SOA: Is It Finally Time To Shutter America's 'Coup Academy'?

Its alumni include Manuel Noriega and a long list of other dictators and strongmen turned drug traffickers. The School Of Americas (SOA) has tried to change its image, but leaders in both North and South America are calling for its demise.

A 2006 protest against the 'School of the Americas'
A 2006 protest against the 'School of the Americas'
David Santa Cruz

MEXICO CITY -- Few of the hemisphere's training centers can boast as many ex-leaders and government strongmen among its graduates. For many schools, this would no doubt be an excellent marketing pitch. Not so for the School of the Americas (SOA). None of its famous alumni reached power by way of the voting booth. Some are even behind bars now, either convicted or facing prosecution in their respective countries for abuse of power.

Created in 1946 by the U.S. government, the SOA was initially set up in Panama. During the Cold War, it was the primary training grounds for military hierarchies across Latin America. Among its more famous students is Manuel Noriega, who established a military dictatorship in Panama and is currently in prison in France, accused of working for the Medellín cocaine-trafficking cartel. Elias Wessin, who participated in the coup that toppled the Dominican Republic's Juan Bosh, also attended the academy, as did Hugo Banzer of Bolivia, who went on to become his country's dictator. Then there was the ex-president of Argentina, Roberto Eduardo Viola, and Vladimiro Montesinos, aid to former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. Montesinos oversaw Peru's intelligence service. He was later jailed for arms trafficking and corruption. The list goes on.

SOA alumni have been actively connected to human rights violations throughout the region, first in their fight against the extreme left, and then in the fight against drug trafficking. In the end, many of them ended up allied with the drug traffickers themselves. In Venezuela, Gen. Efraín Vázquez, an SOA graduate, was involved in the failed coup d"état attempt against Hugo Chavez in 2002.

This record was enough for some U.S. lawmakers to finally take a stand. Last August, 69 members of the House of Representatives (two republicans and 67 democrats) signed a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (Whinsec), as SOA was re-christened in 2001. Since opening, the school has changed names five times, "but not the curriculum," says Pablo Ruiz, spokesperson for SOA Watch (SOAW), an NGO that has worked to close the institution down.

A free trip to the United States

Lieutenant Zarza (a pseudonym) is one of 1,764 Mexican soldiers who have studied at SOA. Although he spoke openly with AméricaEconomía, he was pushing the bounds of acceptable military behavior, and asked not to be identified to avoid punishment.

Zarza arrived at SOA in the second half of the 1990s, and he admits that when his superior recommended him for the course on intelligence, he knew little to nothing about the school. His education, up to that point, had been in the line of duty, and he was often on the front lines of the battle against drug trafficking.

"For me, it was a scholarship to go to the United States. I wasn't high ranking and I didn't have any specialty in the field, but I had the highest grades in the preparatory courses, so in spite of the complaints of higher ranking officials, I went to Fort Benning," he says.

Some time thereafter, he ran into the institution's history when he saw his name and rank on the Internet, as part of a list of former students that various NGOs make public.

"I can't speak to what happened at the SOA in the past, but when I attended courses, I didn't see anything spectacular," he says. "I would even say that the courses weren't very good, and there wasn't anything new about the military policy. Mexico and the United States have very similar doctrines."

Zarza doubts that it is possible to brainwash someone in the three or six months that students attend courses at the SOA. "We even had a Colombian instructor who advised us to be careful with the gringos, so that we wouldn't have the same problems as in Colombia," he remembers.

He also affirms that he never encountered any teaching about torture techniques, nor suggestions regarding coups d"états. And how can we explain that neither Colombia nor Mexico, two countries who sent a substantial number of students to SOA, have had a coup d"état?

Zarza has a hypothesis. "Once, a South American soldier asked us how we resolved the problem with the Indians. We responded ‘we are the Indians,"" he says. He thinks that the fact that the military in Chile and Argentina pulls from the upper classes increases the risks of a military coup. In Mexico, in contrast, "whoever enlists in the military does it either out of necessity or calling."

For Argentina, enough is enough

In 2006 SOAW, led by its founder, the Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois, and the organization's Latin America specialist, Lisa Sullivan, managed to get Argentina to stop sending students to SOA, which is currently located at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia.

"The School of the Americas has done a lot of bad things, and it continues to push the idea of a ‘war on drugs' and ‘war on terrorism,"" said Argentina's then-minister of defense, Nilda Garre, during the official ceremony that made the decision law.

In Argentina today, terrorism and drug trafficking are problems that are tackled by the police, not the military. Later, Bolivia, Uruguay and Venezuela followed Argentina's example and stopped sending students to SOA.

For Kimberly Nolan, a researcher at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching of Mexico (CIDE), it is possible that both the military and SOA's critics are telling the truth. U.S. interests and the role of the military in Latin America have changed since the 1980s. "The United States doesn't think as much about the region. Latin American countries are already democratic and stable," she says.

The focus indeed has shifted from the fight against communism to the fight against organized crime. But if ever the War on Drugs goes the way of the Cold War, the SOA will find itself a military school without an enemy for its blackboards.

Read more from AméricaEconomía in Spanish

Photo - crazebabe21

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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