ANOTHER SOA? A POLICE ACADEMY IN EL SALVADOR WORRIES CRITICS
Semi-secretlyestablished in 2005, a Salvadoran branch of the International Law EnforcementAcademy, a U.S.-sponsored global network of police schools, has angered criticsand human rights activists, who wonder if it will perpetuate long-standingpatterns of police and military abuse in the country. A NACLA investigationsponsored by the Samuel Chavkin Investigative Fund finds that establishingtransparency in the academy's operationsincluding making public its coursematerials and the names of its graduatesis the first critical step in ensuringit does not become, or has not already become, a new School of the Americas.
Witha salt-and-pepper beard and darting, intelligent eyes, Benjamin Cuellarexplains how he has built a successful career as a human rights defender in El Salvador,where more than 40,000 political assassinations have taken place since 1977. Weare sitting in his office at the Institute for Human Rights (IDHUCA) on thecampus of the Universityof Central America, andhe is telling me about the time he was almost kidnapped and murdered. "Itwas October 4, 1995," he begins, "and the sun had just gone down.Five men with guns came in a pickup truck." The harrowing tale ends,luckily, with Cuellar's escape. Framed on the wall behind him are some of theawards the IDHUCA has won since Cuellar became director of the organization in1992: the French Medal for Human Rights, the Ignacio Ellacuria Human RightsAward, and the Washington Office on Latin America's2007 Award for Human Rights.
Butdespite Cuellar's work, many are questioning his legitimacy as a human rightsdefender because of his most recent endeavor: working as an instructor andhuman rights monitor for a new U.S.-run police-training school called theInternational Law Enforcement Academy, or ILEA, located in San Salvador. Classes at the school beganJuly 25, 2005, and as of July 2007 the academy had graduated 791 students,mostly police officers, as well as prosecutors and judges. A quarter ofclassroom seats are reserved for Salvadorans, while the remaining students aredrawn from other countries throughout Latin America.
Theacademy is part of a network of ILEAs created in 1995 under President BillClinton, who envisioned a series of U.S. schools "throughout theworld to combat international drug trafficking, criminality, and terrorismthrough strengthened international cooperation." There are ILEAs in Budapest, Hungary;Bangkok, Thailand;Gaborone, Botswana;and Roswell, New Mexico. While the others have mostlybeen uncontroversial, the ILEA San Salvador has sparked outrage in both theUnited States and El Salvador, earning comparisons to the Western HemisphereInstitute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, formerly known as the School ofthe Americasthe Fort Benning, Georgia, school for Latin American militariesthat gained notoriety in the late 1990s for having trained some of the region'sworst human rights abusers.
"Thelegacy of U.S. training of security forces at the School of the Americas andthroughout Latin America is one of bloodshed, of torture, of the targeting ofcivilian populations, of desaparecidos," wrote SOA Watch founder RoyBourgeois after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced plans for theILEA San Salvador at a June 2005 Organization of American States meeting inMiami. "Rice's recent announcement about plans for the creation of aninternational law enforcement academy in El Salvador should raise seriousconcerns for anyone who cares about human rights," he said.
Andas recently as June, a member of the Committee in Solidarity With the People ofEl Salvador (CISPES) wrote, "The ILEA in El Salvador is functioning likeanother SOA, under a new name and in a new location."
Unlikethe SOA, the ILEA is run jointly by the Salvadoran Ministry of Government andthe U.S. State Departmentthough virtually all its instructors come from theUnited States, and most of the school's expenses are covered by U.S. taxdollars. By the end of 2007, the United States had spent at least$3.6 million on the academy, according to an estimate by ILEA director HobartHenson. While the school is temporarily housed at the NationalAcademy for Public Security in San Salvador, a permanent$4 million headquarters is under construction.
Theschool joins a slew of other police- and military-training facilitiesthroughout Latin America run by U.S.agencies, among them the FBI, Customs Agency, and DEA, as well as trainingprograms run by private U.S.security companies like DynCorp International. In 1999, the last year for whichfigures are available, Washingtontrained between 13,000 and 15,000 Latin American military and police personnel,according to the Center for International Policy.
