Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 195 | Octubre 1997


United States

How the US Trained Latin America's Military: The Smoking Gun

Recently declassified manuals, seven from the Pentagon and two from the CIA, are convincing proof that for 20 years the U.S. government trained Latin American military personnel to commit massive violations of human rights. No one in the U.S., however, has ever been called to account for this crime.

Lisa Haugaard

Part of that training took place at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), set up by the US Army in Panama in 1946 and transferred to Fort Bennington, Georgia, in 1984. Over 60,000 Latin Americans were trained in that school, which a gamut of religious and grassroots sectors in the United States are now fighting to have closed with some support in Congress.

The whitewashed presentation by the agencies responsible for the manuals has meant that no one is being made to answer for this travesty, and that nothing is being done to rectify the damage. This suggests that while the manuals clearly violate the public US policy of those Cold War years, they were an integral and seemingly acceptable part of the US government's real strategy to stamp out any opposition to governments the United States supported, no matter how justifiable the opposition or how legitimate its activities. The following is a careful analysis of the contents of those manuals by Lisa Haugaard, co-coordinator of the Latin American Working Group (LAWG) of Washington D.C.

On September 20, 1996, the Pentagon released to the public seven training manuals prepared by the US military and used between 1987 and 1991 for intelligence training courses in Latin America and the US Army School of the Americas (SOA). A selection of excerpts was distributed to the press at that time. The Pentagon press release accompanying these excerpts states that a 1991-92 investigation into the manuals concluded that "two dozen short passages in six of the manuals, which total 1169 pages, contained material that either was not or could be interpreted not to be consistent with US policy." A January 1997 "information paper" sent out by the School of the Americas in response to public inquiries on the manuals claims that SOA training material merely contained several passages with "words or phrases inconsistent with US government policy."
A close reading of all seven manuals, however, reveals many more passages, and indeed an entire framework, that should be deemed inconsistent with US policy and democratic standards. This article contains excerpts from these manuals, and two other CIA manuals declassified in January 1997 in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the Baltimore Sun.

What Don't The Manuals Say? What Didn't The Trainers Know?

The army manual excerpts highlighted by the Pentagon advocate tactics such as executing guerrillas, blackmail, false imprisonment, physical abuse, use of truth serum to obtain information and payment of bounties for enemy dead. Counterintelligence agents are advised that one of their functions is "recommending targets for neutralization," a term defined in one manual as "detaining or discrediting" but "commonly used at the time as a euphemism for execution or destruction," according to a Pentagon official (Washington Post, September 21, 1996). What is not included in these excerpts, however, is the larger context. The seven army manuals train Latin American militaries to infiltrate and spy on civilians, including student groups, unions, charitable organizations and political parties; to confuse armed insurgencies with legal political opposition; and to disregard or get around any laws regarding due process, arrest and detention. What the manuals leave out is as important as what they include, and what they leave out is any understanding of democracy and the rule of law.

The release of the seven army manuals was the result of extensive public and congressional pressure. The manuals were mentioned in a passing reference in the President's advisory Intelligence Oversight Board's June 1996 report on Guatemala; this report was made public in response to the high level of interest and pressure from human rights and grassroots organizations. Representative Joseph Kennedy (D-MA) then asked the administration to declassify the manuals in their entirety. The CIA manuals were only released after the Baltimore Sun threatened a lawsuit.

To date, unfortunately, the Clinton Administration has failed to take decisive action to ensure that such training materials are never developed again. On February 21, 1997, the Department of Defense's Inspector General completed an investigation that admitted that in creating and using the manuals "from 1982 through early 1991, many mistakes were made and repeated by numerous and continuously changing personnel in several organizations from Panama to Georgia to Washington, DC." Despite this, the report concludes that there is no "evidence that the lengthy episode was a deliberate attempt to violate Department of Defense policies." Therefore, there is no reason to pursue the issue of individual responsibility.

