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November 16, 2007

Peace advocates in Costa Rica are ready for a showdown.

After visiting a controversial military training school last week in the United States, Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal said he would recommend that President Oscar Arias send police officers there for training.

Arias promised peace advocates last May that he would not send any more officers to the school, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in the U.S. state of Georgia. Arias has not yet said whether he will change his mind, said Casa Presidencial spokesman Esteban Arrieta.

“We’re energized to try to head it off – challenge the President to keep his word,” said Rita Calvert, a U.S. citizen and peace advocate who now lives in Costa Rica. “I’m proud of Costa Rica and I want it to be what it says it is.”

Reached on his cell phone in the United States, Berrocal told The Tico Times that he hopes to send 150 police officials to WHINSEC and two police schools in Miami and New Mexico for at least two years starting in 2008. They would receive training in drug trafficking, narco-terrorism, law enforcement and leadership, he said. Robberies and drug crimes have skyrocketed in Costa Rica in recent years, and the country’s waters are popular thoroughfares for Colombian drugs heading to the United States (TT, Aug. 31).

Peace advocates say the police may need training, but WHINSEC is not the place to train them. The school is run by the U.S. Defense Department and based in FortBenning, one of the largest U.S. military training bases.

More than 60,000 people from Latin America, Canada and the United States have passed through the school’s ranks, including at least 2,500 Costa Rican police officers. Formerly known as School of the Americas, the school  closed under fire in 2000 and reopened as WHINSEC under a different charter the following year.

The School of the Americas graduated some of Latin America’s most notorious human rights abusers, and Defense Department documents show that the school’s manuals in the 1980s advocated using torture, executions and blackmail to quell insurgencies in the region (TT,May 18).

The school’s dark past inspired Roy Bourgeois, a U.S. priest and Vietnam veteran, to found the School of the Americas Watch in 1990 to monitor WHINSEC and lobby for its closure. This weekend, Bourgeois will take his campaign to the grounds of FortBenning for an annual protest, which last year drew thousands of people.

WHINSEC spokesman Lee Rials said critics have not proved that graduates used what they learned at the school to commit crimes.

He added that the school is different in its new incarnation. Under a government mandate, each class spends at least eight hours studying human rights issues, including democracy, due process and humanitarian law.

That impressed Berrocal, who spent two days visiting the school last week with other members of Costa Rican’s Ministry of Public Security, Vice-Minister of the Presidency José Torres and U.S. Ambassador Mark Langdale. Berrocal said police officers would take only nonmilitary classes.

Among the school’s draws, Berrocal said, are its strong courses in narco-trafficking and the fact that all instruction is in Spanish.

The school’s past connection to human rights abuses is less relevant, he said. “I don’t know what happened in the past, and it’s not my responsibility to assess the past,” he said. “What I can observe is the present.”

Elizabeth Fonseca, head of the opposition Citizen Action Party (PAC) faction in the Legislative Assembly, wrote to Berrocal Wednesday asking for more information about his trip. She suggested that Berrocal speak before the full Congress about possible cooperation between the United States and Costa Rica in security matters.

Peace advocates reacted to Berrocal’s recommendations with surprise and dismay.

In a May meeting with U.S. activists, including Bourgeois, Arias promised he would not send any more police officers to the school after three Costa Ricans finished their courses. Now Isabel MacDonald, head the Friends’ Peace Center in downtown San José, is trying to get an appointment with the President to convince him to keep his word.

“This was a big thing, that Costa Rica, big-loving, no-army, made that decision,” said MacDonald, who went to the original meeting with Calvert and Bourgeois.

Bourgeois told The Tico Times this week Arias’ decision to withdraw police officers lent legitimacy to his movement. Bourgeois also helped convince Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela and Bolivia to stop sending troops to the school.He will bring his message to six other Latin American countries next year.

“If President Arias goes back on his word – basically if he lied to us, or was not truthful, or this was just a political maneuver – we will of course be returning to Costa Rica,” he said.

Berrocal’s visit also lends urgency to the annual protest this weekend in Georgia.

Peace activists have organized meetings, concerts, speeches, teach-ins and workshops for the four-day event. Sunday, protesters will gather outside Fort Benning, each holding a white cross with the name of someone allegedly killed by a WHINSEC graduate, Calvert said. Last year’s protest drew about 15,500 people according to the local police and 22,000 according to organizers.

When protesters describe the school’s links to human rights violations, they largely dwell on events in the 1980s and 1990s. Rials told The Tico Times in a May interview that the school has since changed markedly. But Bourgeois is not ready to forgive and forget.

“There was no acknowledgement of wrongdoing. They said we are putting the past behind us,” Bourgeois said. “The people in Latin America who have been the victims of this school simply said, ‘who are you to tell us to put the past behind us?’”

Bourgeois also takes issue with what he calls a lack of transparency at the school. When the School of the Americas Watch requested names of graduates in 2005, the U.S. Defense Department released a list of students’ nationalities and the courses they took, but their names were blacked out. The school has not released any names since.

U.S. Congressman James McGovern held up the blacked-out list on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in June, when he touted a proposal to cut off some of the school’s funding. The proposal lost in a 203-214 vote.

The Defense Department blacked out the names to protect the graduates’ privacy and security, Rials said. He added that the school’s transparency should not be judged by whether they release that list.

“What’s a measure of transparency is that you can come here and see what we do,”he said.

Reporters and other visitors are welcome to tour the campus, the school’s Web site says.

Less welcome are the likes of Rita Calvert, 74, who was briefly arrested in 1997 for crossing into the campus during the annual protest.

A grandmother of 12, Calvert is planning to demonstrate again this weekend, even though she has had four operations on her shoulder and three on her back within the last year. She was also planning to give a talk on the successful May meeting with Arias. Now she is pondering alternatives.

“I don’t object to making (the police) more effective. That’s important,” said Calvert, who headed the Dallas Peace Center for five years. “But they promised they wouldn’t send anymore to that school. ”


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