Fort Benning, United States - Echoes of machine-gun fire rumble through the forest as the rising sun burns off the last patches of morning fog. Beneath a tin roof, a gaggle of soldiers from Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, and Mexico clutch their rifles and pose for a photo.

A cheer erupts from the group when a mock artillery shell explodes in the distance.

Down a winding dirt path, a Colombian officer douses his underling in fake blood. Today's the last day of an eight-week army medical course here at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), and it's time for the Latin American soldiers to show their American teachers what they've learned.

Their mission: evacuate the "casualty" before he's killed by guerrillas.

The bloody guy moans for dramatic effect as he sprawls out behind a patch of trees. With the smell of gunpowder filling the air, a squad of soldiers trudges down the hill to begin the rescue. Soon they blanket the forest with green smoke to provide cover from incoming guerrilla fire. 

The soldiers pull out a plastic stretcher and pick up their comrade. When the teacher, surnamed Arroyo, realises the casualty is on backwards, she grows restless.

"Let's go! Today!" she commands. Before long, the stretcher is properly loaded, and the soldiers disappear through a column of smoke with their classmate in tow.

No more 'torture manuals'       

Welcome to WHINSEC, formerly the School of the Americas (SOA). Between 1946 and 2000, SOA provided military training to more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers.

It drew criticism in the 1990s, when declassified records revealed SOA educated some of the region's most infamous rights abusers, including Honduran death-squad commander Luis Alonso Discua, Panamanian military ruler Manuel Noriega, and 10 soldiers implicated in the massacre of 1,000 unarmed civilians in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote.

A trickle of disclosures built the School of the Americas's notoriety with a 1996 Pentagon investigation revealing its training manuals advocated torture, false imprisonment, and executions.

So gruesome was the picture that the New York Times called for SOA's closure, and a US House of Representatives bill to shut the place down came within 10 votes of acceptance. 

By order of the US Congress, the School of the Americas was overhauled and reopened as WHINSEC in 2001. Now it's happy to receive visitors and show it has nothing to hide.

Gone is the alumni "hall of fame", which featured former Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer. Dodgy-sounding courses in counterinsurgency have been scrapped. Torture training is long gone.

A Pentagon investigation revealed that SOA training manuals advocated torture and executions [Jake Hess]

Today, on a sprawling campus dotted with sun-bleached buildings, WHINSEC students receive classroom and battlefield education in topics such as medical assistance, joint operations, and civil affairs, each of which features mandatory instruction in human rights.

"Everything's within the context of democratic principles," WHINSEC commander Keith Anthony told Al Jazeera.
     
Transparency concerns

Measuring the impact of WHINSEC's human rights programme is practically impossible. The school released the names of its students in the early years of its existence.

But in 2004, activists provided legislators with names of soldiers who were allowed to train at WHINSEC despite being implicated in rights abuses.

The Pentagon later stopped releasing the names, citing concern for students' safety.

"There's never been any systematic tracking of our trainees, which is remarkable considering it's such a big rhetorical point for the administration to talk about the magical effect that US training has on our counterparts," Adam Isacson, who monitors US security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Al Jazeera. 

US military training severely impacted all of Salvadoran society. Rape of women and girls [by the Salvadoran military] was the daily bread in the scorched earth operations.

- Claudia Interiano, human rights lawyer

It's easy to doubt the sincerity of the security concerns. The public can read the names of dozens of recent graduates on memorial plaques adorning the walls of WHINSEC's Roy Benavidez Hall. The school's Facebook page also features photos of students.

That's one reason a federal court rejected WHINSEC's argument and ordered it to release the students' names. One year later, it hasn't done so.

Anthony, who became WHINSEC commander in April, said it was the Pentagon's decision to withhold the names, adding he'd be happy to disclose them if given the authority.

"I think it's important that we be transparent, and if we're told to release the names, we're definitely going to execute that and have no issues with that at all," Anthony said.

The Pentagon, which has appealed the court's ruling, did not respond to Al Jazeera's repeated requests for comment.  

WHINSEC's critics don't buy the transparency talk. Congressmen last year introduced a bill to halt the school's operations pending an investigation of its past. Sixty-nine legislators wrote to President Barack Obama in 2011 to denounce its "problematic history and lack of transparency". Civil society groups say shutting down the school could save taxpayers $18m annually.

Anthony is willing to take some credit for what he sees as positive behaviour by his students. When asked how WHINSEC measures its success, he said military observers at US embassies "provide us feedback - success stories, for the most part".

If, for example, a graduate of a WHINSEC course on intelligence analysis participates in a successful drug interdiction operation, "We're able to say well, okay, maybe what he learned here was applicable and helped facilitate that successful operation." 

Al Jazeera asked Anthony if he'd consider it a failure of the human rights programme if graduates went on to carry out abuses. After all, monitoring groups have found WHINSEC students to be disproportionately involved in violations.

"No, I wouldn't," he said, adding as long as WHINSEC doesn't teach students to violate human rights, it has nothing to account for.

"No matter how much you train them, once they return back to their countries, they're going to do what they're going to do, and it's out of our hands."

'Scorched earth operations' 

This refusal to address seriously the darker aspects of the US military's past involvement in Latin America pervades WHINSEC.

Joseph Leuer, an affable man with meticulously combed hair, is WHINSEC's chief of training. Over coffee, he told Al Jazeera that El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s was "fought properly" and US engagement with the Salvadoran army "reduced rights abuses". 

Yet, the Salvadoran truth commission implicated the army in 60 percent of all atrocities, including "extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, and murders of political opponents". School of the Americas' graduates were involved in some of the most high-profile killings, including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. 

Records have revealed SOA trained some of the region's most infamous human rights abusers [EPA]

Salvadoran human rights lawyer Claudia Interiano told Al Jazeera the US must face up to this history if it wants to have positive relations with its southern neighbours.

"US military training severely impacted all of Salvadoran society. Rape of women and girls [by the Salvadoran military] was the daily bread in the scorched earth operations," Interiano said.

"I think closing [WHINSEC] would be symbolic to strengthen respect between the US and El Salvador."

WHINSEC may be a symbol of the US military's training policy, but with about 2,000 students annually, it accounts for only a small fraction of American training.

Today, the school's importance for US policy lays above all in the relationships it fosters. "It's creating this kind of network of military officials under the tutelage of the US," professor Lesley Gill, who wrote a book on the School of the Americas, told Al Jazeera.

US power in Latin America has diminished with the rise of left-leaning governments eager to pursue an independent course. The Council on Foreign Relations concluded in a 2008 report that "the era of the United States as the dominant influence in Latin America is over".

As a new regional order takes shape, Washington is eager to keep its remaining paths to influence open - including WHINSEC, whose graduates were implicated in coups against leftists in Honduras and Venezuela.

"I know that we're building those ties, we're promoting those relationships to all be on the same sheet of music I guess, you know, politically," Anthony said. "These countries send their future leaders to WHINSEC, their best officers to WHINSEC, and hopefully what they learn here they're able to take back and do great things with."

Follow Jake Hess on Twitter: @jakerhess

Source: Al Jazeera