School of Assassins
Published on Tuesday, November 18, 2003 by
School of Assassins
by Mary Turck

What do Col. Byron Lima Estrada of Guatemala, Lt. Josę Espinoza Guerra and General Juan Orlando Zepeda, both of El Salvador, and General Juan López Ortiz of Mexico have in common?

They are all murderers. They were all trained at the School of the Americas. Because of them, and because of thousands of others like them, many people call U.S. Army's School of the Americas the "School of Assassins."

And what do Panama's Manuel Noriega, Argentina's Leopoldo Galtiere, Peru's Juan Velasco Alvarado, Ecuador's Guillermo Rodriguez, and Bolivia's Hugo Banzer have in common? They have all been dictators in their countries, and they were all trained at the School of the Americas. Because of them, and others, many people call the U.S. Army's School of the Americas the "School of Coups."

The School of the Americas (SOA) is a military training school for Latin American soldiers. SOA is an official program of the U.S. government, funded by the government and run by the U.S. Armed Forces since 1946. SOA graduates have long been implicated in terrorism, human rights violations, coercion, and atrocities committed against civilian populations across Latin America.

Until now, evidence against the SOA has been mostly anecdotal. Sure, its supporters say, SOA graduates brutally murdered six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador in 1989 and took part in the massacre of 900 people in El Mozote, El Salvador. Yes, they acknowledge, SOA alum Byron Lima Estrada was convicted this year of murdering Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998. And it's true that another SOA graduate commanded the unit that carried out the 1994 Ocosingo massacre in Mexico. When pressed, they will even admit that, during the 1980s, SOA manuals recommended blackmail, torture and execution of political dissidents. But these were aberrations, SOA supporters insist. Most SOA grads do not torture. And SOA doesn't even exist any longer. Now it's called WHISC and everything is better.

A University of Wisconsin graduate thesis demonstrates that the defenders of SOA are wrong. Studying data on individual SOA graduates over a 40-year time span, Kate McCoy found that "students who took multiple courses at the School were more almost four times more likely to violate [human rights] than their counterparts who took only one course. ... [G]reater exposure to the School of the Americas training makes trainees more likely to engage in human rights violations ..." [Emphasis in original text].

In its 57 years, the School of the Americas has trained more than 61,000 Latin American officers in combat techniques, command tactics, military intelligence, and techniques of torture. These graduates have left a trail of blood and suffering in their own countries. Today, SOA/WHISC trains about a thousand soldiers each year.

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."

On January 21, 2001, SOA's name was changed to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). But only the name was changed-its mission and its shame continue. No one really believes that makes a difference.

McCoy's study did not include data from the WHISC years of 2001 and later-the Bush administration insists that this data will not be released because of "national security" concerns. That means future researchers will not be able to reveal such embarrassing statistics about SOA/WHISC. McCoy observes regretfully that the Bush administration's move means "studies such as this one could not be updated, and it may become increasingly difficult for researchers to apply their tools to vital social and political questions."

Every November, opponents of the School of the Americas gather for a massive demonstration outside the gates of this school for terrorism. They carry crosses and banners with names of people murdered by SOA graduates. They sing and pray and chant. Some cross the line painted on a street outside the gates of Fort Benning, committing civil disobedience.

Dozens of the demonstrators-like a 68-year-old Sister Caryl Hartges from Wisconsin-end up serving time in federal prisons. She crossed the line last year, on her fifth trip to the demonstrations at Fort Benning. Sister Caryl served her time. And she's coming back to SOA this November 22. She explains that, "It has do with the call of the Gospel, which is a call for justice, which sometimes takes precedence over the law of the land."

Mary Turck ( is the editor of Connection to the Americas, a publication of the Resource Center of the Americas.