Another SOA? Police Academy in El Salvador Worries Critics

Semi-secretly established in 2005, a Salvadoran branch of the International Law Enforcement Academy, a U.S.-sponsored global network of police schools, has angered critics and human rights activists, who wonder if it will perpetuate long-standing patterns of police and military abuse in the country.

Source: NACLA Report on the Americas

Credit: US Department of StateSemi-secretly established in 2005, a Salvadoran branch of the International Law Enforcement Academy, a U.S.-sponsored global network of police schools, has angered critics and human rights activists, who wonder if it will perpetuate long-standing patterns of police and military abuse in the country. A NACLA investigation sponsored by the Samuel Chavkin Investigative Fund finds that establishing transparency in the academy’s operations—including making public its course materials and the names of its graduates—is the first critical step in ensuring it does not become, or has not already become, a new School of the Americas.

With a salt-and-pepper beard and darting, intelligent eyes, Benjamin Cuellar explains how he has built a successful career as a human rights defender in El Salvador, where more than 40,000 political assassinations have taken place since 1977. We are sitting in his office at the Institute for Human Rights (IDHUCA) on the campus of the University of Central America, and he is telling me about the time he was almost kidnapped and murdered. “It was October 4, 1995,” he begins, “and the sun had just gone down. Five men with guns came in a pickup truck.” The harrowing tale ends, luckily, with Cuellar’s escape. Framed on the wall behind him are some of the awards the IDHUCA has won since Cuellar became director of the organization in 1992: the French Medal for Human Rights, the Ignacio Ellacuria Human Rights Award, and the Washington Office on Latin America’s 2007 Award for Human Rights.

But despite Cuellar’s work, many are questioning his legitimacy as a human rights defender because of his most recent endeavor: working as an instructor and human rights monitor for a new U.S.-run police-training school called the International Law Enforcement Academy, or ILEA, located in San Salvador. Classes at the school began July 25, 2005, and as of July 2007 the academy had graduated 791 students, mostly police officers, as well as prosecutors and judges. A quarter of classroom seats are reserved for Salvadorans, while the remaining students are drawn from other countries throughout Latin America.

The academy is part of a network of ILEAs created in 1995 under President Bill Clinton, who envisioned a series of U.S. schools “throughout the world to combat international drug trafficking, criminality, and terrorism through strengthened international cooperation.” There are ILEAs in Budapest, Hungary; Bangkok, Thailand; Gaborone, Botswana; and Roswell, New Mexico. While the others have mostly been uncontroversial, the ILEA San Salvador has sparked outrage in both the United States and El Salvador, earning comparisons to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, formerly known as the School of the Americas—the Fort Benning, Georgia, school for Latin American militaries that gained notoriety in the late 1990s for having trained some of the region’s worst human rights abusers.

“The legacy of U.S. training of security forces at the School of the Americas and throughout Latin America is one of bloodshed, of torture, of the targeting of civilian populations, of desaparecidos,” wrote SOA Watch founder Roy Bourgeois after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced plans for the ILEA San Salvador at a June 2005 Organization of American States meeting in Miami. “Rice’s recent announcement about plans for the creation of an international law enforcement academy in El Salvador should raise serious concerns for anyone who cares about human rights,” he said.

And as recently as June, a member of the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador (CISPES) wrote, “The ILEA in El Salvador is functioning like another SOA, under a new name and in a new location.”

Unlike the SOA, the ILEA is run jointly by the Salvadoran Ministry of Government and the U.S. State Department—though virtually all its instructors come from the United States, and most of the school’s expenses are covered by U.S. tax dollars. By the end of 2007, the United States had spent at least $3.6 million on the academy, according to an estimate by ILEA director Hobart Henson. While the school is temporarily housed at the National Academy for Public Security in San Salvador, a permanent $4 million headquarters is under ­construction.

The school joins a slew of other police- and military-training facilities throughout Latin America run by U.S. agencies, among them the FBI, Customs Agency, and DEA, as well as training programs run by private U.S. security companies like DynCorp International. In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, Washington trained between 13,000 and 15,000 Latin American military and police personnel, according to the Center for International Policy.

U.S. and Salvadoran officials should not have been surprised with the opposition to the ILEA and the comparisons to the SOA. Before settling on El Salvador, the United States had hoped to establish an ILEA South in Costa Rica, but failed. “The story of what happened in Costa Rica,” says Guadalupe Erazo of the Popular Social Bloc, a coalition of Salvadoran activists, “is instructive because it shows the undemocratic nature of the ILEA, and the [lack of] accountability to the public.”