In essence, the report claims that because these numerous US personnel did not know that it was against US policy to train Latin American militaries to use threats or force with prisoners, "neutralize" opponents, hold prisoners in clandestine jails, and infiltrate and spy upon civilian organizations and opposition political parties, all techniques described in the manuals, no disciplinary action was necessary.
The report, which Rep. Kennedy termed a "whitewash" and "hogwash," does not examine any systemic problem that might have led to "numerous and changing personnel" over a ten-year period lacking a working knowledge of human rights. Thus the report fails to assign either individual or collective responsibility for training Latin American militaries to violate human rights and use profoundly anti-democratic methods—a frame of mind that led Latin American militaries to kill thousands of civilians in the wars of the 1980s.

The Seven Army Manuals

The seven Spanish-language manuals were drafted in 1987 by US Army military intelligence officers in Panama. They were based in part on lesson plans used by SOA instructors since 1982. The manuals as well as the SOA lesson plans, in turn, were also based in part on older material dating back to the 1960s from "Project X," the US Army's Foreign Intelligence Assistance Program, which provided training not just to Latin American nations but to US allies around the world. "Project X" materials had been retained in the files of the Army Intelligence School at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

At least some of these teaching materials were pulled out of circulation by the Carter Administration, which was concerned that intelligence training would contribute to human rights abuses in Latin America. In 1982, the Reagan Administration asked the School of the Americas to develop quickly a new counterintelligence course for Latin American militaries. A memo declassified in 1996 that details a phone conversation between Major Vic Tise and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense on July 31, 1991, recounts that Major Tise, who was the instructor asked to develop the course, turned to Project X materials and updated them into lesson plans. Contrary to the findings of the 1997 Inspector General's report, Major Tise claims that he sent the materials he developed to Washington for approval, which sent them back "approved but unchanged."
The US government estimates that as many as a thousand copies of these manuals may have been distributed at the SOA and throughout Latin America. They were used by US Military Mobile Training Teams in Latin America and were distributed both to students in these courses and to Latin American intelligence schools in Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru. In 1989, the manuals were used at the School of the Americas in military intelligence courses attended by students from Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.

The manuals are entitled, "Handling of Sources," "Counterintelligence," "Revolutionary War, Guerrillas and Communist Ideology," "Terrorism and the Urban Guerrilla," "Interrogation," "Combat Intelligence," and "Analysis I." The manuals do indeed appear to be older material that was consistently updated. Examples from 1988 in El Salvador have been inserted into "Counterintelligence," but in some manuals there are references that do not seem to have been updated since the 1960s. A 1989 army manual, for example, refers to communism as "the specter" surrounding the whole world and contains no references to any changes in the Soviet Union. The "Urban Terrorist" manual refers to current California State Senator and former sixties radical Tom Hayden as "one of the masters of terrorist planning."

What Do the Manuals Teach?

The unstated aim of the manuals is to train Latin American militaries to identify and suppress anti-government movements. Throughout the eleven hundred pages of the manuals, there are few mentions of democracy, human rights, or the rule of law. Instead, the manuals provide detailed techniques for infiltrating social movements, interrogating suspects, surveillance, maintaining military secrecy, recruiting and retaining spies, and controlling the population.

While the excerpts released by the Pentagon are a useful and not misleading selection of the most egregious passages, the ones most clearly advocating torture, execution and blackmail, they do not provide adequate insight into the manuals' highly objectionable framework. In the name of defending democracy, the manuals advocate profoundly undemocratic methods.

There's no distinction between civilian movements and armed rebellion.

Perhaps the most persistent and nefarious aspect of the manuals is the lack of distinction between legitimate political and civic opposition and armed rebellion. The "Counterintelligence" manual, for example, defines as potential counterintelligence targets "local or national political party teams, or parties that have goals, beliefs or ideologies contrary or in opposition to the National Government," or "teams or hostile organizations whose objective is to create dissension or cause restlessness among the civilian population in the area of operations." (p. 228) This manual recommends that the army create a "black list" of "persons whose capture and detention are of foremost importance to the armed forces" (p. 225), which should include not only "enemy agents" but also "subversive persons," "political leaders known or suspected as hostile toward the Armed Forces or the political interests of the National Government," and "collaborators and sympathizers of the enemy," known or suspect.

