US military transparency battle could empower Chile, Latin America

Published On : Mon, Jul 29th, 2013

The latest fight by members of the School of the Americas Watch could bring activists closer to closing the infamous training center.

Human rights activists in Chile and across Latin America are watching closely as a legal battle continues in the courthouses of California between representatives of the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) and the U.S. Department of Defense.


Lawyers in the SOAW case, Theresa Cameranesi and Judy Liteky joined protesters outside the California courthouse in April. Photo via Theresa Cameranesi.

The current case centers around a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that requests the Department of Defense release the names of students and instructors at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), the military training center that took over from the controversial School of Americas (SOA) which many claimed taught torture and other strategies used by many Latin American leaders to oppress their people. Both centers were/are housed at Fort Benning in Georgia, U.S.

After the Department of Defense rejected the request citing “national security” and privacy concerns for the attendees, the activists took the department to court. The SOAW won its first court case in April, and now faces an appeal from the Department of Justice.

Previously, all the names had been released periodically, and compiled by the SOAW. This list was used by activists across Latin America to link perpetrators of various human rights offenses to the programs taught at the institute. The SOAW campaign in Chile, a country still recovering from the trauma of a brutal dictatorship, sees this kind of information as integral to understand the past and current actions of its government and military.

Chile and the SOA/ WHINSEC

“If we don’t have the names, it is not possible to know what is going on,” Pablo Ruiz, the head of the SOAW team in Chile told The Santiago Times. “It is the right of the civil society to have this information.”

Chile ranks second in number of students and instructors currently at WHINSEC, following Colombia, according to the SOAW. Since the inception of a Latin American military cooperation program in 1946, more than 5,000 Chilean troops have attended programs run by the U.S. In recent years, the government has been sending between 140 and 200 servicemen and women annually to Georgia.

However, Lee Rials, Press officer for WHINSEC, noted that in some ways the Chilean numbers are misleading, as the military routinely sends cadets for a “10-day Leadership Development Course” which accounted for 150 of the total Chilean attendees in 2012. Rials added that since WHINSEC opened in 2001, Chile has usually had two military personnel permanently on the faculty of the institute.

Given the history of many Chilean military officials who attended courses at the SOA, Ruiz says Chileans have good reason to want information. For instance, SOAW reports that one in every four Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA) agents, Pinochet’s secret police during the dictatorship, attended the school for some period of time.

“Some of the most emblematic cases in Chile were perpetrated by students of the program,” Ruiz said, citing the famous murder of Orlando Letelier in Washington D.C. by DINA agents including U.S. citizen Michael Townley.

Among the most notorious Chileans to make the list of attendees are Manuel Contreras, former head of DINA, and Álvaro Corbalán, a leader of the CNI, the intelligence agency formed after DINA was dissolved in 1977.

The Chilean branch of the SOAW was formed in 2006 and has been pushing for the Chilean government to stop sending any member of the military to WHINSEC. On July 19 they sent a formal letter to President Sebastián Piñera asking him to stop Chile’s partnership with the institute. They had sent a similar letter in April, as part of an ongoing campaign.

“The majority of the biggest human rights cases in Chile are connected to the school,”  Ruiz added. “So, for us, it is very relevant to know who has been studying there.”

Theresa Cameranesi, who was one of the SOAW campaign members who brought the lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense, echoed Ruiz’s arguments.


Activists leave crosses for human rights victims outside of WHINSEC at Fort Benning. Photo by Caravan 4 Peace / Flickr

“The people and leaders of Chile, of Ecuador, of Argentina should be able to evaluate the human rights record of the institutions with which they have formed relations, and make informed and transparent decisions,” Cameranesi told The Santiago Times. “For countries who have been tormented by military dictatorships and violent coups and documented impunity for mass killings and torture: Is the educational record of the SOA/WHINSEC one to emulate?”

The long fight

The ultimate goal of the SOAW, both in Chile and all across Latin America and the U.S., is to close the institute for good, and this current case is a major step towards that. Armed with the names of students and instructors, the activists believe they can prove that WHINSEC is not following the mandate to screen and decline students who have committed human rights abuses.