After a brief, aborted attempt to establish the school in Panama , U.S. officials chose Costa Rica to host the academy in 2002. An agreement with the Costa Rican government was signed, making the deal official, and the plan made headlines across the country. The agreement allowed for military topics to be taught and military personnel to participate in the school, and also gave immunity to U.S. officials. When this became public, a broad coalition of Costa Rican citizen, labor, and human rights groups demanded these clauses be removed from the agreement. The Costa Rican government ultimately adopted the public’s demands in its negotiations.

The United States, however, refused to meet these conditions, and as Kathryn Tarker of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs put it, “Washington decided to ‘pick up the marbles and go home’ rather than offer concessions to transparency and anti- military safeguards.”

Hoping to avoid the problems encountered in Costa Rica, the U.S. and Salvadoran governments worked quietly to establish the ILEA in San Salvador. In fact, at the time of Rice’s June 2005 announcement at the OAS—the first time the school had been mentioned publicly—U.S. officials were already planning for classes to begin. Little more than a month after Rice’s announcement, 36 students from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador began a course titled “Organized Crime and Human Rights” at the Comalapa air force base on the outskirts of San Salvador. Yet it wasn’t until almost two months later, on September 20, that then U.S. ambassador H. Douglas Barclay and Salvadoran minister of governance Rene Figueroa signed an agreement officially establishing the school.

In the months prior to September, public debate about the ILEA was scant. Members of the U.S. Congress were not briefed about the academy, nor was the main opposition party in El Salvador, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). But once the news media reported that the two countries had signed an official agreement in September, activists in El Salvador demanded to see the text of the document. Protesting their exclusion, a coalition of Salvadoran activists, including the Sinti Techan Citizens Network, demanded that President Antonio Saca make the agreement public and develop an open debate, consulting “all social sectors of the country before submitting it to the Legislative Assembly.”

This never happened. While FMLN senators denounced the school in the assembly and made a last-ditch effort to prevent the agreement from being ratified, their bile-filled rants, rather than critical arguments, did little to convince anyone. “We cannot support them coming in to deform the minds of our police, prosecutors and judges,” FMLN deputy Salvador Arias later said. Ultimately, the FMLN failed to mobilize the country’s social movements, and much of the public remained in the dark on the details of what was at stake. On November 30, 2005, the National Assembly ratified the ILEA agreement, with 48 out of 88 members voting in favor.

In the end, the United States achieved what it couldn’t in Panama or Costa Rica: The ILEA was official, and the ratified agreement making it so allowed for no mechanism of transparency or civilian oversight, included no agreement excluding military personnel or topics, and left the door open for a later clause that would give U.S. personnel immunity from prosecution.


Credit: US Department of StateWhile Salvadoran activists struggled to obtain more information about the ILEA in the months leading up to the Legislative Assembly vote, there was someone—outside of powerful police and political circles—who knew all about what the school was up to: Cuellar. “During this crucial time, Cuellar did not share key information with his supposed allies,” says Erazo. For this reason, many in the anti-ILEA camp distrust him and believe he is implicated in the school’s secrecy.

In May 2005, Cuellar and the IDHUCA were invited to discuss the ILEA at the U.S. Embassy with officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. IDHUCA was asked to participate in the ILEA by giving a course on human rights, based on similar courses they had given to police in the past. After researching the other ILEAs worldwide, Cuellar signed on. (Cuellar says he suggested to U.S. officials that they invite other Salvadoran human rights organizations to participate in the ILEA. These groups, including FESPAD, Las Dignas, and CENTA, could not be reached for comment or to confirm this claim.)

For its participation, the IDHUCA would be paid $500 for two days of human rights courses during every six-week “core program.” Cuellar and his colleagues would have no power to change the curriculum or to participate in organizational decisions, though they would be able to review everything taught at the school, attend any class, and speak with any instructor.

Many of El Salvador’s most prominent activists came out strongly against Cuellar’s participation. “Cuel lar is being fooled,” says labor leader Wilfredo Berrios. “It’s a shame because his presence at the school gives some people the impression that it is promoting and safeguarding human rights. I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.”

Cuellar dismisses his critics as unrealistic. “The school is here, and that’s a fact—are we supposed to cry over spilled milk? You have to protect human rights with concrete plans, not screams,” he says. He also believes it is better to be on the inside monitoring the school, because you have to be “inside to have any influence.”

“We don’t know what the future holds,” he adds, “but for now, from our perspective, the school appears to simply offer technical training—it offers some of the resources we need.”

