School of the Americas: A Study of the Risks of Global Military Training Programs

by: DrMindcrime

There are few better examples of Military Globalism than the training programs provided to militaries throughout the world by the United States. Currently tens of thousands of foreign soldiers receive training in over 4100 courses at 275 military training institutions within the United States (Lumpe 2002). Even greater numbers of foreign military personnel receive training in their countries of origin. Military, security, and police training is delivered through a decentralized network that includes the Departments of State, Defense, and Justice as well as private vendors who both subcontract training programs for the United States as well as foreign nations.

The track record of these training programs on human rights is discouraging at best. In 2004 stories of the actions of the “few bad apples” at Abu Ghraib shocked the American Public (Hersh 2004) although, most Americans are completely unaware that the military has provided training to human rights abusers around the globe. In Afghanistan the U.S. Military provided training and material support well into the 1990’s for Hezb-e Islami or ‘Party of Islam’ before, during, and after it had been reported that the group was associated with rape, torture, kidnapping and attacks upon civilians and journalists (Lumpe 2002). Additionally the U.S. Military has provided combat training to the Rwandan Patriotic Army, which has been implicated in civilian kidnappings and to the Indonesian Army despite a ban on such training passed by Congress after the 1991 massacre of unarmed demonstrators in East Timor (Lumpe 2002).

In attempting to diagnose the challenges and risks presented by global military cooperation and training it is difficult to fathom the variables involved in such a dispersed and decentralized phenomenon. Therefore it would be useful to focus in upon a single well documented institution for study. There are few institutions in the western hemisphere that can evoke as strong a response as the School of The Americas (SOA) located in Fort Benning, Georgia. The school’s graduates have been associated with the majority of human rights abuses of the past fifty years and with oppressive regimes throughout Latin America. The school, which is now called the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), offers observers of military globalization an opportunity to examine the potential abuses of military cooperation and the circumstances under which such abuses take place. The purpose of this paper is to evaluate how the training provided by the United States military at the School of the Americas led to human rights abuses throughout the hemisphere and to recommend policy changes to curtail future abuse.

History of the School of the Americas

The School of the Americas was established as the Latin American Training Center – Ground Division in Panama at what is now called the Melia Hotel (Wikipedia 2006). The school was started at the end of WWII and the subsequent start of the Cold War out of fear that communists would attempt to overtake or influence the governments of Latin America (Kennedy 1998). Instruction at the school in its early years focused upon nation building skills to strengthen Latin American states such as bridge-building, food preparation, well-digging and equipment repair (Wikipedia 2006). In 1947 President Truman signed the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, also called the Rio Treaty, which significantly increased security cooperation between the militaries of the United States and Latin America (Bragdon, McCutchen et al. 1994). Within the next two years the school was renamed the “U.S. Army Caribbean School” and began teaching U.S. and Latin American military personnel in both English and Spanish, and by 1956 had devoted itself to exclusively providing instruction for Latin American personnel in Spanish (Wikipedia 2006).

The U.S. Army Caribbean School’s mandate was changed during President John F. Kennedy’s administration when it was directed to deliver instruction and strategies that would enable the nations of Latin America to fight armed communist insurgencies (Kennedy 1998). The Kennedy Administration was reacting to the 1959 Cuban revolution which had caused a great deal of concern over Latin America slipping into the communist fold (Bragdon, McCutchen et al. 1994). The school received its famous and persistent name “School of the Americas” in 1963, and a subsequent curriculum overhaul. The focus of the school was shifted from nation building to counterinsurgency warfare to prevent the spread of communism, but some critics have argued that the reason for the shift in training was for the United States to protect its economic interests in the region including coffee interests, the U.S.’s interest in the Panama Canal, and the United Fruit Company and its subsidiaries (Wikipedia 2006). The school remained in Panama until 1984 when, due to conflicts between the U.S. and Panamanian governments over its operation (Quigley 2006), it was moved to Fort Benning, Georgia after the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty (Wikipedia 2006).

Typically, student enrollment at the School of the Americas has coincided with countries that were the recipients of significant military aid from the United States. In the 1980’s for example El Salvadorian soldiers made up approximately one third of the total enrollees. During the nineties students from Colombia, El Salvador, Peru, Nicaragua and Panama made up over half of the total students receiving training. In recent years enrollment has been primarily from Colombia, Chile, and El Salvador (Quigley 2006).

