The Messed Up History Of The School Of The Americas

Immigration from Latin America has become a fiery red hot-button issue in recent years, and people on both sides of the issue often speak of the economic, security, and political situations in the countries from which people emigrate. Those on the left say that the U.S. immigration system should show more compassion for people fleeing political instability and widespread military and gang violence. Those on the right cite those conditions as the very reason the country should close the border to such immigrants.

However, rarely do we ever hear anything about the responsibility the United States has to these countries and the role it played in creating those situations of extreme instability in countries all across Latin America. Because the fact of the matter is that the United States is directly responsible for military dictatorships, genocides, mass "disappearances," guerrilla warfare, and other situations of extreme violence that have ravaged countries from Guatemala to Chile for decades.

The vast majority of the people who carried out these atrocities were trained by U.S. military officers at what was once known as the School of the Americas (SOA). According to The Washington Post, over 60,000 Latin American soldiers have received military training at the school since it was opened in Panama in 1946. Let's take a look at the sordid history of the School of the Americas and trace its influence to the most contentious political issues we face today.

The School of the Americas, aka, School of the Assassins

So many of the architects of some of the most horrifying atrocities in recent memory were graduates of the School of the Americas that The New York Times dubbed the institution the "School of the Dictators." Others have called it "School of the Assassins."

Strongmen like Manuel Noriega (pictured above), who headed a brutal dictatorship in Panama in the 1980s while earning a fortune trafficking drugs, was a School of the Americas graduate. Leopoldo Galtieri, who served as "President" of Argentina during that country's military dictatorship in the 1970s and '80s, when thousands of people disappeared via death flights and other ruthless methods, was also an SOA graduate, as was Roberto D'Aubuisson, who trained death squads in El Salvador that ended up killing thousands of people during that country's civil war.

The SOA created more than just bad governments. According to School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch), an organization that has protested the school's existence since 1990, the founders of the notoriously violent Mexican criminal organization Los Zetas were also trained there.

During the Cold War, the school focused on suppressing leftist movements in Latin America. Under the guise of "Liberty, Peace, and Brotherhood" — the SOA's ridiculously inappropriate motto — the school taught future Latin American strongmen tactics like torture, psychological warfare, kidnapping, blackmail, assassination, and other violent methods, which they took back to their home countries and utilized to commit horrendous atrocities.

Different name, same tactics

In December 2000, ABC News reported that the SOA was closing its doors. However, critics say the closure was merely cosmetic, as a new school opened up in the same place, Fort Benning, Georgia, where SOA was moved in 1984. The "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation" (WHINSEC) opened in January 2001, and although it has a fancy new euphemism for a name and its operations were transferred from the Army to the Department of Defense, critics claim it's still up to the same old tricks.

According to The Guardian, the school even added new anodyne-sounding courses on subjects like ethics, democracy, human rights, and peace-keeping to try and add some depth to the semblance of reform it aims to portray. However, the SOA's own documentation reveals that students are still far more interested in subjects such as combat training, military intelligence, commando tactics, and psychological operations. And even though it ostensibly changed its ways, WHINSEC remains as secretive as ever.

The SOA continues to wreak havoc in Latin America, such as in 2009, when an SOA graduate led a military coup to oust Manuel Zelaya, the democratically elected president of Honduras. And, as the Migration Policy Institute reports, immigrants from Honduras — as well as from El Salvador and Guatemala — have increased more than 1,350 percent in recent decades.