FOR many Latin American victims of torture, the infamous pictures of abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison brought back not only chilling recollections of their own experiences, but also confirmed what they have long maintained: that their torturers were following interrogation guidelines set by the US Army School of the Americas (SOA).
"I had flashbacks when I saw the guy with the hood [at Abu Ghraib]," says Carlos Mauricio, a Salvadorean who was tortured in 1983. Founder of Stop Impunity, a group that seeks to prosecute human rights violators, dismisses as a "whitewash" the Bush administration's view that Abu Ghraib abuse was the work of a few US army misfits.
"What happened at Abu Ghraib was torture by the book; they were implementing US policy," Mauricio, 51, told the Sunday Herald.
"The US military deny they teach torture and say it happens in Latin America because soldiers have always been brutal. But what happened at Abu Ghraib belies this."
Among the SOA's 60,000 graduates are former dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia. Lower-ranking graduates were involved in the 1980 assassination of Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero and the massacre of 900 civilians at El Mozote, El Salvador, in 1980.
Between 1946 and 1984 the SOA was based in Panama, the former headquarters of the US Southern Command. In 1977, the school was relocated to Fort Benning, Georgia, but in the face of international criticism it was closed by the Clinton administration in December 2000 - only to be reopened a month later on the same site under a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation (WHINSEC).
The SOA website says it still exists "only for historical purposes" and gives a glowing account of its services to Latin American military officers. WHINSEC's website claims its broad principles are to ensure peace of the Western Hemisphere and promote human welfare through inter-American cooperation that is fully grounded in international law.
Mauricio, who last month led a protest march outside WHINSEC - which drew thousands of activists, including actors Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon - disputes this.
"The name change is just a public relations exercise. They still teach sniping and counter-insurgency tactics there. There are currently more Colombian students at the school than from any other country - and Colombia has the worst human rights record in Latin America."
The Salvadorean, who says he was targeted "because I was an educator and they don't like any opposition," was fortunate in that he survived his ordeal and was able to flee to the US later that year. There he obtained master's degrees in molecular genetics and adult education at San Francisco State University. He is now a biology teacher at a San Francisco high school.
But he is not at ease, having suffered permanent emotional and physical injuries as a result of the abuse, including broken ribs, an injured eye and persistent pain in his shoulders, joints and chest. In 1989, he heard of the murder in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. A US congressional task force found that some of the soldiers involved in the killings had been trained at the School of the Americas - and Mauricio felt he had to act.
In 2002 he and two other Salvadorean victims won a landmark ruling in a Florida court against two former Salvadorean ministers of defence. The defendants - both of whom are retired and live in Florida and one of whom, General Jose Guillermo Garcia, was a graduate of the School of the Americas - have lodged appeals.
"This is a life commitment," says Mauricio. "I was lucky to survive and I want to make sure that others don't suffer."
He has worked closely with School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), founded by Father Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest who became a critic of US policy in Latin America when four US churchwomen were raped and murdered by Salvadorean soldiers in 1980. SOAW says its aim is to educate the US public about the implications of military training on the poor and to remove obstacles to peace in Latin America.
Mauricio is not alone in seeing Abu Ghraib torture as consistent with US military intelligence teaching.
Writing in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Miles Schuman, a physician who documented torture for the Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, said "the black hood covering the faces of naked prisoners in Abu Ghraib was known as la capucha in Guatemalan and Salvadorean torture chambers. The metal bed frame to which the naked and hooded detainee was bound in a crucifix position at Abu Ghraib was la cama for a former Chilean patient."
Two declassified CIA interrogation manuals - Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual, 1983, and KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation, 1963, released by the National Security Archive in May - add weight to Mauricio and Schuman's allegations.
The 1963 manual suggests that when planning an interrogation room, "the choice of methods to be used depends on the characteristics of the interviewee - the electric current should be known in advance, so that transformers or other modifying devices will be on hand if needed."
The NSA says a decade of training between 1966 and 1976 was halted by the Carter administration for fear it would contribute to human rights violations in other countries, but it was restored by the Reagan administration in 1982. And despite toned-down manuals appearing in the mid-1980s, hundreds of unaltered manuals were used in Latin America for at least another decade - notably by the US and Argentine-trained Honduran Battalion 316 during the tenure of US ambassador to Honduras John Negroponte, who is now the US envoy to Baghdad.
© 2004 newsquest (sunday herald) limited