Words by Carly Gillingham
Latin America has been a troubled area for decades. Many countries in the region are ruled by unethical leaders, while infamous drug cartels led by powerful drug lords control many smaller areas within these countries. Manuel Noriega and Efraín Ríos Montt are notable names associated with corrupt dictatorial rule, and the Mexican drug cartel, Los Zetas, is notorious for ruthless drug-related crime. What may not ring a bell is their common denominator tying these three together: they are all graduates of the School of the Americas, a US Department of Defense facility from which all of these corrupt leaders are proud alumni.
The School of the Americas (SOA) was renamed in 2001 to WHINSEC, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Formally, it is a combat training facility for Latin American military personnel, though its original goal was to halt the spread of Marxism. It was established in Panama by the US in 1946, and then relocated to Ft. Benning, GA. – roughly a three-hour drive from Florida State University’s campus.
The school’s curriculum has garnered attention, especially by the anti-SOA activist group, SOA Watch, for training its notable graduates in torture mechanisms and genocidal tactics. The SOA training led to Noriega’s corrupt rule in Panama, and Ríos Montt’s involvement in the deaths of 200,000 indigenous Guatemalans in the Guatemalan Civil War. And yet the major news sources have remained silent.
There has been a great lack of information in the media regarding the SOA. Dr. Summer Harlow of Florida State University’s College of Communication and Information has spent time in Latin America as a journalist and devoted research to the SOA and its influence in the area. Burning Tree Magazine went to Dr. Harlow for some insight on why there has been a great lack of information in the media regarding the SOA.
We began by asking Dr. Harlow to go into detail on just how large of an impact the School of the Arts is capable of making.
“Since the 40’s, the SOA has trained more than 60,000 soldiers … It wasn’t just Central America, it happened in South America too. If you have 60,000 or however many people trained there, that’s a lot spread out through the hemisphere.”
SOA Watch affirms this, reporting that it has trained over 64,000 Latin American soldiers in areas such as psychological warfare, counterinsurgency, and interrogation tactics. Dr. Harlow noted that the institution was originally established to safeguard US interests in the war against Marxism in Latin America.
“They were trained to support the interests of the US government, which are not always accurate or correct. ” It’s hard to say that the US is in the right in training these people how to torture just because they’re protecting US interests. What is the US interest in Guatemala, when 200,000 people are being slaughtered? It’s money, it’s ‘stopping communism’.”
Although stopping communism was the end goal of the US and the very reasoning behind the SOA, it does beg the deceptively simple question of why communism needed to be stopped at all. The presence of communism and international interests into these small states did serve to better incorporate these underdeveloped nations into the increasingly globalized world stage. Dr. Harlow attributes it to a competition for international influence:
“If you give power to developing countries, the fear is that you are taking power away from the developed countries. If you are at the top of the food chain, you want to protect your power.”
This is a classic story in American interventionist history; it has been seen throughout the past that US interventionism in foreign countries tends not to be a mission to protect some sort of greater, humanitarian-related cause. Rather, the US has focused many of its international endeavors on its own self-interest in the international system.
We finally asked Dr. Harlow, a journalist herself, why there has been such a lack of media coverage or general knowledge on this subject.
“It’s [considered] okay if we’re meddling, because we’re stopping communism; we’re promoting democracy around the world. We’re socialized into thinking that, so we don’t question it. The mainstream media reports what the government says. That’s what we [as journalists] are trained to do. We’re not trained to go talk to activists. Our sources are people within the government.”
The media has, after all, been largely considered by many to be a conveyer belt, bringing information from elites in the government straight to the public.
Critics have coined a nickname for the school: the “School of Assassins.” SOA Watch calls itself “a grassroots movement to close the SOA/WHINSEC, reveal the truth, and demand accountability for US intervention in Latin America.” The group holds a vigil at Ft. Benning every November in honor of the victims of the school’s graduates. Although US interests have strayed away from stopping the spread of Marxism, the school still exists today with the intention of training “counterterrorism” forces throughout the world. And of course, the SOA is also tasked with protecting the sacred governance of democracy, by any means necessary.
The change in title from SOA to WHINSEC fifteen years ago prompted the media to behave as if the School of the Americas had closed, rather than acknowledging it was simply now operating under a different name.
The atrocities for which this school’s “students” have been responsible cannot be understated. Besides Panama and Guatemala, numerous other countries have been led by SOA graduates, including Argentina, Chile, and Bolivia, not to mention the impact beyond Latin America; Yahya Jammeh, the current President of Gambia, is another notable graduate. Jammeh came to power in a coup in 1994, and still rules with a substantial level of dictatorial power. This “School of Assassins” is still in session today, with diligent students absorbing lessons within its corrupt curriculum. Worst of all, the institution’s influence continues to go unacknowledged, and its corruption unstopped. Given the negligent public response to the school’s egregious track record, there is a great possibility that there is an ambitious student attending the school who could be the next Noriega. It is an institution that deserves far more attention than it has received over the decades of its existence, but unfortunately the American media has severely slacked on this front.