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Updated 06/18/2008

The Legacy of the U.S. Military and Intelligence Training in Latin America


For decades the United States has exerted control over Latin America by providing training for military and police forces in the countries of that region. U.S. military and intelligence agencies have operated education and training programs ostensibly aimed at promoting stability and military cooperation and bolstering democracy. However, a look at training programs and declassified instruction manuals from the 1980s reveals that U.S.-sponsored curricula also taught human rights abuse.

In 1946 the U.S. Army established a training center — eventually named the School of the Americas (SOA) — that has instructed more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers in techniques not only to defend their countries but to control the citizens within them. The SOA was originally based in Panama, but relocated to Fort Benning, Ga. in 1984 under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty. Critics have dubbed the SOA the “School of the Assassins” because some of Latin America’s worst military dictators and human rights violators were SOA students. According to SOA Watch, of the 60 Salvadoran officers cited by a U.N. Truth Commission in 1993 as having committed the worst human rights abuses during that country’s civil war, 43 were SOA graduates. In Honduras, at least 60 SOA graduates allegedly have been involved in activities ranging from theft and corruption to torture and murder, with more than 30 associated with activities of Battalion 3-16 and other human rights violations in the 1980s.

In the 1980s, as the Regan administration fought its war against communism in Central America, it urged increased intelligence training for security forces in the region. Thus, the U.S. Army, Department of Defense and the CIA trained Latin American military personnel to spy on, infiltrate, interrogate and even torture and execute suspected subversives, as was ultimately revealed when the Spanish-language training manuals that the agencies used were declassified in the 1990s.

In 1995, President Clinton appointed a committee to investigate the involvement of U.S intelligence agencies in human rights abuses in Guatemala. The presidential Intelligence Oversight Board, which released its findings in June 1996, reported that the SOA and U.S. Southern Command mobile training units had used improper instruction materials in training Latin American officers from 1982 to 1991. The report said the materials “had never received proper Department of Defense review, and certain passages appeared to condone (or could have been interpreted to condone) practices such as executions of guerillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion and false imprisonment." The Department of Defense initially repudiated the claims, but two months later it released seven Army training manuals and acknowledged that they "contained material that either was not or could be interpreted not to be consistent with U.S. policy."

The seven manuals, drafted in 1987, were based on lesson plans used by SOA and U.S. Southern Command instructors since 1982 along with other materials dating back to the 1960s. The manuals, which were distributed at the SOA and throughout Latin America, provide instruction in methods to identify and suppress anti-government movements. A manual entitled “Handling of Sources” suggests imprisonment, beating, and the arrest of a source’s parents as means of obtaining information. “[A source’s] value can be increased,” the manual says,” by means of arrests, executions or pacification.” It also advises counterintelligence agents to recommend targets for “neutralization,” a term that was commonly used at the time as a euphemism for execution or destruction, according to a Pentagon official.

The Army manuals do not draw a distinction between civilian movements and armed insurrection, do not adequately or consistently cover human rights, completely omit the rule of law, and advocate a purely military response to popular discontent. A passage in the “Terrorism and the Urban Guerilla” manual states: "Organizations or groups that are able to be a potential threat to the government also must be identified as targets. Even though the threat may not be apparent, insurgents frequently hide subversive activity behind front organizations.” Among the possible subversive groups the manual identifies are labor unions, student groups, refugees and displaced persons, and priests and nuns.

The CIA, which has long been involved in instructing pro-U.S. foreign security forces in psychological warfare, also conducted training in Latin America in the 1980s. It held “human resource exploitation” and interrogation courses for the Honduran military, according to declassified testimony by former CIA Deputy Director for Operations Richard Stoltz before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 1988. A New York Times article alleging that U.S.-trained Honduran interrogators systematically tortured Inés Murillo and other prisoners in their custody had prompted government scrutiny of this training. According to Stolz’s testimony, the courses included “the questioning of actual prisoners by the students.”

