Honduran coup shines spotlight on controversial U.S. military training school

Before the torture debates about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, there was the School of Americas -- a U.S. military training school in Fort Benning, Georgia, which has trained some of the worst human rights abusers in Latin America.As Facing South reported yesterday, two of the leaders of the Honduran coup -- General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, leader of the armed forces, and Gen. Luis Javier Prince Suazo, head of the Air Force which transported the president to Costa Rica -- were trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas.

The Honduran coup leaders are just two of over 60,000 Latin American graduates of the school, which since 1984 has been headquartered at Fort Benning, Georgia. The SOA Watch database lists 3,566 graduates of the school from Honduras alone.

As watchdog groups like School of Americas Watch have documented, many of the school's trainees have been directly linked to death squads, killings of clergy and other aid workers, kidnappings and other gross violations of human rights.

The School of Americas/WHISC has also been linked to torture. In 1996, Dana Priest of The Washington Post broke the story about use of training manuals at the school that taught students many controversial techniques:
U.S. Army intelligence manuals used to train Latin American militaryofficers at an Army school from 1982 to 1991 advocated executions,torture, blackmail and other forms of coercion against insurgents,Pentagon documents released yesterday show.

Used in courses at the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, the manualsays that to recruit and control informants, counterintelligence agentscould use "fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings, falseimprisonment, executions and the use of truth serum," according to asecret Defense Department summary of the manuals compiled during a 1992investigation of the instructional material and also released yesterday.
General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, widely credited with spearheading this week's military coup, appears to have been trained at SOA when torture was part of the curriculum.

Torture techniques were introduced at SOA after Vietnam, when the U.S. used lessons from the counterinsurgency experience in that war to create course materials for the school. The practice was halted under the Carter administration in 1976 due to human rights concerns -- the same year that General Vasquez first attended SOA.

The second time General Vasquez was trained at SOA in 1986, the torture techniques had been re-introduced into the school's lesson plans and training manuals under the Reagan administration. An in internal investigation, the DoD later concluded that the inclusion of torture techniques in violation of international law was a mistake. An internal memo dated March 10, 1992 stated [pdf]:
It is incredible that the use of the lesson plans since 1982, and the manuals since 1987, evade the system of doctrinal controls.
And who was Secretary of Defense when these warning signs about U.S. involvement in torture practices in Latin America came to a head? Dick Cheney, whose leadership in national security policy as Vice President would bring torture back into the media spotlight.

We're not aware of any evidence that General Vasquez was directly involved in torture, and the Obama administration has strongly condemned the military coup. But such history is an important backdrop to current events, which are vividly remembered in Honduras.