In October 2000, because of its reputation for abuse, “Congress voted to close the school in December and reopen it in January 2001 under a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.”(Kennedy 1998) The new curriculum included an increased emphasis upon human rights, and courses in “anti-drug operations, disaster relief and peace support” (Kennedy 1998). Additionally, the courses were opened up to law enforcement officials and civilians. Many of these changes were made in an attempt to deflect rising public criticism of the school. However asformer Senator Paul Coverdale (R –GA) was quoted at the time, the changes to the school were “basically cosmetic.”(Ireland 2004).

During the sixty years that the school has been in operation, it has provided instruction to over 60,000 soldiers serving in military units throughout Central and South America (Becker 2005). School of the Americas graduates have been connected with the worst human rights abuses in the Western Hemisphere including Right-Wing Death Squads in El Salvador, the assassination of Archbishop Romero, and the murder of numerous priests and nuns.

A Controversial Curriculum

The connection that critics make between the School of the Americas and the atrocities committed by a number of the graduates from the school is derived from the disclosure of training manuals that were circulated in the thousands throughout Latin America. These seven manuals titled, “Handling of Sources,” “Counterintelligence,” “Revolutionary War, Guerillas and Communist Ideology,” “Terrorism and the Urban Guerilla,” “Interrogation,” “Combat Intelligence,” and “Analysis I.” (Haugaard 1997) are derived from source material built from work done by the Army in the early 1960’s titled “Project X”. Project X was a project to train personnel in Southeast Asia and Latin America in counterinsurgency techniques (Quigley 2006). Project X was a precursor to the Phoenix Program where the CIA operated over 40 secret detention centers in Vietnam that killed “more than twenty thousand suspects and tortured thousands more” (Klein 2005).

Project X was halted during the Carter Administration (Quigley 2006) and the manuals to Project X were stored in the Army Intelligence School at Fort Huachuca, Arizona (Padrew 2004) where they would remain until the Reagan Administration reauthorized the program in 1982.

After coming into office in 1981 President Reagan placed a high priority upon both ending the guerrilla war in El Salvador and simultaneously aid the Contras’ war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (Kennedy 1997). It is in this climate of urgency that Lt. Col. Victor Tise and Captain John Zindar were assigned by the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School (USACIS) under direction from the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence (OACSI) to update Project X materials for use in the School of the Americas in Panama. The two men worked on the manuals containing over 1,100 pages, from February 1982 to September 1982, a period of six months. Major Ralph Heinrichs, who was working in the Department of Training Development at the School of the Americas at the time, has pointed out that the updating of such an immense volume of training manuals would normally have taken over a year (Kennedy 1997). According to conversations with the office of Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy both men were aware that President Carter had suspended the use of the materials out of fear that they were leading to human rights abuses, however they were also conscious that reinstating intelligence training in Latin America was a top priority to the Reagan Administration (Kennedy 1997).

Tise and Zindar were working on Project X materials that had been approved by Major Montgomery, and by the Department of Human Intelligence at Fort Huachuca. Additionally the materials had been sent to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and were returned from Washington “approved but unchanged” (Kennedy 1997). Representative Kennedy’s report to Congress goes on to note that “Tise stated that he did not notice that there was inappropriate training material contained in the Project X documents. Tise also noted that although all of the Project X material was unclassified, much of it came word-for-word from FM 30-18, a classified field manual on intelligence tactics. Zindar, on the other hand, does recall the inappropriate material, and says that most of it dated back to the Vietnam era, and needed major revisions. Both Tise and Zindar worked on revising the material so that it could be taught at SOA” (Kennedy 1997). After the delivery of the materials additional approval to begin instruction was granted by the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence at the Pentagon, pending a few linguistic changes.

It is interesting to note that Major Heinrichs claims that the unedited Project X materials had been in use at the School of the Americas until the Mid-1970’s and Tise claims to have been told by a Human Intelligence instructor at the school that the Manuals had been in use in the 1970s. A July 1991 Defense Department memo of a phone call interviewing Major Vic Tise regarding the history of the course materials, indicates that Tise discovered the objectionable materials while teaching the course and removed them (Husband 1991). Ultimately, it is uncertain how much of the objectionable material was removed from the manuals prior to their being put back into use and circulation in late 1982 (Kennedy 1997). Tise maintains that he was unaware of whether or not the objectionable material was taught at the school. U.S. Army Major Joseph Blair, an instructor at the school who began to speak out against the practices at the School of the Americas in 1993, after the military had denied knowledge of connections to human rights abuses, stated that, “I sat next to Major Victor Thiess [name misspelled in original] 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, false imprisonment.” (Jentzsch and Johnson 1997)