U.S. and Salvadoranofficials should not have been surprised with the opposition to the ILEA andthe comparisons to the SOA. Before settling on ElSalvador, the United Stateshad hoped to establish an ILEA South in Costa Rica, but failed. "Thestory of what happened in CostaRica," says Guadalupe Erazo of thePopular Social Bloc, a coalition of Salvadoran activists, "is instructivebecause it shows the undemocratic nature of the ILEA, and the [lack of]accountability to the public."
Aftera brief, aborted attempt to establish the school in Panama, U.S. officials chose Costa Ricato host the academy in 2002. An agreement with the Costa Rican government wassigned, making the deal official, and the plan made headlines across thecountry. The agreement allowed for military topics to be taught and militarypersonnel to participate in the school, and also gave immunity to U.S. officials.When this became public, a broad coalition of Costa Rican citizen, labor, andhuman rights groups demanded these clauses be removed from the agreement. TheCosta Rican government ultimately adopted the public's demands in itsnegotiations.
TheUnited States, however,refused to meet these conditions, and as Kathryn Tarker of the Council onHemispheric Affairs put it, "Washingtondecided to 'pick up the marbles and go home' rather than offer concessions totransparency and anti-military safeguards."
Hopingto avoid the problems encountered in Costa Rica,the U.S. and Salvadorangovernments worked quietly to establish the ILEA in San Salvador. In fact, at the time of Rice'sJune 2005 announcement at the OASthe first time the school had been mentionedpubliclyU.S.officials were already planning for classes to begin. Little more than a monthafter Rice's announcement, 36 students from Colombia, the Dominican Republic,and El Salvador began a course titled "Organized Crime and HumanRights" at the Comalapa air force base on the outskirts of San Salvador.Yet it wasn't until almost two months later, on September 20, that then U.S. ambassadorH. Douglas Barclay and Salvadoran minister of governance Rene Figueroa signedan agreement officially establishing the school.
Inthe months prior to September, public debate about the ILEA was scant. Membersof the U.S. Congress were not briefed about the academy, nor was the mainopposition party in ElSalvador, the Farabundo Martí NationalLiberation Front (FMLN). But once the news media reported that the twocountries had signed an official agreement in September, activists in El Salvadordemanded to see the text of the document. Protesting their exclusion, acoalition of Salvadoran activists, including the Sinti Techan Citizens Network,demanded that President Antonio Saca make the agreement public and develop anopen debate, consulting "all social sectors of the country beforesubmitting it to the Legislative Assembly."
Thisnever happened. While FMLN senators denounced the school in the assembly andmade a last-ditch effort to prevent the agreement from being ratified, theirbile-filled rants, rather than critical arguments, did little to convinceanyone. "We cannot support them coming in to deform the minds of ourpolice, prosecutors and judges," FMLN deputy Salvador Arias later said.Ultimately, the FMLN failed to mobilize the country's social movements, andmuch of the public remained in the dark on the details of what was at stake. OnNovember 30, 2005, the National Assembly ratified the ILEA agreement, with 48out of 88 members voting in favor.
Inthe end, the United Statesachieved what it couldn't in Panamaor Costa Rica: The ILEA wasofficial, and the ratified agreement making it so allowed for no mechanism oftransparency or civilian oversight, included no agreement excluding militarypersonnel or topics, and left the door open for a later clause that would give U.S. personnelimmunity from prosecution.
WhileSalvadoran activists struggled to obtain more information about the ILEA in themonths leading up to the Legislative Assembly vote, there was someoneoutsideof powerful police and political circleswho knew all about what the school wasup to: Cuellar. "During this crucial time, Cuellar did not share keyinformation with his supposed allies," says Erazo. For this reason, manyin the anti-ILEA camp distrust him and believe he is implicated in the school'ssecrecy.
