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Proxy War and Surrogate Terror: How the US Came to Take an Active Role in War and Torture in Latin America

John W. Dower describes the US role in facilitating death and destruction in Latin and South America.

Soldiers conduct a static line jump in the Colombian National Training Center on Fort Tolemaida, August 31, 2011. (Photo: The US Army)

Part of the Series

How has the United States shaped the face of modern warfare? In The Violent American Century, John W. Dower examines the transformations in war conduct and strategizing that have taken place since the end of World War II, led by the US: from the proxy wars and nuclear terror of the Cold War to the asymmetrical conflicts, drone strikes and torture of today’s “war on terror.” Get this informative book by making a donation to Truthout today!

Although US involvement in torture focused on the Iraq War in the last decade, the United States has had a long involvement by proxy with torture and the killing of peasants and Indigenous peoples in Latin America. In this excerpt from his book, Dower describes the US role in facilitating death and destruction in Latin and South America over the past few decades.

The long and generally shameful history of US overt and covert interventions in South and Central America traces back to the turn of the twentieth century. Before World War II, these incursions, commonly in defense of US business interests, even involved protracted military occupations of Nicaragua (1912-33) and Haiti (1915-34). During the Cold War, intervention was more covert, but just as unrelenting. John Coatsworth, a distinguished scholar of Latin American economic and international history, calculates that between 1948 and 1990 the US government “secured the overthrow of at least twenty-four governments in Latin America, four by direct use of US military forces, three by means of CIA-managed revolts or assassinations, and seventeen by encouraging local military and political forces to intervene without direct US participation, usually through military coups d’état.”

Notorious among these postwar intrusions was the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), and Chile (1973). Nothing, however, obsessed North Americans looking south more than the political event Washington was unable to manipulate: the Cuban revolution that deposed the dictator Fulgencio Batista in the opening days of 1959. This Marxist revolution in the Caribbean was compounded by the alarming nuclear missile crisis of 1962, when the United States discovered Soviet missiles being installed in Cuba. From then on, planners in Washington and their right-wing allies throughout Latin America used the rationale of “preventing another Cuba” to justify clamping down on dissident domestic movements across the board, from militant Marxist agitators to socialists and liberals to anyone critical of the status quo or engaged in working to alleviate misery among the rural and urban poor.

A mid-1960s US congressional investigation reported having “found concrete evidence of at least eight plots involving the CIA to assassinate [Cuban leader] Fidel Castro from 1960 to 1965.” This was grist for cloak-and-dagger media reports. More difficult to grasp, or even see, was the sustained manner in which police states south of the border secretly coordinated their crackdowns on critics of all stripes, invariably in the name of anticommunism and invariably with the support of the United States.

A decisive step in this support took place in 1963, when the administration of President John F. Kennedy tasked the army’s School of the Americas (SOA), established in 1946 and initially located in Panama under a different name, with training South and Central American military officers and police in counterintelligence and counterinsurgency. The SOA’s classes were conducted mostly in Spanish. By the end of the century, the school had trained around fifty-five thousand officers plus roughly four thousand police and civilians from some twenty-two or twenty-three countries. A striking number of its graduates were to become prominent leaders in the “dirty wars” that would ravage Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, El Salvador, Ecuador, Honduras, Panama, and Nicaragua. Along the way, the SOA acquired such derisive sobriquets as School of Assassins, School of Dictators, School of Coups.

Taking sides in dirty wars was typical of the proxy conflicts that engaged the United States and Soviet Union worldwide and shredded the so-called Long Peace of the Cold War. In Latin America, this mostly involved the United States extending funding, training, organizational and operational advice, weapons, logistical intelligence, and the like to authoritarian regimes engaged in “counter-subversive” activities, as well as to right-wing movements dedicated to subverting reformist and left-wing governments. Washington thus found itself supporting state terror on the one hand and violence and terror against the state on the other.

