Mexico Practices What School of the Americas
by Darrin Wood
Covert Action Quarterly magazine, Winter 1996-97
Mexican generals implicated in serious human rights violations
studied at the School of the Americas while the institution was
routinely teaching torture techniques.
The US Army's School of the Americas (SOA) has never had much
good press, but recently its reputation went into a tailspin.
It all began with an item in the June 28, 1996 Intelligence Oversight
Board's "Report on the Guatemala Review":
Congress was also notified of the 1991 discovery by DoD [Department
of Defense] that the School of the Americas and Southern Command
had used improper instruction materials in training Latin American
officers, including Guatemalans, from 1982 to 1991. These materials
never received proper DoD review, and certain passages appeared
to condone (or could have been interpreted to condone) practices
such as executions of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion,
and false imprisonment. On discovery of the error, DoD replaced
and modified the materials, and instructed its representatives
in the affected countries to retrieve all copies of the materials
from their foreign counterparts and to explain that some of the
contents violated US policy. I
Such practices in any case, the Pentagon assured, did not
represent US government policy, and all instruction in torture,
murder, and mayhem had been discontinued in 1991.
The government admission that the manuals did in fact exist
and had condoned torture was made under pressure. Despite numerous
first-hand sighting, no one had managed to hold onto a copy until
one made its way to Congress member Joseph Kennedy. When the Pentagon
learned that the Massachusetts Democrat had the hard evidence,
it tried to beat him to the punch and release the excerpts. The
seven manuals-nearly 1,200 pages in the original Spanish-recommended
using "fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings,
false imprisonment, executions, and truth serum." The chilling
text forever disproved the School's claims that the Noriegas,
Banzers, and D'Aubuissons who came out of SOA were just a few
"bad apples." Rather, they were the bad seeds that SOA-
acting as "Johnny Rotten-Appleseed"-had planted in the
fertile ground of Latin American dictatorships.
SOA public affairs officer Maj. Gordon Martell was left hanging
out to dry by the change in the official line. He had admitted
that some SOA grads were guilty of abuses but had downplayed the
impact. "Out of 59,000 students who have graduated from a
variety of programs, less than 300 have been cited for human rights
violations like torture and murder, and less than 50 have been
convicted of anything." In fact, the low number had more
to do with the level of impunity in Latin America than any failure
of the students to master their lessons. And up until the end,
the hapless Martell was denying that the manuals contained anything
untoward. "All of the manuals used by the School of the Americas
are approved by the Army, and the school has never done those
things, ever, in its history."
Torture, Lies, and Videotape
Two people who had been on the trail of the manuals were Robert
Richter, whose 1995 film, School of Assassins, was nominated for
an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary, and Roy Bourgeois,
a Maryknoll priest who had long opposed the school. After reading
an article in CAQ that reported the existence of the manuals,
they traveled to Paraguay. (The article had linked the manuals
to serious human rights abuses performed under Operation Condor
and documented that they taught torturers how to keep prisoners
alive during sessions using electric shock).4 In Asuncion, Bourgeois
and Richter met with Martin Almada, the activist and torture victim
who had told CAQ of seeing the manuals and of having experienced
their lessons first hand. Although the two did not find the instructional
material, which had disappeared from the archive where it was
catalogued, they ferreted out former SOA students who were now
willing to talk. In Richter's updated version of the documentary,
one of those former students revealed some of his "unconventional
Mr. X: "The difference between the conventional and the
unconventional training is that we were trained to torture human
beings. They would use people from the streets of Panama, because
they would bring them into the base and the experts would train
us on how to obtain that information through torture. And there
were several ways of doing it. There was the psychological torture
and there was of course the physical torture."
Bourgeois: "Are you saying that ordinary citizens were
brought to the School of the Americas and used as human guinea
pigs for torture?"
