Wednesday, December 31, 2014

On Torture

On Torture: No me pongas la capucha.

Photo taken by William Shelton in Guatemala City, July 1988

No te suplico. Te advierto: no me pongas la capucha.
     – Mario Benedetti

Knowing where to start is somewhat difficult. Do I begin with the recent release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report on CIA Torture? Or do I go back further and, if so, how much further? How do I tie everything that is floating around in my head and consciousness together into one coherent thread. I’m not sure. Maybe I should simply state what is on my mind.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, photographs of prisoners taken by or turned over to American forces began to circulate almost immediately. Invariably, those prisoners were hooded and bound. The photos were  uncomfortably familiar to me. I had seen them before – often. Since then, the similarities between what I was already well aware of and what was now happening, endorsed and carried out by the US government, have become all too apparent.

We have been shocked – or not – by the release of the report on the use of torture by the US military and the CIA in the so-called war on terror. The report details many, many instances of “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “alternative methods”.  The current presidents of Chile, Brazil and Uruguay – Michele Bachelet, Dilma Rousseff and José Mujica, respectively – can all give personal and intimate testimony about this. They experienced it first hand: Bachelet for one year, Rousseff for three years and Mujica for 13, often at the hands of agents trained by the United States. They call those “techniques” by their correct name: torture. If you want to know what was done to them, just read the Senate Report. It’s all there.

There is a constant immediately apparent in the Senate report, information reported in the US press about Afghanistan, Iraq and the “War on Terror” and the experiences of prisoners throughout the Americas and elsewhere: hoods. Invariably, prisoners have been hooded and bound when taken and transported so they could neither see nor move. They are completely defenseless, totally at the mercy of their captors, be they South American agents of repression in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s or representatives of the US and their proxies today. The remaining “techniques” are also the same.

As a young woman – kidnaped by Chile’s military, tortured and then expelled from the country alone at age 16 – stated in testimony reported by the Centro de Estudios Miguel Enriquez in 2013:

“They always taped our eyes shut, blindfolded us and then covered our heads with a hood. They would laugh at us, offer us food and then give us orange peels. They kept us awake at night so we would lose all notion of time.”

I have left out the more graphic details of the abuse she was subjected to, largely out of respect for her and all of the other victims who suffered similar fates in myriad other prisons scattered about this hemisphere and elsewhere, including at the CIA’s so-called black sites and US military facilities.

Many of these Latin American torturers and their superiors were trained by the US military and / or CIA agents masquerading as US AID officials. One of the better known examples of the latter was Dan Mitrione, captured and executed by Uruguay’s Tupamaros guerrillas in 1970.  Mitrione advocated using "the precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect,” according to William Blum in his work cited below. A large number of known torturers and advocates attended the US Army’s School of the Americas either in Panama or at Fort Benning, Georgia after that school was moved there in 1984. Among its more notorious graduates are Argentina’s Generals Viola, Videla and Galtieri, Bolivia’s General Banzer, numerous underlings of Chile’s General Pinochet, El Salvador’s Roberto D'Aubuisson who planned and ordered the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980. There are countless others from too many countries to name here, but least one graduate, Argentina’s Colonel Mario Davico, went on to advise El Salvador’s military during the 1980s about what was cynically called the "Argentine Method". That “method”, used during Argentina’s “dirty war” from about 1974 to 1983 included arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial executions and ways to dispose of victims’ bodies.  Hoods were omnipresent. There are still over 30,000 Argentines missing from that “war”, which was nothing more than state terrorism.

To give you an idea of how extensive the US’s involvement in the promulgation of torture has been, you will find a table reproduced below. It documents the training of both the military and police by the US in countries which have been identified as  practicing torture by Amnesty International.  Please note that this table includes neither El Salvador during Ronald Reagan’s administration nor Cuba prior to 1959. It also only covers a period of 29 years, ending 35 years ago. In short, it is extremely out of date – and yet it is also extremely telling...

Countries with US Training using Torture  – 1946 to 1975, Identified by Amnesty International

Source: The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Chomsky N, Herman ES, Spokesman (1979), ISBN 0-89608-090-0, pg 361.

So why am I delving into this “old news” in response to the Senate Report? If you have been paying attention the last several decades, you already know this is just a repeat of the past. Our use and sponsorship of torture abroad is long and ignoble. We have done this before and, unless we react and make ourselves heard, we will do it again and again and again. As Americans, we have short memories. We forget because, well, it’s just a whole lot easier to do so if we want to keep on selling ourselves as the New Jerusalem, the shining city on the hill, a country that always takes the high road. Unfortunately for us, we are the only ones buying this deception. The rest of this world knows. Today it is the Middle East. Yesterday, it was Latin America and Southeast Asia, and over one hundred years ago, it was the Philippines during the Moro Rebellion after a glorious little war with Spain fought only to expand our empire. And tomorrow, who knows. At some point, if we continue being momentarily shocked at this country’s transgression du jour, only to forget as soon as it is convenient for us to do so, the chickens will come home to roost.

As Mario Benedetti says in his poem "No me pongas la capucha", cited above, “I am not begging you; I am warning you: Do not cover my head with a hood.”

Suggested Bibliography:

Blum, William. Killing Hope. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2008. Updated edition.

Langguth, A.J. Hidden Terrors. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Brown, Cynthia, ed. With Friends Like These: The Americas Watch Report on Human Rights and U.S. Policy in Latin America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

CONADEP (Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared). Nunca Más: A Report by Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappeared. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986.

Feitlowitz, Marguerite. A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, Revised and Updated. London: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Brazil Archdiocese of São Paulo, author, Joan Dassin, ed. and contributor. Torture in Brazil: A Shocking Report on the Pervasive Use of Torture by Brazilian Military Governments. Austin: Univerity of Texas Press. 1998.

Human Rights Watch. Guatemala: Getting Away with Murder. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990

Further information about the School of the Americas, recently rebaptized as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is available at the following website:

School of the Americas Watch: Click here.

The following link from School of the Americas Watch website makes available training manuals advocating the use of torture, extortion, blackmail and the targeting of civilian populations that were used at and by the School of the Americas. :  Click here.

The following video, in which Daniel Viglietti sings "Otra voz canta" and Mario Benedetti recites his poem "Desaparecidos" expresses far better than I can everything written above. Even if you don't speak the language, listen to the words and watch the images. You will understand.


  1. This is so chilling. What went wrong with American culture--my culture--where violence is the norm? Where we export violence and torture more than we export ideas and peace? We are willing to spend more on the military then we are on education, prison reform, research to stymie climate change, the list goes on and on. I learned so, so much from this post. Thank you.

    1. At some level, I think violence has always been the norm and we have always exported violence rather than ideas of peace and freedom. Our country has intervened militarily in more than 70 countries since Independence (not counting our expansionist and genocidal campaigns against this country's native populations, beginning well before Independence). We now have troops stationed in 156 nations around the Globe. You're right, this is chilling, but it is also business as usual.