U.S. Training of Foreign
The SOA's partner in Texas
by Stefan Wray
Z magazine, January 2004
While 10,000 gathered in Columbus, Georgia
in November outside the gates of Fort Benning to demand the closure
of the Army's School of the Americas (SOA)-now officially renamed
the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC)-people
joined in solidarity protests across the United States and in
Nicaragua. Possibly the most significant of these was the demonstration
in San Antonio, Texas, at Lackland Air Force Base. The SOA has
been a target of demonstrators since the early l990s, after a
Congressional report revealed those responsible for a 1989 massacre
of Jesuit priests in El Salvador were its graduates. Although
"closed" in 2000 and renamed in 2001, SOA-WHISC still
receives widespread attention. Yet Amnesty International USA in
a report last year said the school is "only one small part
of a vast and complex network of U.S. programs for training foreign
military and police forces that is often shrouded in secrecy."
The report, Unmatched Power Unmet Principles. The Human Rights
Dimensions of US Training of Foreign Military and Police Forces,
states there are about 275 known U.S. military schools and installations
that provide such training.
Among these, the one that rivals SOA-in
terms of the number of students trained-is the Inter-American
Air Forces Academy, headquartered at Lackland Air Force Base in
San Antonio, Texas. Like the SOA-WHISC, the Inter-American Air
Forces Academy offers Spanish-language instruction to students
from Latin American and Caribbean military and police forces.
Lackland AFB, the second largest military installation in Texas,
is also home to the Defense Language Institute English Language
Center. San Antonio hosts two other Air Force bases-Randolph AFB
and Brooks AFB-and the Army's Fort Sam Houston. A11 are involved
with the training of foreign militaries.
An examination of data in a joint U.S.
Department of Defense and Department of State report to Congress,
Foreign Military Training and DoD Engagement Activities of Interest,
yields insight into the relative scale of key U.S. training programs.
Looking at Colombia is useful because it is by far the largest
recipient of U. S. military aid in the Western Hemisphere today.
According to the report for FY2002 of the 794 training courses
in which Colombians enrolled at U.S. military installations last
year, 190 were at Fort Rucker, Alabama, 182 were at Randolph AFB,
123 were at Lackland AFB, and 105 were at Fort Benning. When you
include the number of Colombians enrolled at the Defense Language
Institute, San Antonio's Air Force bases outnumbered Fort Benning
by a margin of 3-to- 1 as a location for training Colombians last
Another view of this data, but for enrollment
figures of the leading Latin American recipients of U.S. training-Colombia,
Ecuador, Honduras, Bolivia, El Salvador, and Mexico-still puts
Lackland AFB ahead of Fort Benning in FY2002. Foreign military
students from these 6 countries accounted for 460 courses at the
Inter-American Air Forces Academy over 301 at SOA-WHISC.
The existence of the Inter-American Air
Forces Academy is not lost on SOA activists. The IAAFA is mentioned
on the SOA Watch website. Witness For Peace, an organization involved
in the annual demonstrations at Fort Benning, has said in its
newsletter, "While the SOA is an important symbol that reflects
the dysfunctional relationship between the U.S. military and its
Latin American counter-parts, citizens opposed to everything the
School represents must be aware of numerous other training programs.
An SOA activist from Houston, Ken Crowley,
who has been arrested for participating in civil disobedience
at Fort Benning, wrote in the Dallas Peace Times in 2002, "Much
remains to be learned about the IAAFA and its role in Latin America,
and it is time that we begin the arduous process of bringing the
truth about the IAAFA to the light of day. "
In that vein, while there's yet to be
publicly known documented cases of human rights abuse associated
with IAAFA graduates at Lackland AFB, there has been at neighboring
Randolph AFB in San Antonio. In June 2002, the Los Angeles Times
reported that Colombian Air Force Lt. Cesar Romero-a helicopter
pilot accused of killing, in 1998, 18 villagers in Santo Domingo,
Colombia, with a cluster bomb-was provided flight-simulation training
at Randolph AFB in September 2000, three months alter the prosecutor
ordered an investigation. The State Department is supposed to
screen foreign military students and is to prohibit the training
of even suspected human rights abusers. Lt. Cesar's story had
a relatively high profile in Colombia, yet he was able to pass
through a State Department screening.
A look at history shows that the School
of the Americas and the Inter-American Air Forces Academy are
two branches of the same tree. Both have their origins in Panama
in the 1940s. The IAAFA is the older of the two. It was initially
called the Central and South American Air School and was formed
on March 15, 1943, at what was then Albrook Field-the oldest U.S.
base in Panama-which later became Albrook Air Force Base. In 1948
it was renamed United States Air Force School for Latin America.
