WHINSEC is a Defense Department facility at Fort Benning, near Columbus, GA, which provides “professional education and training for civilian, military and law enforcement students from nations throughout the Western Hemisphere.” In other words, it is a combat training center for Latin American soldiers. It is the Defense Department’s principal Spanish-language training facility and, along with the U.S. Air Force's Inter-American Air Forces Academy (IAAFA), attracts the largest number of Latin American military students.
Although it is now also open for civilians and others not from Latin America, the institute’s strategic and singular focus remains the military training of Latin American soldiers. About 700-1,000 students attend the institute each year, and 90% of classes are taught in Spanish - although since English-language classes were added in 2003 the school has attracted more students from the Caribbean. 2006 enrollment estimates showed the largest contingent was by far that of Columbian students.
Through its various incarnations since the original Latin American Training Center in 1949, the institute has trained more than 60,000 troops in counterinsurgency warfare - including anti-narcotic and crisis operations - and, many argue, more questionable tactics such as torture and coup operations handed down directly from Washington. The curriculum is based on standardized U.S. Defense training, tailored to the region’s specific needs, and overseen by an executive “Board of Visitors.”
To its critics, the institute is known as the “School of the Assassins,” as its graduates have been implicated in atrocities throughout the region’s last half-century of bloody political warfare. School of the Americas (SOA) trained many military personnel - several of them now notorious - before and during the years of the “National Security Doctrine,” in which Latin American military regimes dominated the political landscape and committed rampant human rights abuses.
To supporters, the school a crucial defense outpost - formerly instrumental in Cold War-era Communist suppression, and now necessary to combat terrorism and protect national security. Defenders of the Institute also contend that it can’t be held accountable for the actions of a few alumni - and that it has since updated its curriculum to include mandatory human rights training.
Part of the Defense Department, WHINSEC was “created” under the National Defense Authorization Act in 2001, “to provide professional education and training to eligible persons of the nations of the Western Hemisphere within the context of the democratic principles set forth in the Charter of the Organization of American States.”
However, its predecessor, SOA, was founded more than 50 years ago. In 1946, the Latin American Training Center (U.S. Ground Forces) was established in Panama at Fort Amador, reportedly to train US troops in jungle environment and as a foreign policy outpost to interface with Latin American militaries established during World War II. In 1949 it was expanded and moved to Fort Gulick (near Colon, Panama) and renamed the U.S. Army Caribbean Training Center. In the early 1960s, under President John F. Kennedy’s direction, a hemispheric security policy aimed at containing Communism led to an expanded role for the School - and an expanded curriculum, including more tactical and operational (combat-oriented) courses in addition to the original technical ones (like radar operation, vehicle maintenance, etc.). The School was renamed the U.S. Army School of the Americas (USARSA) in 1963. In 1984, after the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty, SOA was relocated to Fort Benning. (Read: was thrown out of Panama after nationalization of the canal).
SOA originally taught military education courses translated into Spanish. Beginning in 1963, it began providing military training for Latin American officers and non-commissioned officers.
SOA Closing/Name Change
According to the federal government, SOA closed because it had “outlived” its mission - because it had “fulfilled its Cold War era mission, because concerned citizens desired change, and because the region’s needs exceeded USARSA’s capabilities and authorizations.” That is, the government could no longer justify a combat training center with the (real or mythical) imminent Communist threat.
The leap from Cold-War containment, neoliberal and free-market-based “democratic” development to the new “Engagement Policy” underscoring the current WHINSEC mission is negligible. After the collapse of Communism, US foreign policy in the region is still focused on neoliberal capitalist development and a derivative form of “democratization.” However, after the bloody history of military rule in Latin America, the U.S. has arguably been forced to alter its approach, prioritizing (at least topically) transparency, civil society and the rule of law within the existing program of military development.
pCritics argue that the name change was purely a PR stunt, requested by the Pentagon under advisement from private political consultants, to counter the accumulated infamy of the SOA and stave off a Congressional reformist initiative to close it down.p
And according to School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), the Defense Department approved $246,000 for “Strategic Communications Campaign Plan” to manage damage control and counter “negative political rhetoric that detracts from the mission of both WHINSEC and the Army.”
The new WHINSEC distinguishes itself from its notorious predecessor by claiming a new human-rights-based curriculum - with a mandatory eight hours of democracy and human rights instruction in every course. It’s “new” mission includes “fostering mutual knowledge, transparency, confidence, and cooperation by promoting democratic values; respect for human rights; and an understanding of U.S. customs and traditions,” and a focus on Congressionally-mandated subjects such as “leadership development; counterdrug; peacekeeping; democratic sustainment; resource management; and disaster preparedness and relief planning.”
For more information on the legislative changes behind the transition from SOA to WHINSEC, see the Reform section of this article and Just the Facts: A Civilian’s Guide to U.S. Defense and Security Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean.
This largely depends on who you talk to.
Ask critics, and they will tell you that the institute has trained more than 60,000 soldiers in the counterinsurgency techniques, military intelligence, psychological warfare and interrogation, sniper training - and even torture, that have been the building blocks of the region’s history of bloody oppression and dictatorship. Ask a supporter, and they will tell you that the Institute has carried out a mission they consider crucial to national security, under fire of false accusations and Leftist propaganda.
