The ILEA: A New School of Assassins in El Salvador?

US Officials and FMLN discuss ILEA

As the solidarity movement prepares for another protest and vigil against the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security and Cooperation (WHINSEC, nee School of the Americas and forever known to the movement as the School of Assassins) this November, another threat to peace and democracy in the Americas lurks behind the curtain.

On September 21, the United States and El Salvador ratified the establishment of a new police academy for Latin America, to be built on Salvadoran soil. The International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) presents several concerns for Latin America’s peace and security.

After the Central American civil wars of the 1980’s, El Salvador and other nations established constitutions, peace accords, and treaties clearly delineating the roles of the police and the military. The role of the military was to defend national borders and not to control dissent among the civilian population. The role of controlling dissent was firmly lodged with the police forces, which were brought under civilian control, at least nominally.

While no one argues that more training and professionalization would help the Salvadoran security forces; which since being re-formed after the war, have been plagued by accusations of corruption, arbitrary detention, and abuse; many question the ILEA as the ideal tool to accomplish that goal. Section 660 of the U.S. Foreign Aid Bill prohibits aid to foreign police forces except in democratic countries with exceptional human rights records. Although we cannot conflate today’s Salvadoran civilian police force with the militarized police of the war years, it is still safe to say that the Salvadoran police force is light years away from satisfying the conditions of the bill.

Meanwhile, Latin American social movements do not trust the United States as an appropriate purveyor of the ILEA’s purported objectives of strengthening the criminal justice system with an emphasis on human rights and democratization. This mistrust is based at least as much on current events, such as the U.S. refusal to sign on to the International Criminal Court and the torture scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, as its long history of supporting death squad governments in the Americas. The School of the Americas trained many of the soldiers responsible for the most notorious massacres of the Salvadoran civil war and circulates manuals with such names as "How to Keep Torture Victims Alive."

There are already four other ILEAs, in Budapest, Bangkok, Botswana, and New Mexico. None of these places have the traumatic history of U.S. intervention that El Salvador has. The ILEA has the stated purpose of strengthening the fight against organized crime, including drug trafficking, money laundering, international terrorism, human trafficking, arms dealing, illegal migration and the epidemic of gang violence. The composition of ILEA students would not be only police officers, but would include judges, prosecutors, and immigration officials.

The ILEA-South was first proposed for Panama, which rejected it, and then for Costa Rica in 2002. The Costa Rican social movements pressured the parliament to put several strong conditions on ratification. They insisted on a non-military character of the school, which had already been confirmed by diplomatic notes between the two countries affirming that "the academy and its installations do not seek to develop any kind of military instruction or connection with military activities" and countless other assurances. The Costa Rican assembly also rejected diplomatic immunity for U.S. Academy personnel. The U.S. refused to accept the conditions and decided to take the ILEA elsewhere.

On June 5 of this year, the ILEA landed decidedly in El Salvador, with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s surprise announcement of the plans at the meeting of the Organization of American States. In July, the first course began in a separate facility, with students from El Salvador, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic. The school is expected to be fully functioning within a year, and will have a capacity for 1,500 students – about twice the current enrollment of the School of the Americas.

The social movement fears that further Salvadoran cooperation in the U.S. war on terror (in addition to El Salvador’s contribution of troops to the Iraq war) would increase security risks to the country. The secretive nature of the negotiations (the agreement is still not publicly circulated) has bred more distrust in the motives behind the ILEA. Many worry about further U.S. Intervention in public security at a time of intense U.S. economic interests in the region, especially with the implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) set for January 1. Suppression of popular protest, especially related to CAFTA, has been increasing.

Far from feeling "proud that the United States has chosen us," (as Salvadoran President Tony Saca suggests) the Salvadoran social movement, including the Ombudsperson for Human Rights, energetically opposes the establishment of the ILEA in their country. The solidarity movement in the United States must do the same.

Tanya Snyder is the Executive Director of Voices on the Border, a Washington, DC-based non-profit that works in solidarity with El Salvador. Photo from US Embassy in El Salvador.