The School of the Americas, located in Fort Benning, Georgia, has a known history of producing graduates that have gone on to become some of the worst human rights violators in the Western Hemisphere, including nearly a dozen dictators. The notorious training facility has been condemned by human rights groups for decades but remains functioning today under the name Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), with some graduates now going on to work for U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The School of the Americas (SOA) was founded in 1946 in the Panama Canal Zone, and intended to function as a training ground for the increasing number of Latin Americans attending U.S. service schools. Under the Panama Canal Treaty, SOA was expelled from Panama in September 1984 and moved to Fort Benning in Georgia. The Army facility brought in recruits from across the Americas, and classes were taught in Spanish to accommodate foreign students. By 1949, SOA produced 749 U.S. military personnel and 251 Latin American graduates, representing 10 different countries. In 1956, Spanish became the official language of the school, and classes stopped being taught in English.
After the Cuban revolution in 1959, the U.S. Military adopted a security policy to counter the “international communist conspiracy,” and in 1961 President John F. Kennedy ordered the school to begin teaching “anti-communist” counterinsurgency. The School of the Americas began training in riot and mob control, special warfare, jungle warfare, intelligence and counterintelligence.
The Cold War saw the United States back numerous bloody coups against democratically-elected Latin American socialist leaders in favor of supporting, training, and arming military dictators. The United States has had its hand all over the region in the 20th century, the coup of Salvador Allende and U.S. support for dictator Augusto Pinochet being one of the most infamous examples. The School of the Americas has been given the moniker “School of the Dictators” and “School of the Assassins” as almost a dozen Latin American dictators have been graduates of the institution. Panama’s drug-dealing dictator Manuel Noriega and El Salvador’s Roberto D’Aubuisson are just two examples.
As part of the U.S.-backed war in El Salvador between 1980-1992, a massacre occurred in 1989 at Central American University. Six Jesuit priests, a sixteen-year-old girl and her mother were killed. The non-governmental organization School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) was founded in 1990 to denounce the massacre. This NGO has also existed as the leading advocate for the permanent closure of the SOA. SOAW has done reporting on the extensive crimes of the school as well as its graduates and led the public movement to close the school.
In September of 1996, in response to a Freedom of Information request and rising public scrutiny, the Pentagon released SOA training manuals, which advocated for torture, blackmail, and extortion, among other human rights atrocities. The U.S. Military used American tax dollars to train Latin Americans how to torture, terrorize, and repress populations.
Public pressure calling for the closure of SOA grew, and when a congressional task force found those responsible for the 1989 UCA massacre were trained at SOA, something had to be done. The House of Representatives narrowly killed a bipartisan bill to shut down SOA, and instead, it was closed in 2000 and reopened in January 2001 as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) under the Defense Department, rather than the Military.
United States imperialism is still alive and well, fueling an international reign of terror that has spawned almost a dozen dictators and countless human rights violators. The School of the Americas was never really closed. Instead, it was given a fresh coat of paint, simply rebranding the same education that promotes violence and terror in the Global South.
This education reinforces a cycle of violence in the Americas. It starts with security sector forces, trained by the United States to use torture, extortion, and abductions on populations of the Global South. As a result, asylum-seekers migrate North to escape from violence, often after a family member has already been tortured, arrested, or kidnapped. At the U.S.-Mexico border, caravans of people are denied refuge and detained, deported, or killed.
From either end, it’s the United States terrorizing and killing innocent people.
It’s a bloody system spawning from the U.S. destructive foreign policy in Latin America, ranging from sanctions to outright coups, that seeks to strangle the region with unfettered capitalism and Washington-backed despots.
Since 2019, SOA / WHINSEC has trained over 83,000 Latin American security forces. The school has held “human rights training” as a central pillar since before the 2001 rebranding, and after the change in leadership, the Defense Department doubled down on this focus by offering courses on “human rights.” However, these efforts are meaningless when it has no correlation to graduates respecting the most basic laws of international human rights.
In 2015, SOA / WHINSEC graduated its first U.S. border patrol agent. The U.S. border patrol has secured contracts to purchase millions of bullets in ammunition and in the past 15 years have killed over 100 people as a result of excessive force, many of whom were not on American soil.
In September of 2019, an unredacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) report revealed that ICE agents will now begin training at the facility. ICE has also contracted a private company for almost $1 million to build realistic models of U.S. cities in Fort Benning, meant to simulate raids ICE agents conduct in places like Chicago and Arizona. The models are typical family style residential homes, complete with props that include furniture, clothing, and toys.
ICE and U.S. border patrol have been under fire for years for their inhumane policies and gross human rights violations. Immigration policy has been a major concern in the recent presidential election. From the child separation policy at the border to the recent reporting of forced sterilization by ICE, the crimes committed under the guise of border security are severe.
Today, agents are being trained in Fort Benning, and instructed in the ways of violent, military dictators. The extent of U.S. militarism has never been contained to our borders, and its effects are not without consequence. The School of the Americas must be shut down, permanently, and the United States must begin a process of owning and reconciling its violent history.