24 July 1998
23 July 1998
(Denounces efforts by legislators to close school) (930) By Eric Green USIA Staff Writer WASHINGTON -- The Defense Department has denounced as "just plain lies" charges from some members of Congress that the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia is training Latin American and Caribbean military personnel in acts of torture and other human rights violations against their own countrymen. In a July 23 interview, Defense spokesman Bill Darley described the school as "one of the finest institutions within the United States" to promote democracy and the rule of law in Latin America. The school, he said, has over 60,000 graduates, "the vast majority of whom are productive, patriotic citizens of their country." The SOA, he added, has a "distinguished track record in terms of training" soldiers. The school, which opened in 1946 in Panama, moved in 1984 to Fort Benning. The SOA is described as one of the few U.S. military schools that teach in Spanish. Officers receive training that lasts from a few days to almost a year. Darley took strong exception to Massachusetts Democratic Representative Joseph Kennedy's characterization of the school as engaging in "a total disregard for basic human rights and civil liberties among its graduates." At a July 23 press conference, Kennedy, along with Rep. Esteban Torres (D-California), showed a video of Colombian soldiers beating unarmed farmers participating in a protest and then turning on Colombian cameraman Richard Velez. The soldiers, the legislators charged, operated under the command of SOA graduate Nestor Ramirez, and left Velez with serious internal injuries. Velez, who also spoke at the press conference, has been granted asylum in the United States. Kennedy also cited other recent human rights abuses in Colombia and said he will submit legislation in Congress during the week of July 27 to close the school. Kennedy proclaimed that he has the votes to cut off congressional funding for the SOA, which he said would effectively shut the school down. The legislators said that graduates of the school include abusers of human rights such as Roberto D'Aubuisson of El Salvador, and former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, currently imprisoned in the United States for drug trafficking. Another SOA graduate is Haitian general Raoul Cedras, who overthrew that nation's elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1991. "Today the focus is on Colombia," Kennedy said. "Tomorrow, we could talk about Guatemala and the next day El Salvador. There is hardly a country in our hemisphere that hasn't been touched by the crimes of School of Americas graduates. When will this end?" Torres said that abuses by SOA graduates continue "and are not, as the School's defenders claim, a thing of the past." Throughout Latin America, he added, the SOA is "seen as a training ground for repressive militaries and dictators, and its record cannot be ignored." Defense spokesman Darley said legislation to close the school is submitted every year, usually by Kennedy, and "of course it's the prerogative of Congress" to do that. "But many of the reasons set forth" to close it down "are just patent lies, they're just not true." Darley said that SOA critics hold the school to an unfair standard. For example, he said, no one blames a police academy and calls for it to be shut down if one of its graduates goes off "on their own initiative and does things that are illegal and not correct." Darley pointed to the fact that the Clinton administration has certified that the school's training and teaching were in accordance with U.S. law. "The school is an integral part of our efforts to develop closer and more effective ties to the militaries of Latin America," Defense Secretary William Cohen wrote to Congress January 21. "We have ensured that the school is an effective transmitter of our values to the military leadership of the region." Darley said the purpose of the school continues to be to teach Latin American soldiers a variety of military skills, although he added that its "curriculum" now includes training in counter-narcotics operations. Darley called Kennedy's charge that the school is teaching torture "clearly absurd." Though he said he was unfamiliar with the latest charges about the Colombian cameraman, Darley said it was unfair to condemn the SOA as a whole because of alleged human rights abuses by one of its graduates. Darley said there is no "course curriculum at the SOA or any U.S. military school in how to beat up journalists, so the connection is absurd." Colombia, he said, is engaged "right now in a terrible civil war, and it's been going on now" for years. The increasing "tempo" of what's going on in that country, with drug traffickers moving a huge quantity of drugs along with increasing violence "lends itself to a violent atmosphere," Darley said. "So in an emotional and supercharged environment like Colombia, there are bound to be all kinds of incidents. But making the connection between a photographer getting beat up and the SOA is beyond me," Darley said. He said that the "battery of detractors will cling to anything to bring down the school." Such detractors, he said, remain silent about the "indiscriminate killing of thousands and thousands of people in Colombia by terrorist groups in that country. You never hear human rights organizations complaining about them." Darley said he was happy to be identified by name because "I'm proud of the School of the Americas."