ILEA officials say their exclusive goal is to teach police, prosecutors, and judges in improved law enforcement techniques focusing primarily on drug and gang crime. Cuellar insists he has seen all the course materials and can verify this. But no one besides Cuellar can be sure what the school is up to because its curriculum is private (except for course titles, which are available online), as are the names of all its students and graduates.

Many observers are troubled by this secrecy, considering how some School of the Americas atrocities came to light: with Washington Post reporter Dana Priest’s discovery, in September 1996, of SOA torture training manuals, and later with Roy Bourgeois’s acquisition of a previously classified list of SOA graduates, many of whom were recognized as leaders of death squads and notorious counterinsurgency groups. U.S. organizations like SOA Watch and CISPES, as well as the Popular Social Bloc and Sinti Techan, have demanded that the school make public its course materials and the names of its graduates. In a March 2007 visit to the school, ILEA officials promised to send course materials to leaders of a CISPES and SOA Watch delegation. The materials never arrived, and to date the ILEA has not made public any information on its courses or graduates.

“You can’t track the graduates of the ILEA in Salvador or their own country [in the case of non- Salvadoran students],” says Erazo. “So how are we supposed to monitor the school? We wouldn’t even know if an ILEA grad had been involved in something, or if the ILEA was teaching objectionable topics.” Course titles like “A Police Executive’s Role in Combating Terrorism” further worry critics about what is being taught at the school.

Presented with these concerns, the ILEA’s top official, Hobart Henson, who spent 24 years with the Indiana State Police before coming to El Salvador, assures me, “This isn’t the SOA. We’re not teaching torture or water boarding or anything like that. I wouldn’t be involved in something I didn’t feel good about.” When I ask to see course materials, Henson equivocates, at first saying he doesn’t have them in the office, then that it is school policy not to give them out. I also ask if I can speak with an ILEA graduate, and Henson says at first that the ILEA does not release the names of its graduates because some end up working as undercover agents. But when I repeat my request to speak with a graduate later in the interview, Henson asks Program Manager Juan Carlos Ibbott to make some phone calls.

The next day, I am speaking with Francisco Gómez, a midlevel officer in the National Civilian Police (PNC), who attended the “Law Enforcement Management Development Program” in early 2007. Gómez tells me his experience was a positive one and explains that it focused on technical matters like gathering evidence and crime-scene investigation, with a lesser focus on counter-terrorism (“This isn’t a problem in El Salvador,” he says, “but I suppose it could be”). He promises to get me the course materials and syllabi from his ILEA program. Nine months and many e-mails later, I haven’t received anything.

A Freedom of Information Act request for ILEA course materials, filed in October, has also gone unanswered.


ILEA critics point out not only the school’s lack of transparency, but also the record of abuse already established by the PNC, which most of the school’s Salvadoran students are drawn from. With about 16,000 officers, the PNC is El Salvador’s largest police force. Its establishment in 1992 after the end of the Salvadoran civil war was seen by many as a step in the right direction, since it incorporated elements from the country’s various political factions. As a Human Rights Watch report explains: “The formation of a professional, apolitical police force was generally seen as the most transcendent potential contribution of the historic 1992 peace accords.” However, the PNC did not make good on its initial promise. “The most disturbing indication of setbacks in the establishment of this new force, the National Civilian Police,” the report continues, “came with the news . . . of the involvement of a PNC agent in the 1993 assassination of FMLN leader Francisco Velis.”

Abuses attributed to the PNC have continued since then. A September article by Raúl Gutiérrez for the Inter Press Service titled “Death Squads Still Operating in El Salvador” details numerous instances of murder committed by PNC agents since 1993, including a “social cleansing” death squad called Black Shadow, allegedly responsible for a spate of killings in 1994 and 1995.

In 2006, a little more than a year after the ILEA graduated its first class, three unknown men carrying large guns burst into the home of Carlos and Wilfredo Sánchez in the department of Sonsonate. The pair of brothers, both members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, were pulled from their beds. As the Sánchez family looked on, the intruders beat the gang members, dragged them into the street, and shot them to death. Moments earlier, they had done the same to another Mara Salvatrucha member down the street.

A June 2006 report published by the Salvadoran government’s human rights ombudswoman, Beatrice de Carrillo, identifies the gunmen in the Sánchez case as PNC officers. It details this and other PNC abuses, including the case of Abimilet Ramírez, who after being picked up by PNC officers was thrown down a well and later murdered. Another report by the Archbishop’s Legal Aid and Human Rights Defense Office (Tutela Legal) provides evidence for 10 murders allegedly committed by PNC officers during 2006. One of the victims was, according to the report, tortured to death; one involved a nine-year-old boy shot to death; and eight of the murders resembled “death squad executions.” The report also notes patterns of attempted “social cleansing,” as well as strong evidence of political motivations behind several of the murders.