Regardless of how they came about and were disseminated, the manuals used to train soldiers at the School of the Americas contain volumes of material that is inconsistent with democratic values and demonstrates little concern for popular sovereignty, much less civilian control of the military. Indeed the manuals contain “few mentions of democracy, human rights, or the rule of law” (Haugaard 1997).   The materials explain that organizations with beliefs or ideologies contrary to the national government should be considered targets for counter intelligence efforts, including political parties, student groups, labor unions, and community organizations (Haugaard 1997). The manuals clarify that many types of political activity including running for office and participating in or funding political campaigns can be considered insurgent behavior. Even “Protests about high unemployment, low salaries, or against the national economic plan,” and “accusations that the government has failed in its responsibility to meet the basic needs of the people” (Haugaard 1997) are considered suspect. Horrifically, the manuals go so far as to include a number of religious and humanitarian activities as indications of guerrilla control over a civilian population. The training materials offer examples of “Adult men receiving refuge or food from clergy or help from them” and “Clergy embracing liberation theology” (Haugaard 1997).

Statements like these and others warning against those “sympathetic with the cause of the poor” (Quigley 2006) indicate a dangerous and radical ideological bias. Priests and nuns are conflated with terrorist groups (Haugaard 1997), and activities that are the hallmark of civic life are twisted into examples of efforts to violently disrupt and overthrow the government. Such confusion of civilian activities with violence and terrorism could in the minds of some soldiers lead to dehumanization and the legitimization of violence against civilians, that psychologists often argue is necessary for abuses to take place (Haslam 2005).

The methodologies discussed in the seven Project X manuals and the 1983 CIA Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, at the very least imply tacit consent to techniques that violate basic human rights principles. At their worst, they advocate, “fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings, false imprisonment, executions and the use of truth serum” (Priest 1996).

Later addenda to the materials mention that, “We will discuss techniques that are used by many, and the reasons why we are against the use of these techniques.” (Army 1983), and some passages have been crossed out, often with only a single black line, leaving the original objectionable text clearly visible. These half-hearted disclaimers ring hollow when readers of the manual discover in later passages such specific guidance for coercive interrogation as “the electric current should be known in advance, so that transformers and other modifying devices will be on hand if needed” (Army 1983).

Sometimes the problem would not be the message but the messenger. According to Major Blair, “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. That four hours has now been expanded to twelve where they sit in a class and discuss the My Lai Massacre, the Geneva Convention, and the Hague convention” (Jentzsch and Johnson 1997).

Recruitment: You Reap what you Sow

Beyond the problem of the curriculum taught at the school of the Americas is the issue of their admissions practices. The school has frequently and repeatedly admitted soldiers with histories of human rights violations (Quigley 2006).  In 1994 the State Department issued a directive that “no Latin American military member could attend the School of the Americas if they had a history of known human-rights abuses” (Jentzsch and Johnson 1997) and later the 1996 Leahy Law required background screening for prior violations of human rights by recipients of U.S. military or police training (Lumpe 2002). However, the law does not cover the actions of private subcontractors nor cases where the soldier’s home country has compensated the facility for the provision of such training, nor is there a standardized practice for conducting such background checks (Lumpe 2002). Additionally, no list of known human rights violators from Latin American countries is maintained for admissions purposes (Jentzsch and Johnson 1997).

While defenders of the school often cite the need for professional militaries to avoid human rights abuses, recent research completed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison notes that even when controlling for variables such as rank, decade attending, the cold war period, civil wars, dictatorships in the soldiers’ home nations and type of training, “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” (SOAW 2004) at the School of the Americas.


(SOAW 2004)

A Hall of Shame

Inevitably, a lack of distinction between civilian and combatant, an inability to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate behavior, and the condoning (whether tacit or expressed) of executions and torture, will lead to disaster. There are few examples in the world that illustrate more clearly the dangers inherent in global military cooperation than the litany of tragedies perpetrated at the hands of School of the Americas graduates.

