On Friday, thousands of protesters will converge on Fort Benning, Georgia, home to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation (WHINSEC). It’s had this title since 2001, but when it was set up in Panama in 1946 it was the School of the Americas. In 66 years it has trained 64,000 soldiers from Latin America in counterinsurgency, sniper warfare, interrogation techniques and other useful methods for repressing their citizens.
Another name for it in Latin America is the Escuela de los Asesinos. A United Nations Truth Commission in El Salvador implicated 19 of its graduates in the massacre of six Jesuit priests on 16 November 1989. School of Americas Watch (SOAW), the organisers of this week’s event, list 57 of the most notorious graduates, among them generals Galtieri of Argentina, Banzer of Bolivia, Rios Montt of Guatemala and Noriega of Panama. Hugo Banzer, who maintained a ‘chamber of horrors’ beneath his interior ministry where 2000 prisoners were kept and tortured, had his photo on the school’s ‘wall of fame’. More recent graduates include two leaders of the failed attempt to unseat Hugo Chávez in 2002 and the mastermind of the coup in Honduras in 2009, General Vásquez Velásquez.
Pinochet, admittedly, didn’t go to the SOA, but he presented it with a ceremonial sword which for many years hung in the office of the school’s commandant, and one in seven officers of Pinochet’s secret police, the DINA, were graduates.
The school left Panama in 1984. Another graduate, Omar Torrijos, had become disenchanted with US influence. He negotiated the treaty with Jimmy Carter that would hand the canal and its territory back to Panama. Closure of the school was part of the deal. Reagan tried to persuade Torrijos to reconsider but he refused. Soon afterwards – like Jaime Roldós, the president of Ecuador – he died in a plane crash.
WHINSEC’s official history begins with its renaming in 2001. But since then it has played host to the likes of Colonel del Cid Díaz, who according to the UN Truth Commission ordered the point-blank shooting of 16 El Salvadorans in 1983. In May this year, Ebed Yanes, an unarmed 15-year-old boy, was detained at an army road block in Honduras and shot by a squad of 21 men. Lieutenant Colonel Reynel Funes, implicated in the attempted cover up, attended the SOA.
SOAW was founded in 1990 by Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest. He first clashed with forces linked with the school in the 1970s, when he was deported from Bolivia for opposing Banzer’s dictatorship. During peaceful demonstrations at the gates of Fort Benning he has been arrested and, along with 240 others, had several spells in jail.
When I spoke to him in August he’d just persuaded President Correa of Ecuador to withdraw from the SOA, and a few days later he convinced Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua to do the same. Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela and Bolivia had already withdrawn their support. Costa Rica’s President Arias pulled out in 2007, only to be worked on behind the scenes until, as WikiLeaks revealed, he quietly reversed the decision and continued sending police trainees anyway.
The president with the most power over WHINSEC’s future is of course Obama. But if the place is eventually closed, it’s likely to be for economic as much as moral reasons. SOAW are working on Congress to cut its funding. In 2010 a bill to suspend operations at WHINSEC had more than 100 co-sponsors. Now SOAW are looking for support from Republicans interested in budget cuts. The fewer countries that send troops there, the more that spending $18 million a year on WHINSEC looks like a waste of money.