In 2001, the school gained an innocuous new name--Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation--but retained its controversial mission: to share U.S. military expertise with, and build ties to, Latin American military officers.
Among its critics in the United States, the school's still called "the SOA," or just as often, "School of Assassins." Among its critics in Latin America, the SOA is known as la escuela del golpe--"the coup school." By whatever name, for the past decade the school has proved a nettlesome concern for U.S. military officials, who have managed to keep it open only by weathering paroxysms of bad press about the SOA and its more notorious graduates.
The school opened in the Panama Canal Zone in 1963, moving to Fort Benning in 1984. Over the years, it has hosted more than 60,000 foreign military officers for training in low-intensity warfare and "internal security." The mainstay SOA courses have covered military intelligence, combat operations, counterinsurgency doctrine, interrogation methods, psychological operations and related specialties.
But what is taught at the SOA has received less scrutiny than who has been taught there. More than a few of the school's graduates have made headlines, and the news about them, it seems, is never good. There was Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator and narcotrafficker; Roberto D'Aubuisson, boss of El Salvador's death squads and architect of Archbishop Oscar Romero's assassination; Roberto Viola, one of the most brutal military henchmen in Argentina's dirty war; and Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, founder of the Honduran paramilitary death squad, "Battalion 3-16." The list goes on and on, but suffice it to say that the SOA's alumni roster is peppered with the names of some of the Western Hemisphere's worst despots and war criminals.
In the early '90s, Father Roy Bourgois, a Catholic priest, and other activists of faith launched SOA Watch, an organization dedicated to publicizing abuses by SOA grads and shutting the school down. And while the group has so far failed to close the SOA's doors, it has managed to thrust the school into the spotlight. The annual protests, like the one this weekend (along with year-round lobbying efforts in Congress), have forced the Pentagon to reform some of the school's operations. In recent years, the SOA has added courses on "Humanitarian De-mining," "Democratic Sustainment," "Peace Operations" and the like.
But do the curriculum changes--and the recent name change--really portend a kinder, gentler SOA? Not according to American University anthropology professor Lesley Gill, author of The School of the Americas, the first in-depth look inside the school. In a recent interview, Gill explained that while previous books have offered sharp critiques of the SOA from the outside, "there was no real effort to try to understand how the students themselves thought about their training, or how the U.S. Army itself set about actually training them or what its agenda was."
To rectify that, Gill spent months penetrating the SOA's cloistered world. She pored over declassified documents from the school's long career. She toured the school. She sat in on classes and interviewed scores of students, instructors and even SOA graduates who had returned to their home countries.
In some respects, Gill notes, her unprecedented access to the SOA's operations was not so surprising, given that military officials recently launched a sort of openness offensive to counter criticisms of the school. "The military knew that it was losing the public relations war," she writes. "The new 'openness' constituted part of a last-ditch attempt to save the school and burnish its tarnished image by constructing a wholesome picture of its activities."
As for the recent "reforms" at the SOA, Gill judges them to be largely cosmetic. In the book, she recounts her visits to new human rights courses at the school, where the students (and sometimes instructors) often opined that human rights groups are merely fronts for subversives. "On the one hand, I don't think those [curriculum] changes should be completely dismissed," she said in the interview. "But what I think they reflect is really less a change in the thinking of the military than the partial success of the social movement that's trying to close the institution."
Just as she explores the inner workings of the SOA, Gill devotes a chapter to examining the dynamics that drive the anti-SOA movement. "Dealing with the dark, seamy side of U.S. involvement in global affairs has never been easy for the citizens of the United States because of widespread amnesia about twentieth-century U.S. empire building," she writes. But the faith-based Central America solidarity movement in the 1980s, she finds, fostered a new type of activist--the kind that actually made forays to Latin American countries to witness the costs of U.S. foreign policy on the ground and support indigenous social justice movements there. In recent years, the ranks of SOA protesters have swelled with new recruits from the global justice movement, and while they are mostly from a younger generation, they likewise frame their understanding of foreign policy in terms of American empire.
Gill, too, tracks the effects of SOA training--and the broader U.S. strategic objectives that make the school necessary--to the countries where the training is applied. In one chapter, she tours Andean countries like Bolivia and Colombia, which are a current priority for U.S. policy in the Americas. Such recently announced prerogatives as "counter-terrorism" and "counter-narcotics," she finds, remain thin covers for counter-insurgency operations and other efforts by state security forces to crush labor and social justice movements. The Cold War may be long over by now, but dirty wars in Latin America continue, and a stint at the SOA remains a rite of passage for many of the men who fight them.