Targeting a "School for Strongmen"

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The U.S. image in much of Latin America has taken quite a beating this year, with Venezuelan leftist leader Hugo Chavez and his counterpart in Bolivia, Evo Morales, engaging in a heated war of words with their neighbor to the north. But one particular U.S. institution already notorious throughout the continent is increasingly feeling itself under the gun.

Now officially called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), the U.S. military-run training ground for Latin American strongmen and dictators was for years known as the School of the Americas (SOA). The Spanish-language army facility based in Fort Benning, Georgia, was responsible for helping to educate such military men as Panamanian dictator and convicted drug trafficker Manuel Noriega, the late Argentine junta leader imprisoned for human rights abuses Leopoldo Galtieri, and Salvadoran right-wing militia leader Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson. Despite adding a "human rights" element to its curriculum in recent years, the school has engendered so much suspicion and hostility that it was dubbed the School of Assassins.

In March and April of this year, a team of activists from the School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch) traveled to several nations in South America to request that government officials cut ties to the school, as Venezuela first did in 2004. Their efforts have already paid off: Uruguay and Argentina pledged this spring not to send any troops in the future, and Bolivia is officially reducing the number it will send. The group will visit Peru, Chile and Equador in August.

"I witnessed first-hand the violence and repression that SOA graduates use to govern," recounted Father Roy Bourgeios, founder of the 16-year-old organization dedicated to closing the institution, during an interview in his old home of Bolivia. An ex-U.S. Marine, Bourgeios lived as a Maryknoll priest in South America's poorest country during the dictatorship of SOA graduate Hugo Banzer in the 1970s. Bourgeois hopes to make more governments see that WHINSEC has become an anachronism, a relic of the U.S.'s big-stick foreign policy in Latin America. "A school that has no students," he says, "will have to shut down."

WHINSEC spokesman Lee Rials contends the governments that have refused to send troops to the school are merely "playing politics" and that the campaign has had minimal effect. "If they want to send a student here, they will," Rials told TIME. The institution points out that Argentina was slated to enroll only 12 students in 2006 and Uruguay none, and that enrollment, at 1,100 troops, is higher than at the school's founding. Indeed, until the opponents can convince strong U.S. allies like Colombia, which alone sends around 250 troops a year, its impact will be diminished. Still, SOA Watch contends the country withdrawals have hit harder than the school wants to admit and claims there are no more than 670 currently training at Fort Benning.

Rials disputes the institution's negative reputation and denies that the school — which has trained more than 60,000 soldiers in the last 59 years, the last 22 after relocating from Panama to Georgia — can be linked to any crime. "When [Argentine junta leader] Galtieri was here in 1949, he took an engineering course," Rials says. "Did that have anything to do with him being a junta leader?" Nevertheless, a photograph of Galtieri, along with that of Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer, hangs on one of the school's walls recognizing distinguished students.

The movement that brings thousands of protesters to the school's gates each year — and that forced the 2001 name change because "School of the Americas" had become too notorious — has brought pressure on Capitol Hill as well. Last Friday, the House of Representatives voted on a measure sponsored by Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, to remove the school's funding — 10 million taxpayer dollars annually — from the 2007 Foreign Operations budget. McGovern's amendment failed in a close vote, 218-188. "We will not go away on this," McGovern told TIME moments after the vote.

But the failure to cut off funding only reinforces the critics' determination to attack WHINSEC by choking off demand. "The fact that U.S. lawmakers have not been able to provide a solution makes getting Latin American countries to refuse to send troops even more important," said Lesley Gill, anthropology professor at American University and author of School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas. "It could be the only real hope of closing the school for good." And with it, activists like Bourgeois say, a dark chapter in U.S.-Latin American relations.