that the evidence linking the school to
continuing atrocities in Latin America is rather stronger than the
evidence linking the al-Qaida training camps to the attack on New York,
what should we do about the "evil-doers" in Fort Benning,
Well, we could urge our governments to apply full diplomatic pressure,
and to seek the extradition of the school's commanders for trial on
charges of complicity in crimes against humanity. Alternatively, we
could demand that our governments attack the United States, bombing its
military installations, cities and airports in the hope of overthrowing
its unelected government and replacing it with a new administration
overseen by the UN. In case this proposal proves unpopular with the
American people, we could win their hearts and minds by dropping naan
bread and dried curry in plastic bags stamped with the Afghan
You object that this prescription is ridiculous, and I agree. But try as
I might, I cannot see the moral difference between this course of action
and the war now being waged in Afghanistan.
George Monbiot writes a weekly column for the Guardian newspaper. He
is Honorary Professor at the Department of Politics in Keele and
Visiting Professor at the Department of Environmental Science at the
University of East London and formerly Visiting Fellow at Green College
Oxford and Visiting Professor at the Department of Philosophy, Bristol.
In 1995 Nelson Mandela presented him with a United Nations Global 500
Award for outstanding environmental achievement.
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