Two CIA training manuals were declassified in 1997, after The Baltimore Sun threatened to sue the agency for failure to respond to the newspaper’s Freedom of Information Act request for the documents. In 1995, The Sun published a series of articles revealing the CIA’s role in training Battalion 3-16. The first, entitled “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983,” was used in at least five Latin American countries, including Honduras, between 1982 and 1987. According to The Sun, it “taught interrogation methods that were strikingly similar to those used in the early 1980s by Battalion 3-16, a CIA-trained Honduran military unit that kidnapped, tortured and murdered suspected leftists in the 1980s.” The second, a Vietnam-era training manual entitled “KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation – July 1963,” is believed to the source for much of the material in “Human Resource Exploitation.”

Both manuals deal solely with interrogation. They advise arresting suspects by surprise in the early morning, blindfolding and handcuffing them, then stripping them naked and conducting a full body-cavity search upon arrival at the interrogation facility. The manuals recommend holding detainees incommunicado and depriving them of normal eating and sleeping routines while subjecting them to "coercive techniques" like prolonged constraint or exertion, extremes of temperature or moisture, sensory deprivation, hypnosis and use of drugs or placebos. 

In 1985 the CIA made a superficial attempt to correct the worst of the 1983 manual by correcting or inserting new text. For example, a revised note advises: "While we deplore the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them so that you may avoid them." The entire chapter is left intact, with objectionable material still legible beneath handwritten changes. At the time of the 1997 declassification, a CIA spokesman said these changes represented the CIA’s adoption of a formal policy against the use inhumane treatment during interrogation. He said that under the agency’s current policy, "If we learn of human rights violations which occur in the course of a joint activity with a foreign government, the activity may be suspended or ended."

In the case of the seven Army manuals, the Pentagon ordered their retrieval and destruction following an internal investigation in 1991, and Latin American governments were advised that the handbooks did not represent official U.S. policy. However, the Defense Department has noted that "due to incomplete records, retrieval of all copies [of the manuals] is doubtful." The extent to which the military has revised the content of its Latin American training program remains unclear. On Feb. 21, 1997, the Pentagon's assistant inspector general Russell Rau concluded a four-month investigation into the training manuals and reported that "no deliberate and orchestrated attempt was made to violate Defense Department or U.S. Army policies" and that "further investigation to assess individual responsibility is not required."

In 2000, following widespread controversy over revelations of the brutal tactics taught at the SOA, Congress voted to close the school and to immediately open the Department of Defense’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) at the same site. Although the new institute implemented reforms including human rights lessons for all students, the changes were largely “symbolic and cosmetic,” admitted former Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell, who fought to keep the SOA open. Today WHINSEC offers many of the same courses that the SOA taught, with about 800 to 1,000 students per year and an annual operating budget of $6.3 million.

For more information

For links to original text of declassified documents related to the CIA in Latin America, including excerpts from the CIA manuals and a 1997 CIA Inspector General’s report on CIA activities in Honduras in the 1980s: National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 27, “The CIA in Latin America.” Tom Blanton. March 14, 2000.

For excerpts and analysis of material from the Army and CIA manuals: “Declassified Army and CIA Manuals Used in Latin America: An Analysis of Their Content.” Lisa Haugaard. Latin American Working Group. Feb. 18, 1997. 

“U.S. manuals taught murder, Kennedy says; Allies trained in use of torture in 1980s.” Mark Matthews. The Baltimore Sun. March 7, 1997. 

“Torture Was Taught by CIA.” The Baltimore Sun; March 27, 1997.

CIA Stipulations to Facts Regarding Honduran Military Activities and U.S. Intelligence in Honduras in the 1980s. Except from the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the nomination of John D. Negroponte to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (S. Hrg. 107-781); Sept. 13, 2001.

School of the Americas Watch

Notorious Honduran School of the Americas Graduates 

Just the Facts: A civilian's guide to U.S. defense and security assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean 

The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation

U.S. Army School of the Americas