The Army's SOA was originally the Latin American Training Center.
It started in 1946 and was headquartered at Fort Amador on the
Pacific side of the Canal Zone. In 1948 it became the Latin American
Ground Center. Then in 1949 it was changed to the U.S. Army Caribbean
School and moved to the Atlantic side of the Canal Zone.
In the 1960s, both schools were renamed-the
School of the Americas was named in 1963 and the Inter-American
Air Forces Academy in 1966. Both training schools remained in
Panama until the 1980s. The SOA was the first to leave. It moved
to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1984. The IAAFA moved and reopened
at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida in 1990, but two years
later was struck by Hurricane Andrew and had to move again. Since
1993 it has been located at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
The SOA officially "closed" in 2000 and became the Western
Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001.
Since opening their doors, the SOA has
graduated more than 50,000 students, while the IAAFA has graduated
more than 36,000. As of January 2003, the IAAFA has trained 6,093
Colombians, 3,494 Ecuadorians, 2,509 Venezuelans, 2,387 Mexicans,
2,290 El Salvadorans, and 2,235 Hondurans.
As noted already, the School of the Americas
has received much attention due to the notorious human rights
abusers among its graduates. Specific human rights cases in El
Salvador, particularly the 1981 El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians,
the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the 1989
Jesuit massacre, are largely responsible for the genesis of groups
of like SOA Watch and the campaign to close the school that ensued
throughout the 1990s and continues to this day.
Most of these documented human rights
cases involved regular or irregular ground forces. Much less is
known about the role of the Air Force in El Salvador's Civil War,
even among military scholars. Dr. James S. Corum writes in "The
Air War in El Salvador" (Aerospace Power Journal, Summer
1998) that although 25 percent of the military aid to El Salvador
between 1980 and 1992 was provided to the Salvadoran Air Force
and "although airpower played a major role in the conflict,
its story has not been dealt with in any detail. Indeed, there
are no books or major
journal articles specifically on the history
of the Salvadoran Air Force during the war. Considering that the
Salvadoran war provides us with one of the most recent examples
of the use of airpower in a counterinsurgency campaign, this is
a significant gap in the literature about the use of airpower
in modern warfare"
Between 1981 and 1986, El Salvador Air
Force aircraft and helicopters regularly bombed rebel-held villages
in the strongly held FMLN regions of Chalatenango and Mount Guazapa.
Figures vary widely as to the number of civilians killed in these
air raids. Corum claims the best estimate for civilian casualties
are from Tutela Legal, the human rights office of the Catholic
Church in El Salvador, which said that in 1985 there were 371
civilians killed by air bombardment. Based on that and other information,
Corum believes-perhaps conservatively since he is a military scholar
who teaches for the U. S. Air Force-that from 1981 to 1986 in
El Salvador "an estimate of approximately two thousand civilians
killed by air bombardment for the course of the war is probably
Jose Gutierrez entered the Salvadoran
Air Force in 1981 and was an Aircraft Electrician with the Combat
and Maintenance Support Group (Grupo MAC) at the Ilopango Air
Base. In The Politics of Genocide: A First-Hand Account he reflected
on that experience: "I was in the Air Force for 3 years and
I left because I didn't agree with the politics of genocide. I
became horrified and shocked with what I saw, the death squad's
killings, the indiscriminate and massive bombings against civilians
and guerrillas alike." Gutierrez referred specifically to
"Air Force Death Squads" and cited the importance of
Air Force helicopter gun ships, for example, in the 1980 massacre
at Rio Sumpul on the Salvador-Honduras border, which left 600
dead-an incident that is sometimes described only as the work
of the Salvadoran and Honduran armies with no reference to the
Air Force. The 1993 UN Truth Commission report on El Salvador
confirms that during the Rio Sumpul massacre the National Guard
and the paramilitary group ORDEN was "backed by the air force."
Gutierrez said, "The only Americans I worked with were the
trainers in the Inter-American Air Forces Academy in Panama. "
In the 1990s, the two Latin American countries
to send their military and police to U.S. training programs in
greatest numbers were Mexico and Colombia. In 1996, two years
after the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, and two years
before Colombia's President Pastrana began promoting his Plan
Colombia in Washington, Mexicans and Colombians were 40 percent
of the students at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy and were
31 percent of those at the SOA, according to data compiled by
the Center for International Policy.
