WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
2 Jan 2003 | News

Human Rights Concerns Regarding the Proposed International Law Enforcement Academy in Costa Rica (ILEA-South)


In June 2002, the United States and Costa Rica signed an agreement to establish an International Law Enforcement Academy-South (ILEA) in Costa Rica. This agreement completed a long search by the US Department of State for a Latin American country willing to host ILEA-South. (2) It has yet to be approved by the Costa Rican Assembly.

The US has created four other international law enforcement academies within the last decade. The first ILEA was established in 1995 in Budapest, Hungary to train police officers from the former Soviet block. To our knowledge, ILEA-Budapest has not provoked controversy. Since then, the US has opened ILEA’s in Thailand, Botswana and New Mexico. The ILEA’s are designed to provide training to police units and judicial personal, to improve police practices and encourage international police cooperation.

Proponents of the ILEA programs say that they increase foreign police productivity and cooperation with US agencies. They also credit the program with reducing corruption among police officials. These claims are hard to gage in the absence of any systematic evaluations of the training, and many of the ILEA’s are so recent that they have yet to establish a track record. Critics worry that, given the history of U.S. police and military training programs in Latin America, ILEA-South could provide training to human rights abusers. While many human rights organizations have supported international assistance for police training and other reforms, in this case we are concerned by the lack of transparency, accountability, and oversight mechanisms in the proposal for ILEA-South.

While ILEA-South is intended to provide a variety of law enforcement-related courses, the program will have a distinct focus on counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism. The US State Department has called the program a key element of the fight against the "terrorist elements who often use criminal enterprise to accomplish their goals." (3)

Both American and Costa Rican officials have been careful to draw a distinction between ILEA and the now infamous School of the Americas (SOA) that provides US training for Latin American military officials, stating that ILEA-South will train only civilian law enforcement officials, while SOA was meant for soldiers. In the agreement creating ILEA-South, however, there is no clause specifically barring military officials from becoming students or instructors at the academy. Any military presence may violate Costa Rica’s constitutionally-mandated neutrality. Furthermore, US anti-narcotics policies in Latin America have a long track record of militarization, supporting abusive police forces and practices and corrupt and anti-democratic intelligence operations.

Structure and Funding
The U.S. Departments of State, Justice, and the Treasury will share responsibility for the academy. The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC), a division of the Treasury Department, will provide the Program Director. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will provide the Deputy Director. Costa Rica will name a Managing Director who will manage the facility and any Costa Rican personnel assigned to the Academy. The Costa Rican Managing Director, however, will have no official participation in the selection of instructors, trainees, or curriculum.

The funding for the Academy also requires further clarification. While the bulk of funding will come from the US—primarily from foreign assistance, although possibly also from other budgets—the treaty stipulates that Costa Rica will pay for all "costs of maintaining, operating, and providing security for the facilities" of ILEA-South.(4) Reportedly, Costa Rican authorities estimate their costs at 200 million colones/year (roughly US$500,000).(5)

The curriculum will be established by the Director, a yet to be named official of the US Treasury Department. According to the treaty, a committee composed of an equal number of US and Costa Rican officials will provide guidance to ILEA. The committee will meet twice a year to make decisions by consensus. It is not clear what mandate or authority this committee will have or how and if ILEA-South will publicly report to the Costa Rican and US congresses or other relevant bodies. In addition, there are no provisions in the treaty for participation by regional international organizations, civil society organizations, human rights groups, or representatives from elsewhere in Latin America.

The U.S. will also create a committee composed of representatives of the State, Justice, and Treasury Departments. This committee, referred to as the Grupo Director by the U.S. Embassy, will establish the program's priorities for the use of buildings and resources. Although the purpose of the Grupo Director is not clear, it is described by the US Embassy as body that will advise the Director, and therefore influence the curriculum.