Mr. X: "Some of them were blindfolded and they were stripped
and put in a certain situation, I mean setting, where they were
tortured. At the time they had a medical physician, a US medical
physician which I remember very well, who was dressed in green
fatigues, who would teach the students in the nerve endings in
the body, he would show them where to torture, where you wouldn't
kill the individual. He would tell them how much the heart can
tolerate, can hold up. And there were also times where they would
revive the person with a powerful drug. When the person was [near
death], the doctor will tell you this is enough, you can't go
on anymore because this man will die. So it's very simple. If
he hasn't talked yet, then you've got to stop because otherwise,
he'll be dead."
Richter also talked with Jose Valle, an SOA graduate and ex-member
of the US-backed Honduran death squad Battalion 3-16. "They
told us we could respect human rights, that it was not necessary
to beat the prisoners," he said. "But that was in the
classroom. The problem was that in the actual situation the interrogators
were told that they had to get the information out of the people
in any way possible."
Based on interviews, Richter believes that the torture manuals-in
use for seven years at Fort Benning- were used prior to 1982 and
formed the basis for daily lesson plans at SOA.
She SOA "Redefines" Itself
The increased public attention on the School of the Americas
in the past few years has forced the School to scramble to justify
its multi-million dollar budget and to fabricate a revisionist
interpretation of its goals and curriculum. A recent article in
the Spanish language edition of Military Review tries, without
admitting past flaws, to "redefine" SOA's mission as
the promotion of democratic principles and human rights in the
hemisphere. "[...T]he School of the Americas has more possibilities
than ever at this time to contribute to those causes that are
so important for its adversaries, even though they might not be
convinced of it without first abandoning the notion that any use
of military force in Latin America is inevitably wrong.... "
The article, according to its author, Army Lt. Col. Geoffrey B.
Demarest, "is not directed to the enemies of the School nor
does it offer any apology for what occurred in the past."
An SOA graduate and an ex-assistant military attaché at
the US Embassy in Guatemala, he has good reason to know what he
is not apologizing for.
Demarest does acknowledge that SOA's makeover will not be
easy because the concept of human rights "can be difficult
for many Latin American officers, since many of them consider
that that term has been employed in a propagandistic and damaging
way for some legitimate uses of military force." And Demarest
admits that the issue of human rights has been used for political
expediency. "It is possible," he writes, "that
the emphasis put on the subject of human rights has been a response
to the School's critics, who have shown to be hardly convinced
of its merit based on its role during the Cold War. With the end
of said conflict, and in spite of the increased emphasis that
the instruction in human rights receives, the School is still
criticized because its fundamental concepts appear to be obsolete."
SOA vs. EZLN
Although the school is currently deep into a PR campaign to
paint a smiley face on a death's head, those "fundamental
concepts" still include the use of force to maintain the
US "backyard" and to back the political and financial
fortunes of those leaders who play ball in it. The role of SOA
graduates in Mexico is a case in point. From 1953 to 1992, almost
500 Mexican military officers have received training at the SOA.
Since the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico has taken
the lead in the number of Latin American military personnel receiving
US military training. With millions of dollars in US military
aid and training, Mexico has undergone a massive militarization
in the past few years. To top it off, Bill Clinton and the Pentagon
recently unveiled a plan to spend an additional $48 million on
helicopters and training to shore up the Zedillo regime.
While it is impossible to know how many US-trained officers
are participating in counterinsurgency operations, some evidence
can be gleaned by checking SOA enrollment lists against press
reports of military operations. The headquarters of the Mexican
Army's 31st Military Zone, located at Rancho Nuevo near San Cristobal
de Las Casas in Chiapas, had a kind of SOA class reunion feel
to it when Zapatistas rose up in arms on December 31, 1993. Three
of the army generals there -Gaston Menchaca Arias, commander of
the Military Zone, Miguel Leyva Garcia, and Enrique Alonso Garrido-
were all SOA alumni. Menchaca Arias and Leyva Garcia had been
classmates at the SOA back in 1971.
