MIA: History: ETOL: Newspapers & Periodicals: International Socialist Review: Issue 9

International Socialist Review, Fall 1999

Katherine Dwyer

School of the Assassins

From International Socialist Review, Issue 9, Fall 1999.
Downloaded with thanks as a PDF from the ISR Archive.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Torture Training Manuals
School of the Americas Gallery of Butchers


ON AUGUST 11, 1999, the New York Times reported that a former torture victim in Paraguay had unearthed five tons of documents revealing atrocities committed under Paraguayan dictator General Alfredo Stroessner during his 35-year rule. Stroessner was part of “Operation Condor,” an initiative backed by the U.S. to coordinate efforts between the military and police in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia to crush dissent. New York Times reporter Diana Jean Schemo describes how Condor “allowed security officials to take part in joint interrogations, to pursue people across borders and to order surveillance on citizens who sought asylum in other nations.” [1] Operation Condor facilitated the torture, imprisonment and, in many cases, the murder of so-called subversive elements. Martin Almada, the man who obtained the documents from a Paraguayan judge, is a former schoolteacher who was held captive and tortured for four years for the crime of writing a dissertation that criticized the Paraguayan education system. Almada’s wife died from a heart attack after hearing her husband’s screams as his jailers held a phone receiver to Almada’s mouth while they tortured him.

The officials who ran “Operation Condor” were trained at the notorious School of the Americas (SOA), a training center for Latin American and Caribbean military and police officers originally located in Panama. It moved to Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia in 1984. In recent years, revelations such as those in the New York Times, combined with mounting numbers of activists at a yearly protest to shut down the SOA, have brought the “school of coups” under increased scrutiny. The U.S. General Accounting Office conducted an investigation into the SOA in 1996 revealing that the school used training manuals advocating torture, “truth serum” to extract confessions, false imprisonment, bounty hunting, blackmail and execution. Pentagon officials initially claimed they had no idea what had been going on at the SOA, because the staff members assigned to review SOA teaching manuals couldn’t read enough Spanish to understand what they said.

In 1997, however, the U.S. government was forced to publicly admit that it runs a school that has trained numerous Latin American dictators, generals and death-squad leaders who, as graduates of the SOA, have committed innumerable atrocities in their home countries. This admission prompted a series of editorial condemnations in the most prominent U.S. newspapers. The Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, the Atlanta Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and many other papers either ran articles critical of the SOA or called on the U.S. to close it altogether.

In early August 1999, the House passed a bill that included an amendment that would cut funding for the SOA. But this controversial bill has yet to pass the Senate, and many commentators are nervous that the amendment will be bargained away in a series of negotiations. But whether the bill passes or not, federal budget cuts won’t be enough to close the SOA, which receives the vast bulk of its funding from the Pentagon. The SOA is a window into the lengths that U.S. rulers are willing to go to defend their interests abroad. This explains why, despite the endless flood of horror stories and the growing wave of condemnations, the Clinton administration not only refuses to shut down the SOA but also continues to defend it as a necessary component of U.S. foreign policy.

For example, in January 1998, Defense Secretary William Cohen wrote, “The school is an integral part of our efforts to develop closer and more effective ties to the militaries of Latin America. We have ensured that the school is an effective transmitter of our values to the military leadership of the region.” [2] Similarly, in 1996, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said,

The school is a way by which we can advance our values in that region as we interact with the military leadership of those countries. By engaging with them, we hope to instill new values and new respect for fundamental things like international human Dights and the types of values that have in the past been abrogated. [3]

A look at the SOA’s history will show just what kind of “values” the school instills in its graduates.

Roots of the SOA

The SOA was born out of the U.S. desire to cement its military and political control over Central and South America after the Second World War. While the relative economic importance of much of Latin America waxed and waned for the U.S. throughout the Cold War period, U.S. officials insisted that Latin America be considered “exclusively in the U.S. sphere of influence.” [4] U.S. officials wanted to make sure Latin America was “safe” for American business interests – both against European competitors and, most importantly, against the threat of internal political instability.

Popular revolts such as the Bolivian Revolution of 1952 and the Cuban revolution of 1959 reinforced U.S. officials’ fear of “losing” the region. They were terrified that any outbreak of struggle in one area had the potential to spread. The U.S. needed to find a way to set up a network of proxies across the region that could maintain stability by repressing any internal threats to the governments without requiring full-scale U.S. intervention. So, under the Cold War guise of fighting communism, the U.S. set up an entire operation to train and fund military and political allies in Central and South America.

