On the dissemination of America's policing methods and technologies to Latin America.
We spoke with Stuart Schrader, an Associate Research Professor of Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the author of BADGES WITHOUT BORDERS, on May 17, 2022. Schrader's research on the history of various police and counterinsurgency programs offered insights into the export of such programs and technologies to Latin America. This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Evgeny: Stuart, could you please introduce yourself?
Stuart: My name is Stuart Schrader, and I'm the author of “Badges without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing”. I teach Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Evgeny: Can you explain why you think the Cold War began in Latin America even before World War II?
Stuart: Local elites and those in the United States were worried about the growing power of trade unions and peasant movements in several countries. They often used language that we would now recognize as a Cold War idiom – expressing fears of communism, socialism, and labor radicalism. In fact, the FBI was part of the US intelligence gathering operation in the 1940s and even before World War II began, studying radicalisms in the hemisphere.
The FBI sent agents to Latin America under a special intelligence operation to determine what Japan and Germany might have been doing there and to assess the strength of worker organizations and trade unionists in the hemisphere. Once the FBI arrived on the scene, they were quite successful at eradicating the odd Nazi or Japanese spy, so they dedicated much of their time to keeping tabs on peasants and trade unionists who were organizing politically.
At the end of World War II, the FBI's operation in Latin America came to an end. It was really the moment when J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI lost a significant foreign policy role. The FBI came to be replaced in 1947 with the creation of the CIA, which centralized intelligence operations in one body.
Evgeny: How did the CIA's approach to recruiting differ from that of the FBI?
Stuart: The CIA recruited from Ivy League institutions, often taking people who were among the children of the elite. However, these recruits didn't necessarily have extensive knowledge about policing or counterintelligence investigations. Consequently, the CIA needed experts in policing who could take on some of that role, including liaising with police in other countries and training them in surveillance, investigations and neutralizing subversives. They came to rely on some retired FBI agents, as well as police experts from around the United States.
Evgeny: How did the geopolitical situation in the 1950s create an opportunity for the United States to interfere in the affairs of newly independent countries?
Stuart: In the 1950s, there was a space created almost between the Air Force's obsession with long-range bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the Army's obsession with the possibility of land war – perhaps in Europe, if the relations between the United States and the Soviets fell apart. This opened up an opportunity for the United States to engage in a quieter and more hidden role in newly independent countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin American republics. These places were experiencing economic and political tumult due to rapid industrialization and urbanization, which led to potential political instability.
The United States, beginning under the Eisenhower administration, made the decision to send police advisers around the globe. Their primary objectives were to prevent either the Soviets or the Chinese from gaining a foothold in these newly independent countries and to keep local indigenous movements, independence movements, labor movements, student movements, and various left-wing radical organizations from gaining too much strength and clout.
Evgeny: How did the term "counterinsurgency" come about?
Stuart: The origins of the term are somewhat obscure, but it was most likely invented in the late 1950s by figures in the circle of Edward Lansdale, a CIA officer who had worked in the Philippines. They needed a language to name the work they were doing, and the term counterinsurgency was chosen in large part because other possible terms were objectionable.
Evgeny: Can you elaborate on why terms like counter-guerrilla and counter-revolutionary warfare were not suitable?
Stuart: Counter-guerrilla warfare was only one piece of the puzzle. It represented the coercive or violent side of counterinsurgency, but for Lansdale, the productive and constructive side was extremely important. He believed in using developmental aid to inoculate the population against the appeals of communist subversives. Counter-guerrilla warfare described a phase after the developmental aid failed. Terms like counter-revolutionary didn't appeal either, because figures like Lansdale felt that the United States’ own revolution in the 18th century provided a certain model of development, liberalization, and democratization.
Evgeny: How did modernization theory influence the development of counterinsurgency strategies?
Stuart: Modernization theory, which was the dominant way of looking at the world at this period, argued that the United States provided a blueprint for development, liberalization, and democratization. It had both a strong value orientation, as well as a set of technical and prescriptive features. Counterinsurgency came to be this combination of a productive, constructive, developmental effort – to ward off the appeals of subversives and provide a kind of democratic revolutionary idiom. But it was always paired with a coercive side, which involved neutralizing subversives through arrest, interrogation, or even elimination.
The expanding collection of people who were potentially subversive, ranging from guerrillas to student radicals, trade unionists, and professors at universities, ended up bleeding into the population at large. This led to counterinsurgency’s preventative mode targeting greater numbers of people for violence, arrest, or potential elimination as it sought to neutralize these perceived threats.