Throughout the manuals, refugees and displaced persons are highlighted as possible subversives who should be monitored. Universities are described as breeding grounds for terrorists, and priests and nuns are identified as having been involved in terrorist operations. The militaries are advised to infiltrate youth groups, student groups, labor unions, political parties and community organizations. Even electoral activity is suspect: the insurgents "can resort to subverting the government by means of elections in which the insurgents cause the replacement of an unfriendly government official to one favorable to their cause"; "insurgent activity" can include funding campaigns and participating in political races as candidates. ("Revolutionary War, Guerrillas and Communist Ideology," p. 51)
One of the most pernicious passages—in "Combat Intelligence"—lists various indicators of guerrilla presence. "Indicators of an imminent attack by guerrillas" include demonstrations by minority groups, civilians including children who don't want to associate with US troops or their own country's troops, celebration of national or religious festivals, or the presence of strangers.

"Indicators of control by guerrillas" over a certain civilian population include the refusal to provide intelligence to government forces or the construction of new houses. Indications that insurgents are conducting psychological operations include accusations of government corruption, circulating petitions, attempts to discredit the government or armed forces, calling government leaders US puppets, urging youth to avoid the draft, demonstrations or strikes, or accusations of police or army brutality. Thus any expression of criticism of the government, armed forces or US troops or any other expression of popular discontent is cited as a possible indicator of guerrilla activity. This manual recommends drawing maps that use different colors to depict the civilian population as "loyal to the government," "ambivalent," "possibly loyal to the insurgents" and "areas controlled by the insurgents." (p. 148)

Don't worry about legal and human rights considerations.

In certain passages, legal and human rights considerations appear to have been added after the fact or in a superficial manner. For example, the Geneva convention is inserted at the beginning of "Interrogation," and the rights of a suspect being interrogated are mentioned repeatedly in the "Counterintelligence" sections that are specifically devoted to interrogation. These references, however, are not integrated into the text in most of the manuals and are contradicted in other passages.

At times the manuals present a distorted picture of human rights conventions. For example, readers are taught that an insurgent "does not have a legal status as a prisoner of war under the Geneva convention," implying that there are no international conventions covering their treatment. ("Revolutionary War, Guerrillas and Communist Ideology," p. 61)

The rule of law doesn't apply.

In most of the discussions of techniques, legal conditions are simply absent. For example, throughout the manuals there is discussion of detaining suspects without mention of proper procedures for arrest, obtaining admissible evidence, trial and conviction. There is no mention of warrants or the right to contact an attorney or any comparable local laws. In fact, it is recommended throughout that detainees be kept in isolation and not be allowed to contact anyone. The interrogator may use a false name and at no time has to offer the detainee a reason for being detained.

The description of the holding facilities in several of the manuals makes it clear that these are clandestine jails. Few distinctions are made between the treatment of armed guerrillas and civilians. At no time do the manuals state that the person detained or arrested must first be suspected of having committed an illegal activity. The only rationale needed for arrest or detention is that the intelligence agent needs some kind of information from the person.

Spy on and control then civilian population.

There is absolutely no discussion of the propriety of spying on and infiltrating civilian groups; instead, it is actively advocated in a number of the manuals. "Counterintelligence" includes a discussion of kinds of censorship without any mention that it might be in any way undesirable. Throughout the manuals, there is little discussion of the proper relationship between the civilian government and military authorities. Indeed, in certain places the civilian government appears to be treated as one more source to be reported upon.

