Recount: A Magazine of Contemporary Politics

“A Few Bad Apples”—A Story I Just Can’t Believe

By Patrick Mulvaney | Dec 16, 2004 Print

I first saw the photos from Abu Ghraib in La Prensa Gráfica, a daily newspaper in El Salvador. At the time, I was traveling through that Central American nation with some friends who lived there, and as we ate breakfast that morning, we pored over those graphic pages. Around the table, the photos prompted anger, revulsion and disgust—but unfortunately, not surprise.

It soon became obvious that the connection between the US military and torture was not a new one in El Salvador. After all, it was US-trained soldiers, operating on $6 billion in US foreign aid, who committed the country’s most gruesome human rights atrocities during the tumultuous civil war years of the 1980s. And aside from assassinations, extra-judicial executions and massacres, those included countless episodes of brutal torture and coercion. 

Back in the United States, however, the connection was relatively fresh, and to most people, quite shocking. So naturally, the Bush Administration’s spinners quickly worked to frame the Abu Ghraib horror as an aberration, a solitary incident perpetrated by “a few bad apples.” As expected, they played it brilliantly—so brilliantly, in fact, that their story almost made sense.


Three facts concerning the US military, Latin America, torture and Iraq—when taken together—make the Administration’s version of the Abu Ghraib story extremely difficult to believe, and moreover suggest that the prison fiasco in Iraq was not, by any means, the lone incident of its kind. Those three facts are as follows:

First, as noted above, soldiers funded, trained and supported by the US military engaged in torture in El Salvador and other Latin American countries throughout the 1980s. This is undeniable. In fact, a UN Truth Commission concluded in 1993 that in El Salvador 90 percent of the human rights atrocities during the civil war years—which included all-too-many incidents of torture and coercion—were carried out by the government and its paramilitary units, which received US funding and included many high-ranking officers who were graduates of the US Army’s School of the Americas.

Second, the US military did, in fact, teach torture tactics to soldiers from El Salvador, Panama and a host of other countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. Documents released by the Pentagon in 1996 confirmed that from at least 1982-1991, the SOA, a combat-training institute for Latin American soldiers now located in Georgia, offered detailed instructions on blackmail and coercion, among other techniques.

Yes, those two points are well documented, and are thus, to some degree, old news. But the third, a development that has been brewing since May, is the real dagger in the Administration’s version of the story: torture survivors from El Salvador and other Latin American countries are now speaking out about Abu Ghraib. And what do they have to say? Take a guess. That the treatment they endured was identical—not similar, but identical—to what they saw in the photos from that now-famous prison in Iraq.

In November, I traveled to Georgia to report and write on the annual protest and demonstration against the SOA, and I had the opportunity to speak with a number of torture survivors from throughout Latin America, as well as some family members and friends of victims of human rights atrocities in Bolivia, Colombia and Guatemala. They gathered outside Fort Benning, along with thousands of activists from across the United States and beyond, to call for closure of the SOA, in large part on account of its torture-laden past.

Behind the stage before the rally began, I spoke with Carlos Mauricio, a torture survivor from El Salvador, and he shared his story. “I was captured in June 1983,” he said. “I was taken out of my classroom, where I was a teacher of science, and I was beaten and forced into a car with no license plates. I was taken to an unknown place, and tortured in that place for about two weeks.” He went on to describe what he experienced, saw and heard in that two weeks—from soldiers tying him to a pipe and starving him to others assaulting and sexually abusing his fellow prisoners.

“I didn’t know who tortured me because always I was blindfolded, and always I was handcuffed,” Mauricio continued. “But when I left, I was taken from the chamber of torture to another place in the building. And when they took away the blindfold from me, I realized that I was in the national police headquarters in San Salvador, and I realized there that I was taken prisoner, kidnapped, and tortured by members of the national police.”

Mauricio then said point-blank: “Every single step that the torturers did to me, now is happening in Iraq. This is torture by the book.”

I also met briefly with Jennifer Harbury, whose husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, was tortured and murdered by SOA graduates in Guatemala. “The things we saw in those photographs [from Abu Ghraib] are identical to the techniques that we saw in Central America, including in my husband’s case,” she said. The forces responsible for the torture in Iraq, she continued, represent “just one branch of an entity that’s always done torture, and is still doing it.”

With the three points given—that US-backed soldiers engaged in torture in various Latin American countries, that the US military trained those soldiers in torture tactics, and that the torture in Abu Ghraib was identical to many of the incidents of torture in Latin America—it’s a pretty substantial leap of logic to conclude that the abuses at Abu Ghraib were simply the work of “a few bad apples.”

I will admit this much: I like the Administration’s story better than the alternative, which is that the US military has a long and continuing history of torture and abuse.

Unfortunately, I just can’t bring myself to believe it.

Patrick Mulvaney can be reached at .

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