U.S. Training of Foreign Militaries


10,000 gathered in Columbus, Georgia in November outside the gates
of Fort Benning to demand the closure of the Army’s School
of the Americas (SOA)—now officially renamed the Western Hemisphere
Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC)—people joined in
solidarity protests across the United States and in Nicaragua. Possibly
the most significant of these was the demonstration in San Antonio,
Texas, at Lackland Air Force Base. The SOA has been a target of
demonstrators since the early 1990s, after a Congressional report
revealed those responsible for a 1989 massacre of Jesuit priests
in El Salvador were its graduates. Although “closed” in
2000 and renamed in 2001, SOA-WHISC still receives widespread attention.
Yet Amnesty International USA in a report last year said the school
is “only one small part of a vast and complex network of U.S.
programs for training foreign military and police forces that is
often shrouded in secrecy.” The report,

Power Unmet Principles: The Human Rights Dimensions of US Training
of Foreign Military and Police Forces

, states there are about
275 known U.S. military schools and installations that provide such

these, the one that rivals SOA—in terms of the number of students
trained—is the Inter-American Air Forces Academy, headquartered
at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Like the SOA-WHISC,
the Inter-American Air Forces Academy offers Spanish-language instruction
to students from Latin American and Caribbean military and police
forces. Lackland AFB, the second largest military installation in
Texas, is also home to the Defense Language Institute English Language
Center. San Antonio hosts two other Air Force bases—Randolph
AFB and Brooks AFB—and the Army’s Fort Sam Houston. All
are involved with the training of foreign militaries. 

examination of data in a joint U.S. Department of Defense and Department
of State report to Congress,

Foreign Military Training and DoD
Engagement Activities of Interest

, yields insight into the relative
scale of key U.S. training programs. Looking at Colombia is useful
because it is by far the largest recipient of U.S. military aid
in the Western Hemisphere today. According to the report for FY2002
of the 794 training courses in which Colombians enrolled at U.S.
military installations last year, 190 were at Fort Rucker, Alabama,
182 were at Randolph AFB, 123 were at Lackland AFB, and 105 were
at Fort Benning. When you include the number of Colombians enrolled
at the Defense Language Institute, San Antonio’s Air Force
bases outnumbered Fort Benning by a margin of 3-to-1 as a location
for training Colombians last year. 

view of this data, but for enrollment figures of the leading Latin
American recipients of U.S. training—Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras,
Bolivia, El Salvador, and Mexico—still puts Lackland AFB ahead
of Fort Benning in FY2002. Foreign military students from these
6 countries accounted for 460 courses at the Inter-American Air
Forces Academy over 301 at SOA-WHISC.  

existence of the Inter-American Air Forces Academy is not lost on
SOA activists. The IAAFA is mentioned on the SOA Watch website.
Witness For Peace, an organization involved in the annual demonstrations
at Fort Benning, has said in its newsletter, “While the SOA
is an important symbol that reflects the dysfunctional relationship
between the U.S. military and its Latin American counter-parts,
citizens opposed to everything the School represents must be aware
of numerous other training programs.” 

SOA activist from Houston, Ken Crowley, who has been arrested for
participating in civil disobedience at Fort Benning, wrote in the

Dallas Peace Times

in 2002, “Much remains to be learned
about the IAAFA and its role in Latin America, and it is time that
we begin the arduous process of bringing the truth about the IAAFA
to the light of day.” 

that vein, while there’s yet to be publicly known documented
cases of human rights abuse associated with IAAFA graduates at Lackland
AFB, there has been at neighboring Randolph AFB in San Antonio.
In June 2002, the

Los Angeles Times

reported that Colombian
Air Force Lt. Cesar Romero—a helicopter pilot accused of killing,
in 1998, 18 villagers in Santo Domingo, Colombia, with a cluster
bomb—was provided flight-simulation training at Randolph AFB
in September 2000, three months after the prosecutor ordered an
investigation. The State Department is supposed to screen foreign
military students and is to prohibit the training of even suspected
human rights abusers. Lt. Cesar’s story had a relatively high
profile in Colombia, yet he was able to pass through a State Department


look at history shows that the School of the Americas and the Inter-American
Air Forces Academy are two branches of the same tree. Both have
their origins in Panama in the 1940s. The IAAFA is the older of
the two. It was initially called the Central and South American
Air School and was formed on March 15, 1943, at what was then Albrook
Field—the oldest U.S. base in Panama—which later became
Albrook Air Force Base. In 1948 it was renamed United States Air
Force School for Latin America.