The top-secret South American transnational campaign of state-sponsored terror known as Operation Condor was a beneficiary of covert US support of the former sort. Dating from the late 1960s and formally consolidated in 1975, Condor involved collaborative cross-border intelligence, apprehension, abduction, rendition, interrogation, torture, assassination, and extrajudiciary execution operations among dictatorial regimes in the “Southern Cone” nations of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, and Bolivia, later joined by Ecuador and Peru. Upwards of fifty thousand to sixty thousand individuals appear to have been killed or “disappeared” in Condor-directed actions in the 1970s and 1980s, with countless thousands imprisoned and, in many cases, tortured. More than a few victims were exiles who had fled their native countries and were engaging in human rights campaigns as refugees.

The targets of this collaborative state terror extended beyond armed militants and avowed Marxists to include anyone associated with criticizing the existing right-wing regimes or advocating social justice. This was spelled out not just in the back rooms of ruling juntas, but also in training provided by the CIA and SOA. We have a clearer picture of this tutelage from instructional materials disclosed over the course of the 1980s and 1990s that became collectively identified in the media as “torture manuals.” In these dense manuals, many of them translated into Spanish, “insurgent” and “guerrilla” were the words commonly used to stigmatize critics or dissidents. Terrorism and the Urban Guerrilla, a teaching guide introduced to SOA classes in Spanish in 1987, expresses this succinctly: “Examples of hostile organizations or groups are paramilitary groups, labor unions, and dissident groups.” Another SOA manual, Handling of Sources, is even more expansive: “The CI [counterintelligence] agent should consider all organizations as possible guerrilla sympathizers. … By infiltrating informants in the diverse youth, workers, political, business, social and charitable organizations, we can identify the organizations that include guerrillas among their members.” Elsewhere in the instructional guides the identification of explicit targets is extended to refugees, political parties, peasant organizations, intellectuals, teachers and students, universities, priests and nuns, and so on. One appalling quotation translated from a torture manual identifies target groups as “religious workers, labor organizers, student groups, and others in sympathy with the cause of the poor.”

Upon assuming power in 1981, the Reagan administration stepped into this violent world with unrestrained ardor and callous indifference to actual conditions on the ground. Despite much evidence to the contrary, the enemy was reaffirmed to be monolithic communism, directed from Moscow and spearheaded by its Cuban apprentice. As 1980s policymakers saw it, the threat was especially dire in Central America. Guatemala, where brutal repression had taken place ever since the CIA coup in 1954, was subjected to continued special attention. El Salvador and Nicaragua also became targets of fervent counterinsurgency — and insurgency — campaigns. In El Salvador, the “anticommunist” agenda involved supporting a dictatorial regime against any and all opponents. In Nicaragua, the situation was reversed. There, the Reagan administration devoted almost evangelical energy to nurturing and supporting the Contras, a terrorist “guerrilla” campaign against the left-wing Sandinista government that in 1979, with considerable popular support, had overthrown the brutal, US-supported Somoza family dictatorship that dated back to 1936.

Disclosure of classified texts and other disturbing information pertinent to covert US activity in Central America took place sporadically but frequently between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s. Much of this focused on the sensational (and farcical) Reagan-era “Iran-Contra” scandal that broke open in 1986 and involved a convoluted plot to obtain funds for the right-wing insurgents in Nicaragua by using Israel as an intermediary to sell weapons to fundamentalist and anti-American Iran for use in its war with Iraq (to which the United States was also providing support). The less remembered CIA and SOA written materials that surfaced during these years existed at a low level in the hierarchy of covert activity and were not policy documents, but for good reason they also caused a stir. They provide a glimpse into the mindset behind anticommunist covert activities, and a graphic case study of what “exporting Americanism” in this last decade of the Cold War involved at ground level.

