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Letter to the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia: Close the SOA

U.S. Ambassador Michael McKinley
U.S. Embassy
Bogotá, D.C.
November 19, 2010

Dear Ambassador McKinley,

This weekend, we join thousands of people around the world to demand support for human rights in Latin America and the closure of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA), now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).  The graduates of this institution have a long history of human rights violations, including civilian massacres, assassinations, forced displacement, disappearances and death threats.  From El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s, to recent violations in Colombia, to the 2009 coup of the democratically elected president of Honduras, SOA/WHINSEC graduates have consistently been implicated in unspeakable atrocities.  

Despite mandatory human rights and democracy training, the Colombian military, guided in large part by SOA/WHINSEC graduates, has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere.  As of 2009, 30 of 33 identified brigade and division commanders attended one or more courses at the school.  Top Colombian military officials such as General Rito Alejo del Río, General Martín Carreño Sandoval, General Hector Jaime Fandiño Rincón, General Harold Bedoya Pizarro, General Fernando Landazabal, Colonel Alfonso Manosalva Flores, General Mario Montoya Uribe are among the many SOA graduates accused of grave human rights violations.   Former paramilitary commander, Salvatore Mancuso, also claims that many of these officials collaborated with paramilitary operations leading to massacres, forced disappearances, forces displacement and assassinations.   

Colombian SOA/WHINSEC graduates have been linked to atrocities from the 1997 massacre in Mapiripán to the 2005 massacre in the Peace Community San José de Apartadó, to widespread assassinations and displacement in Uraba, to systematic extrajudicial killings across the country.  Since 2002, Colombian armed forces reportedly committed more than 3,000 extrajudicial executions, involving more than 500 military units assisted and/or trained by the United States since 2000.  In response to the national and international communities’ public outcry against the systematic extrajudicial killings committed by brigades all across the country, former President Alvaro Uribe dismissed 27 Colombian military officials, of which at least eleven of the officers, including Brigadier Generals Paulino Coronado Gamez and José Cortes Franco, were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas. Cortes even served as an instructor at the school in 1994.  Unfortunately, in spite of extensive reports that many of these units had murdered civilians, most of them were and continue to be ‘vetted’, or approved to receive assistance, by the U.S. government.  State Department’s documentation illustrates that only 1.5% of the reported extrajudicial executions have resulted in conviction.  

Not only is there a clear correlation between SOA/WHINSEC graduates and human rights violations, but the severe impunity that reigns in Colombia only encourages future human rights violations.   On August 18, a judge in Medellin exonerated ten members of the Colombian military who had been on trial for their participation in the 2005 massacre of four adults and four young children in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó.  Although paramilitary leaders and Captain Guillermo Gordillo testified strongly against SOA graduates General Mario Montoya Uribe and General Hector Jaime Fandiño Rincon for their role in the design and cover-up of the massacre, neither of these men is in jail for his crimes.  General Montoya was later involved in the 2008 extrajudicial killing scandal, resulting in his dismissal from the armed forces.  Rather than being jailed for his years of country-wide human rights violations, he is currently serving as the Colombian Ambassador to the Dominican Republic.   It is essential that the United States monitor cases such as these, in which human rights violations committed by SOA/WHINSEC graduates remain in impunity.  

For Colombians, Latin Americans, and us as U.S. citizens living here in Colombia, who through our work have the opportunity to see first hand the devastating impacts of the violence on the Colombian people, the School of the Americas is a tragic symbol of suffering, widespread human rights violations and failed U.S. foreign policy.  Closing the school would mark an overdue and welcome shift away from violence and violation and toward respect for human rights.  If the United States is interested in a more stable Latin America, then it is time to stop investing hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars on failed military training and assistance.  Rather, the United States should redirect its focus to the strengthening of civil society and dignified living conditions for people in Latin America.  

We strongly urge you to:

•    Advocate for the closure of the School of the Americas.

•    Request that the Pentagon continue providing current, accurate, detailed information to human rights organizations and to the public about students and graduates of the school.  

•    Begin documenting the human rights records of units receiving U.S. assistance and training at the School of the Americas, and evaluate the human rights impacts of such assistance and training.  The results should be unclassified and posted to the Department’s web site.  

•    Closely monitor the Colombian government’s efforts to address cases involving Colombian SOA/WHINSEC graduates and human rights violations.  


Candice Camargo, Melissa Cox, Andrea Bachmann
Witness for Peace

Liza Smith
Fellowship of Reconciliation

Lindsey Saunders

Christopher E.  Knestrick

Eloy García

Julie Myers

Duane Ediger