Between 1996 and 1998, the numbers of
Mexican students at the IAAFA jumped from 141 to 331. Not only
did this mean that in 1998 Mexicans dominated the IAAFA training
programs at Lackland Air Force Base, but this surge in Mexican
students pushed the Inter-American Air Forces Academy to the top
of the list of U.S. military institutions that trained students
from the Western Hemisphere. The rise in U.S. military training
of Mexicans during the mid to late 1990s coincided with broader
support the United States provided to the Mexican military both
under the auspices of fighting the war on drugs and for counter-insurgency
campaigns against the Zapatistas and other popular movements throughout
U.S. military support for Mexico in the
1990s was dramatically overshadowed by its financial support for
Colombia at the end of the decade. In 2000, the U.S. Congress
passed anti-narcotics legislation of which more than $700 million
was for Colombia's military and police, with a significant portion
for the purchase of Sikorsky and Bell helicopters. That coincided
with a dramatic rise in U.S. military training, especially inside
Colombia, but also for Colombians at Lackland AFB, Fort Benning,
and other U.S. military installations.
In 2002, the training of Colombians dwarfed
other Latin American countries. Last year, Colombian military
personnel enrolled in 6,230 U.S. military training program courses,
according to Department of State data. That's almost six times
larger than the next in line, Ecuador, whose military enrolled
in 1,076 program courses. Honduran's military and police enrolled
in 799 courses, Bolivia's in 796, El Salvador's in 581, Mexico's
in 456, and Peru's in 420. Note that these are program courses,
not the number of students.
Of the 6,230 foreign military program
courses taken by Colombians, 87 percent-or 5,436-were held in
Colombia, while only 13 percent-or 794-were held on U.S. soil,
with most at Fort Rucker in Alabama, Randolph and Lackland in
Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, and Fort Eustis in Virginia. It's
no surprise that Fort Rucker topped the list as the destination
for Colombians trained in the United States in 2002. After all,
it's the "home of Army Aviation." The new Sikorsky and
Bell helicopters bought with Plan Colombia funding need trained
personnel to operate and maintain them. Some of the students at
Fort Rucker were in the Colombian Air Force, but most were in
the Army. Nearly all the training courses for Colombians at Randolph
AFB are generically listed as "Physical Training," as
either original or refresher courses.
Besides avionics and aircraft maintenance
courses, training of Colombians at Lackland AFB's InterAmerican
Air Forces Academy includes courses in Air Intelligence, FLIR
Radar Operation, Ground Defense Skills, Search and Rescue, Special
Communications, and Special Reaction Team Certification. The intelligence
course instructs students in the "development and utilization
of maps and charts for order-of-battle information as well as
targeting and principles of electronic warfare with aerospace
doctrine for mission planning purposes," according to IAAFA's
on-line course catalog. Skills learned in Search and Rescue and
Special Reaction Team courses are in part what's taught to Special
Operations Forces. At Fort Benning, Colombians are taught courses
with generic titles like Cadet Leadership Development, Department
Resource Management, and Engineer Operations. Since the SOA has
had a face-lift, students from Colombia were also enrolled in
courses called Human Rights Instructor and Democratic Sustainment.
Although Colombia was the largest recipient
of U.S. military training in 2002, there were nearly twice as
many course enrollments for Mexicans at the IAAFA last year. The
vast majority of these were either for a Special Communications
course or one on Rule of Law and Disciplined Military Operations,
which, according to the IAAFA course catalog, has as its objective
to teach international officers and NCOs of any military force
the basics of the international rules of law and their impact
on human rights, including how these international standards fit
into the planning of military operations.
That both the SOA-WHISC and the IAAFA
now offer courses focused on human rights is a testament to the
years of work by activists and others who've brought attention
to the U.S. military training of Latin Americans. Diligent investigative
work brought details about SOA graduates to light, for example,
by cross-referencing the names of graduates obtained through Freedom
of Information Act requests against lists of Latin American militaries
suspected or accused of human right abuses.
Today what is publicly known about the
InterAmerican Air Forces Academy is mostly limited to what is
published on the IAAFA web site and to data on Department of State
reports that show training course titles, location, military units
taught, training cost, and duration. Yet given its 50-year history
as the Air Force version of the SOA and the fact that more than
36,000 have passed through its doors, it is true that much remains
to be learned about the IAAFA and its role in Latin America.
Stefan Wray is a writer, videographer,
and co-director of the Military Documentation Project and Iconmedia
(www. iconmedia. org).