InMay 2005, Cuellar and the IDHUCA were invited to discuss the ILEA at the U.S.Embassy with officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI.IDHUCA was asked to participate in the ILEA by giving a course on human rights,based on similar courses they had given to police in the past. Afterresearching the other ILEAs worldwide, Cuellar signed on. (Cuellar says hesuggested to U.S.officials that they invite other Salvadoran human rights organizations toparticipate in the ILEA. These groups, including FESPAD, Las Dignas, and CENTA,could not be reached for comment or to confirm this claim.)
Forits participation, the IDHUCA would be paid $500 for two days of human rightscourses during every six-week "core program." Cuellar and hiscolleagues would have no power to change the curriculum or to participate inorganizational decisions, though they would be able to review everything taughtat the school, attend any class, and speak with any instructor.
Manyof El Salvador'smost prominent activists came out strongly against Cuellar's participation."Cuellar is being fooled," says labor leader Wilfredo Berrios."It's a shame because his presence at the school gives some people theimpression that it is promoting and safeguarding human rights. I don't knowwhether to laugh or to cry."
Cuellardismisses his critics as unrealistic. "The school is here, and that's afactare we supposed to cry over spilled milk? You have to protect human rightswith concrete plans, not screams," he says. He also believes it is betterto be on the inside monitoring the school, because you have to be "insideto have any influence."
"Wedon't know what the future holds," he adds, "but for now, from ourperspective, the school appears to simply offer technical trainingit offerssome of the resources we need."
ILEAofficials say their exclusive goal is to teach police, prosecutors, and judgesin improved law enforcement techniques focusing primarily on drug and gangcrime. Cuellar insists he has seen all the course materials and can verifythis. But no one besides Cuellar can be sure what the school is up to becauseits curriculum is private (except for course titles, which are availableonline), as are the names of all its students and graduates.
Manyobservers are troubled by this secrecy, considering how some School of theAmericas atrocities came to light: with Washington Post reporter Dana Priest'sdiscovery, in September 1996, of SOA torture training manuals, and later withRoy Bourgeois's acquisition of a previously classified list of SOA graduates,many of whom were recognized as leaders of death squads and notoriouscounterinsurgency groups. U.S.organizations like SOA Watch and CISPES, as well as the Popular Social Bloc andSinti Techan, have demanded that the school make public its course materialsand the names of its graduates. In a March 2007 visit to the school, ILEAofficials promised to send course materials to leaders of a CISPES and SOAWatch delegation. The materials never arrived, and to date the ILEA has notmade public any information on its courses or graduates.
"Youcan't track the graduates of the ILEA in Salvadoror their own country [in the case of non-Salvadoran students]," saysErazo. "So how are we supposed to monitor the school? We wouldn't evenknow if an ILEA grad had been involved in something, or if the ILEA wasteaching objectionable topics." Course titles like "A PoliceExecutive's Role in Combating Terrorism" further worry critics about whatis being taught at the school.
Presentedwith these concerns, the ILEA's top official, Hobart Henson, who spent 24 yearswith the Indiana State Police before coming to El Salvador, assures me, "Thisisn't the SOA. We're not teaching torture or water boarding or anything likethat. I wouldn't be involved in something I didn't feel good about." WhenI ask to see course materials, Henson equivocates, at first saying he doesn'thave them in the office, then that it is school policy not to give them out. Ialso ask if I can speak with an ILEA graduate, and Henson says at first thatthe ILEA does not release the names of its graduates because some end upworking as undercover agents. But when I repeat my request to speak with agraduate later in the interview, Henson asks Program Manager Juan Carlos Ibbottto make some phone calls.
Thenext day, I am speaking with Francisco Gómez, a midlevel officer in theNational Civilian Police (PNC), who attended the "Law EnforcementManagement Development Program" in early 2007. Gómez tells me hisexperience was a positive one and explains that it focused on technical matterslike gathering evidence and crime-scene investigation, with a lesser focus oncounter-terrorism ("This isn't a problem in El Salvador," he says,"but I suppose it could be"). He promises to get me the coursematerials and syllabi from his ILEA program. Nine months and many e-mailslater, I haven't received anything.
AFreedom of Information Act request for ILEA course materials, filed in October,has also gone unanswered.
