Mexico Practices What School of the Americas Teaches

by Darrin Wood

Covert Action Quarterly magazine, Winter 1996-97


Mexican generals implicated in serious human rights violations studied at the School of the Americas while the institution was routinely teaching torture techniques.

The US Army's School of the Americas (SOA) has never had much good press, but recently its reputation went into a tailspin. It all began with an item in the June 28, 1996 Intelligence Oversight Board's "Report on the Guatemala Review":

Congress was also notified of the 1991 discovery by DoD [Department of Defense] that the School of the Americas and Southern Command had used improper instruction materials in training Latin American officers, including Guatemalans, from 1982 to 1991. These materials never received proper DoD review, and certain passages appeared to condone (or could have been interpreted to condone) practices such as executions of guerrillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion, and false imprisonment. On discovery of the error, DoD replaced and modified the materials, and instructed its representatives in the affected countries to retrieve all copies of the materials from their foreign counterparts and to explain that some of the contents violated US policy. I

Such practices in any case, the Pentagon assured, did not represent US government policy, and all instruction in torture, murder, and mayhem had been discontinued in 1991.

The government admission that the manuals did in fact exist and had condoned torture was made under pressure. Despite numerous first-hand sighting, no one had managed to hold onto a copy until one made its way to Congress member Joseph Kennedy. When the Pentagon learned that the Massachusetts Democrat had the hard evidence, it tried to beat him to the punch and release the excerpts. The seven manuals-nearly 1,200 pages in the original Spanish-recommended using "fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings, false imprisonment, executions, and truth serum." The chilling text forever disproved the School's claims that the Noriegas, Banzers, and D'Aubuissons who came out of SOA were just a few "bad apples." Rather, they were the bad seeds that SOA- acting as "Johnny Rotten-Appleseed"-had planted in the fertile ground of Latin American dictatorships.

SOA public affairs officer Maj. Gordon Martell was left hanging out to dry by the change in the official line. He had admitted that some SOA grads were guilty of abuses but had downplayed the impact. "Out of 59,000 students who have graduated from a variety of programs, less than 300 have been cited for human rights violations like torture and murder, and less than 50 have been convicted of anything." In fact, the low number had more to do with the level of impunity in Latin America than any failure of the students to master their lessons. And up until the end, the hapless Martell was denying that the manuals contained anything untoward. "All of the manuals used by the School of the Americas are approved by the Army, and the school has never done those things, ever, in its history."

Torture, Lies, and Videotape

Two people who had been on the trail of the manuals were Robert Richter, whose 1995 film, School of Assassins, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Documentary, and Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest who had long opposed the school. After reading an article in CAQ that reported the existence of the manuals, they traveled to Paraguay. (The article had linked the manuals to serious human rights abuses performed under Operation Condor and documented that they taught torturers how to keep prisoners alive during sessions using electric shock).4 In Asuncion, Bourgeois and Richter met with Martin Almada, the activist and torture victim who had told CAQ of seeing the manuals and of having experienced their lessons first hand. Although the two did not find the instructional material, which had disappeared from the archive where it was catalogued, they ferreted out former SOA students who were now willing to talk. In Richter's updated version of the documentary, one of those former students revealed some of his "unconventional training":

Mr. X: "The difference between the conventional and the unconventional training is that we were trained to torture human beings. They would use people from the streets of Panama, because they would bring them into the base and the experts would train us on how to obtain that information through torture. And there were several ways of doing it. There was the psychological torture and there was of course the physical torture."

Bourgeois: "Are you saying that ordinary citizens were brought to the School of the Americas and used as human guinea pigs for torture?"