De Carrillo’s report also notes that between 2001 and 2006, 40% of abuse complaints submitted to her office concerned the PNC. Despite the evidence of abuse, U.S. officials deny that the PNC has done anything wrong. Lisa Sullivan, an SOA Watch member who visited the ILEA as part of the March 2007 delegation, confronted U.S. Embassy officials with the evidence of PNC abuse detailed in the Salvadoran government’s human rights report. She says they showed “complete disdain” for the ombudswoman and said her reports were “illegitimate sources of information” and that there was no evidence to support her claims. Charles Glazer, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, would not go on record to comment about PNC abuse, but he did ask that I provide him with the human rights reports, which I did, offering to translate key passages for him. Neither Glazer nor his press attachés responded.

For his part, Cuellar does not deny PNC abuse and says the ILEA will nonetheless improve and reform the police force. “In the way that [the ILEA] will develop the technical skills of police officers . . . many victims [of human rights crimes] will see results, and we will be able to denounce their victimizers with more clarity and objectivity,” Cuellar says.

This, however, contradicts the official U.S. line: Officials, including Hobart Henson, have said El Salvador was chosen to host the school in the first place because of the PNC’s supposedly exemplary record. Ombudswoman de Carrillo believes that rather than reforming the PNC, the ILEA will only make it more “professional and elegant in its use of violence.”


The ILEA has arrived in El Salvador in a context of decades-long turmoil. The country is still struggling to overcome the legacies of a civil war that ended 16 years ago, one in which 75,000 people were killed. Although the formal conflict ended, violence continues to rage. In 2005, a typical year, an average 15 people a day were murdered in El Salvador. Youth, faced with few opportunities for political representation or economic advancement, have turned in startling numbers to gangs—one police estimate puts the number at 25,000 gang members nationwide—that mirror the most reactionary elements of the Salvadoran state in their level of ultra-violence.

Since the war’s end, the country has become intensely polarized, with political assassinations con tinuing at a frightening pace. The violence and lack of economic opportunity continue to drive many into exile, and today remittances, primarily from the United States, account for an astounding 16% of the country’s GDP. Moreover, the environment for civil liberties is one of the worst in the hemisphere. The result of so many years of formal and informal civil war has led to a striking loss of faith among Salvadorans in the political institutions of their country: In a 2007 Latinobarómetro poll, only 38% of Salvadorans said democracy is preferable to all other political systems.

The Salvadoran government has responded to the gang violence with zero tolerance, or mano dura (“iron fist”), policing. Mano dura policies have swept Central America in the 21st century, frequently combining military troops with police units to patrol crime-plagued areas. The first anti-gang mano dura law introduced in El Salvador, in July 2003, allowed police to use tattoos on a suspect’s body as evidence of gang membership. A November 2006 report by the Washington Office on Latin America points out that “in the year after [this] first mano dura law was enacted in El Salvador . . . 19,275 people were detained by the police on the charge of belonging to a gang. In a striking illustration of what happens when police are allowed to carry out detentions based on such arbitrary criteria, 91% of those detained were released without charge due to lack of evidence.”

But the ILEA may have another goal besides training police to crack down on alleged gang members. The PNC has played an active role in a larger crackdown against civil liberties spearheaded by President Saca and his ARENA party, aimed at curbing both crime and social protest. Various government policies, especially free trade agreements like CAFTA, have been highly contentious, and Saca’s administration has gone to significant lengths to ensure that they succeed—including passing an anti-terror law in September 2006, modeled on the USA Patriot Act, that has been used to arrest everyone from anti-water-privatization activists in Suchitoto to San Salvador’s CD and DVD vendors who violated CAFTA’s intellectual property rights stipulations. Charges against the vendors have been dropped, but the 13 people arrested in Suchitoto will begin trial this February, and could face up to 65 years in prison. The judge presiding over this case, Ana Lucila Fuentes de Paz, was installed as the head of a new court created by the September 2006 anti-terrorism legislation—not long after she completed her training at the ILEA.

An authoritarian government supported by a corrupt police force in El Salvador can help safeguard U.S. economic interests in the country. As much of Latin America turns away from extreme free-market policies, El Salvador remains one of Washington’s key allies against the “pink tide” sweeping the region. El Salvador is, in many ways, one of the most important frontiers of Washington’s unquestioned economic influence, governed by a president who cited a desire to please the United States as a prime reason for why he supported CAFTA.

