Saturday, May 19, 2007

Costa Rica quits training cops at Fort Benning

San Jose, Costa Rica (AP, AFP) - Costa Rica will no longer send its police to a controversial US training center formerly known as the School of the Americas, officials said Friday.

Public safety minister Fernando Berrocal (pictured) said President Oscar Arias made the decision with regard to "the most sacred principles of the country's history."

"We must understand that this decision does not in any way contradict our alliance with the United States in the struggle against crime and neither does it impede cooperation in security programs to professionalize our police," he said.

While many Latin American countries send military officers to the US school at Fort Benning, Georgia, Costa Rica has not had an army since it was constitutionally disbanded in 1948.

Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize 20 years ago and has dedicated himself to international arms control. He said he made the decision after meeting Wednesday with activists from the group School of the Americas Watch.

"We agreed that when the three police we have there end their training, we won't send any more people," Arias said in a statement.

School of the Americas Watch has campaigned for years against the school, arguing that its training of the region's police and soldiers led to human rights abuses, especially during the Central American civil wars of the 1980s.

The School of the Americas moved to Fort Benning from Panama in 1984 and was replaced in 2001 by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, under the U.S. Defense Department. The school added human rights courses to its curriculum after some of its graduates were accused of committing human rights abuses.

While Costa Rica made its decision based on the primarily military nature of the school, it in no way altered the government's intention to fight crime, especially drug trafficking.

Costa Rica patrols its sea coasts with US cooperation to fight drug trafficking.

Berrocal said that he has been working with US officials to find a formula that would allow the technical training of Costa Rican police rooted in civil traditions and human rights.

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