Mr. X: "Some of them were blindfolded and they were stripped and put in a certain situation, I mean setting, where they were tortured. At the time they had a medical physician, a US medical physician which I remember very well, who was dressed in green fatigues, who would teach the students in the nerve endings in the body, he would show them where to torture, where you wouldn't kill the individual. He would tell them how much the heart can tolerate, can hold up. And there were also times where they would revive the person with a powerful drug. When the person was [near death], the doctor will tell you this is enough, you can't go on anymore because this man will die. So it's very simple. If he hasn't talked yet, then you've got to stop because otherwise, he'll be dead."

Richter also talked with Jose Valle, an SOA graduate and ex-member of the US-backed Honduran death squad Battalion 3-16. "They told us we could respect human rights, that it was not necessary to beat the prisoners," he said. "But that was in the classroom. The problem was that in the actual situation the interrogators were told that they had to get the information out of the people in any way possible."

Based on interviews, Richter believes that the torture manuals-in use for seven years at Fort Benning- were used prior to 1982 and formed the basis for daily lesson plans at SOA.

She SOA "Redefines" Itself

The increased public attention on the School of the Americas in the past few years has forced the School to scramble to justify its multi-million dollar budget and to fabricate a revisionist interpretation of its goals and curriculum. A recent article in the Spanish language edition of Military Review tries, without admitting past flaws, to "redefine" SOA's mission as the promotion of democratic principles and human rights in the hemisphere. "[...T]he School of the Americas has more possibilities than ever at this time to contribute to those causes that are so important for its adversaries, even though they might not be convinced of it without first abandoning the notion that any use of military force in Latin America is inevitably wrong.... " The article, according to its author, Army Lt. Col. Geoffrey B. Demarest, "is not directed to the enemies of the School nor does it offer any apology for what occurred in the past." An SOA graduate and an ex-assistant military attaché at the US Embassy in Guatemala, he has good reason to know what he is not apologizing for.

Demarest does acknowledge that SOA's makeover will not be easy because the concept of human rights "can be difficult for many Latin American officers, since many of them consider that that term has been employed in a propagandistic and damaging way for some legitimate uses of military force." And Demarest admits that the issue of human rights has been used for political expediency. "It is possible," he writes, "that the emphasis put on the subject of human rights has been a response to the School's critics, who have shown to be hardly convinced of its merit based on its role during the Cold War. With the end of said conflict, and in spite of the increased emphasis that the instruction in human rights receives, the School is still criticized because its fundamental concepts appear to be obsolete."


Although the school is currently deep into a PR campaign to paint a smiley face on a death's head, those "fundamental concepts" still include the use of force to maintain the US "backyard" and to back the political and financial fortunes of those leaders who play ball in it. The role of SOA graduates in Mexico is a case in point. From 1953 to 1992, almost 500 Mexican military officers have received training at the SOA. Since the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico has taken the lead in the number of Latin American military personnel receiving US military training. With millions of dollars in US military aid and training, Mexico has undergone a massive militarization in the past few years. To top it off, Bill Clinton and the Pentagon recently unveiled a plan to spend an additional $48 million on helicopters and training to shore up the Zedillo regime.

While it is impossible to know how many US-trained officers are participating in counterinsurgency operations, some evidence can be gleaned by checking SOA enrollment lists against press reports of military operations. The headquarters of the Mexican Army's 31st Military Zone, located at Rancho Nuevo near San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas, had a kind of SOA class reunion feel to it when Zapatistas rose up in arms on December 31, 1993. Three of the army generals there -Gaston Menchaca Arias, commander of the Military Zone, Miguel Leyva Garcia, and Enrique Alonso Garrido- were all SOA alumni. Menchaca Arias and Leyva Garcia had been classmates at the SOA back in 1971.

However, Gen. Menchaca, who as a captain in 1971 when he studied "irregular warfare" at SOA, probably won't be the school's poster boy for military expertise. As the Zapatista Army was taking control of San Cristobal in the early morning hours of January 1, 1994, Concepcion Villafuerte of the San Cristobal newspaper El Tiempo, called the Commander at 1:45 am to ask him why there were so many armed people in the town. The US-trained specialist replied: "I don't know. Aren't they just people celebrating New Year's?"