Stuart: Richard Nixon visited several Latin American countries in 1958, and he wasn't warmly welcomed. Protests occurred in many countries, with one particularly notable incident in Lima, Peru, where a physical confrontation took place between Nixon and a suspected communist agitator. In other cities, people pelted Nixon's car with eggs or tomatoes. This visit highlighted the tension between the US and Latin America at that time.
When news of Nixon's experiences in Latin America reached Congress, several conservative Southern Democrats, such as James Eastland from Mississippi, felt compelled to investigate subversive activities in the region. This heightened concerns within Congress and the national security apparatus, including the CIA and other agencies, regarding potential connections between Latin American subversives and radicals in the United States.
Evgeny: What were the consequences of these concerns, particularly in relation to civil rights activists in the US?
Stuart: The situation triggered suspicions that African American civil rights activists in the US had ties to communist radicals worldwide. James Eastland aggressively pursued this argument in an attempt to discredit the civil rights movement by claiming it was part of a global communist conspiracy. Despite holding hearings to investigate this connection, Eastland couldn't find any substantial evidence to support his claims. Nonetheless, the mere fact that the vice president had a confrontation in Peru was enough for some to argue that the civil rights movement sought to bring down the US government, which was a baseless accusation.
Evgeny: Can you provide an overview of the reasons behind the establishment of the Office of Public Safety in 1962 and its relation to the Kennedy administration?
Stuart: The Office of Public Safety was established in 1962 during the Kennedy administration to consolidate foreign police training and assistance efforts that had previously been dispersed globally. It was housed in the newly created Agency for International Development as a means to streamline bureaucracy and provide a clear line of authority. The director of the Office of Public Safety would answer to Robert Komer, a former CIA officer and National Security Council official, who was close to both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. After its creation, the Office of Public Safety gained a much stronger footing and a better budget line. This allowed the organization to operate more effectively and fulfill its intended mission. It managed to persist for about 12 or 13 years following its establishment.
Evgeny: Can you describe the relationship between the Inter-American Police Academy and the Army's School of the Americas?
Stuart: Although the Inter-American Police Academy and the Army's School of the Americas were located near each other, their training operations were relatively distinct. The Police Academy focused on teaching policing techniques, while the School of the Americas trained military officials. However, due to the blurred lines between police and military roles in Latin America, some military officials also attended the Police Academy. There were instances of co-mingling during specific training exercises, such as riot control formations, where trainees from both institutions worked together.
Evgeny: What was the range of subjects taught at the Inter-American Police Academy?
Stuart: The Police Academy provided training in a wide array of policing techniques, from basic traffic control to more advanced surveillance and counterintelligence operations. Classes were conducted in Spanish, often around seminar tables, and they included both hands-on lessons in using various technologies and forensic techniques, as well as discussions on country-specific issues. Additionally, physical training exercises, like riot control formations, were an important part of the curriculum.
Evgeny: What led to the closure of the Inter-American Police Academy?
Stuart: The Police Academy in the Panama Canal Zone was forced to close abruptly due to massive protests against the United States in Panama. The building housing the academy was damaged during these protests, and some trainees and trainers sustained injuries. The Office of Public Safety had no choice but to shut down the academy in response to the volatile situation.
Stuart: Dan Mitrione was a police chief from Richmond, Indiana, who ended up working for the Office of Public Safety. He was sent to Brazil and Uruguay to train the police. After his time in Brazil, when he was in Uruguay, he was kidnapped and ultimately assassinated by an underground revolutionary group called the Tupamaros. They kidnapped him because they claimed that he had taught Brazilian police how to engage in torture. There were suspicions that he was doing this same training in torture in Uruguay.
Evgeny: What was the primary motivation behind the establishment of the Office of Public Safety?
Stuart: The Office of Public Safety was established to address the need for improved communication and coordination among law enforcement agencies in aid-recipient countries. By introducing new communication technologies, the Office aimed to enhance the flow of information between rural provinces and capital cities, enabling police forces to effectively conduct investigations, manage potential threats, and control border crossings. Additionally, the Office sought to facilitate connections among countries to monitor and counteract the movement of so-called subversives across borders, ultimately contributing to regional stability and security.
The Office of Public Safety assisted six Central American countries in developing a regional teletype system. This system allowed countries to notify one another about revolutionaries fleeing across borders, moving contraband, or staging new political mobilizations. The belief in Washington was that Cuba was sending revolutionaries across Latin America, particularly in Central America and the Andes, which created a need for centralized police communication technologies to link police forces of different countries. Nicaragua was considered a weak link in the network established by the US, but in the 1970s it was integrated as well.
Evgeny: How did the idea of the emergency services telephone number originate in the Latin American context, and what was its initial purpose?