However, Gen. Menchaca, who as a captain in 1971 when he studied
"irregular warfare" at SOA, probably won't be the school's
poster boy for military expertise. As the Zapatista Army was taking
control of San Cristobal in the early morning hours of January
1, 1994, Concepcion Villafuerte of the San Cristobal newspaper
El Tiempo, called the Commander at 1:45 am to ask him why there
were so many armed people in the town. The US-trained specialist
replied: "I don't know. Aren't they just people celebrating
As the fighting continued in early January of 1994, another
SOA grad, Gen. Juan Lopez Ortiz, was sent into Chiapas with troops
under his command from the states of Campeche and Tabasco. In
a 1994 interview with the Mexican magazine Impacto, this SOA grad
called the EZLN "very criminal people [who] dare to call
themselves an army while they send people to their deaths, armed
with wooden rifles; when they use innocent people as human shields
and they cover their faces with ski masks." Lopez Ortiz had
first made a name for himself in 1974 fighting the Partido de
los Pobres (Party of the Poor) in the mountains of the Mexican
state of Guerrero. That infamous campaign left hundreds of peasants
"disappeared." In 1994, the troops he commanded in the
town of Ocosingo massacred suspected Zapatistas in the town's
market; the prisoners' hands were tied behind their backs before
the soldiers shot them in the back of the head.
The February 1995 invasion by the Mexican army of territory
controlled by the EZLN brought another SOA grad onto the scene.
Gen. Manuel Garcia Ruiz (SOA Class of 1980-the same year and course
as Gen. Garrido), boasted to journalists of the army's "humanitarian"
work in the aftermath of the invasion of the Lacandona jungle.
According to the Mexican news weekly Proceso: "Brigadier
Gen. Manuel Garcia Ruiz, with a diploma from the General Staff,
was ordered to occupy Nuevo Momon, one of the Zapatista strongholds;
on Friday, February 10, Lieut. Col. Hugo Manterola was killed
in circumstances that still haven't been cleared up." Testimony
compiled by the press states that there was an exchange of gunfire,
which lasted approximately 10 minutes, between government and
Zapatista soldiers. Gen. Garcia Ruiz's official version, however,
denies that a confrontation occurred and claims that Manterola
was the victim of a sniper.
Chiapas has also reportedly suffered the presence of a group
of mercenaries from Argentina who were sent to the infamous 31st
Military Zone in July of 1994 to help the Mexican Army perfect
its counterinsurgency tactics. These same Argentines have worked
for the CIA in the past in training US-backed death squads in
Honduras led by SOA graduate Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez.
SOA vs. EPR On June 28, a new guerrilla organization calling
itself the EPR (Ejercito Popular Revolucionario-Popular Revolutionary
Army) appeared in Guerrero during a memorial service for 17 peasants
murdered by police in Aguas Blancas the previous year. In August,
the EPR carried out coordinated attacks throughout Mexico. In
their pursuit were SOA graduates in the states of Chihuahua, Guanajuato,
Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacan, Morelos, Oaxaca, Tamaulipas, and
Yucatan. Some SOA grads who were stationed in Chiapas and are
now involved in anti-EPR operations are generals Menchaca Arias,
Garcia Ruiz, and Juan Lopez Orkiz.
With US-trained troops or weapons on the ground almost everywhere,
US Ambassador to Mexico James Jones was coy about Washington's
role. After the EPR's attacks in August, he said that although
Mexico still hadn't directly asked for support from its friendly
northern neighbor, the US would be more than willing to offer
help and expertise in combating the new guerrillas. Mexico has
yet to publicly accept that goodwill. But so far, military aid
to Mexico, mostly under the guise of anti-drug campaigns, has
led to many "gifts" of helicopters and airplanes.
Predictably, the militarization of Mexico, which was occurring
before the appearance of the EPR, has been accompanied by an increase
in the number of reported human rights abuses. Nowhere has that
link been more prominent than in the long suffering state of Guerrero,
whose 9th Military Region contains two military zones, the 27th,
located in the tourist resort town of Acapulco, and the 35th,
located in the town of Chilpancingo. From the June 1995 peasant
massacre by police, to the recent allegations of the rape of 12
indigenous women by the army, Guerrero had more than its share
of brutality-and of School of the Americas graduates.
In a report on the 1995 Aguas Blancas massacre, Proceso noted
that five weeks after the atrocity, Gen. Adrian Maldonado Ramirez
was relieved as the commander of the 35th Military Zone, which
is in the same military region in which the atrocities took place.