As the fighting continued in early January of 1994, another SOA grad, Gen. Juan Lopez Ortiz, was sent into Chiapas with troops under his command from the states of Campeche and Tabasco. In a 1994 interview with the Mexican magazine Impacto, this SOA grad called the EZLN "very criminal people [who] dare to call themselves an army while they send people to their deaths, armed with wooden rifles; when they use innocent people as human shields and they cover their faces with ski masks." Lopez Ortiz had first made a name for himself in 1974 fighting the Partido de los Pobres (Party of the Poor) in the mountains of the Mexican state of Guerrero. That infamous campaign left hundreds of peasants "disappeared." In 1994, the troops he commanded in the town of Ocosingo massacred suspected Zapatistas in the town's market; the prisoners' hands were tied behind their backs before the soldiers shot them in the back of the head.

The February 1995 invasion by the Mexican army of territory controlled by the EZLN brought another SOA grad onto the scene. Gen. Manuel Garcia Ruiz (SOA Class of 1980-the same year and course as Gen. Garrido), boasted to journalists of the army's "humanitarian" work in the aftermath of the invasion of the Lacandona jungle. According to the Mexican news weekly Proceso: "Brigadier Gen. Manuel Garcia Ruiz, with a diploma from the General Staff, was ordered to occupy Nuevo Momon, one of the Zapatista strongholds; on Friday, February 10, Lieut. Col. Hugo Manterola was killed in circumstances that still haven't been cleared up." Testimony compiled by the press states that there was an exchange of gunfire, which lasted approximately 10 minutes, between government and Zapatista soldiers. Gen. Garcia Ruiz's official version, however, denies that a confrontation occurred and claims that Manterola was the victim of a sniper.

Chiapas has also reportedly suffered the presence of a group of mercenaries from Argentina who were sent to the infamous 31st Military Zone in July of 1994 to help the Mexican Army perfect its counterinsurgency tactics. These same Argentines have worked for the CIA in the past in training US-backed death squads in Honduras led by SOA graduate Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez.

SOA vs. EPR On June 28, a new guerrilla organization calling itself the EPR (Ejercito Popular Revolucionario-Popular Revolutionary Army) appeared in Guerrero during a memorial service for 17 peasants murdered by police in Aguas Blancas the previous year. In August, the EPR carried out coordinated attacks throughout Mexico. In their pursuit were SOA graduates in the states of Chihuahua, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacan, Morelos, Oaxaca, Tamaulipas, and Yucatan. Some SOA grads who were stationed in Chiapas and are now involved in anti-EPR operations are generals Menchaca Arias, Garcia Ruiz, and Juan Lopez Orkiz.

With US-trained troops or weapons on the ground almost everywhere, US Ambassador to Mexico James Jones was coy about Washington's role. After the EPR's attacks in August, he said that although Mexico still hadn't directly asked for support from its friendly northern neighbor, the US would be more than willing to offer help and expertise in combating the new guerrillas. Mexico has yet to publicly accept that goodwill. But so far, military aid to Mexico, mostly under the guise of anti-drug campaigns, has led to many "gifts" of helicopters and airplanes.

Predictably, the militarization of Mexico, which was occurring before the appearance of the EPR, has been accompanied by an increase in the number of reported human rights abuses. Nowhere has that link been more prominent than in the long suffering state of Guerrero, whose 9th Military Region contains two military zones, the 27th, located in the tourist resort town of Acapulco, and the 35th, located in the town of Chilpancingo. From the June 1995 peasant massacre by police, to the recent allegations of the rape of 12 indigenous women by the army, Guerrero had more than its share of brutality-and of School of the Americas graduates.