ILEAcritics point out not only the school's lack of transparency, but also therecord of abuse already established by the PNC, which most of the school'sSalvadoran students are drawn from. With about 16,000 officers, the PNC is El Salvador'slargest police force. Its establishment in 1992 after the end of the Salvadorancivil war was seen by many as a step in the right direction, since itincorporated elements from the country's various political factions. As a HumanRights Watch report explains: "The formation of a professional, apoliticalpolice force was generally seen as the most transcendent potential contributionof the historic 1992 peace accords." However, the PNC did not make good onits initial promise. "The most disturbing indication of setbacks in theestablishment of this new force, the National Civilian Police," the reportcontinues, "came with the news . . . of the involvement of a PNC agent inthe 1993 assassination of FMLN leader Francisco Velis."
Abusesattributed to the PNC have continued since then. A September article by RaúlGutiérrez for the Inter Press Service titled "Death Squads Still Operatingin El Salvador" details numerous instances of murder committed by PNCagents since 1993, including a "social cleansing" death squad calledBlack Shadow, allegedly responsible for a spate of killings in 1994 and 1995.
In2006, a little more than a year after the ILEA graduated its first class, threeunknown men carrying large guns burst into the home of Carlos and WilfredoSánchez in the department of Sonsonate. The pair of brothers, both members ofthe Mara Salvatrucha gang, were pulled from their beds. As the Sánchez familylooked on, the intruders beat the gang members, dragged them into the street,and shot them to death. Moments earlier, they had done the same to another MaraSalvatrucha member down the street.
AJune 2006 report published by the Salvadoran government's human rightsombudswoman, Beatrice de Carrillo, identifies the gunmen in the Sánchez case asPNC officers. It details this and other PNC abuses, including the case ofAbimilet Ramírez, who after being picked up by PNC officers was thrown down awell and later murdered. Another report by the Archbishop's Legal Aid and HumanRights Defense Office (Tutela Legal) provides evidence for 10 murders allegedlycommitted by PNC officers during 2006. One of the victims was, according to thereport, tortured to death; one involved a nine-year-old boy shot to death; andeight of the murders resembled "death squad executions." The reportalso notes patterns of attempted "social cleansing," as well asstrong evidence of political motivations behind several of the murders.
DeCarrillo's report also notes that between 2001 and 2006, 40% of abusecomplaints submitted to her office concerned the PNC.
Despitethe evidence of abuse, U.S.officials deny that the PNC has done anything wrong. Lisa Sullivan, an SOAWatch member who visited the ILEA as part of the March 2007 delegation,confronted U.S. Embassy officials with the evidence of PNC abuse detailed inthe Salvadoran government's human rights report. She says they showed"complete disdain" for the ombudswoman and said her reports were"illegitimate sources of information" and that there was no evidenceto support her claims. Charles Glazer, the U.S.ambassador to El Salvador,would not go on record to comment about PNC abuse, but he did ask that Iprovide him with the human rights reports, which I did, offering to translatekey passages for him. Neither Glazer nor his press attachés responded.
Forhis part, Cuellar does not deny PNC abuse and says the ILEA will nonethelessimprove and reform the police force. "In the way that [the ILEA] willdevelop the technical skills of police officers . . . many victims [of human rightscrimes] will see results, and we will be able to denounce their victimizerswith more clarity and objectivity," Cuellar says.
This,however, contradicts the official U.S.line: Officials, including Hobart Henson, have said El Salvador was chosen to host theschool in the first place because of the PNC's supposedly exemplary record.Ombudswoman de Carrillo believes that rather than reforming the PNC, the ILEAwill only make it more "professional and elegant in its use ofviolence."
TheILEA has arrived in ElSalvador in a context of decades- longturmoil. The country is still struggling to overcome the legacies of a civilwar that ended 16 years ago, one in which 75,000 people were killed. Althoughthe formal conflict ended, violence continues to rage. In 2005, a typical year,an average 15 people a day were murdered in El Salvador. Youth, faced with fewopportunities for political representation or economic advancement, have turnedin startling numbers to gangsone police estimate puts the number at 25,000gang members nationwidethat mirror the most reactionary elements of theSalvadoran state in their level of ultra-violence.
