The ILEA: U.S. Exporting “Criminal Justice” to Latin America from a Base in El Salvador

[Note: On June 20 the U.S. Congress will vote on funding to the International Law Enforcement Academy, or ILEA. CISPES has advocated that Congress should increase oversight of this nascent institution and eventually cut funding for the San Salvador ILEA from the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill.  To take action and join the ILEA campaign, go to]

In May, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa made a visit to El Salvador in support of foreign investment, “free trade”, and transnational gang-fighting. However, his visit was ironically interrupted by brutal LAPD attacks on a peaceful May Day protest in Los Angeles, underscoring the increasing connection between repressive police institutions in the two countries. Nowhere is that connection more obvious than in the construction of the U.S.-sponsored International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in El Salvador.

Though Villaraigosa’s visit to El Salvador was ostensibly about attracting foreign investment to El Salvador, the LAPD’s May Day assault on an immigrant rally and Villaraigrosa’s apparent willingness to promote similar tactics abroad played not only to the demands of foreign investors but also conforms to a new U.S. government mandate to appear tough on crime. Fears about “gangs” are to domestic policy what “terrorists” are to U.S. foreign policy – a convenient scapegoat for state-sponsored violence. Villaraigosa’s visit illustrated the ongoing refusal of politicians to address root causes of poverty and forced migration, choosing instead to promote cross-border strategies in which U.S. law enforcement agencies coordinate with their counterparts in other countries to sharpen surveillance, interrogation, and street combat techniques.

U.S.-Sponsored ILEA: Not the solution

In July 2005 Condoleezza Rice announced the opening of the ILEA, a regional police training academy which, according to its directors is designed to make Latin America “safe for foreign investment” by “providing regional security and economic stability and combating crime.” Hundreds of police recruits, along with prosecutors and judges from throughout Latin America, will receive training at the ILEA every year by instructors mostly from U.S. agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the FBI, the latter of which has had a remarkably large presence in El Salvador since opening its own office there in 2005.

Salvadorans refer to the ILEA as a new “School of the Americas” for police. ILEA training was already underway in November 2005, even as the Salvadoran legislative assembly illegally passed the formal agreement with a simple majority rather than the 2/3 vote usually required for international treaties. In 2006 the US Congress voted to approve the ILEA in a buried funding request in the Foreign Operations Appropriations bill.

Though it’s impossible to say what exactly ILEA graduates have done since the academy opened, the conduct of the Salvadoran police – 25% of those graduates – has shown an alarming turn for the worst since the ILEA was inaugurated. In early May the Archbishop’s Legal Aid and Human Rights Defense Office (Tutela Legal) released a report implicating the Salvadoran National Police (PNC) in eight death squad style assassinations in 2006 alone. Meanwhile, the Salvadoran Human Rights Defense Office has also published reports connecting the PNC to death squads, denouncing the militarization of the National University in July 2006, and noting repeated cases of corruption and misconduct within the PNC.

Anti-terrorism: Cracking Down on the Left in El Salvador

In late 2006 the right-wing passed two draconian new laws: an anti-terrorism law and anti-organized crime law. These laws give the police and the government the authority to target protesters and organizers who challenge policies like CAFTA and the privatization of public resources. Common protest tactics, from building occupations to streets blockades, are now conflated with terrorism, and organized student and youth have especially become targets of the latest crack-down. In mid-May the Salvadoran government announced that it would employ the anti-terrorism and anti-organized crime laws against street vendors arrested during a protest in downtown San Salvador.

Such laws are justified by stoking fears over gang violence, but in fact they correspond to a new crack-down on political organizing. By turning a blind-eye to PNC misconduct, and by granting political support to the ruling right-wing ARENA party, the U.S. State Department has endorsed this strategy of repression. The strategy corresponds to draconian policies in the U.S., especially the Patriot Act which has been used to isolate and criminalize social movement and political forces in our country. Like in Latin America, law enforcement policies in poor communities of color in the U.S. are taking a dangerous turn. Anti-gang and anti-immigrant injunctions in the U.S are on the rise, and a provision in the current Senate immigration reform bill could further this process by taking away the burden of proof for arresting suspected gang members.

Instead of bolstering repression, surveillance, and police misconduct through the ILEA, U.S. officials like Villaraigosa could use their clout to push for an independent investigation into the assassination of Gilberto Soto, a Teamsters organizer who was shot in El Salvador in 2004; or to inquire about the eight death squad style assassinations which the PNC has been implicated in; or to question the whereabouts of disappeared students like Francisco Contreras, an organizer last seen with PNC agents in February of this year. Sadly, Villaraigosa played the same role as former Ambassador Douglas Barclay, pushing for beefed up police and advocating on behalf of U.S. corporations who fear an “unsafe climate for business” in El Salvador.

A Campaign to Target all U.S. Military and Police Intervention in the Americas

After CISPES members visited the ILEA in early May a report was published outlining the critiques of the institution as well as the holes in the U.S. government’s rationale for hosting the ILEA in El Salvador. Since then, the campaign to shut down the ILEA has continued, employing grassroots Congressional pressure and education around the corrupt and brutal conduct of the PNC in El Salvador.  Should the School of the Americas (SOA) be de-funded in Congress this year, the battleground will shift to fighting the ILEA and other U.S. military and police training facilities in Latin America. Join us at