Mandate and Oversight
“Section 2166 of the [2001 National Defense Authorization] Act establishes the authority for the Secretary of Defense to operate a facility that will provide professional education and training to eligible personnel of Western Hemisphere nations within the context of the democratic principles set forth in the Charter of the Organization of the American States (OAS).”
The Secretary of the Army is the executive agent responsible for the institute’s operation, while the Secretary of Defense retains oversight responsibilities. The law that “created” WHINSEC also called for a federal advisory committee, the Board of Visitors (BoV), to conduct independent review of the institution and provide recommendations on areas such as curriculum, academic instruction and fiscal affairs. The 13-member BoV includes members of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, representatives from the U.S. State Department, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and the Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC, the “architect” of the Army), as well as six members designated by the Secretary of Defense - including representatives from “the human rights, religious, academic and business communities.”
TRADOC, responsible for all Army doctrine development and training, together with its subordinate command, the Combined Arms Center (CAC), exercise supervisory command over the institute. Under control of TRADOC, US Army centers and schools provide “training support packages” for military operations taught at WHINSEC.
WHINSEC Charter (PDF)
Rumsfeld Names WHINSEC Representatives (Press Release)
The Institute’s fixed costs are paid by the Army’s Operations and Maintenance account, while tuition costs are mostly covered by International Military Education and Training (IMET) and International Narcotics Control (INC) program grants, or purchase through the Foreign Military Sales program.
Faculty and staff include members of all US armed services, as well as service members from foreign countries; the State Department, Drug Enforcement Agency and other federal agencies; civilian professors; visiting Fellows and interns. As with all military schools, uniformed personnel are rotated in and out of the institute.
According to the government, the Institute’s post-Cold-War era mission is national security, based on regional stability and democratic development:
“Congress saw a need in this post Cold-War world for an institute that would provide professional education and training for military, law enforcement and civilian leaders from throughout the Western Hemisphere […]There is a strategic need for the institute. The United States is a partner in preparing Western Hemisphere societies, military forces and their civilian officials for 21st century regional security challenges and in strengthening democracy and protecting human rights…
Now more than ever, the institute fills a vital role in building relationships among countries and even within countries; in places where past distrust of the military and police forces have hampered democratic development and sustainment. The professional development of civilian leaders, militaries and law enforcement working together is key to the cooperation envisioned by our leaders as part of our national security strategy. WHINSEC is a strategic tool for international engagement and those civilian-military and civilian-law enforcement relationships are so important to the stability and justice of the democratic governments in our hemisphere.”
“Course offerings are designed to support the strategic objectives of the Commanders, U.S Northern Command and U.S. Southern Command in implementing the National Security Strategy in the Western Hemisphere.”
If you read the course list, you’ll find that classes range from traditional military and paramilitary subjects like Military Operations, Cadet Leadership, Battalion/Brigade Staff Operations, Captains Career, Counter Narco-terrorism analysis - to administrative (e.g., defense resource management), human rights, peace and democracy courses.
According to SOAW, on September 20, 1996, under intense public pressure, the Pentagon was forced to release training manuals that had been in use at the institute from 1982-1991. A Washington Post article by Dana Priest broke the story, in which the manuals were revealed to advocate torture, extortion, blackmail and other forms of coercion to control insurgents - such as bounties for enemy dead, beatings, false imprisonment, executions and the use of “truth serum.”
Material taken from CIA and Army manuals dating to the 1950s and 60s (training instructions used by the Army's Foreign Intelligence Assistance Program, entitled “Project X”) was incorporated in the seven Spanish-language teaching guides, more than a thousand of which were distributed for use in SOA and in 11 South and Central American countries - including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama, where the U.S. military was heavily involved in counterinsurgency.
An inquiry was initiated in 1991 when the US Southern Command evaluated the manuals for use in expanding military training/support operations in Columbia. In March 1992 then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney received a classified investigative report on “Improper material in Spanish-Language Intelligence of Training Manuals,” noting that 5 of the 7 manuals “contained language and statements in violation of legal, regulatory or policy prohibitions” and recommending their recall.
The manuals indeed promoted techniques that violated human rights and habeas corpus standards as defined by the U.S. military’s own protocol, but the 1992 investigation brushed off the controversy as a matter of bureaucratic oversight: “It is incredible that the use… since 1982… evaded the established system of doctrinal controls.” The office of the assistant to the secretary of defense for intelligence oversight who conducted the investigation maintained that “we could find no evidence that this was a deliberate and orchestrated attempt to violate DoD or Army policies.”
Reports of the 1992 investigation surfaced in 1996 during a congressional inquiry into the CIA’s activities in Guatemala. The spokesman for the school at that time denied the manuals advocated such methods, and since then, rhetoric has turned toward the new human-rights agenda.