Sincethe war's end, the country has become intensely polarized, with politicalassassinations continuing at a frightening pace. The violence and lack ofeconomic opportunity continue to drive many into exile, and today remittances,primarily from the UnitedStates, account for an astounding 16% of thecountry's GDP. Moreover, the environment for civil liberties is one of theworst in the hemisphere. The result of so many years of formal and informalcivil war has led to a striking loss of faith among Salvadorans in thepolitical institutions of their country: In a 2007 Latinobarómetro poll, only38% of Salvadorans said democracy is preferable to all other political systems.
TheSalvadoran government has responded to the gang violence with zero tolerance,or mano dura ("iron fist"), policing. Mano dura policies have swept Central America in the 21st century, frequently combiningmilitary troops with police units to patrol crime-plagued areas. The firstanti-gang mano dura law introduced in El Salvador, in July 2003, allowedpolice to use tattoos on a suspect's body as evidence of gang membership. ANovember 2006 report by the Washington Office on Latin America points out that"in the year after [this] first mano dura law was enacted in El Salvador . .. 19,275 people were detained by the police on the charge of belonging to agang. In a striking illustration of what happens when police are allowed tocarry out detentions based on such arbitrary criteria, 91% of those detainedwere released without charge due to lack of evidence."
Butthe ILEA may have another goal besides training police to crack down on allegedgang members. The PNC has played an active role in a larger crackdown againstcivil liberties spearheaded by President Saca and his ARENA party, aimed atcurbing both crime and social protest. Various government policies, especiallyfree trade agreements like CAFTA, have been highly contentious, and Saca'sadministration has gone to significant lengths to ensure that theysucceedincluding passing an anti-terror law in September 2006, modeled on theUSA Patriot Act, that has been used to arrest everyone from anti-water-privatizationactivists in Suchitoto to San Salvador's CD and DVD vendors who violatedCAFTA's intellectual property rights stipulations. Charges against the vendorshave been dropped, but the 13 people arrested in Suchitoto will begin trialthis February, and could face up to 65 years in prison. The judge presidingover this case, Ana Lucila Fuentes de Paz, was installed as the head of a newcourt created by the September 2006 anti-terrorism legislationnot long aftershe completed her training at the ILEA.
Anauthoritarian government supported by a corrupt police force in El Salvador can help safeguard U.S. economicinterests in the country. As much of Latin America turns away from extremefree-market policies, El Salvadorremains one of Washington'skey allies against the "pink tide" sweeping the region. El Salvador is, in many ways, one of the mostimportant frontiers of Washington'sunquestioned economic influence, governed by a president who cited a desire toplease the United Statesas a prime reason for why he supported CAFTA.
ThatILEA officials and the Saca administration share similar economic interests isconfirmed by a report I obtained titled the "Law Enforcement TrainingNeeds Assessment for the Latin American Region." This report, written inFebruary 2005, is the founding document of the ILEA San Salvador, and was prepared by criminaljustice expert Anthony Pate and the law-and-order think thank Police ExecutiveResearch Forum. (The president of this think tank is John Timoney, who has spearheadedmano dura law enforcement models in the UnitedStates; as the head of the Philadelphiaand Miamipolice, respectively, he gained national notoriety for his jackbooted treatmentof anti-free-trade protesters in the two cities, resulting in hundreds ofinjuries and several lawsuits.)
The"Needs Assessment" report establishes as one of the ILEA'sprioritiesalongside drug trafficking, arms trafficking, andkidnapping"intellectual property rights." The raid on the bootlegvendors accused under the anti-terrorism law occurred less than a year afterthe ILEA opened its doors, and labor leader Berrios believes it is likely thatILEA graduates participated in the raid. He also speculates that pressure fromthe United Statesto enforce CAFTA's regulations could have prompted the raids in the firstplace.
