Running A 'School For Dictators'

When the military runs amok in Latin America, Washington often takes some of the blame. That's what happened back in November 1989, when a Salvadoran Army patrol broke into Central American University and murdered six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter; some of the victims were executed lying face down on the ground. Humanrights groups immediately accused the United States of making the massacre possible with its financial and moral support for El Salvador's militarized regime. But it turns out that Washington did more than that. Nineteen of the 27 Salvadoran officers whom a U.N. Truth Commission report implicated in the Jesuit murders were graduates of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga. In fact, almost three quarters of the Salvadoran officers accused in seven other massacres during El Salvador's bloody civil war were trained by the Fort Benning school.

It has been called the School for Dictators. Since 1946 the School of the Americas has trained more than 56,000 Latin soldiers in combat and counterinsurgency skills. Its goal: to professionalize Latin American armies and strengthen democracies. But its graduates include some of the region's most despicable military strongmen, dictators such as Manuel Noriega of Panama. Washington ignored the unsavory behavior of the alumni when the hemispheric enemy was communism. But with no cold war, some in the White House believe that Latin armies should be scaled back, not simply "improved." "At a time when we want to build democracy in Latin America, the School of the Americas is an obstacle," charges Father Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest who has spent more than two years in prison for leading protests at Fort Benning to close it down.

Defenders of the institution, which operates on a $3 million-a-year budget, insist it gets a bum rap. They argue that the United States needs to maintain its crucial contacts with military leaders south of the border. The bad apples among the trainees haven't spoiled the whole barrel, they say. "Does the Wharton School take the blame for Michael Milken?" asked Col. Jose Alvarez, the school's commandant.

if the Wharton School had this many Milkens, maybe it would. A NEWSWEEK investigation of the School of the Americas turned UP hundreds of less than honorable graduates--some of them petty thugs, some of them top military brass. At least six Peruvian officers linked to a military death squad that killed nine students and one professor at a university near Lima last year were graduates of the school. Four of five senior Honduran officers accused in a 1987 Americas Watch report of organizing a secret death squad called Battalion 316 were trained there. Last year a coalition of international humanrights groups issued a report charging 246 Colombian officers with human-rights violations; 105 were school alumni.

Ironically, criticism of the school is mounting at a time when it's beefing up humanrights instruction. Students in the urban-combat course, for example, are asked to react to such hypothetical situations as a village priest's barring their entry into a church. Charles Call, of the Office on Latin America in Washington, last March became the first humanrights activist to speak at the school. U.S. instructors, as well as Latin American officers on loan to the school as instructors, will soon receive 12 hours of human-rights training before they start teaching.

To soak up American values and culture, the students, many of whom spend up to a year at Fort Benning, get free tickets to Atlanta Braves baseball games and trips to Disney World. Post-cold-war subjects have been inserted into the curriculum, such as "countermine operations," to instruct Central American soldiers on clearing the 130,000 mines laid during the wars of the 1980s, and "resource management," a euphemism for teaching Latin officers to keep their hands out of the till.

But can a year at Fort Benning make Jeffersonian democrats out of Latin American soldiers, many of whom have been accustomed since childhood to view priests and social workers as subversives? While the students sat politely through his lecture, Call remembers that the Latin American instructors were decidedly hostile; "all they wanted to do was bash human-rights groups." Sources at the school say that when Honduran and Colombian soldiers go through the urban-combat exercise with blanks in their weapons, half the time the village priest (played by a U.S. Army chaplain) is killed or roughed up. "I don't know what effect we have on the students," a former instructor admits. "It's not negative, but it may not be positive."

Even the school's best intentions may go awry. Ball games and Disney World "show them the good life, not democracy," a Fort Benning official complains. "They go home thinking that if their army stays in power they can continue the perks they experienced here." Not trusting the Latin American instructors, the school requires that U.S. officers conduct the human-rights classes. But the students quickly realize that it's a gringo course, so "when they get back to their countries they can forget it," says another former instructor.

The school in some instances has disregarded important symbols. To honor graduates who reached senior ranks in their militaries, the State Department and Pentagon each year select Latin American generals for a Hall of Fame. But among the two dozen inductees--whose framed pictures hang in the school's main foyer--are men who've "certainly not been sterling examples of democracy," said an embarrassed U.S. officer. They include Gen. Hugo Banzer Suarez, who in the 1970s brutally suppressed tin miners and church workers as dictator of Bolivia; Gen. Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, chief of Guatemalan intelligence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when thousands of political opponents were assassinated, and Honduran generals Policarpo Paz Garcia, who presided over a corrupt regime in the early 1980s, and Humberto Regalado Hernandez, who as armed forces chief was suspected of aiding Colombian drug traffickers.

The Pentagon has begun a review of the $42 million-a-year program, which annually trains more than 4,000 foreign military soldiers from all over the world. Changes already are being made. Former enemies are being welcomed into the fold: a Russian officer now attends classes at the Army War College. More than $3 million was earmarked this year to train civilians on how to run and control their militaries. For the time being, the Pentagon seems to have no intention of shutting the school down. "If Americans want a say in how nations conduct themselves, they have to have a seat at the table," insists Colonel Alvarez. "What this school does is give you a seat at the table with the armies of Latin America." Closing the school now "would be the strongest signal we could send that we don't care about the region" at a time when Washington pays little attention as is, warns a State Department official. Yet to be answered is whether keeping the school open sends a signal just as bad.