The School of the Americas: More than “A Few Bad Apples”

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the government of Guatemala responded to demands for justice by organizations like the Committee for Peasant Unity by implementing a systematic campaign of repression and terrorism.  According to a UN Truth Commission report, this included "acts of genocide" against the Maya population.

The government put in place the "scorched earth policy," deciding that instead of trying to find the "insurgents" fighting for democracy they’d just kill nearly everyone in the predominantly Maya regions of the country.  According to former SOA instructor Major Joseph Blair, these tactics were taught at the SOA and were based in part on the Vietnam War.

The "scorched earth policy" began under the dictatorship of Romeo Lucas Garcia, an SOA graduate.  Four of the eight military officials in his cabinet were graduates of the SOA.  The main implementers of scorched earth at first were Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas Garcia (an SOA grad) and Minister of Defense Anibal Guevara (an SOA grad and guest instructor).

Scorched earth was an intentional, systematic program of murder, genocide and terrorism.  Massacres and tortures were most often done in public, and the army chose market days, religious holidays, and other times when many people would be present.  Here is a testimony from a Catholic Church Truth Report that demonstrates this:   

"The helicopter came and flew over Cuarto Pueblo.  At first, the people were frightened and left, but then the helicopter flew off and the people came back to the market.  They didn’t realize that the soldiers were approaching and surrounding the people.  They had them congregated there for about two days.  And the soldiers put wires red, red hot from the fire into them, stuck into the mouths and all the way down into their stomachs.  They kicked others, not caring if it was a little child or a woman, or if she was pregnant.  They didn’t spare anyone there."   

During this time the government had an extensive, technologically advanced intelligence gathering system which included massive eaves-dropping, spying and infiltration of groups working for social justice.  They would gather names to be targeted for assassination and torture.

Hector Montalban and Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas, Heads of Intelligence under Lucas, were both grads of the SOA.  Callejas, Francisco Ortega Menaldo and Cesar Augusto Cabrera Mejia were all SOA grads and directors of the Guatemalan intelligence agency D-2, commonly known in Guatemala as "La Dos."  The name "La Dos" still causes terror throughout the country, and they are believed to continue to take prisoners from jails to practice torture techniques on.

 In a chapter titled "D-2: The Very name of Fear," the Guatemalan Catholic Church’s "Nunca Mas" report states that Guatemalan military intelligence played "a central role in the conduct of military operations, in massacres, extra-judicial executions, forced disappearances and torture…  It conducted extensive espionage and information-gathering operations by tapping telephones and operating a sophisticated computer network containing files on people, complete with their photographs, and information on their political and organizational affiliations."  As well as the aforementioned directors, numerous SOA graduates in D-2 leadership posts are featured in the report.  Among them are Federico Sobalvarro Meza, Cesar Quinteros Alvarado, Luis Felipe Caballeros Meza, Harry Ponce, Francisco Edgar Dominguez Lopez, Eduardo Ochoa Barrios, Domingo Velasquez Axpuac and Jose Manuel Rivas Rios.

The dictatorship of Lucas was overthrown by SOA grad Efrain Rios Montt, the most notorious and brutal of the genocidal dictators.  Montt’s coup was co-led by Egberto Horacio Maldonado Schaad and Francisco Gordillo Martinez, both graduates of the SOA.

Six of the nine military officers in Montt’s cabinet were graduates of the SOA.  Montt often used the Kaibiles, the most elite Guatemalan military unit, to support the genocide.  The commander of the Kaibiles under Montt was Eduardo Arevalo Lacs, a graduate of the SOA.  The founder of the Kaibiles was Pablo Nuila Hub, also an SOA grad.

An example of the Kaibiles brutality is Dos Erres.  On the morning of December 6, 1982, dozens of Kaibiles entered the town of Dos Erres and "raped women and girls, ripped fetuses from bodies of pregnant women and killed children by clubbing their heads or bashing them against walls."  More than 300 unarmed civilians were killed.

One of the few Guatemalan military officials actually tried is General Hector Gramajo, an SOA grad.  Although he has never been forced to serve jail time or pay any fine, a 1995 US District Court concluded that "at a minimum, Gramajo was aware of and supported widespread acts of brutality committed by personnel under his command resulting in thousands of civilian deaths."

The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by US nun Sr. Dianna Ortiz and several Guatemalan refugees, who claimed Gramajo knew of and tried to cover up their torture while he was defense minister.  Ortiz had been gang raped, burned over 100 times with cigarettes, put in pit with bodies of "children, women, and men, some decapitated, some lying face up and caked with blood, some dead, some alive, and all swarming with rats."  Ortiz also had her hand held on a small machete while it was thrust into another prisoner.

Gramajo is famous for saying that he’s a moderate, because before him the plan was to kill 100% of the population, but his strategy "provides development for 70% of the population, while we kill 30%."  Two years after covering up Ortiz’s torture, Gramajo was the commencement speaker at the SOA Command and General Staff College, the SOAs highest-level course. 

The SOA is still open, although now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the fourth name the institution has gone by during its nearly 60-year existence.  The SOA is still training Latin American military officers who will systematically massacre, assassinate, torture, imprison and terrorize civilians.  In response to the growing anti-imperialist movement in South America, the SOA and similar institutions play a growing role as the US rushes to train and arm counterrevolutionaries throughout the hemisphere. 

Note: A contingent of Vermont activists will be traveling to the School of the Americas for the annual demonstration in Columbus, Georgia the weekend of November 19.  There will also be a demo against the SOA on Saturday, November 12 in Montpelier, VT at  11:00am.  For more information, call 802-426-3783 or email For more on anti-SOA organizing near you, go to


Case 920, Cuarto Pueblo, Ixcan, Quiche, 1982 (from Guatemala: Never Again, Truth Report by the Roman Catholic Church)

Bastos, Santiago and Manuela Camus.  2003.  CONIC: 11 Anos de Lucha por el Rescate de la Cultura Maya y la Madre Tierra.  Guatemala City: Litografia Nawal Wuj

Gill, Lesly.  2004.  The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hodge, James and Linda Cooper.  2004.  Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Hundreds of interviews by the author in 2003, 2004 and 2005 with members of Comite de Unidad Campesina (Committee for Peasant Unity), Coordinadora Nacional Indigena y Campesina (National Indigenous and Peasant Coordinating Committee), Consejo Campesino Kab’awil (Double Sight Peasant Council), Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity)

Immerman, Richard H.  1982.  The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention.  Austin: University of Texas Press.

Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jack. 2001.  School of Assassins: Guns, Greed and Globalization. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

REMHI (Recovery of Historical memory Project).  1999.  Guatemala: Never Again.  The Official Report of the Human Rights Office, Archdiocese of Guatemala.  Abridged version.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books

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