That ILEA officials and the Saca administration share similar economic interests is confirmed by a report I obtained titled the “Law Enforcement Training Needs Assessment for the Latin American Region.” This report, written in February 2005, is the founding document of the ILEA San Salvador, and was prepared by criminal justice expert Anthony Pate and the law-and-order think thank Police Executive Research Forum. (The president of this think tank is John Timoney, who has spearheaded mano dura law enforcement models in the United States; as the head of the Philadelphia and Miami police, respectively, he gained national notoriety for his jackbooted treatment of anti-free-trade protesters in the two cities, resulting in hundreds of injuries and several lawsuits.)

The “Needs Assessment” report establishes as one of the ILEA’s priorities—alongside drug trafficking, arms trafficking, and kidnapping—”intellectual property rights.” The raid on the bootleg vendors accused under the anti-terrorism law occurred less than a year after the ILEA opened its doors, and labor leader Berrios believes it is likely that ILEA graduates participated in the raid. He also speculates that pressure from the United States to enforce CAFTA’s regulations could have prompted the raids in the first place.

While it may not be the school’s primary function, promoting free trade and protecting U.S. economic interests is certainly part of the school. Henson acknowledges this much when he says, “A by-product of the school is to protect free trade and foreign investment.” The State Department also notes that one of the ILEA’s goals is to “enhance the functioning of free markets through improved legislation and law enforcement.”


Cuellar likes to tell a story to illustrate why he is involved with the ILEA. The Casquerilla brothers, aged 29 and 12, were eating breakfast one morning when several men entered their San Salvador home, which is also a small restaurant. When the men pulled out guns, the younger brother fled, and as he ran, the men shot him in the back. After the shooters left, the police arrived, and while they secured the house and restaurant, the boy, who had survived the shooting, bled to death. The police then told the women who had witnessed the shooting to leave.

“Beyond the fact of letting the child die,” Cuellar says with bewilderment, “they lost the principal witness [the boy] because of incompetence, and they let the women, who saw the shooters, leave without giving testimony and without getting their names or telephone numbers. This was five years ago, and his mother is a wreck. How can I look her in the face and deny her this opportunity to better train the police?”

But for all its pragmatism, Cuellar’s belief that the school will reform the PNC seems misguided. When U.S. officials categorically deny that the PNC is or has ever been involved in any abuses, it seems a contradiction to believe that they will reform them, or any other police force. Beatrice de Carrillo suggests that an earnest attempt to reform the PNC would take place at the Salvadoran National Police Academy, which is accountable to the Legislative Assembly, not the U.S. State Department.

And if Cuellar’s presence at the school might reassure some observers, trusting one man or organization is hardly a sound strategy to protect human rights. After all, in spite of the sacrifices he has made and the criticism he has received, it doesn’t appear as if Cuellar has challenged the secrecy that reigns supreme at the ILEA. The contradictions of Cuellar’s position are best illustrated by the way in which he is often compelled to defend the ILEA during our interview, frequently referring to the professionalism that the academy can offer El Salvador’s police and skirting the issue of PNC abuse. This is something he should not have to do as human rights monitor of the organization, and something it is hard to imagine him doing at any time before in his career: defending the police and the U.S. government. Another contradiction is the ambiguity of Cuellar’s jurisdiction at the school—for instance, ILEA director Henson does not refer to Cuellar as a human rights monitor, but rather as an “instructor of human rights courses.”

Considering this, it seems Washington is benefiting much more from its relationship with Cuellar than the other way around, and his presence at the school causes as many problems as it solves. As Lesley Gill, an anthropologist at American University and author of the book School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas, explains, “The use of human rights discourses in U.S. military and police training is something that started with the SOA. After the SOA was criticized for promoting violence and torture, they started to include a human rights course in their curriculum, and to use human rights language to describe what they were doing.” She continues, “This human rights talk is more aimed at an outside, domestic audience—at the school’s potential critics—than it is indicative of any effort by the U.S. to reform the military or police forces they are involved with. It is designed to stave off criticism. It seems to me that this is what they are doing [at the ILEA] by bringing on board someone like Cuellar.”

The ILEA continues holding classes, training hundreds of PNC officers as well as police from countries like the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and others throughout the hemisphere. As U.S. officials work to build the school’s new headquarters in San Salvador and to expand the police academy’s presence throughout the Americas, Cuellar himself finally acknowledges the potential for abuse at the school.

“Contrary to what critics claim, the ILEA is not another SOA,” Cuellar says. “But it could become one.”

Wes Enzinna is a graduate student in Latin American studies at the University of California-Berkeley. His articles have appeared in The Nation and other magazines, and on Research assistance: Adam Evans.