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U.S. Training of Foreign Militaries
W hile 10,000 gathered in Columbus, Georgia in November outside the gates of Fort Benning to demand the closure of the Army’s School of the Americas (SOA)—now officially renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC)—people joined in solidarity protests across the United States and in Nicaragua. Possibly the most significant of these was the demonstration in San Antonio, Texas, at Lackland Air Force Base. The SOA has been a target of demonstrators since the early 1990s, after a Congressional report revealed those responsible for a 1989 massacre of Jesuit priests in El Salvador were its graduates. Although “closed” in 2000 and renamed in 2001, SOA-WHISC still receives widespread attention. Yet Amnesty International USA in a report last year said the school is “only one small part of a vast and complex network of U.S. programs for training foreign military and police forces that is often shrouded in secrecy.” The report, Unmatched Power Unmet Principles: The Human Rights Dimensions of US Training of Foreign Military and Police Forces , states there are about 275 known U.S. military schools and installations that provide such training.
Among these, the one that rivals SOA—in terms of the number of students trained—is the Inter-American Air Forces Academy, headquartered at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Like the SOA-WHISC, the Inter-American Air Forces Academy offers Spanish-language instruction to students from Latin American and Caribbean military and police forces. Lackland AFB, the second largest military installation in Texas, is also home to the Defense Language Institute English Language Center. San Antonio hosts two other Air Force bases—Randolph AFB and Brooks AFB—and the Army’s Fort Sam Houston. All are involved with the training of foreign militaries.
An examination of data in a joint U.S. Department of Defense and Department of State report to Congress, Foreign Military Training and DoD Engagement Activities of Interest , yields insight into the relative scale of key U.S. training programs. Looking at Colombia is useful because it is by far the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the Western Hemisphere today. According to the report for FY2002 of the 794 training courses in which Colombians enrolled at U.S. military installations last year, 190 were at Fort Rucker, Alabama, 182 were at Randolph AFB, 123 were at Lackland AFB, and 105 were at Fort Benning. When you include the number of Colombians enrolled at the Defense Language Institute, San Antonio’s Air Force bases outnumbered Fort Benning by a margin of 3-to-1 as a location for training Colombians last year.
Another view of this data, but for enrollment figures of the leading Latin American recipients of U.S. training—Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Bolivia, El Salvador, and Mexico—still puts Lackland AFB ahead of Fort Benning in FY2002. Foreign military students from these 6 countries accounted for 460 courses at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy over 301 at SOA-WHISC.
The existence of the Inter-American Air Forces Academy is not lost on SOA activists. The IAAFA is mentioned on the SOA Watch website. Witness For Peace, an organization involved in the annual demonstrations at Fort Benning, has said in its newsletter, “While the SOA is an important symbol that reflects the dysfunctional relationship between the U.S. military and its Latin American counter-parts, citizens opposed to everything the School represents must be aware of numerous other training programs.”
that vein, while there’s yet to be publicly known documented
cases of human rights abuse associated with IAAFA graduates at Lackland
AFB, there has been at neighboring Randolph AFB in San Antonio.
In June 2002, the
Los Angeles Times
reported that Colombian
Air Force Lt. Cesar Romero—a helicopter pilot accused of killing,
in 1998, 18 villagers in Santo Domingo, Colombia, with a cluster
bomb—was provided flight-simulation training at Randolph AFB
in September 2000, three months after the prosecutor ordered an
investigation. The State Department is supposed to screen foreign
military students and is to prohibit the training of even suspected
human rights abusers. Lt. Cesar’s story had a relatively high
profile in Colombia, yet he was able to pass through a State Department
A look at history shows that the School of the Americas and the Inter-American Air Forces Academy are two branches of the same tree. Both have their origins in Panama in the 1940s. The IAAFA is the older of the two. It was initially called the Central and South American Air School and was formed on March 15, 1943, at what was then Albrook Field—the oldest U.S. base in Panama—which later became Albrook Air Force Base. In 1948 it was renamed United States Air Force School for Latin America. The Army’s SOA was originally the Latin American Training Center. It started in 1946 and was headquartered at Fort Amador on the Pacific side of the Canal Zone. In 1948 it became the Latin American Ground Center. Then in 1949 it was changed to the U.S. Army Caribbean School and moved to the Atlantic side of the Canal Zone.
In the 1960s, both schools were renamed—the School of the Americas was named in 1963 and the Inter-American Air Forces Academy in 1966. Both training schools remained in Panama until the 1980s. The SOA was the first to leave. It moved to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1984. The IAAFA moved and reopened at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida in 1990, but two years later was struck by Hurricane Andrew and had to move again. Since 1993 it has been located at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. The SOA officially “closed” in 2000 and became the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001.
Since opening their doors, the SOA has graduated more than 50,000 students, while the IAAFA has graduated more than 36,000. As of January 2003, the IAAFA has trained 6,093 Colombians, 3,494 Ecuadorians, 2,509 Venezuelans, 2,387 Mexicans, 2,290 El Salvadorans, and 2,235 Hondurans.
As noted already, the School of the Americas has received much attention due to the notorious human rights abusers among its graduates. Specific human rights cases in El Salvador, particularly the 1981 El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians, the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the 1989 Jesuit massacre, are largely responsible for the genesis of groups of like SOA Watch and the campaign to close the school that ensued throughout the 1990s and continues to this day.
