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School of the Americas revisited?
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The United States is pushing for an international police school in Costa Rica to fight drug trafficking and terrorism.

The US government is pressing to speed up plans and approval for an International Law Enforcement Academy in Costa Rica. Representatives of the Costa Rican government signed an agreement June 6 to set up what many consider to be the heir to the School of the Americas in a country that abolished its armed forces more than 50 years ago. The Costa Rican legislature, however, must approve the measure before plans can go forward.

According to the agreement, the new school’s purpose would be to strengthen criminal justice in Latin America, with an emphasis on the rule of law, human rights, democracy and building law-enforcement capacity. Areas of focus would include preventing internal violence, protecting the environment and fighting drug trafficking and terrorism.

Although the school would be based in Costa Rica, it would have a hemispheric reach and would operate like similar US-sponsored academies in Hungary, Thailand, Botswana and the US state of New Mexico. Initially drawing students from Central America and the Caribbean, it would eventually take students from throughout the hemisphere.

Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco, who took office on May 10, said his government is interested in training police to protect the environment. Some observers, however, have expressed concern that the school would turn Costa Rica into a staging ground for increased military action and repression of protesters, including those opposed to neoliberal economics and military interventions.

"News like this discourages me, because an aspiration as Costa Rican as the absolute elimination of the military is being blemished, on our own soil, with this ominous activity of finding a new role for these forces," said Edgar Gutiérrez, director of the Costa Rican-based Development Observatory. "In Central America, the US military becomes a friend of environmental protection, while in the Andes it sides with anti-drug forces. Is it really a friend, or is there a hidden agenda?"

According to José Merino, a former Costa Rican congressman and coordinator of the non-governmental Political Action Forum, the United States originally proposed Panama as the site for the new school, but dropped the idea "for political reasons." More than 60,000 military and police officers from throughout the region passed through the US-run School of the Americas, which operated in Panama from 1946-84. Many were later accused of human rights violations in their countries.

"The Pentagon was forced to make public the training manuals used in the school, which defended the use of torture, extortion and executions. It’s a school of dictators, torturers and assassins," Merino said. Among the school’s students were former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega (1983-89) and former Bolivian dictator Hugo Bánzer (1971-78), who was elected president in 1997 and held the office until he stepped down for health reasons last year. Bánzer died on May 5.

The School of the Americas was moved to Fort Benning, Georgia, in the United States. Officially closed in 1999, it was replaced by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, a change that critics charge was mainly cosmetic.

The relationship between defense and the environment, one of the most controversial aspects of the proposed academy, appears to have the support of organizations like the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE), a regional institution based in Costa Rica that conducts research and offers post-graduate courses in agriculture and the management, conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.

On June 24, more than 40 representatives of various Central American countries and the United States, including military officers, government functionaries and officials from various regional institutions, launched the Central American Environmental Defense Program for the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor.

The program is aimed at providing training to members of the armed forces in areas related to agriculture, forestry and the environment. CATIE is responsible for coordinating and carrying out the program in eight military academies and two police academies in Central America, in conjunction with ministries of the environment in the region.

"In Central America, the armed forces already have a legal mandate to take action on environmental issues under the Framework Treaty for Democratic Security and the Alliance for Sustainable Development," said Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, Costa Rican minister of the environment and energy. "This program will enable this new role for the military to be put into practice."

Some observers see a connection with Plan Puebla-Panama, Mexican President Vicente Fox’s ambitious scheme for regional integration and development in an area stretching from southern Mexico to Panama (LP, Aug. 3, 2001). They believe that the US government is seeking a way of keeping conflicts in the area, such as those in Chiapas, Mexico, and Colombia, from threatening the plan and a future Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) (LP, April 30, 2001).

"Plan Puebla-Panama and the FTAA have a military component," Merino said. "Markets and free trade can operate without the regulation of states, but protected by the police and military, which have to take action against subversives and dangerous classes — those 250 million poor [Latin Americans] who are resisting globalization."

Merino also considers it more than a coincidence that the US push for establishment of the new police school came just as the US Congress agreed to allow money for Plan Colombia, originally intended to combat drug trafficking, to be used by the Colombian military to fight armed groups.



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