Several manuals describe techniques for "controlling the population," which include curfews, military checkpoints, house-to-house searches, issuance of ID cards and rationing. These techniques are advocated without any discussion of limitations on their use, such as only during a declared state of war or state of emergency. In fact, there is no reference to laws or the role of the legislature in regulating such actions.

Give a purely military response.

Several of the manuals purport to teach militaries and intelligence services about how insurgencies develop and how to control them. The description of how insurgencies develop is, in most of the manuals, simplistic and dated. There are cursory references to the role government repression can play in providing a rationale for insurgencies, however this is not treated in any depth.

The brief histories of El Salvador and Guatemala, for example, in "Terrorism and the Urban Guerrilla" skip over any repression, human rights violations or problems in democratic governance that contributed to the growth of revolutionary movements in those countries. Insurgents are viewed simplistically as solely manipulating popular discontent and are depicted as always buying into Soviet-style Marxism.

While "Combat Intelligence" offers a more sophisticated explanation of underlying reasons insurgencies might develop, such as the strains created by rapid modernization, the existence of corrupt elites and government repression, neither this manual nor any other offers any discussion of the steps a civilian government might take to make a political response to popular discontent.

The only response taught for popular discontent and the beginnings of an insurgency is a military and counterintelligence one. There is no mention of any limitations on when to use military and counterintelligence methods.

The Two CIA Manuals

On January 24, 1997, two additional manuals were declassified in response to a FOIA request filed by the Baltimore Sun in 1994. The first, "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual—1983," was used in at least seven US training courses conducted in Latin American countries, including Honduras, between 1982 and 1987, according to a June 1988 memo placed inside the manual (the discrepancy between the 1982 use and the 1983 date on the manual is not explained). The second manual, "KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation," dated July 1963, is the source of much of the material in "Human Resource Exploitation."
The 1983 manual originally surfaced in response to a congressional hearing in June 1988, which was prompted by allegations by The New York Times that the United States had taught Honduran military officers who used torture. That hearing was not the first time such manuals had surfaced. In 1984, a CIA manual for training the Nicaraguan contras in psychological operations was discovered and created a considerable scandal.

Both of the CIA manuals declassified in January 1997 deal exclusively with interrogation. They are even more obviously unprincipled than the army manuals, in that they each have an entire chapter devoted to "coercive techniques." These manuals recommend arresting suspects early in the morning by surprise, blindfolding them, and stripping them naked. Suspects should be held incommunicado and should be deprived of any kind of normal routine in eating and sleeping. Interrogation rooms should be windowless, soundproof, dark and without toilets.

The manuals do advise that torture techniques can backfire and that the threat of pain is often more effective than pain itself. However, they then go on to describe coercive techniques to be used "to induce psychological regression in the subject by bringing a superior outside force to bear on his will to resist." ("Human Resource Exploitation," p. K-1) These techniques include prolonged constraint; prolonged exertion; extremes of heat, cold, or moisture; deprivation of food or sleep; disrupting routines; solitary confinement; threats of pain; deprivation of sensory stimuli; hypnosis and use of drugs or placebos.

Like the army manuals, "Human Resource Exploitation" is dismissive of the rule of law. It states the importance of knowing local laws regarding detention but then notes, "Illegal detention always requires prior HQS [headquarters] approval." (p. B-2) The manual refers to one or two weeks of practical work with prisoners as part of the course, suggesting that US trainers may have worked with Latin American militaries in interrogating actual detainees.

In a superficial attempt to correct the worst of the 1983 manual, in 1985 a page advising against coercive techniques was inserted and handwritten changes were introduced haphazardly into the text. For example, "While we do not stress the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them and the proper way to use them," has been altered to, "While we deplore the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them so that you may avoid them." (p. A-2) However, the entire chapter on coercive techniques is still provided, again with some items crossed out. Throughout, the reader can read perfectly well the original underneath the "corrected" items. These corrections were made in response to the 1984 scandal when the CIA training manual for the contras hit the front pages of the newspapers.

