School of the Americas
US Army taught Colombians to torture unionists
When Hector Mondragon was in military custody, he was tortured on the orders of a Colombian officer trained by the US Army at the School of the Americas. Training manuals in use at the time advocated the torture, execution, and imprisonment of people who support “union organizing or recruiting”. Sean Donahue reports.
When Wesley Clark was in charge of the U.S. Southern Command in 1997, he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he was proud to oversee the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), which trains soldiers from Latin American countries, saying that “This school is the best means available to ensure that the armed forces in Latin America and the armies in Latin America understand US values and adopt those values as their own."
Today, the school has changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), but its mission remains the same – and Wesley Clark remains one of its staunchest supporters.
Lately I’ve found myself wondering what the general would say if he met Hector Mondragon.
Hector is one of the most brilliant minds of his generation in Colombia. Had he chosen the path of least resistance, he would be writing economic policy for the Colombian government or the World Bank. Instead, Hector, moved by the suffering he saw when he passed through Bogota’s poorest neighbourhoods as a teenager, led Hector to put his education to work as an economist for indigenous tribes resisting development and relocation, campesino groups fighting for the right to farm the land in peace, and labour unions.
In the late 1970s, Hector’s work took him to the city of Barrancabermeja, the site of Colombia’s largest oil refinery, to help the oil workers’ union, USO, fight against the privatization of the state oil company. When the oil workers went on strike, Hector was arrested and charged with subversion.
The first thing that you notice about Hector is that he has a smile that fills the room with a sense of joyful peace. But if you watch closely for a few minutes, the next thing you notice will be his trembling hands.
When Hector was in military custody, he was tortured on the orders of a Colombian officer trained at the School of the Americas. Training manuals in use at the SOA at the time advocated the torture, execution, and imprisonment of people who support “union organizing or recruiting”, distribute “propaganda in favour of the interests of workers", “sympathize with demonstrators or strikes”. or make "accusations that the government has failed to meet the basic needs of the people." Hector was hung by his hands from a tree in the hot sun for two days. The permanent nerve damage he suffered caused the tremor in his hands.
Forgave his torturer
When he was released from prison, Marxist guerrillas asked Hector to give him the names of the officers who tortured him, and promised that they would be killed. Hector refused. He explains: “From the very first day, I forgave my torturer. If I met him today I would embrace him. But we will not be fully reconciled until the School of the Americas is closed, the place where he learned to leave me trembling forever.”
Hector sleeps in a different bed every night because of death threats from right wing paramilitary groups connected to the military – groups that were formed at the suggestion of the U.S. in order to spare the Colombian government the dirty work of directly carrying out murders and assassinations.
In the past twenty years, Hector has seen 5,000 of his friends murdered – people he shared meals with, people whose children and parents and husbands and wives he knew. But Hector is still helping USO fight against oil privatization, and still helping indigenous people and campesinos fight for their rights.
If anything, the situation in Barrancabermeja has taken a turn for the worse. A few years ago, the Colombian Army launched “Operation Merry Christmas,” a Christmas Eve offensive that drove the Marxist guerillas of the ELN (Army of National Liberation) and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) out of town. Following the offensive, the paramilitaries took control of the city, and began killing union organizers, human rights workers, and other critics of the government. Soon afterward, they began a campaign of “social cleansing,” harassing, torturing, and murdering lesbians, gays, and bisexuals, and imposing rules against short skirts, tattoos, dreadlocks, and beards.
Union infiltrated by ‘terrorists’
In August of 2002, I met Col. Andres Rodriguez, commander of an infrastructure protection battalion of the Colombian army in Barrancabermeja, and a former SOA human rights instructor. Rodriguez’s understanding of human rights seemed to be confined the narrow framework of proper arrest procedures, which he used to explain why he couldn’t arrest members of the paramilitaries.
On the other hand, he showed slides of damaged gates at an oil refinery as evidence that the oil workers’ union had been infiltrated by terrorists – the new code word for guerrillas. Calling someone a terrorist or guerrilla sympathizer in Colombia signals to the paramilitaries that they are a “legitimate target.”
He then showed us several slides of urgent action appeals from U.S. and Colombian human rights groups and explained to us that these groups were all guerrilla fronts, and that the guerrillas were seeking to discredit military officers by accusing them of human rights abuses.
While it is admittedly only anecdotal evidence, Rodriguez’s bizarre presentation raised serious questions about what kind of human rights training is being offered at a school where someone like him is considered qualified to provide human rights training. There is no evidence that the human rights training offered at WHINSEC is any different from the training offered at the SOA.
I could offer a dozens of other stories about human rights abuses committed by SOA graduates in Colombia. And these are not isolated incidents – the same kinds of atrocities have been committed by SOA graduates throughout Latin America for the past thirty years.
Bush blocks SOA investigations
According to a recent article by Mary Turck of the Resource Center of the Americas:
“In a study of data on individual SOA graduates over a 40–year time span, Kate McCoy of the University of Wisconsin found that ‘students who took multiple courses at the School were almost four times more likely to violate [human rights] than their counterparts who took only one course. … greater exposure to the School of the Americas training makes trainees more likely to engage in human rights violations ...”
McCoy’s study also addresses SOA supporters’ claims that the school changed during the 1980s, and now gives better training in human rights. Her statistics show that ‘contrary to the army’s claims that the School of the Americas has corrected past faults and that professional standards have been raised over time to promote the highest respect for human rights, there is no statistical evidence that students who attended the School in the 1990s were less likely to engage in human rights violations than those who graduated in the 1960s.’”
McCoy was not able to study the rate of human rights abuses by soldiers who have graduated from WHINSEC in recent years because the Bush administration has blocked the release of new data about the school. Recently, a Freedom of Information Act request by School of the Americas Watch won the release of a partial list of recent graduates, so more information may be forthcoming soon.
All of this raises the question – what U.S. values does Gen. Clark believe the SOA/WHINSEC instil in their students? Certainly U.S. foreign policy in Latin America seems to be guided by the philosophy that violence is sometimes necessary to maintain the economic conditions that allow a higher standard of living in the U.S. – and in this cynical sense, perhaps the SOA/WHINSEC does instil the values of the State Department and the Pentagon and a perverse value for the U.S. way of life.
But these are not values most people in the U.S. share – people here value compassion, justice, democracy, and human rights. Gen. Clark is seeking the votes of people who hold these higher values. And supporting the SOA/WHINSEC flies in the face of everything that these voters want our country to stand for.
Sean Donahue directs the Corporations and Militarism Project of the Massachusetts Anti-Corporate Clearinghouse. To find out more about MACC, go to http://www.stopcorporatecontrol.org/