It’s been years since former Costa Rican police officer Gerardo Brenes put on his brown uniform, and since then a lot has changed. “I had a lot more hair a lot less stomach,” he says, rubbing his head and patting his belly with a smile.
But it’s what hasn’t changed that was on Brenes’ mind Wednesday at a press conference at the Friends Peace Center in downtown San José, where he and a roomful of human rights activists gathered to discuss the continued training of Costa Rican police at the U.S. Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), in Ft. Benning, Georgia.
WHINSEC, a combat training school formerly known as the School of the Americas, has trained more than 64,000 Latin American soldiers since its creation in 1946. The school has been labeled the “School of Assassins” by human rights activists, who accuse it of ties to some of the region’s most brutal past dictators and death squads.
Costa Rica has sent more than 2,600 police officers to the school since its founding (TT, May, 2007), Brenes said.
“In reality, I didn’t read a single thing on human rights when I was there,” the former police comandante said. “The things I learned weren’t from a police perspective, they were from a military one.”
According to Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of School of the America’s Watch (SOAW), an organization dedicated to WHINSEC’s closure, the Costa Rican police officers have no business training at the base.
“Make no mistake, this is a military combat school,” he said. “So how is it possible that Costa Rica, who abolished its military in 1948 and presented itself as a peacemaker for the world, has its police at this school of assassins?”
Armed with this logic, Bourgeois approached former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias in 2007 and asked him to end his country’s relationship with the school. Arias agreed and publicly announced the change that May.
The issue remained dormant for four years until WikiLeaks released a confidential cable last March. The cable from December 2007 revealed an agreement by a former U.S. Embassy official and Arias’ Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal to continue sending police to the school.
Due to pressure from human rights groups and his Nobel Peace Prize Laureate status, Arias would not make the change himself, the cable revealed. So the embassy official proposed that Berrocal send him a note recommending that police be trained at WHINSEC. If Arias declined to respond to the note, it would be interpreted as positive silence and the practice could continue.
Berrocal began sending police to Ft. Benning for training shortly after. Public Security Vice Minister Walter Navarro confirmed to the press following the leak that the administration of President Laura Chinchilla also has sent police to WHINSEC.
SOAW estimates that Costa Rica has sent at least 70 police to WHINSEC since Arias’ agreement in 2007. According to Brenes, every police supervisor receives some kind of specialized, military training either at WHINSEC or other schools throughout the region.
With his original agreement dead in the water, Bourgeois has returned to Costa Rica determined to forge a new one. The small delegation visiting Costa Rica from March 13-15 hoped to meet with members of the Chinchilla administration to discuss a new plan. Those efforts were unsuccessful.
“They said that they were busy,” said Mary Anne Perrone, a member of the delegation. “They didn’t give any more of a reason.”
In the meantime, the delegation has had meetings with human rights groups and the U.N.’s Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime. Bourgeois and other delegation members also gave testimony for an affidavit for litigation that aims to prevent Costa Rica from sending police to WHINSEC.
The case, filed in September by Costa Rican human rights lawyer Luis Roberto Zamora, claims that sending cops to WHINSEC violates the Costa Rican Constitution. The case is making its way to Costa Rica’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala IV, where a ruling in Zamora’s favor would give legal weight to a re-establishment of Arias’ original agreement.
“We have a good case that simply shows how having police personnel with military training goes against the Constitution and laws of the country,” Bourgeois said. “It is our sincere hope that very soon Costa Rica will do what is right, what is legal, and will send a powerful message throughout Latin America and the United States.”