In an interrogation cell at the Medellin headquarters of the Colombian military in 1982, the guard covered Hector Aristizabal’s hands and arms with a wet sweatshirt, tied a lasso around his hands, threw the other end of the rope over a wood beam in the ceiling of the cell, drew Aristizabal’s arms above him and began to raise his bruised and battered body off the ground, held by nothing except his tired, bound hands and wrists squeezed tightly together by the taut rope. His blindfold meant he couldn’t see when the guard took the first swing at him. But he felt the pain soon enough. The guard began to beat Aristizabal as he swayed back and forth, hanging from the ceiling. The blows came steadily.
By that point, pain and fear were his constant companions.
He had his head submerged in a dirty bucket of water repeatedly until he felt as if he was drowning. Rivers of pain pulsed through his convulsing body with electroshock. He was denied water for days. He wasn’t allowed to use the bathroom. He was starved, so much so that a guard who had a moment of pity once tossed a stripped meat bone from his dinner through the cell bars to a desperate Aristizabal. Aristizabal hungrily sucked the marrow from the bone. He remembers the taste of that marrow today, 28 years later. After 10 days he was released, but his brother and his companions were jailed, all because police found a book in their possession that police said made them suspected anti-government subversives, which they were not. Years later his brother would be murdered, Aristizabal says, by the Colombian paramilitary.
A member of the Screen Actors Guild, Aristizabal settled in California after moving to the United States in 1989. He had grown tired of watching a steady stream of people he loved tortured and killed by Colombian paramilitary death squads.
The same Colombian military that tortured Aristizabal – and those thought to have killed his brother, and tortured and murdered union organizers and other human rights advocates for decades – have been trained in counterinsurgence techniques with your federal tax dollars.
That training has taken place on U.S. soil since 1984.
Many members of the Colombian military, and paramilitary units from countries throughout Central and South America, are graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.
SOA training facilities and personnel represent a small population at the huge Fort Benning base, where our honorable troops serve.
The base has an average daily population of more than 100,000 members of all the armed forces of the U.S. military and is the Army’s largest training installation. It’s capable of deploying units anywhere in the world.
In contrast, the SOA has roughly 700 to 1,000 students and represents a small portion of the distinguished base’s activity.
The combat training school for Latin American military members opened in Panama in 1946 at the beginning of the Cold War and the early stage of America’s post-war resurgence as an economic powerhouse. Fighting communism and protecting American natural resource interests in other countries were key, especially where our hemispheric neighbors in Central and South America were concerned.
Since its inception in 1946, the SOA has been heavily funded with U.S. tax dollars. When it moved to Fort Benning in 1984, however, Panamanians were happy to see it go. Said then-Panamanian President Jorge Illueca: “[SOA is the] biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.”
Since 1946, School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), a group that has been fighting for years to close the SOA, estimates roughly 60,000 soldiers in Latin America have graduated from the school, learning psychological warfare, sniper training, counterinsurgency techniques and interrogation tactics.
Graduates typically go back to their home countries and join secret police units or death squads that target anyone the SOA has trained them to view as threats to their country. According to SOAW, suspects are defined as educators, religious workers, student leaders and anyone (including union organizers) working to decrease the poverty created by staggering income and land ownership disparities in Central and South American countries where SOA graduates operate. Countless Latin Americans have been targeted by SOA graduates with torture, rape, assassination and disappearance. The watch group says SOA’s graduates include notorious dictators such as Efraín Rios Montt of Guatemala and Hugo Banzer of Bolivia. They also say graduates were responsible for the El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians in El Salvador, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the 2005 killings of eight members of the San José de Apartadó peace community in Colombia, and the 2009 overthrow of the democratically elected president Zelaya in Honduras.
Union organizers in Colombia are particularly targeted by the country’s SOA-trained military with threats and violence, including murder. According to the Canadian Foundation for the Americas, the murder rate for union organizers in Colombia reached its peak of 275 in 1996. While the rate has decreased since then, SOAW reports that Colombia is still the most dangerous place for union organizing in the world. The International Federation of Free Trade Unions said trade union activists are being “systematically eliminated with most of the killings carried out by paramilitary groups which enjoy the tacit complicity of the SOA-trained security forces.”
