Hidden Terrors Part 1
excerpted from the book
the truth about U.S. police operations in Latin
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.