The School of the Americas—called by its critics the “School of the Assassins”—was founded by the United States in 1946 in Fort Gulick, Panama, as the Latin American Ground School (LAGS). In 1949 it was renamed the U.S. Army Caribbean School-Spanish Instruction and in 1963 the U.S. Army School of the
Americas (SOA). In 2001, largely in response to years of protests by human rights organizations, the U.S. Congress renamed it the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC) and relocated it to Fort Benning, Georgia. Despite these formal changes in its name, the School of the Americas has remained consistent in its core mission: to provide U.S. Army-directed, Spanish-language military training to Latin American militaries. Since its founding, the SOA has trained an estimated 60,000 soldiers in counterinsurgency warfare; interrogation techniques; commando and psychological warfare; sniping; military intelligence; civil-military relations; and related courses of study.
According to a June 1996 report issued by a fourperson independent Intelligence Oversight Board (IOB) appointed by U.S. President Bill Clinton, the SOA “used improper instruction materials in training Latin American officers from 1982 to 1991 [that] condone practices such as execution of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion, and false imprisonment.” The findings echoed the criticisms of human rights organizations that include America’s Watch and Amnesty International, and of the United Nations Truth Commission Report on El Salvador (1993), which found that many of the most egregious violators of human rights in El Salvador’s 12-year civil war were graduates of the SOA.
Their crimes included the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1980); the El Mozote Massacre (1980, in which more than 900 civilians were killed); and scores of other massacres in El Salvador. In 2002 the Center for Justice and Accountability won a $54.6 million lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Florida against two former Salvadoran generals and SOA graduates (General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, Director-General of the Salvadoran National Guard, 1979–83, and General José Guillermo Garcia, Minister of Defense, 1979–83) for their role in a series of human rights abuses in El Salvador in the 1980s.
The organization “School of the Americas Watch” (SOA Watch), awarded the 2004 International Alfonso Comín Award for its promotion of peace and justice in the Americas, has compiled data linking SOA graduates to tortures, murders, massacres, and other human rights abuses in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay. SOA Watch’s list of “notorious graduates” includes Manuel Noriega (Panama), Efraín Ríos Montt (Guatemala), Roberto D’Aubuisson (El Salvador), and scores of others. WHISC acknowledges that some SOA graduates have committed human rights abuses, while maintaining that “[the] purpose of the Institute is to provide professional education and training to eligible personnel of nations of the Western Hemisphere within the context of the democratic principles set forth in the Charter of the Organization of American States . . . while fostering mutual knowledge, transparency, confidence, and cooperation among the participating nations and promoting democratic values, respect for human rights, and knowledge and understanding of United States customs and traditions.” In 2007 WHISC’s operating budget was $7.5 million.
See also El Salvador, revolution and civil war in (1970s–1990s)