Army’s SOA was originally the Latin American Training Center.
It started in 1946 and was headquartered at Fort Amador on the Pacific
side of the Canal Zone. In 1948 it became the Latin American Ground
Center. Then in 1949 it was changed to the U.S. Army Caribbean School
and moved to the Atlantic side of the Canal Zone. 

the 1960s, both schools were renamed—the School of the Americas
was named in 1963 and the Inter-American Air Forces Academy in 1966.
Both training schools remained in Panama until the 1980s. The SOA
was the first to leave. It moved to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1984.
The IAAFA moved and reopened at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida
in 1990, but two years later was struck by Hurricane Andrew and
had to move again. Since 1993 it has been located at Lackland Air
Force Base in San Antonio. The SOA officially “closed”
in 2000 and became the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security
Cooperation in 2001. 

opening their doors, the SOA has graduated more than 50,000 students,
while the IAAFA has graduated more than 36,000. As of January 2003,
the IAAFA has trained 6,093 Colombians, 3,494 Ecuadorians, 2,509
Venezuelans, 2,387 Mexicans, 2,290 El Salvadorans, and 2,235 Hondurans. 

noted already, the School of the Americas has received much attention
due to the notorious human rights abusers among its graduates. Specific
human rights cases in El Salvador, particularly the 1981 El Mozote
massacre of 900 civilians, the 1980 assassination of Archbishop
Oscar Romero, and the 1989 Jesuit massacre, are largely responsible
for the genesis of groups of like SOA Watch and the campaign to
close the school that ensued throughout the 1990s and continues
to this day. 

of these documented human rights cases involved regular or irregular
ground forces. Much less is known about the role of the Air Force
in El Salvador’s Civil War, even among military scholars. Dr.
James S. Corum writes in “The Air War in El Salvador”


Aerospace Power Journal

, Summer 1998


that although
25 percent of the military aid to El Salvador between 1980 and 1992
was provided to the Salva- doran Air Force and “although airpower
played a major role in the conflict, its story has not been dealt
with in any detail. Indeed, there are no books or major journal
articles specifically on the history of the Salvadoran Air Force
during the war. Considering that the Salvadoran war provides us
with one of the most recent examples of the use of airpower in a
counterinsurgency campaign, this is a significant gap in the literature
about the use of airpower in modern warfare” 

1981 and 1986, El Salvador Air Force aircraft and helicopters regularly
bombed rebel-held villages in the strongly held FMLN regions of
Chalatenango and Mount Guazapa. Figures vary widely as to the number
of civilians killed in these air raids. Corum claims the best estimate
for civilian casualties are from Tutela Legal, the human rights
office of the Catholic Church in El Salvador, which said that in
1985 there were 371 civilians killed by air bombardment. Based on
that and other information, Corum believes—perhaps conservatively
since he is a military scholar who teaches for the U.S. Air Force—that
from 1981 to 1986 in El Salvador “an estimate of approximately
two thousand civilians killed by air bombardment for the course
of the war is probably close.” 

Gutierrez entered the Salvadoran Air Force in 1981 and was an Aircraft
Electrician with the Combat and Maintenance Support Group (Grupo
MAC) at the Ilopango Air Base. In

The Politics of Genocide: A
First-Hand Account

he reflected on that experience: “I
was in the Air Force for 3 years and I left because I didn’t
agree with the politics of genocide. I became horrified and shocked
with what I saw, the death squad’s killings, the indiscriminate
and massive bombings against civilians and guerrillas alike.”
Gutierrez referred specifically to “Air Force Death Squads”
and cited the importance of Air Force helicopter gun ships, for
example, in the 1980 massacre at Rio Sumpul on the Salvador-Honduras
border, which left 600 dead—an incident that is sometimes described
only as the work of the Salvadoran and Honduran armies with no reference
to the Air Force. The 1993 UN Truth Commission report on El Salvador
confirms that during the Rio Sumpul massacre the National Guard
and the paramilitary group ORDEN was “backed by the air force.”
Gutierrez said, “The only Americans I worked with were the
trainers in the Inter-American Air Forces Academy in Panama.” 

the 1990s, the two Latin American countries to send their military
and police to U.S. training programs in greatest numbers were Mexico
and Colombia. In 1996, two years after the Zapatista uprising in
Chiapas, Mexico, and two years before Colombia’s President
Pastrana began promoting his Plan Colombia in Washington, Mexicans
and Colombians were 40 percent of the students at the Inter-American
Air Forces Academy and were 31 percent of those at the SOA, according
to data compiled by the Center for International Policy. 