The SOA was opened in Panama in 1946 – just one year before Congress passed the National Security Act creating the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Council. But the SOA represents only one element of the total U.S. strategy in Latin America. Following the Second World War, the U.S. sent advisers to Latin America to create economic and political policy, offered military training at places such as the SOA, and worked with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to use international funds to persuade national leaders in Latin America to follow U.S. directives.

These policies were carried out by Republican and Democratic administrations alike. In fact, the “anticommunist” crusade in Latin America bloomed under the liberal Kennedy administration. Kennedy’s “Alliance for Progress” was aimed ostensibly at fomenting “evolution” – economic investment and growth and the encouragement of moderate democracies – to combat “revolution” in Latin America. In practice, the administration’s main concern was to build up loyal strongmen in the region. After the military overthrew a liberal civilian government in El Salvador, Kennedy remarked approvingly: “Governments of the civil-military type of El Salvador are the most effective in containing communist penetration in Latin America.” [5] Undaunted by his failed “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba in 1962, Kennedy had to be talked out of announcing a new “Kennedy Doctrine” that would proclaim as its goal “no more Cubas” in Latin America.

Between 1961 and 1966, militaries overthrew nine Latin American governments, including those of Guatemala and Honduras. This is where the SOA got its nickname, the “school of coups,” in Latin America. The SOA’s stated role was to “professionalize” Latin American militaries and to spread democracy throughout the region by bringing democratic, “American” values to Latin America. One former head of the SOA, Col. Jose Alvarez, said, “What this school does is give you a seat at the table with the armies of Latin America ... to have a say in how nations conduct themselves.” [6]

In reality, the SOA provides personal contact between like-minded military personnel from the U.S. and Latin America and, more importantly, trains the military cadre of Latin America in the dirty tricks that the U.S. has mastered as a world power – including assassination, mass murder and torture. [7] From U.S. policymakers’ perspective, the SOA’s project is no aberration. On the contrary, the horrors that emerge from the SOA are entirely consistent with U.S. policy since the beginning of the Cold War. George Kennan, a central policymaker for the State Department during the Cold War, explained in 1948:

We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population ... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships, which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we have to dispense with all sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction ... We should cease to talk about vague and ... unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans, the better. [8]

But there has never been any danger of human rights or democracy infecting the SOA.

What they do at the SOA

The SOA’s activities first came to public light in connection with a series of highly publicized murder and torture cases – some involving U.S. citizens. In 1980, a Salvadoran death squad assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero. Just months later, Salvadoran soldiers raped and murdered three American nuns and one missionary. Then, in 1989, Salvadoran soldiers executed six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 16-year-old daughter at Central American University. As the death toll mounted, the murders were coming closer to home. Sister Diana Ortiz, an American nun, brought the story of her abduction, rape and torture in 1989 at the hands of an SOA graduate to Washington D.C., where she held a week-long vigil that embarrassed Washington officials.

Finally, Jennifer Harbury – an American lawyer married to a Guatemalan guerrilla murdered in 1992 – held a hunger strike at the American Embassy in Guatemala City to demand an investigation into the case. Both the murder of her husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, and the 1990 murder of an American hotel owner in Guatemala were linked to Guatemalan death-squad leader Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez. The fact that each one of these cases involved SOA graduates – and that the CIA tried to cover up the connection, in the last case in particular – led to mounting demands for an investigation into the SOA. People such as Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of the organization SOA Watch, began to dig into the records of SOA graduates. They found out that these cases were only the tip of the iceberg.

The SOA has trained more than 60,000 military and police personnel in “counterinsurgency” over its 50-year history. According to the Pentagon, “counterinsurgency” entails “a combination of military, paramilitary, political, economic and civic action carried on by a government in order to destroy any movement or subversive insurgency.” [9] Every year, about 800 “students” from 19 Latin American countries take classes (taught in Spanish by both Latin American and U.S. military personnel) in subjects such as “Low-Intensity Conflict,” a euphemism for repressing the entire population without waging all-out war, and “Resource Management,” a course that Newsweek called “a euphemism for teaching Latin officers [how] to keep their hands out of the till.” [10]

Moreover, students learn from manuals such as Handling of Sources, Terrorism and the Urban Guerrilla and Interrogation – which were found, in an official investigation ordered by President Clinton, to contain passages that “condone practices such as execution of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion and false imprisonment.” [11] One of the manuals suggests that government agents seeking information should “cause the arrest of the employee’s parents, imprison the employee or give him a beating.”