U.S. Instructed Latins on Executions, Torture (by Dana Priest, Washington Post)
Be All That You Can Be: Your Future as an Extortionist (by Steven Lee Myers, New York Times)
SOA graduates have been implicated in atrocities committed in almost every Latin American country, including El Salvador, Honduras, Argentina, Peru and Guatemala—especially during the 1980s, when savage military dictatorships controlled the region. Among the most notorious alumni/human rights abusers are: General Manuelo Antonio Noriega, the deposed Panamanian strongman; Roberto Aubuisson, the leader of El Salvador’s right-wing death squads; the 19 Salvadoran soldiers linked to the 1989 assassination of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter; six Peruvian officers linked to killings of students and professor.
Jesuit Priest Massacre in El Salvador
The 1989 University of Central America Massacre (SOA Watch)
El Salvador (Human Rights Watch)
Colonel Guilty in Jesuit Deaths in El Salvador (by Shirley Christian, New York Times)
(by Barry Klinger, The Tech)
In 2007 an initiative was launched to draft an amendment attached to the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill which advocated curtailing funds for the institute (shutting it down) by Congressional Representatives Jim McGovern (D-Mass) and John Lewis (D-GA). On June 21, 2007, the House of Representatives defeated the McGovern/Lewis Amendment, saving the institute by a slender margin (214 to 203). Only 42 out of 180 Democrats voted in favor of continuing funding for the institute, while 172 Republicans voted against the measure.
Reportedly, Congressional representatives who had initially committed themselves to cut WHINSEC funding apparently succumbed to pressure from the Pentagon and shifted their votes. According to the School of the Americas Watch, “the WHINSEC PR machine and high ranking Pentagon officials used taxpayer money to put a lot of pressure on members of Congress.”
SOA Closure Amendment Almost Succeeds in US House (by Matthew Cardinale, PoliticalAffairs)
Teaching Torture: Congress quietly keeps School of the Americas alive (by Doug Ireland, LA Weekly)
42 House Democrats Back U.S. Terror Academy: Democrats and the School of the Americas (by Dan Bacher, CounterPunch)
Since the Jesuit Priest Massacre in El Salvador (1989, see Controversies) SOAW has held annual demonstrations at the Fort Benning Gate. According to a November 2006 Z Net article by Claire Hanrahan, “since 1990, more than 270 SOA Watch activists have collectively spent over 100 years in prison for… misdemeanor trespass conviction[s] as a result of civil disobedience at Fort Benning.”
School of Americas aka "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation" (by Clare Hanrahan, ZNet)
Political Support for WHINSEC
Apologists for the Institute argue that its curriculum has been reformed to emphasize human rights as part of the military philosophy, question critics’ evidence of violations committed by graduates and purvey the “a few bad apples” argument that the institution should not be judged by a small percentage of bad affiliations.
WHINSEC has weak connection to SOA (by Lee A. Rials, The Journal)
Behind the Gates, a Clash of Views (by Paul Winner, National Catholic Reporter)
See also, Debate.
According reports by SOAW and others, SOA/WHINSEC has been losing support from Latin American countries in recent years. In the past two years alone, SOAW has convinced several Latin American leaders to remove their military and police attendees. In 2005 Venezuela withdrew its troops, followed by Argentina and Uruguay a year later. According to Leftist Bolivian president Evo Morales, La Paz will also gradually pull out their military personnel. After talks with SOAW, Costa Rican president Oscar Arias announced in May 2007 that he would stop sending personnel (even though the county has no army, Costa Rica has sent 2,600 police officers to the institute over the years). (Source: COHA)
WHINSEC Remains Open: Congress Narrowly Fails to Halt Funding the Former School of the Americas (by Eliana Monteforte, Council on Hemispheric Affairs)
(CRS Report) (PDF)
Currently, while the Bush administration justifies the expansion of regional US-led military training operations in the post-Cold-War, post-9/11 era with the threat of terrorism and a compelling need to protect national security, the campaign to close down the School continues unabated, with critics coming closer to killing funding in the Senate each year. Political divisions on the issue fall pretty cleanly between those who support the current administration’s foreign policy, and more generally, the military side of neoliberal economic development—and those who oppose it. However, the Institute’s dark legacy seems to be gradually moving consensus against it.
School of the Americas: A Black Eye to Democracy (by Eliana Monteforte, PoliticalAffairs)
WHINSEC Remains Open: Congress Narrowly Fails to Halt Funding the Former School of the Americas (Council on Hemispheric Affairs)
U.S. Army School of the Americas - Accomplishing the Mission under Fire (by Ken LaPlante, Foreign Area Officer Association)
The terms of debate and arguments are inherent in Institute’s profile, and addressed throughout this article. Please see other sections for more detail.
Colonel Gilberto R. Pérez
An immigrant from Cuba,Colonel Gilberto R. Pérez was appointed commandant of WHINSEC in 2004 and served for four years before retiring from the Army in July 2008.
School of Americas aka Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (by Clare Hanrahan, ZNet)
(School of the Americas Watch)
Colonel Glenn R. Huber Jr. has served as commandant of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) at Fort Benning, Georgia, since July 29, 2010. He last served with WHINSEC in 2001, when he was a department director and instructor.