Hidden Terrors Part 1

excerpted from the book

Hidden Terrors

the truth about U.S. police operations in Latin America

by A.J. Langguth

Pantheon Books, 1978, paper

In Washington, the Office of Public Safety had remained immune to public embarrassment as it went about two of its chief functions: allowing the CIA to plant men with the local police in sensitive places around the world; and after careful observation on their home territory, bringing to the United States prime candidates for enrollment as CIA employees.

Besides the courses at the IPA, the CIA was sending foreign police officers to its own clandestine center, a four-story townhouse on R Street in Washington. There, under the name International Police Services, Inc., Asian, African, and Latin American policemen were trained in surveillance, the use of informants, and other police methods. They were processed as though this course were also administered through U. S. AID. Along with foreign students, the institute trained U. S. officers destined for South Vietnam.

As head of the Office of Public Safety, Byron Engle was more sensitive than his CIA colleagues to the need for keeping his program uncompromised by the overt spying. His new associates at OPS heard him arguing heatedly with CIA officers at the agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, as he tried to retain a measure of respectability for the IPA.

Throughout the early sixties Engle succeeded, although his efforts did not end the campaign within U. S. AID against his police program. One AID official was sufficiently concerned about the first reports of torture in Brazil to start checking the requisition orders from the Office of Public Safety. Electric shocks, he knew, were usually administered with military field telephones, and over those he had no control. But he could try to prevent generators being sent out with the U. S. AID decal if they were going to be used for torture.

This official soon came to believe that his watchfulness was useless. There were many legitimate purposes for small generators, and to ban them on the assumption that they were going to be abused would be to cripple the AID program. Ultimately, he decided, one had to trust the humanity and discretion of the police advisers. They had been raised under the Bill of Rights, and they could be expected to respect it.

But when put to the test during the Kennedy administration, the Office of Public Safety quickly demonstrated that there were few hesitations about breaking a rule or two if success was at stake. Since the irregularities were in the best of causes, Engle had not feared reprisals from either the president or his liberal advisers.

In 1962, for example, a group of Venezuelan leftists, inspired by Castro, formed the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) and set out to discredit the elected president, Romulo Betancourt. The FALN wanted to persuade voters to boycott elections the following year. Although the group never totaled more than five hundred members, by fanning out they were able to bomb a luxury hotel, burn a Sears Roebuck warehouse, and attack the U. S. embassy. When Franco loaned several Impressionist paintings for an exhibition in Caracas, the FALN carried off one work each by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, Braque, and Gauguin, choices that contributed to the suspicion that the FALN might include artists as well as students and writers.

The Venezuelan police seemed helpless to act, even when patrolmen were being shot down on the street. Under pressure from the Kennedys, Engle borrowed four Spanish-speaking officers from the Los Angeles Police Department and quietly sent them to Caracas to give intensive classes in police work. Had the mission been exposed, the Kennedy administration might have been forced into a round of excuses and apologies. Had any of the Los Angeles cops been killed, there would have been no provision for compensating their families. Engle was thus much relieved when the secret operation ended and the men were back in California.

That was behind the scenes. The public image of Engle's program remained positive. Robert Kennedy, now a senator from New York, had been happy to address the first class that completed its training at the Washington police academy. Graduation came one month before the military coup in Brazil; and in his remarks, Kennedy warned the class that "the world today is buffeted by winds of change."

At the academy, however, most of the actual training seemed aimed at preventing that change, although that intention was seldom committed to paper. The training syllabus, which was not classified, had never been released to the press; and one IPA official explained that "the Communists might even pay a little more for it. And we don't want to help them." Yet, any Soviet or Cuban agent who did pay out cash for the printed materials might have felt short-changed. More perhaps to protect the IPA from onslaughts by the U. S. Congress and the liberal press than to preserve its secrets from foreign enemies, the training sheets were relentlessly high-minded and vague.

The foreign policemen themselves understood why they were being sent to Washington. Even before the coup d'etat, in July 1963, one Brazilian officer described the academy program to the governor of Sao Paulo as "the latest methods in the field of dispersion of strikes and striking workers." He would learn, he said, how to use dogs and clubs and "to modernize the mechanism of repression against agitators in Sao Paulo."