Nothing clarifies the SOA’s teaching better than the testimony of the many people who have suffered under the hand of its graduates. When Diana Ortiz brought her story to the White House in 1996, she described just part of her ordeal at the hands of Guatemalan security forces under SOA graduate General Hector Gramajo: “They took me to a clandestine prison where I was tortured and raped repeatedly. My back and chest were burned more than 111 times with cigarettes. I was lowered into an open pit packed with human bodies – bodies of children, women, and men, some decapitated, some lying face up and caked with blood, some dead, some alive – and all swarming with rats.” [12]

Teaching torture at the SOA is well documented. One SOA graduate admitted in the documentary Inside the School of Assassins, that “they would bring people from the streets [of Panama City] to the base, and the experts would train us on how to obtain information through torture ... They had a medical physician, a U.S. medical physician, which I remember very well, who was dressed in green fatigues, who would teach the students ... [about] the nerve endings of the body. He would show them where to torture, where and where not, where you wouldn’t kill the individual.” [13] Retired army major, Joseph Blair, a one-time instructor at the SOA who now calls for its closure, points out that “in three years at the school, I never heard of such lofty goals as promoting freedom, democracy or human rights.” [14]

No one knows exactly how many SOA graduates have been involved in atrocities, since new information surfaces all the time. Yet it is no accident that the countries with the worst human rights records also have the highest proportion of SOA graduates, including El Salvador, Nicaragua, Colombia, Bolivia and Guatemala. Of the 10 presidents of Latin American countries who graduated from SOA, all took power through illegal coups.

A look at just how many SOA graduates were involved in some of Latin America’s worst atrocities shows that these are not a few rogue individuals. In 1993, Newsweek reported just a fraction of the SOA’s astonishing legacy: 19 of the 27 Salvadoran officers responsible for killing eight people at Central America University were SOA grads, as were almost three-quarters of Salvadoran officers involved in seven additional massacres. Six Peruvian officers involved in a death-squad murder of nine students and one professor near Lima were grads of the SOA, as were at least four Honduran officers accused of organizing the notorious Battalion 316 death squad. In Colombia, 105 out of 246 officers accused of human rights violations have SOA credentials, as do 10 of 12 Salvadoran officers accused of massacring 900 civilians in El Mozote village – and the grisly list goes on.


SOA defenders argue that as bad as things look in Latin American politics now, they would be worse if SOA wasn’t around to instill democratic, “American” values into Latin American military and police forces. In a position paper for the SOA, Joseph Leuer claims that “active U.S. military engagement” has meant that “Latin America is today the least militarized and least violent region in the world.” [15] Leuer cites El Salvador as just one shining example of how SOA training helped “to curb, reduce and change ingrained patterns of behavior abusive to the citizenry.” [16] As one author points out, “the fact that only two-thirds of the officers named for the worst atrocities in El Salvador were SOA graduates is apparently something of a success story.” [17]

The SOA introduced human rights courses in the 1990s in response both to the end of the Cold War and to the revelations that the school taught torture. Under scrutiny and needing to keep up with the times in order to justify its continued existence, the SOA maintained its stated goal of promoting democracy in Latin America while shifting its emphasis from combating communism to fighting the war on drugs – and, incredibly, to promoting human rights while maintaining stability.

Many commentators, including a former SOA instructor and former students, point out that the human rights training at the SOA is a sham. As Blair describes, “When I was there, a general who was an officer in the dictatorship of General Pinochet of Chile taught about four hours of human rights. It was a joke for fifty or sixty Latin American officers to sit in a class and have someone from Chile preach to them about how they should be concerned about human rights in their own country.” [18] Charles Call, a human rights activist who spoke at the SOA, claims that the regular instructors were hostile to his ideas. Call told Newsweek that “all they wanted to do was bash human-rights groups.” [19] Blair points out that SOA participants’ hostility extends to Catholic and other Christian missionaries. In one training exercise, military personnel are instructed to take a village back from guerrillas without murdering or harming any priests or clergy. Yet, in 75% of the exercises, the priest or other religious figure (apparently played by a U.S. army chaplain) are either killed or wounded. [20] So much for human rights.