A focus of the criticism of the School of the Americas is that it is a training ground for military officials from Central and South America, who often become notorious human rights abusers (Quigley 2006). “SOA Graduates include Panamanian dictator, drug dealer, and CIA asset Manuel Noriega; CIA asset Roberto D’Aubuisson (who ordered the, murder of El Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero and was a chief Salvadoran death-squad leader), Colonel Julio Alpirez of Guatemala, responsible for the torture and murder of Guatemalans and U.S. citizens; the soldiers who murdered six Jesuit priests and two women in El Salvador; the perpetrators of the El Mozote massacre and the 1980 rape-murders of U.S. churchwomen in El Salvador.” (Jentzsch and Johnson 1997) Graduates of the SOA have been implicated in “many of the worst human rights atrocities in the Western hemisphere” (Quigley 2006) including the assassination of labor leaders, women, children, clergy and even the massacre of entire communities (Quigley 2006). (See Appendix A for a further listing of human rights violations by country)

To say the least, it is unfortunate for a country that purports to promote democracy throughout the world to have trained ruthless dictators in its own back yard. In March 1973 when General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende his security forces, who murdered over three thousand civilians, were largely comprised of graduates of the school of the Americas (Cooper 2004). Hugo Banzer of Bolivia, master of a brutal and repressive regime, and a number of his top staff were also SOA graduates (Cooper 2004).

A Challenge to a Globalizing Military

As the example of the School of the Americas demonstrates there are a number of inherent challenges to the provision of military training. Knowledge is a difficult asset to keep contained to those who are able to use it properly. Even training bequeathed to soldiers that have been properly vetted can find its way into the heads and hands of the unsavory. Such a scenario is not just likely but prevalent. Currently the U.S. Military employs ‘train the trainer’ techniques where instructors from foreign militaries are taught with the intention of their delivering instruction upon their return to their country of origin (Lumpe 2002). Such techniques make it difficult for the United States to track the secondary and unintended consequences of such training.

The globalizing of communications that allows communication of valuable information for investors and medical personnel can also be used for the transfer of information and ideas that would be preferably contained (Friedman 1999). Additionally, the mobility of personnel in a military that spans the globe can lead to the unintentional transfer of procedures from one region to another. In 2004 it was discovered that CD-ROMS and electronic documents containing procedures and instructions for interrogation approved for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba appeared recently in Iraq (Kirk 2005). Dr. Miles Schuman, a physician with the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture illustrates this point further in his article “Abu Ghraib: The Rule, Not the Exception”

The black hood covering the faces of naked prisoners in Abu Ghraib was known as la capuchi in Guatemalan and Salvadoran torture chambers. The metal bed frame to which the naked and hooded detainee was bound in a crucifix position in Abu Ghraib was la cama, named for a former Chilean prisoner who survived the U.S.-installed regime of General Augusto Pinochet. In her case, electrodes were attached to her arms, legs and genitalia, just as they were attached to the Iraqi detainee poised on a box, threatened with electrocution if he fell off. The Iraqi man bound naked on the ground with a leash attached to his neck, held by a smiling young American recruit, reminds me of the son of peasant organizers who recounted his agonizing torture at the hands of the Tonton Macoutes, U.S.-backed dictator John-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier’s right-hand thugs, in Port-au-Prince in 1984. The very act of photographing those tortured in Abu Ghraib to humiliate and silence parallels the experience of an American missionary, Sister Diana Ortiz, who was tortured and gang-raped repeatedly under supervision by an American in 1989, according to her testimony before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. (Schuman 2004

Recommendations and Conclusions

In 2002 Amnesty International released a series of recommended procedures to curtail the risks associated with global military training programs.   These recommendations included increased scrutiny of training provided by private contractors or paid for by foreign countries, mainstreaming of human rights and humanitarian law into all foreign (author’s note: and domestic) military training, strengthen the vetting of training candidates, and the development of a more coordinated system for allocating military security and police training to foreign governments (Lumpe 2002). Amnesty International’s study also recommended that an independent commission be established “to investigate the past activities of the School of the Americas and its graduates, particularly the use of training manuals that advocated torture and other illegal activities” (Lumpe 2002). It was the final recommendation of Amnesty International that upon the release of the commission’s findings that the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC/SOA) be closed (Lumpe 2002).

In addition to the recommendations made by Amnesty International, the problem of the rough editing of the seven Project X counterintelligence manuals and the CIA Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual points to the need for improved vetting of training materials. It is clear from the testimony of those involved with the editing and distribution of the manuals that there was a great deal of pressure to move forward to meet administration goals, which may have short cut the review process. Such pressures are not uncommon in the military when adapting procedures from one context to another (Kirk 2005). However in the modern context where military information is increasingly valuable, durable, and easy to disseminate, the need for a standardized set of procedures and safeguards to ensure that all materials are compliant with human rights standards is clear.