The basic academy course ran fifteen weeks and was offered twice a year in French, several times in Spanish and, for Africans and Asians, in English as well. The first two and a half months were spent in a standard introductory course, whereas the last four weeks offered advanced training in any of ten specialties, including immigration and customs control, protection of dignitaries, and "Criminal Violence Control," which dealt with airline security, bomb threats, kidnapping, extortion, and assassination.

Candidates were expected to be between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five, and-a provision often waived -to be high school graduates. Women could be accepted at the IPA, but their selection was discouraged. If a country nominated one female officer, it was told it must send two of them.

In Belo Horizonte, and later in Rio, Dan Mitrione had become skilled at screening applicants for the program. His successor in Belo was not so adept. An amiable and lazy cop from the Southwest, he assured every Brazilian policeman who inquired about the program that he was sure to be accepted. When the adviser was finally transferred, the Brazilians found his desk drawers stuffed with applications he had never bothered to forward to Washington.

Brazilian officers attending the IPA often came away believing that the courses, like those which had been offered in Panama, were beneath them. Sixty percent of the student body came from Central and South America, and some Brazilians felt degraded to be grouped together with Costa Ricans and Guatemalans.

If the training was not always valuable, it could be entertaining. The highlight of each course was an exercise first developed during the school's days in Panama: Operation San Martin. San Martin was an imaginary country with an equally nonexistent capital, Rio Bravos. Its neighbor and enemy was called, somewhat less mythically, Maoland. Few foreign students recognized that the map of Rio Bravos was only an aerial photograph of Baltimore with an overlay of imposing government buildings and its streets renamed in Spanish.

The warm-up exercises were simple. A dignitary was arriving from a friendly country. How would the students deploy their policemen to protect him during his visit? The final problem offered more chances for miscalculation. Infiltrators from Maoland were staging a national disturbance. The villains-and every semester this delighted the students-were instructors from the IPA faculty, their mug shots emphasizing their sinister aspect. Resisting fashion, one instructor kept his hair crewcut, and every semester he was nicknamed The Nazi. Other instructors passed for Communists or university rebels.

A dozen IPA students were divided into three groups: one joined the instructors in creating the problem, writing the Communist propaganda, plotting the disruption; one faction made the decisions for putting the insurrection down; and the other group was composed of onlookers and judges. The chief of police from Somali, an accomplished player, complained afterward that the exercise was harder than any comparable situation in real life because at the IPA he was judged by his peers.

The exercise was held in the Police Operations Control Center, a room of muted grays and greens with four raised rows of seats. The magnetic map of San Martin covered the front wall. Students chosen to suppress the demonstration were connected by telephones and teletype to a control booth. Such direct communication they found to be a burden. One line connected directly with the "Prime Minister," who demanded action, provided it did not embarrass his party in the forthcoming elections. If an operation was going too smoothly, the instructors called from the control booth with snags: "My problem is the reporters on the scene. They're getting in the way and interfering with our police work."

"Do the best you can," said one student commander.

From the control booth, the instructor called two more times about the reporters, and finally he exploded, "God damn it! You've got to do something!"

"All right," said the student chief. "Arrest them! Bring them in!"

That answer won him only a ten-minute respite. Then the Prime Minister was on the line: "What in hell is going on?"

No one had to instruct a police officer how to stall for time. "What do you have reference to, sir?"

"I'm getting calls from AP and UPI. I'm catching hell."

As the Prime Minister passed along some of that hell, the student police chief had to improvise a way out of his bungling. In one case, the student telephoned for a bus, ordered the reporters released, briefed them on the rioting, then drove them back to the scene to let them see it for themselves. His fellow students agreed that for a makeshift remedy his had not been a bad one.

Besides the training exercises, San Martin was the locale of a film shot in Panama, The First Line of Defense. The instructors memorized a short introduction in Spanish: "The events you will see take place in the mythical Latin American republic of San Martin. But they are not fictitious events; they 'really happen.' You will see that the people of San Martin are mostly favorable to their government (else it could not stand), and that the police work with the people and are truly the first line of defense."

In the film, the center of subversion was the National Committee for Agrarian Reform (CONTRA). Once an organization of student reformers, it had fallen into the hands of strangers well past college age. Across town, more strangers, possibly Communists from Cuba, disrupted a meeting of striking workers from a fertilizer factory. The plot involved a police spy, a Czechoslovakian gun smuggled in a box marked SUGAR, and a riot outside the factory that became too frenzied for the police to handle alone. The chief ceded responsibility to the military, and the army dispelled the protestors with tear gas, flying wedges, and fire hoses.