1996 and 1998, the numbers of Mexican students at the IAAFA jumped
from 141 to 331. Not only did this mean that in 1998 Mexicans dominated
the IAAFA training programs at Lackland Air Force Base, but this
surge in Mexican students pushed the Inter-American Air Forces Academy
to the top of the list of U.S. military institutions that trained
students from the Western Hemisphere. The rise in U.S. military
training of Mexicans during the mid to late 1990s coincided with
broader support the United States provided to the Mexican military
both under the auspices of fighting the war on drugs and for counter-insurgency
campaigns against the Zapatistas and other popular movements throughout
the country. 

military support for Mexico in the 1990s was dramatically overshadowed
 by its financial support for Colombia at the end of the decade.
In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed anti-narcotics legislation of
which more than $700 million was for Colombia’s military and
police, with a significant portion for the purchase of Sikorsky
and Bell helicopters. That coincided with a dramatic rise in U.S.
military training, especially inside Colombia, but also for Colombians
at Lackland AFB, Fort Benning, and other U.S. military installations. 

2002, the training of Colombians dwarfed other Latin American countries.
Last year, Colombian military personnel enrolled in 6,230 U.S. military
training program courses, according to Department of State data.
That’s almost six times larger than the next in line, Ecuador,
whose military enrolled in 1,076 program courses. Honduran’s
military and police enrolled in 799 courses, Bolivia’s in 796,
El Salvador’s in 581, Mexico’s in 456, and Peru’s
in 420. Note that these are program courses, not the number of students. 

the 6,230 foreign military program courses taken by Colombians,
87 percent—or 5,436—were held in Colombia, while only
13 percent—or 794—were held on U.S. soil, with most at
Fort Rucker in Alabama, Randolph and Lackland in Texas, Fort Benning
in Georgia, and Fort Eustis in Virginia. It’s no surprise that
Fort Rucker topped the list as the destination for Colombians trained
in the United States in 2002. After all, it’s the “home
of Army Aviation.” The new Sikorsky and Bell helicopters bought
with Plan Colombia funding need trained personnel to operate and
maintain them. Some of the students at Fort Rucker were in the Colombian
Air Force, but most were in the Army. Nearly all the training courses
for Colombians at Randolph AFB are generically listed as “Physical
Training,” as either original or refresher courses. 

avionics and aircraft maintenance courses, training of Colombians
at Lackland AFB’s InterAmerican Air Forces Academy includes
courses in Air Intelligence, FLIR Radar Operation, Ground Defense
Skills, Search and Rescue, Special Communications, and Special Reaction
Team Certification. The intelligence course instructs students in
the “development and utilization of maps and charts for order-of-battle
information as well as targeting and principles of electronic warfare
with aerospace doctrine for mission planning purposes,” according
to IAAFA’s on-line course catalog. Skills learned in Search
and Rescue and Special Reaction Team courses are in part what’s
taught to Special Operations Forces. At Fort Benning, Colombians
are taught courses with generic titles like Cadet Leadership Development,
Department Resource Management, and Engineer Operations. Since the
SOA has had a face-lift, students from Colombia were also enrolled
in courses called Human Rights Instructor and Democratic Sustainment. 

Colombia was the largest recipient of U.S. military training in
2002, there were nearly twice as many course enrollments for Mexicans
at the IAAFA last year. The vast majority of these were either for
a Special Communications course or one on Rule of Law and Disciplined
Military Operations, which, according to the IAAFA course catalog,
has as its objective to teach international officers and NCOs of
any military force the basics of the international rules of law
and their impact on human rights, including how these international
standards fit into the planning of military operations. 

both the SOA-WHISC and the IAAFA now offer courses focused on human
rights is a testament to the years of work by activists and others
who’ve brought attention to the U.S. military training of Latin
Americans. Diligent investigative work brought details about SOA
graduates to light, for example, by cross-referencing the names
of graduates obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests
against lists of Latin American militaries suspected or accused
of human right abuses. 

what is publicly known about the InterAmerican Air Forces Academy
is mostly limited to what is published on the IAAFA web site and
to data on Department of State reports that show training course
titles, location, military units taught, training cost, and duration.
Yet given its 50-year history as the Air Force version of the SOA
and the fact that more than 36,000 have passed through its doors,
it is true that much remains to be learned about the IAAFA and its
role in Latin America.

Stefan Wray is
a writer, videographer, and co-director of the Military Documentation
Project and Iconmedia (www.iconmedia.org).