Why is the United States training military members who later torture and kill to suppress union organizing and other social justice movements in Latin America? The answer is an old one: wealth, power and union-free labor.
“For the past several decades, the United States was allied with dictators in Latin America who helped that region’s small, elite group of wealthy landowners,” said SOAW founder Father Roy Bourgeois, a Louisiana native, who lives just outside the gates of the school in Fort Benning where he carries on his work.
“We got involved militarily with these countries because they were rich in natural resources, with coffee in Colombia, bananas in Central America, copper in Chile, petroleum in Venezuela and tin in Bolivia, for example. With their militaries, the U.S. joined with them to exploit those natural resources and to pay workers $1 a day and exploit cheap labor. There were no labor laws there,” said Bourgeois.
“We were like the new conquistadors. We enriched ourselves off the backs of the poor,” he added.
Lobbying Congress to cut aid to SOA is one approach Bourgeois and a growing anti-SOA grassroots movement uses to try to shut it down. Another is raising awareness among Americans that their federal tax dollars are funding the training of violent oppressors in Latin America who target union organizers working for the same rights for workers that many Americans have.
Besides educating the public about SOA and lobbying Congress to pull the plug on SOA funding, a third tactic began in the 1990s and has grown ever since.
“We decided to gather at Fort Benning each November around the time of a particularly vicious massacre perpetrated at the hands of SOA graduates. On Nov. 16, 1989, at Jesuit University in San Salvador, El Salvador, in Central America, military police entered the campus after midnight, dragged six priests, a young mother and her daughter out of their rooms and slaughtered them,” said Bourgeois.
“It made the front pages of the news worldwide. They were killed for trying to bring about dialog about the small elite that had most of the land and the wealth, speaking out against worship of wealth and power, and criticizing the suffering caused by U.S. foreign policy there,” he said.
The massacre sparked a congressional investigation, which concluded that those responsible were trained at the SOA.
“We wanted to express our solidarity with the people who are victims and to keep alive the memories of the thousands killed by these graduates,” said Bourgeois.
That first vigil in 1990 attracted about 100 people and grew each year. Now as many as 20,000 participate.
The SOA’s track record of targeting union organizers is especially poignant for those who care about the rights of workers everywhere to organize. UAW President Bob King started attending the November vigils in 2001.
“In our early organizing days the UAW would never have been successful without the support of other unions and people of conscience.We have a moral responsibility to support unionists, community activists and others in Central America working for democracy and justice,” King said.
SOAW says an SOA training manual the Pentagon released in 1996 stresses that graduates should go after union organizers for false imprisonment, torture and execution, and these tactics should be used against those who “support union organizing or recruiting; distribute propaganda in favor of the interests of workers; sympathize with demonstrators or strikes; or make accusations that the government has failed to meet the basic needs of the people.”
Bourgeois said that’s why a growing number of UAW members have been coming to the vigils. “The big word is solidarity. Union members and I are at the vigil to express our solidarity as workers,” he said.
Some union members have even made the sacrifice of being voluntarily arrested at the vigil and imprisoned.
“In 1997 I went to my first vigil,” said Rebecca Kanner, who helped organize workers at the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor (Mich.), members of UAW Local 174. She went back to the vigil year after year and saw a growing number of UAW members there. It made perfect sense to her.
“SOA graduates target anyone who wants change – especially union organizers,” said Kanner. “Organizers in Central and Latin America are trying to give a voice to the people, give them justice. People are barely paid anything down there and work long hours in unsafe conditions.”
At the 2000 vigil Kanner chose to make her powerful statement by being arrested when she crossed the main gate on the base at Fort Benning.
“When you cross into the base, it’s very spiritual,” said Kanner, adding she was inspired to direct action by early school teachings about the duty to speak out against injustice.
“I also was inspired by the Jewish concept of ‘tikkun olam.’ Translated from Hebrew, this means the just ordering of human society and the world or, more literally, the repair of the world,” she said. “And I was inspired by the Jewish prophetic tradition of social justice. As a Jew, I am moved to work to repair the tragic consequences of the SOA.”
She was arrested and stood trial in May 2001 with 25 co-defendants who also crossed the line that day in 2000. Kanner said the judge listened to each defendants’ statements with patience, then sentenced most of them to six months in prison.