KUBARK—the Interrogation Prototype

The second manual, entitled "KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation—July 1963," is clearly the source of much of the 1983 manual; some passages are lifted verbatim. The KUBARK manual was written for use by US agents against communist, notably Soviet, subversion, not for use in training foreign military services. KUBARK has a similar section on coercive techniques, and includes some even more abhorrent references than the 1983 manual, such as two references to the use of electric shock.

The KUBARK manual may or may not have been used directly by US agents operating in Latin America; it apparently was intended for US agents operating worldwide. The KUBARK manual is included here not because in its precise form it was used in Latin America in recent years. Rather, it is included because it shows the provenance of the 1983 CIA manual which was, like many of the seven army manuals, based on sixties era material.

No Discipline, No Retraining

In late 1991, under the Bush Administration, the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Oversight launched an investigation into the seven army manuals. The Pentagon provided the resulting report to the congressional intelligence committees. The investigation concluded that the manuals' authors and SOA instructors "erroneously assumed that the manuals, as well as the lesson plans, represented approved doctrine." When interviewed by the investigators, the manuals' authors stated that they believed intelligence oversight regulations applied only to US personnel and not to the training of foreign personnel—in other words, that US instructors could teach abusive techniques to foreign militaries that they could not legally perform themselves.
The Bush administration ordered the retrieval and destruction of the manuals, and the US Southern Command advised Latin American governments that the handbooks did not represent official US policy. However, the whole episode was treated as an isolated incident. The individuals responsible for writing and teaching the lesson plans were not disciplined, nor were the authors and instructors who believed teaching human rights violations was consistent with US policy retrained.
Indeed, aspects of the manuals that violate human rights standards and democratic principles were never even commented upon in the 1991-92 investigation, the 1996 Pentagon press release, or the School of the Americas' response to public inquiries. In 1992, the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Oversight did issue recommendations that "the Joint Staff should establish a policy to ensure that intelligence and counterintelligence training for foreign military personnel by Combatant Commands is consistent with US and DoD [Department of Defense] policy," and that training materials should go through proper channels for approval. However, the 1997 Inspector General's report states that these recommendations, issued as a memo, had little or no impact. In three agencies it was sent to, there was no record of it having even been received. In three others, it was received but did not result in any increase or oversight of foreign military and intelligence training.

The 1997 Inspector General's report continues to skirt the real problems raised by the manuals. While the report concludes that the lesson plans and manuals somehow escaped oversight and could not be read because they were in English, Rep. Kennedy's own investigation reveals these claims to be mere excuses. Kennedy's report states that SOA instructors sent their lesson plans to Fort Huachuca and to at least two offices in Washington to be reviewed. Moreover, the materials were approved for use in English before being translated in Spanish.

The slow, piecemeal surfacing of these manuals and the limited investigations at each point suggest that there may be many other inappropriate training manuals still in circulation. Materials from the most intense days of the Cold War in the 1960s, which should never have been created in the first place, kept on being repackaged and reused despite a series of scandals and investigations that should have prompted a thorough revision of all materials and retraining of the US military and intelligence personnel involved in drafting such materials or failing to provide proper oversight.

The Human Rights Violations Weren't in the Abstract

The training provided by these manuals, the lesson plans and Project X is not some abstract violation of human rights principles. These methods were actively followed by Latin American militaries, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s; in Chile and Argentina's "dirty wars" in which thousands of dissidents disappeared; by military dictatorships in Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay; in the Central American wars, where tens of thousands of civilians were killed; and in the Andean countries, where human rights violations still abound. In most cases, the militaries being trained were actively involved not just in suppressing armed rebellion but also in repressing democratic, civic opposition.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


The Dangers of a Democracy On Paper Only

América Latina
NGOs: Rethinking Strategy

Estados Unidos
How the US Trained Latin America's Military: The Smoking Gun

Does a Trap Lurk Behind the Struggle for 6%?

Baby Steps Towards Democracy

Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development