Throughout Latin America WHINSEC is known as the “School of Assassins”, and negative publicity driven by the efforts of organizations like SOA Watch are creating pressure for governments to withdraw their support for the school’s programs. The involvement of SOA graduates in incidents such as the sniper killing of civilians in Cochabamba, Bolivia who were peacefully assembled to protest the terms of a planned water contract with Bechtel, sends a message to Latin American countries that the United States’ version of free trade is not subject to the rule of law (Becker 2005).   The open disregard of principles sends a message that the U.S. is not interested in trade and cooperation for mutual benefit, but is seeking military and economic imperialism. The prevalence of such beliefs can only lead to resentment and the radicalization of Latin American countries. Members of SOA Watch such as Father Roy Bourgeois have visited with various heads of state in Latin America and in recent months Venezuela, Uruguay, Argentina, and Bolivia have all decided to withdraw their support from the school (2006). Clearly, the School of the Americas is creating more problems than it solves and will continue to be a liability when trying to develop strategic partnerships with these countries.

Ultimately, if the United States wishes to enjoy continued security as the world’s only military superpower it must regain the moral high ground on human rights issues. No single act would send such a resounding message of respect, benevolence, and cooperation throughout the hemisphere as the closing of the School of the Americas.


  1. (2006). Military training to stop. National Catholic Reporter. 42: 6-6.
  2. Army, U. S. (1983). Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual. U. S. Army, Central Intelligence Agency: 124.
  3. Becker, C. (2005). United in Protest. America. 192: 29-31.
  4. Bragdon, H. W., S. P. McCutchen, et al. (1994). History of A Free Nation. Columbus, Ohio, Glencoe.
  5. Cooper, J. H. a. L. (2004). Disturbing The Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas. Maryknoll, Orbis Books.
  6. Friedman, T. (1999). The Lexus and the Olive Tree. New York, Anchor Books.
  7. Haslam, S. R. a. A. (2005) Why not everyone is a torturer. BBC Online Volume, DOI:
  8. Haugaard, L. (1997, February 18, 1997). “Declassified Army and CIA Manuals ”   Retrieved November 8, 2006, 2006, from
  9. Hersh, S. M. (2004) Torture At Abu Ghraib. The New Yorker Volume, DOI:
  10. Husband, T. R. (1991). Memo: USSOUTHCOM CI Training. O. o. t. A. S. o. Defense, National Security Archives: 3.
  11. Ireland, D. (2004, July 22, 2004). “Teaching Torture.”   Retrieved October, 15, 2006, 2006, from
  12. Jentzsch, B. and T. Johnson (1997). “School of the Americas critic.” Progressive 61(7): 14.
  13. Kennedy, B. (1998) School of the Americas. CNN Interactive: Cold War Volume, DOI:
  14. Kennedy, R. J. P. (1997). REPORT ON THE SCHOOL OF THE AMERICAS. Washington D.C., Federation of American Scientists.
  15. Kirk, M. (2005). The Torture Question. Frontline. USA, PBS: 90 min.
  16. Klein, N. (2005). ‘Never Before!’ Our Amnesiac Torture Debate. Nation. 281: 11-12.
  17. Lumpe, L. (2002). Unmatched Power, Unmet Principles: The Human Rights Dimensions of U.S. Training of Foreign military, Security and Police Forces. New York, Amnesty International U.S.A.: 66.
  18. Padrew, C. (2004, May 2004). “Counterintelligence Manuals Timeline.”   Retrieved October 15, 2006, 2006.
  19. Priest, D. (1996). U.S. Instructed Latins on Executions, Torture Washington Post. Washington, D.C.: A1.
  20.  Quigley, B. (2006). “The Case for Closing the School of the Americas.” BYU Journal of Public Law 20(1): 1-34.
  21.  Schuman, M. (2004) Abu Ghraib: the rule, not the exception. Toronto Globe and Mail Volume, DOI:
  22. SOAW. (2004, May 6, 2004). “New Research Findings Further Incriminate Notorious SOA/WHINSEC.”       Retrieved November 5, 2006, 2006, from
  23. Wikipedia (2006). Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, Wikipedia.

 Note from author:  This was written in 2006, but I felt it an issue still deserving of attention since the WHINSEC/SOA still remains in operation on American Soil.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: