U.S. Army school for Latin officers may be reformed

Congress gets plans for academy with notorious graduates

May 02, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Critics have branded it the School of Assassins. Now the Pentagon wants to remake the Army's School of the Americas, to put a more humanitarian face on the controversial 54-year-old training academy for Latin American military officers and police.

Last week, the Clinton administration sent a reform package for the Fort Benning, Ga., school to Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have tried for years to close it down, complaining that its less illustrious students include a death squad leader, a drug-connected dictator and roving bands of killers.

The administration's proposals include more rigorous oversight of the school by the secretary of defense, additional civilian instructors and students, and more instruction on human rights and peacekeeping.

In addition, the plan calls for the inclusion of members of Congress and human rights activists on the school's board of visitors, according to documents and congressional sources.

The school would also get a new name: The Institute for Professional Military Education Training.

Army Secretary Louis Caldera told a congressional committee last week that the proposals would result in more professional military organizations in Latin America.

He also defended the school, saying, "We don't teach American soldiers to torture, or rape, or murder or be human rights violators ... and we don't teach that to other countries."

But Rep. Joe Moakley, a Massachusetts Democrat and a leading critic of the school, likens the reform proposals to putting a perfume factory on a toxic waste dump. "It still smells. As long as the school is there -- even with a new name -- we're going to have problems," he said yesterday.

Last year, the House approved, by a vote of 230-197, Moakley's amendment to eliminate $2 million from the school's $4.4 million budget, complaining that the school was a training ground for military strongmen.

The money was later restored in a conference with the Senate. The Army then promised to rewrite the school's charter and alter its curriculum.

House opponents of the school have pointed to those who have attended the school: Manuel Noriega, the former Panamanian leader now in a U.S. jail on a drug conviction and the late Roberto d'Aubuisson, one-time leader of death squads in El Salvador. Both men attended the school in Panama, where it was located until 1984.

Others trained at the School of the Americas include current Colombian officers with links to right-wing militias and former members of a notorious Honduran Army unit -- Battalion 316 -- that was responsible for kidnapping, torturing and executing hundreds of suspected subversives in the 1980s. Battalion 316 was the subject of a Sun investigative series in 1995.

The 1989 killings of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador were carried out by a group that included 19 Salvadoran officers who had been trained at the school, a United Nations panel found.

Four years ago, the Pentagon acknowledged that training manuals used at the school in the 1980s recommended bribery, blackmail, threats and torture against insurgents.

The Pentagon has said the training manuals were mistakenly based on old material reflecting policies of the 1960s. The manuals were destroyed in 1991 after an internal investigation.

One congressional critic, Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, a Georgia Democrat, has called the facility the School of Assassins, a label other detractors have employed against it.

Army Secretary Caldera, in a widely repeated comment defending the school, said last summer, "Nobody condemns Harvard because the Unibomber went there." In fact, relatively few of its 59,000 graduates have been accused of human rights abuses, officials said.

Defense Secretary William S. Cohen told Congress two years ago that the school's instruction and training allows the United States to positively influence the militaries of the region by actively promoting democratic values.

The School of the Americas has weathered 12 investigations since 1989 -- including one from the General Accounting Office, the watchdog of Congress -- and no link was found between the curriculum and any human rights abuses, officials said.

Those investigations, however, resulted in a number of recommendations for changes in the curriculum, which have already been implemented, including a greater emphasis on human rights, international law and civil-military relations.

There has been a shift from the school's Cold War-era courses dominated by counterinsurgency training to those that focus on peacekeeping, mine clearing and counter-drug operations, said school officials.

Courses such as Sniper have been eliminated, replaced with new ones including Border Observer.

The proposals sent to Capitol Hill this week would expand on those reforms, moving beyond the curriculum into the management and oversight of the school.

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