The prevailing Western view of Latin America is one of tragedy: lush, exotic countries that have been devastated by centuries of European imperialism and civil war. The United States places itself in sharp contrast to the destructive effects of colonial rule in Central and South America, with one of the key objectives of the General United States Policy Towards Latin America in 1958 being to “encourage the development of stable political systems along democratic, representative lines.” However, through the School of the Americas (SOA), now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), the United States has actively trained Latin American military personnel in torture tactics and other methods of brutality in order to destabilize governments, empower authoritarian regimes, and promote the spread of neoliberal ideology.
The School of the Americas was founded in 1946 in Fort Benning, Georgia and has become infamous for perpetuating torture, orchestrated massacres, rape, censorship, and other human rights violations in Latin America. The horrific actions and goals of the SOA are not secret. In 1996, the Pentagon, in response to public pressure, released training manuals that were known to encourage torture, extortion, censorship, false arrest, execution, and the ‘neutralizing’ of enemies. These manuals condemned communism and posed leftist ideology as a legitimate grounds for human rights abuse, thus exposing the United States’ prioritization of anti-communist ideology as a part of national Cold War rhetoric above the protection of the rights and lives of civilians in Latin America.
The School of the Americas is an example of the horrific effects of American interventionism in Latin America, specifically with regards to proxy wars during the Cold War. Colombia, a country that has sent more troops to train at the SOA than any other Latin American country, represents a case study of violence facilitated by SOA/WHINSEC trainings.
The majority of this article will examine SOA and its actions and implications. In the last section, this article will examine SOA’s transition to WHINSEC and its perpetuation of actions similar to those of the School of the Americas.
La Violencia in Colombia: A Brief History
The violence in Colombia is not attributable to a single event; rather, it has been a continuous string of tensions amplified by U.S. intervention and the actions of SOA/WHINSEC graduates. From 1899 to 1902, the Conservative and Liberal parties of Colombia experienced their first civil war, vying for control and influence. After a few tense decades, another civil war broke out between the Conservatives and Liberals in 1948. The death toll from both wars was over 400,000. While a National Front was eventually formed, this truce did not end the violence in Colombia.
In the 1960s and 1970s, various guerrilla groups, the most infamous being the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), sprung up to defend the rights of the rural campesinos, or farmers, who had become overlooked as the growing wealth gap in Colombia favored the urban elite. These guerrilla groups were violent, often murdering civilians and threatening rural farmers who refused to join their cause. As a response to the leftist agrarian guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitary groups defending the interests of the Colombian elite began to organize and further contributed to the violence in the late 1980s.
Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, FARC continued to commit violent acts against the state. However, a beacon of hope came in 2016 when FARC and the Colombian government signed a historic peace accord. Sadly, the reforms promised by the peace agreement have not been implemented effectively or in a timely manner, and violence among rebel groups and the cocaine trade has continued to plague Colombia.
Human Rights Violations in Colombia
Colombia has experienced countless human rights violations due to armed groups and state-sponsored violence. One salient example of the School of the Americas’ involvement in these violations is the Urabá Massacre of 1988. Urabá is a region in northern Colombia that has been subjected to immense and constant violence throughout the 20th and 21st centuries due to its economic appeal as a banana-producing region. The Urabá Massacre occurred in March of 1988, when armed soldiers came to the doors of several campesinos in Urabá in the middle of the night and claimed the lives of at least 24 banana workers. Footage from the Associated Press reveals the devastating psychological effects of this massacre as surviving women and children watched bodies cleared from the streets due to unrestricted violence at the hands of the Colombian military. The campesinos that were murdered were not guerrilla fighters perpetrating violence, but rather innocent civilians subjected to violence due to the greed of the armed groups hoping to gain banana-producing territory.
Ten SOA graduates were implicated in the massacre, with one, Luis Felipe Becerra Bohórquez, considered to have played a “principal role.” Becerra Bohórquez was not enrolled in classes at the SOA, but was sent there by the Colombian Army to avoid criminal investigations. Perhaps the most disturbing part of this massacre is a declassified CIA document from 1988 in which the CIA claims that there was “no conclusive evidence implicating military personnel from [the Urabá] area in the murders.” This has since been disproven by a police investigation that confirms the collaboration of several army officials, including Pedro Vicente Bermudez Lozano, another SOA graduate. The police investigation notes their motive of “purg[ing] the area of guerrillas with the help of members of the Armed Forces and the national Police” for the purpose of “murdering the individuals who were active members of the extreme left.” Although the investigation reports the Court’s decision to arrest Bermudez Lozano and later Becerra Bohórquez, it notes that the original Judge, Dr. Martha Lucía González, had to leave the country due to death threats. Her father was murdered soon after as reprisal for the sentence she had passed against the SOA graduates. The Judge who replaced her, Dr. María Elena Díaz, also received death threats shortly after taking on the case and was murdered on July 26, 1989.
SOA graduates have also been members of Muerte a Secuestradores (MAS), the right-wing paramilitary death squad whose name translates to “Death to Kidnappers.” Under the guise of this noble mission, MAS went on to murder 240 individuals within their first 3 years of operation. At least three SOA graduates are known to have aided MAS in their pursuit of torture and murder.
SOA graduates are not the only perpetrators of violence and human rights abuse in Colombia. When discussing a country with a complex and war-torn history, the blame cannot be placed on a single entity; leftist groups and guerrillas have also been involved in the murder of civilians. However, SOA’s blatant and shameless involvement in these assassinations is abhorrent. By training these individuals in tactics of torture and murder, the United States is playing an active role in state-sponsored violence and terrorism in Colombia.
Attempts at Reform
Congress ordered the closure of the School of the Americas in 2001 in response to public outrage over the 1996 Pentagon investigation that revealed SOA training manuals on torture, false imprisonment, and executions. WHINSEC opened in SOA’s place in the same year with a supposed new focus of upholding democratic principles, including mandatory instruction on human rights. WHINSEC hoped to portray an image so distanced from the SOA that their own official History page does not mention the previous institution. However, WHINSEC’s actions have told a different story than their carefully curated public image.
WHINSEC has not improved their training contents as much as they have improved their lack of transparency when compared to the former SOA. The Pentagon stopped releasing the names of graduates in 2005 due to “safety concerns.” In reality, activists had provided legislators with the names of WHINSEC students who were allowed to train at the Institute despite having been implicated in human rights abuses the year prior. WHINSEC commander Keith Anthony flippantly stated, “No matter how much you train [graduates of the Human Rights Program], once they return back to their countries, they’re going to do what they’re going to do, and it’s out of our hands.”
Even without their names, the training graduates are receiving is not solely focused on democratic principles as the institute claims. Monitoring groups have found that WHINSEC students are disproportionately involved in human rights violations, and four WHINSEC graduates were arrested for ties to the July 7th, 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. Recent attempts to reform the SOA, such as the implementation of a human rights training program and mandatory instruction on due process and civilian control of the law, have failed. Today, human rights abuses are continuing under a thinly veiled guise at the hands of WHINSEC graduates. In order to reduce and eventually eliminate the negative holdovers of U.S. interventionism, WHINSEC must be shut down, and leadership must be held accountable for the action of their students.