|SCHOOL OF THE AMERICAS|
September 21, 1999
The House- Senate Conference Committee is about to take up the 'School of the Americas' funding issue. After this background report, U.S. Rep. Joseph Moakley, D-Mass., and Army Secretary Louis Caldera, debate this controversial school for military officers.
SPOKESMAN: Va! Rapido, rapido!
TOM BEARDEN: Military medics learning how to deal with combat casualties in the Pine Forests of Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the United States Army Infantry School. American soldiers have been going through exercises like this here since the post was established in 1918. But if you listen carefully, these soldiers aren't speaking English, and the medics aren't in the U.S. Army.
TOM BEARDEN: These men are from Venezuela. They're students at the School of the Americas, arguably the most controversial unit in the American military establishment. The School of the Americas was founded in the mid-1940's in Panama as a place to teach combat tactics and strategy to Latin American soldiers. It moved to Fort Benning in 1984.
TOM BEARDEN: The stated mission is to foster good relations between the U.S. Military and its Central and South American counterparts, and to promote democracy. But critics say the School of the Americas is really a school for assassins. One of the critics is Charles Liteky, who holds a daily vigil at one of Fort Benning's gates. A Medal of Honor winner, the former chaplain returned his country's highest decoration for valor to protest the school's very existence. Each November, more and more protesters join Liteky on the anniversary of the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their cook, and her daughter in El Salvador. They say it's just one of many atrocities committed over the years by alumni of the school. Graduates have been accused of the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, and the rape and murder of four church women nine months later.
Other graduates include former Panamanian strongman, Manuel Noriega, now in a prison near Miami for drug trafficking. The U.S. went so far as to launch a military invasion of Panama to arrest him
Another graduate, Roberto D'Aubuisson, accused of leading death squads in El Salvador. Catholic Maryknoll priest, Father Roy Bourgeois, has devoted his life to trying to close the school, even moving to an apartment just outside the gate that Litkey patrols.
REV. ROY BOURGEOIS, School of Americas Critic: We have discovered-- actually documented-- not a few bad apples who have come out of this school, but over... right now, over 500 soldiers who have been involved in massacres, torture, rape, the disappearing of many people in their countries.
|A few bad apples?|
| TOM BEARDEN: The school's
commandant, U.S. Army Colonel Glenn Weidner, disputes that assertion. |
COL. GLENN WEIDNER, Commandant, School of the Americas: I have to clarify that while we are very disturbed when someone does commit a human rights abuse, and who has passed through the school at some time in the past, it is a very small percentage of the total number of students. We have had over 60,000 graduates of the School of the Americas since 1946. Less than 1 percent of those graduates have ever been linked to human rights abuses, according to our critics. That's a glass that's over 99 percent full, as opposed to the picture that's painted of the school.
TOM BEARDEN: The school has become a symbol for activists who accuse the U.S. of propping up Latin American dictators. They say the school has been an active contributor to that cause, teaching foreign soldiers how to use terror and torture. For years, the Pentagon denied that. But in 1996, the army revealed that the school had in fact used several training manuals that discussed blackmail and execution.
COL. GLENN WEIDNER: The fact is that there was an administrative error because they were already in Spanish and in use by another unit who had obtained clearance for those manuals to be used, and so they were not properly screened by our translation department, and by the people who brought them to the school in '89. They contain some passages which, if they're taken out of context in some cases, and which in other cases if they were read literally, they could be construed to condone improper practices such as using fear, using blackmail, paying bounties for enemy dead and so on.
TOM BEARDEN: Bottom line, was torture ever taught here?
COL. GLENN WEIDNER: There is no evidence that torture was ever taught at the School of the Americas.
TOM BEARDEN: Colonel Weidner says his statement is backed by 12 separate investigations of the school by different federal military and civilian agencies. But retired Major Joe Blair, who was an instructor at the school from 1986 to 1989, tells a different story.
MAJOR JOE BLAIR (RET.): I have personal knowledge that the School of the Americas, while I was there for three years, taught two intelligence interrogation courses, which taught the U.S. Army position that it was appropriate to use physical abuse when interrogating anyone in their country, to also use false imprisonment, false arrest, and kidnapping of family members.
|Is reform possible?|
TOM BEARDEN: Colonel Weidner says the school has been restructured, and now puts a heavy emphasis on teaching democratic principles and human rights.
COL. GLENN WEIDNER: We are absolutely serious about human rights being part of the curriculum, and a strong part. It's part of our mission, and what we have done is created a program that's the most extensive human rights training program in any DOD school. There's a particular need for it in Latin America, no doubt. The terrible checkered history of military interventionism, gross brutality, and the way that militaries and also insurgent groups, and also private groups in Latin America have employed violence over the years, clearly speaks out for the need for strong grounding of the professional militaries of the region in human rights issues. And the school does this particularly well.
TOM BEARDEN: But Father Bourgeois doesn't buy that assertion.
REV. ROY BOURGEOIS: They have made some cosmetic changes here, a little window dressing. They've added a human rights course, Democratic Sustainment Course that few soldiers take. This school-- I want to say this-- we are not going about... we are not working for reforming the school. This school has so much suffering and horror and death connected to it, we feel it must be closed. This institution is so connected to suffering and death, it can only be closed. It cannot be reformed.
TOM BEARDEN: But Captain Carmen Estrella, a School of the Americas instructor, says soldiers make excellent teachers of democracy.
CAPTAIN CARMEN ESTRELLA: Who better than a soldier to teach about those things? You know, I was in Just Cause, and I was in Desert Storm, and as a soldier, I feel very qualified to teach human rights because I'm exposed to the things that put you in a position where you have to make those kinds of decisions, whether, you know, are you going to help this person or not? And we put them in the scenarios and they have to react to that, and they do very well. And if they do something that is not correct, we tell them. We stop the class and we ask them what was wrong with this.
TOM BEARDEN: Father Bourgeois and other activists have been lobbying Congress for years to cut off funding for the school, and each year the vote has been getting closer and closer. Last July, the House of Representatives voted for the first time to eliminate funding that brings Latin American soldiers to the school -- the first legislative victory for the school's opponents. But the Senate voted to continue the school's funding. A conference committee will try to resolve the differences.