A Costa Rican graduate of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas is speaking out against his country’s participation in the controversial hemispheric military training institute.
Gerardo Brenes, who calls himself “a policeman at heart,” first joined the National Police at age 16 in 1982, with a starting monthly salary of ¢3,000, about $74 then.
In 1984, he was told he was being sent to the Fort Benning, Georgia, for additional training, which he presumed would be administrative.
But the training he received had little to do with office operations.
“We trained in arms usage, including M16 rifles and grenades, mobile operations, military leadership and individual combat.”
At the same time, the material in Brenes’ manuals from courses he took in 1984 – the year the school moved from the United States’ Fort Gullick, Panama, to Fort Benning – appears unexceptional, although rather outdated and politically incorrect.
Brenes is one of about 2,600 Costa Ricans who have trained at SOA or at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), SOA’s successor.
SOA graduates have also included some of the region’s most notorious human rights abusers, such as Roberto D’Aubuisson, leader of El Salvador’s right-wing death squads in the 1980s; infamous Panamanian General Manuel Antonio Noriega; and Bolivia’s exmilitary dictator (and twice president) Hugo Banzer.
SOA was closed by the U.S. Congress in 2001 on the heels of protests about reports that the school was teaching torture techniques, and WHINSEC was created in the same bill.
President Oscar Arias announced in May 2007 that he would stop sending trainees to the school, but the government backpedaled in November 2007, saying it would continue to send Costa Rican police officers to receive specific training in counternarcotics, narcoterrorism and law enforcement. (TT, Jan. 11, 2008).
Public Security Minister Janina del Vecchio, in a letter to a local activist group, reiterated that position last October, saying, “The fight against drug trafficking and terrorism requires (a high level of) specialization.”
Del Vecchio did not respond to multiple requests by The Tico Times for comment.
Brenes, who left the National Police as a major in 1997 to open up a private security firm, Multiservicios y Seguridad, in Cartago, east of San José, laments the current attitude toward police training.
“They teach you how to be authoritarian and not democratic,” says Brenes. But still, he says, sending Ticos to Georgia isn’t the solution.
“The training (received at SOA) has no function in our country because we don’t have an army. Under no circumstance is (the training) to combat narcotrafficking,” Brenes says.
Last year, around two dozen countries in the hemisphere sent about 1,500 soldiers to the Spanish-language institution. This includes Canada, which sends one to three officers to the Command and General Staff course each year.
And while Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Venezuela announced along with Costa Rica they would stop sending officials, Lee Rials, WHINSEC spokesman, says only Venezuela actually made good on that promise. Moreover, Argentina, Bolivia and Costa Rica have continued to send guest instructors as well.
Walter Navarro, former National Police director, has been a senior guest instructor at the school for the last two and a half years, teaching in the Staff and Faculty Development division. As of this week, there were one other Tico instructor and two students. He says about 20 Ticos, almost all members of the National Police, attend annually.
While opponents call the transition from SOA to WHINSEC a superficial name change, Navarro calls them “two completely different institutions.”
“WHINSEC responds to current issues, like drugs, human rights and natural disasters,” says Navarro. During the Cold War, “These things weren’t taught at the SOA, when training was more concentrated in guerilla warfare. … But now, it’s a different scenario.”
Ten percent of all WHINSEC course material – “at least in the last few years,” says Rials – must address democracy and human rights.
But opponents are unconvinced by the claims of reincarnation. “Despite the ongoing PR and lobbying campaign, it’s never been completely clear what’s going on down there,” says Michael Mershon, press secretary for Rep. Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts and the school’s most vocal opponent in Congress. “The fact remains that people (since 2001) have returned to their home country and done bad things,” says Mershon, particularly in Colombia.
A 2007 vote in the U.S. House to cut the scholarships most students use to attend the school lost by six votes, but 35 of those who voted to maintain funding lost their seats in the November elections. It’s a difference the institute’s opponents hope will tip the scales the next time the issue is up for a vote, which could happen by June or July. “Certainly we’re more optimistic (the bill will pass) than we have been in the last eight years,” says Mershon.
The congressman is also keen to publicize the list of students who attend the school, says Mershon. “It’s about openness and transparency, not just human rights. … (Rep. McGovern) believes that we, in fact, want to move forward and better our relationship with Latin America. … The SOA is a stain on that history, and that stain needs to be removed.”
Both Mershon and Brenes say courses taught at WHINSEC can be, and have been, provided through currently existing U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency programs. But not all Ticos are opposed to sending Tico officers to Fort Benning.
Ulises Leyva, a San José criminology student, while a staunch supporter of his country’s lack of a standing army, says the need to provide local officers with first-rate counternarcotics training is “too good an opportunity” to pass up, calling Costa Rica’s current training methods “obsolete.”
Training Costa Rican officers should be key to the drug war, he says, especially given the isthmus’ strategic location for trafficking.
“If the U.S. really wants to keep these key drug-trafficking points in check … it would be more important to invest in this school than in some big wall between the U.S. and Mexico.”