Stuart: The Office of Public Safety saw other countries as places to try out new ideas, and one of those was the emergency services telephone number. The first instance of this was in Caracas, Venezuela, and it was developed with the intention of catching revolutionaries. The thought was that revolutionaries were committing acts of terrorism, and the police were always arriving too late to catch the suspects. So, public safety advisors came up with the idea to teach everyone a single number to call, which would reduce police response times. This was both a public relations campaign and a technological innovation.
The model in Caracas appeared to be somewhat successful, and the Office of Public Safety presented the idea of a universal emergency services number to police experts within the United States. Within a few years, with support from the White House and the Department of Justice, the concept for a similar number in the United States began to emerge. Although telecommunications companies were initially resistant, the success of the Caracas model helped alleviate some of their concerns about the jurisdictional and technological challenges of implementing a number like 911.
Evgeny: Can you describe the teletype technology?
Stuart: The teletype machine enables standardized communication by allowing users to utilize specific terminology that both the sender and recipient understand, reducing the chances of misinterpretation. It fosters long-distance communication between people who may not know each other, as the message can be easily received by someone on call, regardless of their relationship with the sender. The crucial information in the message is intended to be universally understandable, facilitating rapid and easy-to-interpret dissemination of information.
A classic example of the teletype's use is the all-points bulletin, which is often portrayed in television shows. Details about a criminal suspect are circulated widely, allowing for the efficient dissemination of crucial information. Nowadays, regional teletype networks even enable this communication to occur across borders, expanding its reach and effectiveness.
Stuart: Vicente Huerta Celis served as the director general of the Carabineros, the paramilitary urban police force in Chile, throughout the 1960s. He visited the International Police Academy, run by the Office of Public Safety, in Washington, D.C. on a couple of occasions. When Salvador Allende became president, Huerta Celis went into exile and ended up at the University of California in Berkeley.
Following the 1973 coup and Allende's death, Huerta Celis returned to Chile and took up a command-level position in domestic urban security. It's important to note his close connection to the Office of Public Safety and the fact that the Carabineros, under its guidance, had become a bolstered paramilitary police force. They were even tasked with arresting Allende, had he survived the coup. This illustrates a connection between the Office of Public Safety and the coup planning.
Stuart: The Police Operations Control Center (POCC) serves as a training center for police officials from around the world, providing them with an opportunity to engage in simulations of various emergency or crisis situations. The main goal of these simulations is to teach trainees about centralizing command, coordinating messages, managing resources, and gathering intelligence. By participating in these exercises, trainees can rehearse and learn how to improvise when dealing with real-life emergencies.
Initially, the most common crisis situation used for training was a political revolution. However, they have expanded to include other emergencies such as earthquakes, massive fires and industrial accidents. The idea is to provide a diverse range of scenarios to help prepare trainees for various challenges they might face in their careers.
Evgeny: Can you describe the setup of the POCC's situation room and how it facilitates these simulations?
Stuart: The situation room features a giant map on one wall, depicting a fictional city called Rio Bravos in the Republic of San Martin. This serves as the backdrop for many simulations, including those involving political unrest caused by subversives from neighboring Maoland. The room is equipped with screens for projecting images of suspects or tracking incidents, and trainees use grease pencils to outline the movement of police forces and emergency responders. Communication during the simulations is facilitated through telephones and teletypes, allowing trainees to practice coordinating their efforts in a realistic environment.
Evgeny: Can you elaborate on the impact of the International Police Academy's strategy of teaching high-ranking officers to train their own personnel?
Stuart: The International Police Academy's focus on "training the trainers" had a significant impact on the global dissemination of their training methods and technologies. High-ranking officers from various countries would come to Washington, D.C., receive training at the POCC, and then return to their home countries to train their own officers. This approach allowed for the effective spread of knowledge and best practices in handling emergency and crisis situations.
The POCC model was replicated in several countries, including Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Iran, Somalia, and Venezuela, with the help of the Office of Public Safety, which provided blueprints and even physical facilities. Additionally, US police officials constructed similar simulation training centers in cities like Los Angeles and Cincinnati. The US Department of Defense and the US Army also took an interest in these types of simulations, adopting some of the POCC's methods for their own training in civil disturbance control.
Evgeny: Can you provide some historical details about the International Police Academy during the 1960s and 1970s? Why was it eventually shut down?
Stuart: The International Police Academy was operational in Washington, D.C., from around 1963 to 1975. A key aspect of its training operations was the POCC, which saw its peak use for riot control training during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1974, the Office of Public Safety closed down its overseas operations and shuttered the training academy the following year. This was due to Congress amending legislation that authorized foreign assistance, limiting the circumstances under which the United States could provide police training overseas.
