To the editors:
To the editors:
We, the undersigned, write to express serious concerns about the article “Another SOA? A U.S. Police Academy in El Salvador Worries Critics,” which appeared in the March/April edition of the NACLA Report on the Americas. There has been debate in El Salvador about the recently established U.S.-sponsored International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in El Salvador, and the article reports on real and legitimate concerns about transparency and accountability at the academy.
However, it frames its criticism of the ILEA as a personal attack on Benjamín Cuéllar, director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America (IDHUCA), who decided to offer human rights trainings at the academy.
Cuéllar is a distinguished human rights defender with a long history of selfless and courageous dedication to the cause of promoting human rights in El Salvador, many times at grave personal risk. As director of IDHUCA he has fought tirelessly for accountability of the security forces through advocacy, public denunciation, and local and international litigation. It is relevant to note for those less familiar with El Salvador that IDHUCA has personally felt the tragic effects of abuses by security forces, notably the murder of six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter, on the University of Central America campus by U.S.-trained members of the Salvadoran military in 1989.
As the article notes, IDHUCA decided to engage with the ILEA, offering a human rights course to police trainees similar to a one it has offered since the early 1990s. IDHUCA thought it important to offer the human rights training and believed that access to the institution would allow it to examine the curriculum and materials, and the courses offered. IDHUCA saw this as an opportunity to review the content and scope of the courses being given and to press for greater transparency and accountability within the institution. One may agree with this strategy or not; other organizations in the human rights and legal community in El Salvador chose not to participate in the ILEA. But agree or disagree, it is unjust and false to suggest, as the article does, that IDHUCA’s work at the ILEA implies a blanket endorsement of the academy and all its practices, or an indifference to concerns about transparency and accountability.
U.S. support for police assistance and training has been a controversial issue in El Salvador and other countries in Latin America, particularly given the history of U.S. policy in the region. That concern has been exacerbated by U.S. treatment of prisoners in Iraq and concerns about the treatment of prisoners at the U.S. base at Guantánamo. The debate over how best to professionalize the police forces of countries with histories of gross human rights violations and to promote much needed reforms is a valid one. Police training programs ought to be conducted transparently, there should be civilian oversight, and there should be clear assurances that both students and trainers will be civilians, rather than military personnel. As the article notes, there are concerns about all these issues at the ILEA in El Salvador. However, the article removes the ILEA discussion from an institutional context, instead focusing on Cuéllar as an individual, emphasizing its view of him as a loner in engaging with the academy, calling his beliefs “misguided,” painting him as secretive and unwilling to work with others, and questioning his legitimacy as a human rights defender. This is unfair to Cuéllar.
Human rights activists agree that El Salvador and many other countries in Latin America have much to do to consolidate a democratic police force. In fact, recent events in the region underscore that, however it is done, it is critical that Central American police forces be transformed into more transparent, accountable, and rights-respecting organizations.These training and reform efforts, of course, must include civilian oversight mechanisms, no military involvement, and a focus on the professionalization of police across the board. There are real disagreements about how to achieve those goals, and differing views on whether and how the United States and others in the international community should play a role in that process, but it is a process that needs to happen. There ought to be serious debate in the human rights, activist, and solidarity communities about those issues.
Unfortunately, Enzinna’s article obscured this real debate, substituting a personal attack on Cuéllar and simplistic criticism of the IDHUCA for a consideration of the issues.
Washington Office on Latin America
Center for Justice and International Law
GrandeProfessor of Government
Director of International Operations
Open Society Institute
Charles T. Call
City University of New York
Program Officer, Latin America Program
Open Society Institute
Kenan Professor of Political Science
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Research Associate, Centro de Ética
Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Chile
Raúl Benitez Manaut
Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
Ciudad Nuestra, Peru