Given ILEA-South’s war on drugs focus, DEA instructors would likely teach a large percentage of the classes on counternarcotics. According to an October 2002 job posting, instructors are expected to have "practical DEA experience and academic expertise" in the following topics:

DEA mission and history, drug identification, worldwide trafficking trends, case initiation, informant handling, intelligence operations, undercover operations, firearms, toll analysis and link charting, clandestine laboratory operations, raid planning and execution, interviewing and interrogation, surveillance, evidence collection and handling, precursor chemical control, international controlled deliveries, and officer safety and survival.(6)

According to the US State Department, students at ILEA-South will be mid-level managers and officials from law enforcement agencies and judiciaries across Latin America. These will include "police, judges, and district attorneys." (7) No mention is made in the treaty about the screening of students, and it is not clear if human-rights vetting practices will be applied. For all programs conducted with U.S. foreign assistance, the "Leahy Law" bans funding to militaries and police units that have engaged in verifiable human rights abuses. Without a clear understanding of who will be trained, ILEA runs the risk of providing assistance to individuals and units with a history of human rights abuse.

Background: US police assistance in Latin America
The United States has a long history of providing police aid to Latin American countries. In the 1960s the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Public Safety (OPS) provided Latin American police forces with millions of dollars worth of weapons and trained thousands of Latin American police officers. In the late 1960s, such programs came under media and congressional scrutiny because the U.S.-provided equipment and personnel were linked to cases of torture, murder and "disappearances" in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. In 1974, Congress banned the provision by the U.S. of training or assistance to foreign police with a statute know as Section 660 of the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA).

Since that time, the US has continued to fund international police assistance via "exceptions to the FAA" approved by Congress on a case-by-case basis. Over time these exemptions have grown increasingly broad. Because police assistance programs are exceptions to policy, there are no over-arching policy guidelines nor explicit mechanisms for coordination of the disparate range of police assistance that the US currently provides. The State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) channels a large percentage of US police assistance monies to other agencies for implementation, but there is no coordinated and systematic evaluation or reporting on the current police training and assistance programs.

Since the late 1980s, the "War on Drugs" has replaced the Cold War as the guiding principle in US foreign security assistance to Latin America. US counter-narcotics policies have relied on Latin American military and police forces to play the lead role in combating the illicit drug trade, providing them with large-scale training and assistance. This assistance has lead to increased militarization and human rights abuses in many cases. Through its drug policy, the US has forged alliances with militaries, police and intelligence forces that have deplorable human rights records. In Colombia, the U.S. encouraged the use of "faceless courts" that were used to harass and jail social activists as much or more than to try drug traffickers. In Bolivia, police and military support for eradication campaigns lead to clashes and deaths on an almost-yearly basis (see WOLA’s Drug War Monitor: Coca and Conflict in the Chapare, July 2002). In Peru, despite widespread protests, the U.S. supported the infamous head of the Peruvian intelligence agency SIN, Vladimiro Montesinos, despite clear indications that he was taking drug money as well as being the key engineer of the dismantling of Peru’s democratic institutions under President Alberto Fujimori.

Despite the US’s "ends justifies the means" approach to anti-narcotics, the policy has been a singular failure. According the official US data, the supply of drugs to the U.S. has not been reduced. In fact, the drugs available on US streets now are of higher purity and lower price than they were at the start of the Andean Initiative under the first President Bush in 1989 (see WOLA’s Drug War Monitor: Collateral Damage: US Drug Control in the Andes, November 2002). Given ILEA-South’s counter-narcotics focus, it is important to contextualize its mission and purpose within these larger dynamics of US anti-drug efforts in the region.

Costa Rica’s Unique History
Costa Ricans has earned worldwide admiration for the abolition of its armed forces in 1948 and its decades of neutrality, democratic institutions, and political stability in a region characterized by military dictatorships, coups, and civil wars.

In 1981, as part of its campaign against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, the US began providing, for the first time in 13 years, security assistance to Costa Rica to upgrade and expand the existing forces and create new counter-terrorist, intelligence, and anti-drug units. The Reagan administration was able to do so by passing a congressional amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act that lifted the US ban on police training in any "country which has a long-standing democratic tradition, does not have standing armed forces, and does not engage in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights." Costa Rica was the only Latin American country that met these criteria, and the congressional amendment was intended to permit the U.S. to carry out police training there.