Congress changed the law largely because activists managed to convince them of the need to do so. Groups such as the North American Congress for Latin America and the Institute for Policy Studies worked closely with Senator James Abourezk from South Dakota. They criticized US foreign policy, arguing that it was increasing authoritarianism overseas, particularly in Latin America, and that the United States was training police in torture. This coincided with a time when Congress was shifting towards a more dovish foreign policy.
Evgeny: How did the political climate and events of the time, such as the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration, influence the decision to close the Office of Public Safety?
Stuart: The Vietnam War was a massive failure and was coming to an end at the time. Simultaneously, the Nixon administration was in turmoil, with Nixon soon to be on his way out. This created a moment of significant political reconfiguration, where the national security apparatus was somewhat discredited. The Office of Public Safety found itself at the center of many allegations of human rights abuses across the globe, which were brought to light by anti-war and anti-imperialist activists.
Evgeny: What is the global perspective of US police officials, and how has their role in global operations shaped the success of these operations throughout the second half of the 20th century and beyond?
Stuart: The history of the Office of Public Safety shows that US police officials have always understood their task as more than local. They have perceived the threats and challenges they face as global in character. In places like Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the most important benchmarks for success was creating a robust and reliable local police force, which the US failed to achieve repeatedly. This desire to create a reliable police force goes back to the earliest moments of the US overseas empire and has been a recurring theme in US foreign policy.
The United States has taken on the role of a global policeman, trying to solve problems that could be considered the internal affairs of other countries. They send police personnel to train, equip and upgrade forces in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This has been happening in various forms for decades. The Office of Public Safety was the most detailed and well-thought-out version of this plan, but even though it no longer exists, the reliance on police has persisted, with operations dispersed among different agencies.
As police in US cities face criticism, their global activities are also being scrutinized. Many of the ways they behave in the United States are replicated overseas, and vice versa, because of the tight linkages among police across borders that the United States has fostered.
The inaugural director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who served for nearly 48 years, shaping the bureau into a significant American law enforcement agency, despite criticism for his methods and use of power. More
A U.S. agency gathering intelligence and conducting covert operations during the Cold War, infamous for interventions in Latin America and allegations of power abuses. More
A U.S. Air Force officer and CIA operative known for his influential Cold War counterinsurgency strategies in the Philippines and Vietnam. More
37th President of the United States, Nixon's presidency was defined by achievements in foreign policy, the Watergate scandal, and his subsequent resignation in 1974 - the only U.S. president to resign. More
A dominant U.S. Democratic senator from Mississippi, serving from 1943 to 1978. Known for his staunch support of segregation and states' rights, Eastland held significant influence over judicial nominations as the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, contributing to the polarizing discourse on civil rights in the United States. More
As a U.S. national security adviser, Komer led counter-insurgency efforts during the Vietnam War, initiating the controversial "Phoenix Program" to dismantle Viet Cong infrastructure. More
John F. Kennedy: John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, is renowned for his charismatic leadership during pivotal events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Space Race. More
Lyndon Johnson: 36th President of the United States, his "Great Society" domestic agenda aimed at civil rights, poverty, and education but his presidency was overshadowed by the Vietnam War. More
An American USAID official controversial for advising Latin American police forces on interrogation techniques during the Cold War. More
As head of Chile's Carabineros during Frei's era, Huerta had a controversial reputation, especially on the left. During his tenure, he cultivated relations with Washington, using US assistance to modernize the Chilean police. More
The national law enforcement police of Chile, tasked with maintaining order and enforcing Chilean laws since 1927. More
Part of Chile's police academy, it represented a significant export of policing techniques abroad, influencing international law enforcement practices. More
A US training program for foreign police forces, criticized for involvement in human rights abuses and support for repressive regimes. More
Institute for Policy Studies: A progressive think tank established in 1963, notable for its connection to the assassinated Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier. More
James Abourezk: A former U.S. Senator from South Dakota, and the first Arab-American in the Senate. Known for his activism on Native American and Middle Eastern issues, he profoundly influenced American policy discussions on these topics.Instrumental in bringing public attention to America's role in training repressive police forces from abroad. More
- Schrader, Stuart. “‘Global Counterinsurgency and the Police-military Continuum: Introduction to the Special Issue.’” Small Wars & Insurgencies, Routledge, Mar. 2022, pp. 1–28.
- Schrader, Stuart. “To Protect and Serve Themselves.” Public Culture, vol. 31, no. 3, Duke UP, Sept. 2019, pp. 601–23.
- Schrader, Stuart. “Cops at War: How World War II Transformed U.S. Policing.” Modern American History, vol. 4, no. 2, Cambridge UP, June 2021, pp. 159–79.