In a report on the 1995 Aguas Blancas massacre, Proceso noted that five weeks after the atrocity, Gen. Adrian Maldonado Ramirez was relieved as the commander of the 35th Military Zone, which is in the same military region in which the atrocities took place. In 1978 and 1979, Maldonado Ramirez had studied "Joint Operations-Latin America" at SOA. So far, the scandal surrounding the government ambush of the unarmed civilians has resulted in the prosecution of the police officers who pulled the triggers and the resignation of Gov. Ruben Figueroa. With Maldonado Ramirez safely transferred, the possible role in the military in the ambush has remained unexamined. This omission is particularly troublesome in light of the statement by retired US Army Col. Rex Applegate that "[Mexican] army zone commanders generally work closely with state officials .. ".

The current commander of the 9th Military Region located in Acapulco is Gen. Edmundo Elpidio Leyva Galindo. During a search mission for the EPR in September, which he reportedly headed, one of his troops thought he saw some masked men running in an open field. Using a reporter's cellular phone the general ordered, "Shoot them, kill them." Leyva Galindo not only is a graduate of the School of the Americas, but was there for the same years and for courses as Maldonado Ramirez.

Leyva Galindo and Maldonado aren't the only former SOA classmates involved in the Mexican Army's pursuit of the EPR. Gen. Renato Garcia Gonzalez, the current commander of the 27th Military Zone in Acapulco, trained at the School of the Americas in 1980 along with Gen. Ruben Rivas Pena, the commander of the 28th Military Zone, located in the neighboring state of Oaxaca. Both coincided with the previously mentioned Gens. Enrique Garrido and Manuel Garcia Ruiz. Oddly enough, the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca were the sites of the EPR's strongest attacks on August 28, 1996.


Counterinsurgency With a Human Face

The latest disclosures about the School of the Americas have revived calls to shut it down-sort of. Activists have backed Rep. Joseph Kennedy's (D-Mass.) proposed house bill, HR 2652, which would "close the United States Army School of the Americas and establish a United States Academy for Democracy and Civil-Military Relations."

A closer look at HR 2652 doesn't leave much hope for Latin Americans. Under its new, blandly cheery name, the "Academy" would eliminate combat training with live ammunition and emphasize "human rights" and civilian control of the military. But, as a former SOA instructor wrote: "The military skills required to oppress indigenous populations were finely honed long before most Latin American faculty members and students were flown in at U.S. government expense for their vacations in Columbus [Georgia]." The Kennedy bill does not, however, ban such training at other institutions currently run by the US military.

The bill's supporters should probably also scrutinize the concept of "Civil-Military" relations. According to the US Army's Command and General Staff College Field Manual 100-20:

"Civil-military operations (CMO) include all military efforts to support host nation development, co-opt insurgent issues, gain support for the national government, and attain national objectives without combat. Successful CMOs reduce or eliminate the need for combat operations, especially when initiated early in the insurgency. They also help prepare the area of operations for combat forces, if they are required.''

If HR 2652 passes, it runs the risk of converting SOA into a way for the Pentagon to continue business as usual while giving the appearance that the system works, human rights are a priority, and the bloodstains have been cleaned off the chalkboards.

In the "First Declaration of the Selva Lacandona" from Mexico's Zapatista Army, the General Command of the EZLN called for "summary trials against the soldiers of the Mexican Federal Army and the political police who have received courses and have been advised, trained, or paid by foreigners ... "

While that scenario may seem exaggerated, nonetheless, there should be a full investigation of those parts of the curriculum that have been connected to human rights abuses. Those found responsible for these and other abuses should be exposed, tried, and punished. Then the program should be ended and all US training of foreign militaries should cease. If that does not happen, the School of the Americas, or whatever name it goes by in the future, runs the danger of being, as Lt. Col. Demarest states in his article in Military Review "an even more useful organization in the post-Cold War world than it was during this conflict."

And that, given the role of the School of the Americas during those grim years, is a frightening concept.


Darrin Wood is a freelance journalist and film-maker based in Spain who has written for the Madrid Daily, El Mundo, and the Basque newspaper Egin.

School of the Americas Watch