In 1978 and 1979, Maldonado Ramirez had studied "Joint Operations-Latin
America" at SOA. So far, the scandal surrounding the government
ambush of the unarmed civilians has resulted in the prosecution
of the police officers who pulled the triggers and the resignation
of Gov. Ruben Figueroa. With Maldonado Ramirez safely transferred,
the possible role in the military in the ambush has remained unexamined.
This omission is particularly troublesome in light of the statement
by retired US Army Col. Rex Applegate that "[Mexican] army
zone commanders generally work closely with state officials ..
The current commander of the 9th Military Region located in
Acapulco is Gen. Edmundo Elpidio Leyva Galindo. During a search
mission for the EPR in September, which he reportedly headed,
one of his troops thought he saw some masked men running in an
open field. Using a reporter's cellular phone the general ordered,
"Shoot them, kill them." Leyva Galindo not only is a
graduate of the School of the Americas, but was there for the
same years and for courses as Maldonado Ramirez.
Leyva Galindo and Maldonado aren't the only former SOA classmates
involved in the Mexican Army's pursuit of the EPR. Gen. Renato
Garcia Gonzalez, the current commander of the 27th Military Zone
in Acapulco, trained at the School of the Americas in 1980 along
with Gen. Ruben Rivas Pena, the commander of the 28th Military
Zone, located in the neighboring state of Oaxaca. Both coincided
with the previously mentioned Gens. Enrique Garrido and Manuel
Garcia Ruiz. Oddly enough, the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca were
the sites of the EPR's strongest attacks on August 28, 1996.
Counterinsurgency With a Human Face
The latest disclosures about the School of the Americas have
revived calls to shut it down-sort of. Activists have backed Rep.
Joseph Kennedy's (D-Mass.) proposed house bill, HR 2652, which
would "close the United States Army School of the Americas
and establish a United States Academy for Democracy and Civil-Military
A closer look at HR 2652 doesn't leave much hope for Latin
Americans. Under its new, blandly cheery name, the "Academy"
would eliminate combat training with live ammunition and emphasize
"human rights" and civilian control of the military.
But, as a former SOA instructor wrote: "The military skills
required to oppress indigenous populations were finely honed long
before most Latin American faculty members and students were flown
in at U.S. government expense for their vacations in Columbus
[Georgia]." The Kennedy bill does not, however, ban such
training at other institutions currently run by the US military.
The bill's supporters should probably also scrutinize the
concept of "Civil-Military" relations. According to
the US Army's Command and General Staff College Field Manual 100-20:
"Civil-military operations (CMO) include all military
efforts to support host nation development, co-opt insurgent issues,
gain support for the national government, and attain national
objectives without combat. Successful CMOs reduce or eliminate
the need for combat operations, especially when initiated early
in the insurgency. They also help prepare the area of operations
for combat forces, if they are required.''
If HR 2652 passes, it runs the risk of converting SOA into
a way for the Pentagon to continue business as usual while giving
the appearance that the system works, human rights are a priority,
and the bloodstains have been cleaned off the chalkboards.
In the "First Declaration of the Selva Lacandona"
from Mexico's Zapatista Army, the General Command of the EZLN
called for "summary trials against the soldiers of the Mexican
Federal Army and the political police who have received courses
and have been advised, trained, or paid by foreigners ... "
While that scenario may seem exaggerated, nonetheless, there
should be a full investigation of those parts of the curriculum
that have been connected to human rights abuses. Those found responsible
for these and other abuses should be exposed, tried, and punished.
Then the program should be ended and all US training of foreign
militaries should cease. If that does not happen, the School of
the Americas, or whatever name it goes by in the future, runs
the danger of being, as Lt. Col. Demarest states in his article
in Military Review "an even more useful organization in the
post-Cold War world than it was during this conflict."
And that, given the role of the School of the Americas during
those grim years, is a frightening concept.
Darrin Wood is a freelance journalist and film-maker based
in Spain who has written for the Madrid Daily, El Mundo, and the
Basque newspaper Egin.
of the Americas Watch