Most of these documented human rights cases involved regular or irregular ground forces. Much less is known about the role of the Air Force in El Salvador’s Civil War, even among military scholars. Dr. James S. Corum writes in “The Air War in El Salvador” ( Aerospace Power Journal , Summer 1998 ) that although 25 percent of the military aid to El Salvador between 1980 and 1992 was provided to the Salva- doran Air Force and “although airpower played a major role in the conflict, its story has not been dealt with in any detail. Indeed, there are no books or major journal articles specifically on the history of the Salvadoran Air Force during the war. Considering that the Salvadoran war provides us with one of the most recent examples of the use of airpower in a counterinsurgency campaign, this is a significant gap in the literature about the use of airpower in modern warfare”
Between 1981 and 1986, El Salvador Air Force aircraft and helicopters regularly bombed rebel-held villages in the strongly held FMLN regions of Chalatenango and Mount Guazapa. Figures vary widely as to the number of civilians killed in these air raids. Corum claims the best estimate for civilian casualties are from Tutela Legal, the human rights office of the Catholic Church in El Salvador, which said that in 1985 there were 371 civilians killed by air bombardment. Based on that and other information, Corum believes—perhaps conservatively since he is a military scholar who teaches for the U.S. Air Force—that from 1981 to 1986 in El Salvador “an estimate of approximately two thousand civilians killed by air bombardment for the course of the war is probably close.”
In the 1990s, the two Latin American countries to send their military and police to U.S. training programs in greatest numbers were Mexico and Colombia. In 1996, two years after the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, and two years before Colombia’s President Pastrana began promoting his Plan Colombia in Washington, Mexicans and Colombians were 40 percent of the students at the Inter-American Air Forces Academy and were 31 percent of those at the SOA, according to data compiled by the Center for International Policy.
Between 1996 and 1998, the numbers of Mexican students at the IAAFA jumped from 141 to 331. Not only did this mean that in 1998 Mexicans dominated the IAAFA training programs at Lackland Air Force Base, but this surge in Mexican students pushed the Inter-American Air Forces Academy to the top of the list of U.S. military institutions that trained students from the Western Hemisphere. The rise in U.S. military training of Mexicans during the mid to late 1990s coincided with broader support the United States provided to the Mexican military both under the auspices of fighting the war on drugs and for counter-insurgency campaigns against the Zapatistas and other popular movements throughout the country.
U.S. military support for Mexico in the 1990s was dramatically overshadowed by its financial support for Colombia at the end of the decade. In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed anti-narcotics legislation of which more than $700 million was for Colombia’s military and police, with a significant portion for the purchase of Sikorsky and Bell helicopters. That coincided with a dramatic rise in U.S. military training, especially inside Colombia, but also for Colombians at Lackland AFB, Fort Benning, and other U.S. military installations.
In 2002, the training of Colombians dwarfed other Latin American countries. Last year, Colombian military personnel enrolled in 6,230 U.S. military training program courses, according to Department of State data. That’s almost six times larger than the next in line, Ecuador, whose military enrolled in 1,076 program courses. Honduran’s military and police enrolled in 799 courses, Bolivia’s in 796, El Salvador’s in 581, Mexico’s in 456, and Peru’s in 420. Note that these are program courses, not the number of students.
Of the 6,230 foreign military program courses taken by Colombians, 87 percent—or 5,436—were held in Colombia, while only 13 percent—or 794—were held on U.S. soil, with most at Fort Rucker in Alabama, Randolph and Lackland in Texas, Fort Benning in Georgia, and Fort Eustis in Virginia. It’s no surprise that Fort Rucker topped the list as the destination for Colombians trained in the United States in 2002. After all, it’s the “home of Army Aviation.” The new Sikorsky and Bell helicopters bought with Plan Colombia funding need trained personnel to operate and maintain them. Some of the students at Fort Rucker were in the Colombian Air Force, but most were in the Army. Nearly all the training courses for Colombians at Randolph AFB are generically listed as “Physical Training,” as either original or refresher courses.
Besides avionics and aircraft maintenance courses, training of Colombians at Lackland AFB’s InterAmerican Air Forces Academy includes courses in Air Intelligence, FLIR Radar Operation, Ground Defense Skills, Search and Rescue, Special Communications, and Special Reaction Team Certification. The intelligence course instructs students in the “development and utilization of maps and charts for order-of-battle information as well as targeting and principles of electronic warfare with aerospace doctrine for mission planning purposes,” according to IAAFA’s on-line course catalog. Skills learned in Search and Rescue and Special Reaction Team courses are in part what’s taught to Special Operations Forces. At Fort Benning, Colombians are taught courses with generic titles like Cadet Leadership Development, Department Resource Management, and Engineer Operations. Since the SOA has had a face-lift, students from Colombia were also enrolled in courses called Human Rights Instructor and Democratic Sustainment.
Although Colombia was the largest recipient of U.S. military training in 2002, there were nearly twice as many course enrollments for Mexicans at the IAAFA last year. The vast majority of these were either for a Special Communications course or one on Rule of Law and Disciplined Military Operations, which, according to the IAAFA course catalog, has as its objective to teach international officers and NCOs of any military force the basics of the international rules of law and their impact on human rights, including how these international standards fit into the planning of military operations.
That both the SOA-WHISC and the IAAFA now offer courses focused on human rights is a testament to the years of work by activists and others who've brought attention to the U.S. military training of Latin Americans. Diligent investigative work brought details about SOA graduates to light, for example, by cross-referencing the names of graduates obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests against lists of Latin American militaries suspected or accused of human right abuses.
Today what is publicly known about the InterAmerican Air Forces Academy is mostly limited to what is published on the IAAFA web site and to data on Department of State reports that show training course titles, location, military units taught, training cost, and duration. Yet given its 50-year history as the Air Force version of the SOA and the fact that more than 36,000 have passed through its doors, it is true that much remains to be learned about the IAAFA and its role in Latin America.
Stefan Wray is a writer, videographer, and co-director of the Military Documentation Project and Iconmedia (www.iconmedia.org).
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