US assistance during the 1980s was used to expand fourfold the number of Costa Rican police and auxiliary forces. US security assistance did not improve the human rights’ record of Costa Rica’s security forces. According to the Costa Rican human rights organization, CODEHU, violations by security and judicial branches included arbitrary arrest and detention, physical and psychological torture, and ideological discrimination.

Human Rights and Police Assistance
We are concerned that today similar language of "modernization" and "professionalization" is being used to justify ILEA-South, without adequate attention to building safeguards to prevent abuse. We are further concerned that placing this school in Costa Rica serves to undermine its traditions of non-militarization and political neutrality.

Despite the troubled history of US police assistance, many human rights organizations have recognized the need for international police aid. For instance, ICITAP provided assistance for major police reforms that were key elements of peace processes in El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti and elsewhere in the 1990s. To this day, police forces throughout Latin America remain ineffective and abusive, highlighting the demand for training and assistance, but also the need for great care to assure that issues of accountability and democratic institutional development are at the fore of police assistance programs. The US’s immediate operational law enforcement objectives in the war on drugs and the new war on terror must not be allowed to over-ride long-standing human rights concerns. Neglecting human rights in policing in the region will not improve US or regional security, but will perpetuate mistrust, corruption and the lack of public trust that currently pose huge impediments to improving public security throughout Latin America.

The treaty in its current form is seriously flawed and should not be ratified without modification. Further public discussion in the US and Costa Rica – and indeed among other Latin America countries that may receive training – is warranted prior to the Cost Rican Congress’s vote. A range of questions should be addressed including the need for this training and its place in the larger panoply of US police assistance to the region; the cost of the Academy and relative portion to be supported by Costa Rica; and the guarantees of the civilian nature of the training.

It may be that the Costa Rican Congress will vote against ratification of the treaty creating ILEA-South, in which case the US should respect Costa Rica’s democratic processes. If discussions and debates move toward a vote to approve the establishment of ILEA-South in Costa Rica, several amendments to the agreement are called for in the interest of transparency and accountability. In particular, the following guarantees should be explicitly incorporated into the agreement between the US and Costa Rica.

(1) Applicability of the Leahy Law, requiring all US Embassies in countries participating in ILEA-South to track trainees and the human rights records of their units with the necessary diligence.

(2) Inclusion of oversight mechanisms to assure that training responds to police development and professionalization needs in Latin America. At present, the agreement fails to provide adequate oversight in the substantive development of the Academy’s curriculum and activities. From the text of the agreement, it appears that Costa Rican participation is limited to administrative functions and the management of the buildings, and there is no allowance for broader Latin American participation. We propose that the Academy have an advisory council to oversee curriculum content and development and processes for selecting trainees and instructors. Members of the council should be drawn from the US and Latin America, and include representatives of relevant international or regional bodies, credible human rights organizations, and recognized academic experts as well as professional police and public security authorities.

(3) Full transparency in the academy’s operation with information about the curriculum, content of courses, instructors and students available to the public on request. All courses at ILEA-South should be open to observation by external observers, including human rights monitors from the US and Latin America.

(4) Establishment of clear reporting mechanisms that require ILEA-South to submit reports to the appropriate oversight committees of the Congresses of Costa Rica and the US, as well as to appropriate Latin American institutions.

1. Prepared by Nick Carter with Gabi Kruks-Wisner, Geoff Thale and Rachel Neild. Thanks to Martha Honey of the Institute for Policy Studies for her contributions.
2. Both Panama and El Salvador declined to host the Academy.
3. Green, Eric. "Costa Rica to House Law Enforcement Academy for the Americas." http://usembassy.or.cr/ilea5.htm. 18 June 2002.
4. State Department, Agreement Between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of the Republic of Costa Rica Concerning an International Law Enforcement Academy (Washington, D.C., 2002).
5. WOLA exchange with Costa Rican Member of Congress Laura Chinchilla, 7 November 2002.
6. Drug Enforcement Administration, Office of Acquisition Management. Job Posting for "International Law Enforcement Academy Instructors" www.fbodaily.com. 16 Oct. 2002.
7. Eric Green, "Costa Rica to House Law Enforcement Academy for the Americas," http://usembassy.or.cr/ilea5.htm. 18 June 2002.