Whileit may not be the school's primary function, promoting free trade andprotecting U.S.economic interests is certainly part of the school. Henson acknowledges thismuch when he says, "A by-product of the school is to protect free tradeand foreign investment." The State Department also notes that one of theILEA's goals is to "enhance the functioning of free markets throughimproved legislation and law enforcement."
Cuellarlikes to tell a story to illustrate why he is involved with the ILEA. TheCasquerilla brothers, aged 29 and 12, were eating breakfast one morning whenseveral men entered their San Salvadorhome, which is also a small restaurant. When the men pulled out guns, theyounger brother fled, and as he ran, the men shot him in the back. After theshooters left, the police arrived, and while they secured the house andrestaurant, the boy, who had survived the shooting, bled to death. The policethen told the women who had witnessed the shooting to leave.
"Beyondthe fact of letting the child die," Cuellar says with bewilderment,"they lost the principal witness [the boy] because of incompetence, andthey let the women, who saw the shooters, leave without giving testimony andwithout getting their names or telephone numbers. This was five years ago, andhis mother is a wreck. How can I look her in the face and deny her thisopportunity to better train the police?"
Butfor all its pragmatism, Cuellar's belief that the school will reform the PNCseems misguided. When U.S.officials categorically deny that the PNC is or has ever been involved in anyabuses, it seems a contradiction to believe that they will reform them, or anyother police force. Beatrice de Carrillo suggests that an earnest attempt toreform the PNC would take place at the Salvadoran NationalPolice Academy,which is accountable to the Legislative Assembly, not the U.S. StateDepartment.
Andif Cuellar's presence at the school might reassure some observers, trusting oneman or organization is hardly a sound strategy to protect human rights. Afterall, in spite of the sacrifices he has made and the criticism he has received,it doesn't appear as if Cuellar has challenged the secrecy that reigns supremeat the ILEA. The contradictions of Cuellar's position are best illustrated bythe way in which he is often compelled to defend the ILEA during our interview,frequently referring to the professionalism that the academy can offer El Salvador'spolice and skirting the issue of PNC abuse. This is something he should nothave to do as human rights monitor of the organization, and something it ishard to imagine him doing at any time before in his career: defending thepolice and the U.S.government. Another contradiction is the ambiguity of Cuellar's jurisdiction atthe schoolfor instance, ILEA director Henson does not refer to Cuellar as ahuman rights monitor, but rather as an "instructor of human rightscourses."
Consideringthis, it seems Washingtonis benefiting much more from its relationship with Cuellar than the other wayaround, and his presence at the school causes as many problems as it solves. AsLesley Gill, an anthropologist at AmericanUniversity and author of the bookSchool of the Americas:Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas,explains, "The use of human rights discourses in U.S. militaryand police training is something that started with the SOA. After the SOA wascriticized for promoting violence and torture, they started to include a humanrights course in their curriculum, and to use human rights language to describewhat they were doing." She continues, "This human rights talk is moreaimed at an outside, domestic audienceat the school's potential criticsthanit is indicative of any effort by the U.S. to reform the military or policeforces they are involved with. It is designed to stave off criticism. It seemsto me that this is what they are doing [at the ILEA] by bringing on boardsomeone like Cuellar."
TheILEA continues holding classes, training hundreds of PNC officers as well aspolice from countries like the Dominican Republic,Colombia,and others throughout the hemisphere. As U.S.officials work to build the school's new headquarters in SanSalvador and to expand the police academy's presence throughout theAmericas,Cuellar himself finally acknowledges the potential for abuse at the school.
"Contraryto what critics claim, the ILEA is not another SOA," Cuellar says."But it could become one."
WesEnzinna is a graduate student in Latin American studies at the University of CaliforniaBerkeley. His articles haveappeared in The Nation and other magazines, and on CBSNews.com. Researchassistance: Adam Evans.
[The following article was published in theMarch/April issue of NACLA Report on the Americas,a bi-monthly magazine on Latin America and U.S. hemispheric relations. Annualsubscriptions are $36. Please visit www.nacla.org for more info and tosubscribe.]