School of Assassins

Inside an American terror training ground

By Max Stendahl

In the spring of 1972, a young man named Roberto D’Aubuisson waited to receive his diploma from the School of the Americas (SOA), a United States Army facility at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. With political aspirations for his native El Salvador, D’Aubuisson planned to use his studies to gain a position in military intelligence.

Cartoon by Max Stendahl

Within six years, however, the education he had received in America was perverted entirely. D’Aubuisson would come to be known as “The Blowtorch,” a reference to his preferred method of torture while leading the death squads responsible for slaughtering thousands of Salvadoran civilians over more than a decade.

D’Aubuisson is among scores of notorious SOA graduates who have gone on to orchestrate extraordinary human rights abuses. The institute, today known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC) after an attempted Pentagon facelift in 2001, continues to flourish at Fort Benning, graduating nearlya thousand Spanish-speaking soldiers each year. In recent years the school has come under intense attack by human rights organizations, which claim gross injustices inherent in the school’s tactics, typified by atrocities committed by alums in Latin American countries. Like D’Aubuisson, who chose as one of his victims the beloved Catholic priest Archbishop Óscar Romero, graduates have been linked to death squads and dictatorships, violent coups and vilified regimes. Other SOA grads include Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator and drug trafficker, and Leopoldo Galtieri, the Argentinean politico jailed for human rights abuses. By churning out deviants who blatantly disregard accepted international standards of conduct, the school’s motto, Libertad, Paz y Fraternidad (Liberty, Peace and Brotherhood) has likewise been tainted. Despite the name change, the school is still widely known as the School of the Assassins, a label as unfortunate as it is accurate. An increased focus on human rights education has done little to remove the suspicion at the heart of legislative efforts and annual demonstrations, casting a long shadow over Fort Benning, a terror training ground on American soil.


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