After World War II, Latin American militaries looked to the United States to supply the training for their national armed forces, replacing former French, Italian, and German military advisory groups. Particularly in the Caribbean region that included Central America, the Caribbean islands, and northern South America, the U.S. military sought to centralize its instruction of Latin American officers at a single location in the Panama Canal Zone. Initially, most of the training at the Caribbean Army School was in conventional warfare, unit exercises, and equipment maintenance. The school also taught police surveillance and antiriot techniques. Fear of Soviet subversion of Latin American labor movements and indigenous socialist parties became a prime concern for U.S. policymakers in the 1950s. Thus, American instructors trained Latin American armies more for internal repression, the crushing of possible procommunist coups, and the monitoring and suppression of leftist dissenters.
Following the successful 1959 Cuban Revolution, American concerns over communist penetration of the Western Hemisphere heightened, as did worries over the efficacy of leftist guerrilla movements championed by Ernesto "Che" Guevara and other Fidelistas. Guevara's activities unnerved U.S. military officials, who had watched a ragtag group of Cuban radicals defeat a 50,000-man Cuban Army that had been trained and equipped by the United States. Under the aegis of President John F. Kennedy's administration, counterinsurgency doctrine received greater emphasis in U.S. military strategy. In 1963 Kennedy vastly expanded the U.S. Army Caribbean School, renaming it the U.S. Army School of the Americas, and deployed the 8th Special Forces Group to the Canal Zone to serve as instructors. The institution greatly increased the variety of its training programs that now concentrated on counterinsurgency, civic action, crowd control, psychological warfare, and anticommunist ideology.
Critics of the School of the Americas assert that during this period the school began its policy of training officers in the techniques of interrogation, torture, kidnapping, assassination, and paramilitary terror tactics to be used in thwarting communist insurgencies. From 1946 through the 1990s, the school graduated nearly 60,000 officers. The school became a target of attack from Panamanian nationalists who saw the facility as a violation of U.S.-Panamanian treaties that approved American military bases within the Canal Zone for canal defense only, not for the continent-wide repression of dissent. In 1967, Bolivian units trained at the School of the Americas helped track down and kill Guevara. During the 1960s, trainees from the school participated in six different counterinsurgency campaigns against leftist guerrillas in Latin America.
In the 1980s, the School of the Americas came under even sharper scrutiny from human rights groups for its contribution to the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Human rights advocates such as Father Roy Bourgeois traced numerous atrocities committed against Central American civilians back to commanders and units trained by U.S. Green Berets at the School of the Americas. Links between graduates of the school and right-wing death squads also abounded. Critics increasingly referred to the institution as a "School for Assassins" or the "School for Dictators." Indeed, the school's alumni included Panamanian drug trafficker and dictator Manuael Noriega, Salvadoran death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson, Argentine military junta leader Leopoldo Galtieri, and Bolivian dictator Hugo Bánzer Suárez. Opposition to the school grew so vociferous that in 1984 the Pentagon agreed to withdraw the School of the Americas from the Canal Zone and transfer it to Fort Benning, Georgia, where it continues operating to this day under the new name of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
Michael E. Donoghue
Calvert, Peter. Revolution and International Politics. London: Pinter, 1996; Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jack. School of Assassins: The Case for Closing the School of the Americas and for Fundamentally Changing U.S. Foreign Policy. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997.