In one of the most profound — and virtually unreported — manifestations of Bernie Sanders’ progressive influence on the 2016 presidential election, the Democratic Party’s platform committee has endorsed a call to close the notorious Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), a training school for Latin American military officers and soldiers whose graduates include some of the world’s worst human rights violators.
The call to close WHINSEC, formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA), was introduced by committee member Marcos Rubenstein, who was chosen by Sanders delegates, and has been accepted by both Sanders’ and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns. It marks the first time such an endorsement has been included in the Democratic Party platform.
Opened in 1946 in Panama and moved to Ft. Benning, Georgia in 1984, the US military school has graduated 11 Latin American heads of state. None of them became their country’s leader by democratic means, leading many critics to dub the SOA the “School of Assassins” and “School of Coups.” One-time US ally, drug trafficker and murderer Manuel Noriega, Bolivian despot Hugo Banzer (who sheltered the notorious Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie), Haitian death squad commander and military dictator Raoul Cédras and Argentine strongman Leopoldo Galtieri, who presided over the “Dirty War” in which tens of thousands of civilians were imprisoned, tortured and ultimately disappeared forever, rank among the school’s most notorious graduates. At least hundreds of war criminals have been trained at the SOA by US military and intelligence operatives, sometimes with American manuals that taught murder, torture, kidnapping, democracy suppression and more — and all of it has been paid for with American taxpayer dollars.
SOA-trained agents of US-backed military dictatorships throughout Latin America used techniques learned or honed at the school to target religious leaders, democracy advocates, union organizers, academics, students and others deemed threats to authoritarian regimes. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been murdered, tortured, raped, disappeared and forced into exile by SOA graduates.
In one of the worst massacres committed during the 12-year civil war in El Salvador, soldiers from the elite Atlcatl Battalion — which was created at the SOA In 1980 and was trained and armed by the United States — systematically slaughtered more than 900 villagers, mostly women and children, at El Mozote on December 10, 1981. Men were beheaded with machetes. Girls were torn from their mothers’ arms and savagely gang-raped along with the women before being executed. The village was then burned to the ground, the victims’ bodies left to the dogs and vultures. The day after the massacre, President Ronald Reagan, who backed the military government because it was staunchly anti-communist, lauded the regime for its human rights efforts — with one administration official praising its “humane treatment of the people” — while attempting to deny or discredit evidence of the mass killing.
On March 24, 1980, Óscar Romero, the Roman Catholic archbishop of El Salvador and an outspoken champion of the poor and oppressed, was assassinated by death squad members under the command of SOA graduates, including Roberto d'Aubuisson. Romero had implored President Jimmy Carter to stop funding the Salvadoran military that was killing so many of his people with impunity; the archbishop’s pleas largely fell upon deaf ears in Washington. Although he was assassinated, Romero’s life and work inspired others to carry on his mission of helping El Salvador’s poor. Sadly, four American churchwomen who worked with Romero — Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel — met a similar fate as the archbishop when they were kidnapped, raped, murdered and mutilated by a death squad commanded by SOA graduates. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, an SOA alumnus and Salvadoran defense minister who helped cover up the killings, was rewarded with US residency and lived in Florida until his deportation in 2015. As was the case with the El Mozote massacre, the Reagan administration attempted to deflect US complicity in the crime, blaming the three nuns and lay volunteer for their own deaths.
Guatemalan military dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, another SOA graduate, presided over the massacre of more than 200 villagers at Dos Erres on December 6, 1982. After leftist guerrillas ambushed a nearby army convoy, members of the Kaibiles, an elite unit whose members had to kill a dog with their bare hands and eat its heart as part of their graduation ritual, were deployed to exact revenge upon the peasants of Dos Erres. Children were thrown into the village well. Babies had their heads bashed against walls. Girls were raped before being shot or bludgeoned to death with sledgehammers, their bodies then thrown into the well with the children. Fetuses were torn from pregnant women and girls. On the same day that the Kaibiles attacked Dos Erres, President Ronald Reagan met with Rios Montt, who was tried for genocide in 2012, and called him “a man of great personal integrity who wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and promote social justice.” Declassified State Department documents prove that the United States was fully aware of the massacre at Dos Erres. Yet a month after the slaughter Pedro Pimental Rios, who in 2011 was sentenced to 6,060 years’ imprisonment for his role at Dos Erres, was hired to teach at the SOA. Pimental Rios, who had raped children at Dos Erres, was awarded the US Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service and was allowed to settle in California until he was extradited to Guatemala to face trial for genocide.
SOA graduates also planned or committed heinous atrocities including the torture, murder and disappearance of Chileans following a 1973 US-backed military coup, the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador in 1989, the torture and rape of American nun Diana Ortiz in Guatemala in 1989, widespread kidnapping, rape, torture and murder by the elite Battalion 316 in Honduras, the killing of four Dutch journalists in El Salvador in 1982, a series of chainsaw massacres in Colombia, the assassination of former Chilean official Orlando Letelier and his American aide Ronni Moffitt in Washington, DC in 1976 and countless other crimes.
Efforts by activists including Father Roy Bourgeois, who founded School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) in 1990 — its members have spent 78 combined years in federal and other prisons and jails for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience — led progressive lawmakers to call for the SOA’s closure later that decade. These efforts accelerated following the shocking revelation in 1996 by Washington Post reporter Dana Priest that SOA instructors utilized American-authored manuals teaching or advocating assassination, execution, kidnapping, torture and blackmail.
Rep. Joseph Kennedy II (D-MA) led the push to close the SOA, decrying the “Nazi SS” tactics being taught there. Other progressive lawmakers agreed. “Why should we continue to fund and condone military-inspired murder?” asked Rep. John Lewis (D- GA), “Why should we continue to train thugs that kill their own people?” Even some former SOA instructors spoke out against the school. “The concept of the SOA teaching human rights... or democratic values and principles is nothing more than a facade,” admitted retired Army Maj. Joseph Blair. Alas, time and again, bills aimed at shuttering the SOA failed to pass in Congress.
In a bid to rebrand itself, SOA changed its named to WHINSEC in 2000, with a greater emphasis on human rights. Still, Sen. Paul Coverdell (R- GA) admitted that the alterations to the school were “basically cosmetic.” “The name change is just a public relations exercise,” explained Carlos Mauricio, one of three tortured Salvadorans who won a $54.6 million judgment against SOA-trained generals in 2002. “They still teach counter-insurgency tactics there.”
SOA/WHINSEC alumni continue to make dubious headlines to this day. Former elite Mexican commandos trained there are now employed as vicious mercenaries for murderous narcotraffickers. Four of the six generals tied to the US-backed 2009 Honduran coup that overthrew Manuel Zelaya, the democratically-elected president, are SOA graduates. That coup — which was supported by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — ushered in a new era of death squad terror under the current regime. Before she was assassinated earlier this year, allegedly after being placed on a military hit list, Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres excoriated Clinton for her role in the coup.
Now, however, closing WHINSEC is an official plank of the Democratic Party platform. While party platforms are routinely ignored by candidates and the public after national conventions, the inclusion of an issue that peace activists have long sought to highlight is nothing short of a victory for human rights. Whether or not a President Hillary Clinton would take steps to close the school, and thus one of the most reprehensible chapters in American foreign policy history, remains to be seen.
“In order to create real change, we can't rely on politicians to make it happen for us,” SOAW national organizer Hendrick Voss told Daily Kos in an email statement. “We have to organize to build broad-based grassroots power, and hold those who are making decisions that affect our lives accountable.”