“Bob King saw my story in a local newspaper, and when we talked he asked what he could do to support me,” said Kanner. She asked him to take her place at the November 2001 vigil, which she would miss because she’d still be in prison. So he did.
“We’re hoping to have more UAW members come to these vigils,” said Kanner. “That’s another reason I crossed the line.”
Kanner has been attending the vigils every year since she was released from prison in 2002.
Brian Schneck is president of 1,500-member UAW Local 259, based in Hicksville, N.Y., representing auto dealership workers. Schneck has attended all but one of the SOA vigils since 2003 with many of his brothers and sisters from the local.
“In 2003 my local president, Bill Pickering, attended a UAW Independents, Parts and Suppliers [IPS] Conference in Pittsburgh. At the time, Bob King was head of IPS, and he brought in Father Roy Bourgeois as a guest speaker. His presentation inspired me, so I’ve gone every year except for 2005 when we had difficult negotiations at the local,” said Schneck.
“The militaries in Central and South American nations are taught by the SOA to engage in terrorism, target union sympathizers, religious leaders and educators – all to keep people down. We believe that shouldn’t be happening,” Schneck added. “Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, we’ve been told that terrorism is bad and we have to root it out across the globe. But every day our tax dollars fund the SOA’s teaching of terrorism.”
There has been a slow response from the U.S. military as public pressure to close the SOA has grown since the vigils began. Congress has voted regularly on SOA funding and, while it still passes, the margin of support for the SOA gets smaller with each year’s vote.
In 1996 the Pentagon reluctantly released some internal teaching documents from the SOA. And in 2001 it even changed the name of the School of the Americas to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) to improve the school’s public image, although SOA opponents said the name change was only a cosmetic diversion from a curriculam teaching the same core values. Graduates are still returning to their home countries to join secret police and death squad units.
But, Bourgeois said, every vigil makes a difference because attendance continues to grow, reaching 20,000 participants in recent years.
And he firmly believes they will reach their goal of closing the SOA thanks to a universal thirst for freedom from persecution.
“You can only oppress people for so long,” said Bourgeois.
'PROJECT X' MATERIALS Time line of SOA training manuals on ‘coercive techniques’ The origins of the counterintelligence training manuals used at the School of the Americas (SOA) have a strong tie to U.S. involvement in the Cold War battle against communism, which has long been prominent in the training manuals.
Here’s the time line of their development and later public exposure that has helped generate growing public interest in shutting down the SOA:
1960s: A CIA training Counterintelligence Interrogation document is put into use by U.S. agents against communist subversion. This manual is the source of much of the material in the CIA’s secret Human Resource Exploitation - 1983 (HRE) manual later used in Latin American military training by the U.S. military. The U.S. Army’s Project X begins counterinsurgency training for U.S. allies around the world based on anti-communism tactics used in Vietnam. Project X materials are later used to create training manuals for the School of the Americas.
1982: U.S. Department of Defense approves SOA training manuals based on Project X documents.
1982-1987: U.S. military trainers begin using HRE manual for training of Latin American militaries.
1987-1991: Counterinsurgency manuals based on SOA training materials are drafted by the U.S. Army and distributed to militaries throughout Latin America, including El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru, and used at the SOA.
1988: The New York Times alleges the U.S. taught the Honduran military torture techniques. The HRE manual is made public during a subsequent congressional hearing.
1996: CIA training manuals are mentioned in a presidential report on intelligence oversight in Guatemala. The report is made public. After intense public pressure from human rights groups, the Pentagon publicly releases the SOA-based, U.S. training manuals distributed to Latin American militaries. The Washington Post later prints excerpts in its article “U.S. Instructed Latinos on Executions, Torture.”
1997: The manuals are finally declassified in response to 1994 Baltimore Sun FOIA request. The public can now verify that each has a chapter devoted to “coercive techniques.”
Sources: “Declassified Army and CIA Manuals Used in Latin America: An Analysis of Their Content” by Lisa Haugaard. Feb. 18, 1997. Latin America Working Group and soaw.org.
“Prisoner Abuse: Patterns from the Past” by Thomas Blanton and Peter Kornbluh. May 12, 2004. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 122 and soaw.org.
Department of Defense, “USSOUTHCOM CI Training-Supplemental Information,” (Confidential), July 31, 1991, and soaw.org.