The first significant instructional manual to come to public attention was a guide in Spanish prepared by the CIA for the Contras. Titled Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare in the original English draft, this eighty-nine-page text was greeted with shock in the United States when exposed by journalists in 1984. After introducing it as “a primer on insurgency, a how-to book in the struggle for hearts and minds,” for example, Time magazine went on to observe: “Some of the ‘techniques of persuasion’ are benign: helping the peasants harvest crops, learn to read, improve hygiene. Others are decidedly brutal: assassination, kidnaping, blackmail, mob violence. It could be a manual for the Viet Cong or the Cuban-backed rebels in El Salvador. If it were, the Administration would likely be waving it as proof of the thesis about the sources of insidious world terrorism.”

Complementing Psychological Operations and also exposed in 1984 was another CIA Spanish-language project: a cartoon booklet airdropped into Nicaragua. Titled (in the English translation) The Freedom Fighter’s Manual, this was as crude and pedestrian as Psychological Operations was vicious, but still disturbing in its own way as an exercise in low-level terrorist activity. It instructed citizens in scores of acts of vandalism (cutting cables, sabotaging machinery, putting dirt or water in gasoline tanks, setting fires, freeing farm animals, and so on) that might help bring the left-wing Sandinista government to its knees.

The torture manuals, which came to belated public attention in the 1990s, consisted of seven Spanish-language SOA texts, totaling 1,169 pages. These were distributed to military officers in eleven South and Central American countries between 1987 and 1991 and also used by instructors in School of the Americas classes. The manuals reflected teaching materials used since 1982, when the Reagan administration dismissed the human rights concerns tentatively initiated during the Carter presidency. These SOA resources were complemented by two CIA “counterintelligence” manuals — one recycled from 1963, and one dated 1983 that essentially replicated this.

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While the torture manuals open a small window onto Washington’s pervasive disregard for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law when it came to covert activities, they also cast light in other directions. One is the care taken to ensure a measure of plausible deniability about what was really being promoted. Rhetorically, this was done with euphemisms and genuflections to propriety: death squads were referred to as “Freedom Commandos” and “Freedom Fighters,” for example, and slogans like fighting for “God, Homeland, and Democracy” were promoted. Procedurally, a measure of plausible deniability was obtained by directing CIA and SOA activity largely to pedagogy rather than actual hands-on violence — without calling attention to the fact that this involved teaching right-wing military, paramilitary, and police forces how to most efficiently engage in infiltration, interrogation, torture, terror, and “neutralization” of perceived enemies.

Once these various manuals became public, Washington’s predictable machinery of “public diplomacy” went into motion. The SOA teaching guides were declared “inconsistent with U.S. policy.” The school’s course offerings also were said to include respect for human rights. “Objectionable and questionable” passages amounted to no more than two dozen — and in any case were nothing more than a “mistake” made by some misguided junior officer working from “outdated intelligence materials.” Problematic statements had “escaped oversight.” “A few bad apples” were involved in promoting, or practicing, torture. And in any case, excesses had been “corrected.”

This was, as all spin is, disingenuous. The manuals were indeed wordy — they are numbing to read — but what SOA teachers emphasized and their students found most engaging was precisely what caused these materials to be called torture manuals. This was confirmed by Major Joseph Blair, a covert operative who (like remorseful members of the nuclear priesthood and repentant tell-all CIA agents) ultimately came in from the cold. Blair had held a responsible position administering the CIA-led Phoenix assassination program during the Vietnam War, and in the early 1980s had moved on to the SOA, where he assisted the creator of the controversial manuals in the classroom. Interviewed in 1997, after having retired in 1989, he described “primarily using manuals which we used during the Vietnam War in our intelligence-gathering techniques. The techniques included murder, assassination, torture, extortion, false imprisonment.”

Turning to the argument that objectionable passages were but a minuscule part of the 1,100-plus pages of SOA instructional materials, Blair pointed out that “the officers who ran the intelligence courses used lesson plans that included the worst materials contained in the seven manuals. Now they say that there were only eighteen to twenty passages in those manuals in clear violations of US law. In fact, those same passages were at the heart of the intelligence instruction.” As for the claim that SOA instructors took care to teach human rights, he noted that this amounted to a few hours and was roundly regarded by instructors and students alike as a joke.

Copyright (2017) of John W. Dower. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Haymarket Books.

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