At the film's end, two policemen drew the moral for several smiling children: "A new day dawns over the city of Rio Bravos." If other subversives were plotting against the security of the people, they were not likely to succeed as long as the civil police enjoyed the people's confidence and had "confidence in their own ability to enforce the law!"

IPA officials anticipated that some students might object to the film. To cope with them, the instructor was told to break in at any sign of restiveness and assure the class that the film presented only suggestions on how to proceed, not absolute directions. In most cases, if any objections were raised at all, they pertained to the amount of equipment at the disposal of the Rio Bravos police chief.

The inequality between U. S. supplies and what the students had at home was even more glaring when the students were taken outside of Washington to Fort Myers for field training in riot control. Invariably, they came back impressed by the plethora of gas masks, shields and batons, riot guns that fired pepper shot and rubber bullets; and they would grumble about their own meager means.

The instructor was expected to turn any shortcoming into a challenge. "You don't have radio cars for your police? Class, any suggestions?" A student might say, "How about putting up a light bulb at the highest point in town and telling the patrolmen that whenever it was lit, they should call headquarters for instructions?"

The academy also showed more conventional training films: a twelve-minute film, The Police Baton, from the Los Angeles Police Department; The Third Challenge, made by the Department of Defense; The Use of Tear Gas to Preserve Order, a bit of public relations by the Lake Erie Chemical Company. In Brazil, local advisers also used a film on interrogation made by the FBI. Until they could have it dubbed into Portuguese, U. S. advisers turned off the soundtrack and offered their own pungent commentary.

During class hours at the IPA, discussion of domestic politics was discouraged. The academy's officials liked to point to the time the Somali Republic was fighting Ethiopia, yet policemen from each country had roomed together.

Given the films and the tone of the courses, few students missed the purpose behind the IPA. The academy had been set up to train the police to fight communism wherever it existed. Even students not considered sufficiently qualified to be passed on to the CIA for professional intelligence work were instructed in what Jack Goin called "preventive law enforcement."

You're a rural policeman, Goin's illustration went, and you've stopped to talk with a farmer about his sick cow. In the course of your conversation, he mentions that lately a stranger has passed through his pasture. That could be a matter of internal security. It's up to you as a policeman to recognize that it could be important.

Overseas, the U. S. advisers had coped with local customs with varying degrees of ingenuity, and foreign policemen coming to the United States similarly found the native practices confounding. At first, grading at the academy was a problem. One police colonel arrived with his aide, a major. The junior officer sat in on the classes with him and outshone him in every category until the colonel did not want to go home at all. That was in 1965, and grades were abandoned soon afterward.

A Third World student was arrested for shoplifting from a self-service drugstore. He later said that he had waited some time for a clerk to approach him. When none did, he stuck a few items in his pocket and left. He intended, he claimed, to return the next day and pay when everyone was not so busy. Officials from the academy had the charges dropped, but it took hours of persuasion to keep that affronted student from taking the next flight home.

Once an African student was picked up on a rape charge. During a line-up, the white victim made a positive identification. The District of Columbia police investigator then asked what the rapist had sounded like. "Just like any other nigger," the woman replied. The IPA student was asked to say a few words, which he did in his decidedly British accent. Once again the case was dropped. This time the African policeman was more amused than embittered.

Yet many black students arrived at the IPA certain that racism was going to blight their stay. Most were agreeably surprised by the welcome they received in Washington, where the population was becoming increasingly black. But having the academy in the capital irked some of the white instructors who felt that the visitor would get a more representative picture of the United States had the academy been located somewhere in the Midwest.

"We're only here," one said, " because the civilians in the State Department don't trust us."

That much was true. The Office of Public Safety had been sending police-training teams to South Vietnam; and as the years passed, the stories that reached Washington were increasingly disturbing. Around the U. S. embassy in Saigon, there were allusions to the torture and murder of political prisoners, sometimes in the presence of agents of the United States. Similar reports had started to come in from Iran and Taiwan, then from Brazil and Greece.

Torture ran counter to the official instruction at the IPA. A number of instructors fervently spoke against it, less because it was morally indefensible than because they considered it self-defeating.

Hidden Terrors

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