The new curriculum also includes field trips to a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp and to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. – in addition to the long-established free trips to Disney World and Atlanta Braves baseball games – all of which are supposed to give insight into American culture and democratic values. Of course, U.S. taxpayers foot the bill for this festival of education and cultural exchange – at a cost of $42 million per year to maintain. [21]

The legacy of human rights abuses continues despite SOA claims to the contrary. A 1998 U.S. State Department report on human rights in Colombia reveals that while the curriculum may have changed, the lessons learned at the SOA have not. In addition to noting incidents such as the murder of 30 peasants by one SOA graduate, the report describes how General Rito Alejo del Rio ordered a raid on a human rights group called “Justice and Peace.” During the raid, military personnel copied part of a database cataloguing 40,000 human rights cases. It is not clear what has been done with the names they found associated with these cases. No doubt, the 300 U.S. military personnel currently stationed in Colombia to help the government defend itself against rebel advances – 100 of whom are drug enforcement agents and CIA operatives – will have a few ideas. Already, the U.S. has aided in the death of more than 35,000 people in Colombia by training almost 10,000 members of Colombia’s military at the SOA.

Shut it down!

Speaking before the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee in 1963, Robert McNamara claimed:

Probably the greatest return on our military assistance investment comes from the training of selected officers and key specialists at our military schools and training centers in the United States and overseas. These students are handpicked by their countries to become instructors when they return home. They are coming leaders, the men who will have the know-how and impart it to their forces. I need not dwell upon the value of having in positions of leadership men who have firsthand knowledge of how Americans do things and how they think. It is beyond price to us to make friends of such men. [22]

The problem revealed by even a brief look at the SOA is that the particular Americans who run, fund and defend the SOA are part of the disease, not part of the cure. Despite lip service to human rights, the Clinton administration continues to defend the SOA for the same reasons that prompted U.S. officials to set up the school more than 50 years ago. The fact that the gap between rich and poor continues to increase in Latin America means that millions of ordinary people have to fight back to resist the attacks of their own governments. The U.S. needs some way to keep local opposition to U.S.-backed governments down to prevent the powder keg from exploding.

The recent war in Colombia shows how far they are willing to go. While the U.S. claims that it is helping prop up the Colombian government as part of their “war on drugs,” in reality the U.S. is attempting to prevent left-wing rebels from destabilizing a region that continues to be vital to U.S. economic and political interests. Due to Colombia’s strategic location between the Panama Canal and Venezuela (which supplies more oil to the U.S. than any other country), U.S. officials continue to back one of the most brutal militaries in the world in order to stabilize the region. Right-wing death squads in Colombia have already displaced 1.5 million people from their homes. Even though the Colombian military has been accused of more human rights abuses than any other in Latin America, U.S. officials have proposed sending $1 billion in emergency military aid to Colombia. It is no coincidence that Colombian military personnel make up the highest percentage of SOA graduates.

Just a few years ago shutting down the SOA seemed like an unrealistic goal, but now the situation is changing. Every year, new revelations about atrocities committed by SOA graduates make the school harder for U.S. officials to defend. As newspapers around the country continue to call the SOA into question, more and more people are opting to take an active stand against it. Last year, 7,000 people came to Fort Benning to protest the SOA. This kind of pressure is the only thing that has brought SOA atrocities to light – and it is the only way of closing the school for good. Shutting down the SOA won’t stop the U.S. from training dictators and assassins in Latin America – but it will send a powerful message that there are growing numbers of people who will not tolerate U.S.-sponsored terrorism anywhere in the world.

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1. Diana Jean Schemo, Archives Unearthed in Paraguay Expose U.S. Allies’ Abuses, New York Times, August 11, 1999.

2. Douglas Farah, At School of the Americas, a New Mission; Focus Is Now on Fighting Drug Trafficking, but Opponents Want It Shut Down, Washington Post, February 26, 1998.

3. Bob Hohler, Army books’ advice for Latin Americans criticized, Boston Globe, September 28, 1996.

4. Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions (New York: Norton, 1993), p. 91.

5. LaFeber, p. 154.

6. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, School for Assassins (New York: Orbis Books, 1999), p. 29.

7. Retired U.S. army major Joseph Blair – who once taught at the SOA – is a case in point. Blair was a leading officer in the CIA-sponsored Operation Phoenix program during the Vietnam War, which killed more than 40,000 Vietnamese. An article from The Progressive (July 1997) quotes Blair recounting his days at SOA: “I sat next to Major Victor Thiess who created and taught the entire course, which included seven torture manuals and 382 hours of instruction ... He taught primarily using manuals which we used during the Vietnam War in our intelligence-gathering techniques. The techniques included murder, assassination, torture, extortion, [and] false imprisonment.” Blair has since turned his back on the SOA by openly criticizing the school and calling for its closure.

8. Nelson-Pallmeyer, p. 39.

9. Jenny Pearce, Under the Eagle: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean (Boston: South End Press, 1981), p. 52.