“The ability to link those attending the school to human rights abuses in Latin America has consistently been the most powerful argument for closure of the school,” Kent Spriggs, a lawyer for the SOAW told The Santiago Times.

The SOAW made waves when it presented a list to Congress of attendees who committed such offenses in 2004. Although the list included individuals who had gone on to commit crimes after attending the school, the more damning names were of those who had done so before going to the military program, a violation of the Leahy Amendments that require a strict vetting process and exclusion of anyone that has concrete evidence against them in human rights cases, even if they have not been convicted.

However, most of the information was from the SOA, not WHINSEC as the institutions changed over in 2001 after information about the instruction of torture and other controversial tactics as well as connections to war criminals abroad became public and political pressure led to the closure of the SOA in 1999.

Government officials now say they need new information on the current institution in order to make a decision re its closure. However, no names have been disclosed by WHINSEC since 2004. Without the data, it the SOAW no longer had ammunition for their fight.

Despite the rejection of Freedom of Information Act requests for the names, Rials says WHINSEC is practicing “true transparency.”

“Anyone may come here any workday, stay as long as he/she wishes, sit in classes, talk with students and faculty, and review our instructional materials,” Rials told The Santiago Times.

Rials, who provided statements for the courts in the case, added that WHINSEC has never taught anything illegal or unethical.

“There has never been any example of illegal, immoral or unethical instruction in these schools, and no example of any use of any instruction to commit an illegal act,” Rials said. “The basic deception here if the use of the term ‘SOA graduate,’ when all these schools always give /gave short, professional stand-alone courses that help students do their jobs better and be better leaders.”

He also contested the claim that the compiled list of names has revealed anything relevant to human rights cases.

“All that has ever been done with the lists is to find any Latin American military or police member who has been accused or convicted of any crime, and who has had any association whatsoever with SOA, then call him a ‘graduate’ of SOA,” Rials told The Santiago Times. “No matter how minor the association, and some of them are incredibly remote, SOAW includes their names. The current example of this inanity, Guatemalan former President Efrain Rios Montt — recently tried for human rights violations — took a single course in 1950, when he was a cadet.”

What is next

Despite the victory in April, the SOAW still has a long fight ahead, especially as the Department of Justice is currently working on its appeal. However, the activists predicted this next step.

“It is not too surprising that the government has appealed,” Spriggs told The Santiago Times. “The Pentagon regards this loss as a big deal.”

Looking ahead, Spriggs says a second triumph in the courts could open the doors for the SOAW campaign.


SOAW Chile plans to recite the famous call to conscience of Mons. Romero steps from the memorial site at Londres 38 in Santiago. Photo by Manuel Cabezas / Wikimedia Commons

“If we win the appeal, it will allow the SOAW to continue showing, with its database of 60,000 plus names, that the school is not a place that nurtures respect for human rights but rather a place that the old ways of right-wing military ideas are nurtured,” Spriggs said.

Cameranesi added that, already, their efforts seem to be making a difference.

“It does seem to have been an inspiring and encouraging ‘win’ for the movement across South America, MesoAmerica, and North America,” she said. “ We hope that it will organically lead to a conversation and a review of what democratic rights to government information — including defense/military information — have been established in the legal system of individual nations.”

In Chile, the next major event for the SOAW will take place on Aug. 9 at the historic Iglesia de San Francisco in Santiago. Groups plan to broadcast the famous appeal to conscience from Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in El Salvador during the country’s bloody civil war. The chosen church is steps away from Londres 38, the former site of a DINA torture center during Chile’s dictatorship.

By Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis ([email protected])
Copyright 2013 The Santiago Times

About the Author

Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis
Charlotte Karrlsson-Willis
Charlotte specializes in foreign relations, law, and human rights. Her work can also be found on Mapuexpress, The Center for Justice and Accountability, and InterAmerican Security Watch. Charlotte is also a regular contributor to the BBC Radio5 program Up All Night as a Chile correspondent. Contact her at [email protected]