10. Newsweek editors with Richard De Silva, Running a School for Dictators, Newsweek, August 9, 1993.

11. Intelligence Oversight Board Report, Washington D.C., June 28, 1996.

12. Nelson-Pallmeyer, p. 11.

13. Nelson-Pallmeyer, p. 31.

14. Joseph Blair, Community Voices, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, July 20, 1993.

15. Joseph C. Leuer, School of the Americas and U.S. Foreign Policy Attainment in Latin America, January 1996, p. 1, quoted in Nelson-Pallmeyer, p. 30. It is also worth noting that in the same document, Leuer argues that “the U.S. public has difficulty understanding past U.S. support for sometimes authoritarian regimes in view of reported human rights abuses that have been attributed to them by international human rights organizations. However, past governmental support for many oligarchic Latin American regimes was accepted as necessary ... to stimulate the transition to participatory democratic governmental structures in a competitive bipolar world.”

16. Lever, pp. 12-13.

17. Nelson-Pallmeyer, p. 22.

18. Barbara Jentzsch, School of the Americas Critic, The Progressive, July 1997, p. 14.

19. Newsweek, p. 37.

20. Nelson-Pallmeyer, p. 27.

21. Eric Shmitt, School for Assassins, or Aid to Latin Democracy? New York Times, April 3, 1995.

22. Pearce, pp. 57, 59.

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Appendix 1

Torture Training Manuals

IN 1997, the Pentagon declassified army training manuals that were used at the School of the Americas between 1982 and 1991. These and other manuals were used not to promote “democratic” values, but to train individuals in the most effective means of running a police state. The two declassified manuals deal exclusively with methods of interrogation, and entire chapters are devoted to “coercive techniques.” The manuals recommend using coercive interrogation methods in order to “induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist.” Other manuals discuss ways to control the population and destroy even liberal opposition groups and individuals.

From the army manual Terrorism and the Urban Guerilla

[A] function of the CI (counterintelligence) agents is to recommend CI targets for neutralization ...

Organizations or groups that are able to be a potential threat to the government also must be identified as targets. Even though the threat may not be apparent, insurgents frequently hide subversive activity behind front organizations. Examples of hostile organizations or groups are paramilitary groups, labor unions, and dissident groups.

The manual recommends the following restrictive measures meant to control the population:

From the army manual Revolutionary War, Guerrillas and Communist Ideology

The insurgents ... can resort to subverting the government by means of elections in which the insurgents cause the replacement of an unfriendly government official to one favorable to their cause. The insurgent activity can include disbursing campaign funds Ho gain members and organizing political meetings for their candidates.

From the army manual Combat Intelligence

Indications of an “Imminent Guerrilla Attack” include:

  1. Demonstrations by minority groups ...
  1. In some zones, the local population, including children, don’t speak or associate with U.S. troops or host country troops. This invariably indicates two things: that guerrillas dominate the area or that they intend to launch an attack ...
  1. Visits of strangers to towns, cities, etc ...
  1. Celebrations of national and religious festivals ...

Indications that the insurgents are carrying out “psychological operations” include:

  1. Accusations of government corruption ...
  1. Attempts to discredit or ridicule government or military officials ...
  2. Characterization of government and political leaders as U.S. puppets.
  3. Promotion of a popular front government ...
  1. Appeals to people to sympathize with demonstrations or strikes ...

From the CIA manual Human Resource Exploitation Manual – 1983

The ideal time at which to make an arrest is in the early hours of the morning. When arrested at this time, most subjects experience intense feelings of shock, insecurity, and psychological stress and for the most part have great difficulty adjusting to the situation.

The manual offers the following advice to enhance the apprehension and interrogation of suspected insurgents:

From the CIA’s KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation – July 1963

The following are the principal coercive techniques of interrogation: arrest, detention, deprivation of sensory stimuli through solitary confinement or similar methods, threats and fear, debility, pain, heightened suggestibility and hypnosis, narcosis, and induced regression.

Source: Latin America Working Group, a project of the National Council of Churches [http://www.lawg.org/soafull.html].

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Appendix 2

School of the Americas
Gallery of Butchers

It would be impossible to list all of the School of the Americas (SOA) graduates who have gone on to become butchers in their own countries. Some of the School’s more prominent graduates include:

For more information on the School of the Americas and what you can do, visit the SOAWatch Website at www.soawatch.org

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There are no notes for this appendix on the ISR Archive Website.

Last updated on 27 October 2021