By Logan Hawkes
There are always two kinds of local history; the kind we are meant to know about and the kind that is intentionally kept from the public’s eye.
For instance, we know well that Spanish explorers landed on the sandy shores of South Padre Island in the early 1500’s. We know both Mexican-American War and Civil War battles have been fought on Texas soil. Dig a little deeper into local history and you might discover the tales of Nazi U-boats that patrolled the Gulf coastline during World War II.
But there is little or no documentation for some of our state history, like the special CIA-supported counterinsurgency school that operated near Los Fresnos (in the Rio Grande Valley) during the Cold War and for years thereafter. While this “school” was officially operated by and under the control of the U.S. Border Patrol, further investigation indicates the facility was funded by and under the administration of the U.S. Agency For International Development, or USAID, an organization that has a two-fold mission.
On the surface, USAID is charged with nonmilitary aid to foreign countries. The agency, still very active in modern times is charged with the reconstruction of Iraq, and has provided millions of dollars in U.S. goods and services to foreign governments around the world. Much of this assistance has come in the form of food and agricultural support services to needy third world countries. But behind the more transparent mission of the agency there is a covert and more sinister objective, namely a mission designed to aid governments “friendly” to U.S. foreign policy in the form of police and military training to control insurgent activity in their countries. This training involved counterinsurgency tactics, intelligence gathering, and covert operations designed to identify and eliminate political and paramilitary groups from threatening the security of U.S. friendly governments. Such operations have been active in just about every continent around the world and the work of the agency continues today.
The executive order that created the agency was signed into law in 1961 and subsequently a number of training facilities were opened. In fact, training took place in scores of continental U.S. bases and schools, as well as at overseas facilities in the Philippines, Okinawa, and Germany.
The curriculum, was generally based on Special Forces unconventional (guerrilla) warfare tactics. The first explicitly counterinsurgency course opened at Okinawa in May 1962. Latin American students studied guerrilla tactics at the U. S. Army Caribbean School (renamed the "Army School of the Americas" starting in July of 1963) at Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone. A ten-week counterinsurgency course was being taught at Fort Gulick at least as early as July 1961, and possibly before. Some 1,400 students graduated each year from the School of the Americas in the early 1960s, most of them Latin Americans. Some 45,000 Latin Americans — including the leaders of many subsequent military governments — would graduate before the school was transferred to Panamanian control in September 1984.
While most of America’s foreign policy departments work in conjunction with national defense agencies, it was the Central Intelligence Agency specifically, or the CIA, that was apparently charged with conducting a series of special classes at the Border Patrol facility in Los Fresnos. Spanish language classes were one of the courses staged there.
But there apparently was a bomb-making school operated by the CIA whereby field agents assigned to foreign countries were taught the art of making homemade bombs. Many of the students were allegedly members of elite paramilitary teams known as “A Teams”. You might remember the popular TV show, The A-Team, from the 80s, the story of a somewhat renegade special forces paramilitary team (in retirement), starring actor George Preppard. If you do, you might be surprised to discover that U.S. Military “A Teams” were commonly used on foreign soil. They were real. The idea was that such a team would be capable of directing, training and leading thousands of local guerrilla forces in any covert or out-and-out military missions on foreign soil.
But it wasn't just U.S. forces that were trained in Los Fresnos. In fact, a two-part "Technical Investigations Course" with CIA instructors trained students in making terrorist devices and in assassination methods, sponsored by the IPA in Washington, and staged at the principal training establishment in Los Fresnos, in which AID taught a curriculum including "Terrorist Concepts; Terrorist Devices; Fabrication and Functioning of Devices; Improvised Triggering Devices; Incendiaries" and "Assassination Weapons: A discussion of various weapons which may be used by the assassin."
During congressional investigations led by Senator James Abourezk in 1973, AID officials admitted that the Los Fresnos sessions — what the press would call the "Bomb School" — offered lessons not in bomb disposal but in bomb-making: "The course is not designed to, nor does it prepare the student to be a bomb or explosive disposal technician...." "The thrust of the instruction ... introduces trainees to commercially available materials and home laboratory techniques . . . in the manufacture of explosives and incendiaries.... Different types of explosive devices and 'booby-traps' and their construction and use by terrorists are demonstrated."
An account citing former students in the course made plain its orientation toward the operational use of terrorist devices. The ostensible counterguerrillas were taught to use guerrilla, or more accurately terrorist, tactics in carrying out their counterinsurgency missions back home.
It seems that the "Bomb School" provided the same kind of training in unconventional warfare to civilians that the Special Forces provided military and paramilitary forces overseas; and indeed, according to one source, the CIA instructors of the course were actually Army Special Forces on CIA secondment. As in Special Forces training, "the students were called guerrillas, and they were told, 'This is what guerrillas do'. Also, "students were required to sign oaths of secrecy, and to live at the camp, under permanent guard." The largest number of graduates was from Colombia (19), Guatemala (18), Uruguay (16), Thailand (10), Panama (7), and El Salvador (7); a total of 165 trainees was acknowledged by AID.
According to one ex-student, instructors acknowledged a combined counterinsurgency/unconventional warfare rationale behind the training; the United States wanted "stay-behind" assets inside threatened countries who could be turned against subversives at need: "The United States thinks that the moment will come when in each of the friendly countries, they could use a student of confidence who has become a specialist in explosives; that is why the different governments have chosen their favorite persons."
It is apparent that IPA students were hand-picked at the home country end and systematically cultivated in the United States, considering the career patterns of many of them (although not the "bombers" in particular). The principal leaders of El Salvador's intelligence establishment for example, including Major Roberto d'Aubuisson, are IPA graduates. These IPA graduates played prominent roles both there and in Guatemala and introduced counterterror "death squad" campaigns after 1966.
Even in Honduras, where "death squad" killings are a recent phenomenon, an IPA connection has emerged. Amnesty International reported that from 1981 to 1984 killings and "disappearances" were carried out "selectively but systematically by the armed forces," primarily by a Unit known as the 3-16 Battalion headed by IPA graduate Major Alexander Hernandez. The 3-16 Battalion was set up in 1981 with American funding, assistance, and training. It is theorized that many of the leaders of this group may have received their instruction from the CIA at the Los Fresnos facility.
The Main IPA establishment came under further criticism at the congressional discovery of "theses" (generally a few pages in length) written by IPA students on the theme of torture. Madhar Bickmun Rana of Nepal offered a casual, if not cheerful, endorsement of torture's efficacy.
Was it sinister? Well, it was certainly covert. But supporters of the operations would be quick to point out that such covert missions were and are important to the security and intelligence ability of our own nation.
Regardless our personal take on the issue of U.S. covert operations, such efforts were greatly expanded during the Cold War years and have evolved, perhaps, into more sophisticated defense-related agencies still in operation today.
It was in the early 1970’s that news about the Los Fresnos school leaked out during a special Congressional investigation into CIA activities. And it may be because of these hearings that the face of U.S. national security and defense policy has been reformed. Much of the more questionable activity of covert operations were subsequently farmed out to U.S. Defense contractors. In other cases, no doubt, it simply forced the covert agencies to hide deeper in the bureaucratic budget process.
Exactly when CIA training first began in Los Fresnos and when it ended is not known for certain (if it has ended at all), but there have been substantial rumors that similar training continues today in the Rio Grande Valley under the auspices of the Department of Homeland Security with the aid of CIA with Defense Department assistance.
Recent changes in the Border Patrol and U.S. Coast Guard, now both a part of the Department of Homeland Security, may indicate that America’s counterinsurgency efforts have expanded nationwide, and perhaps no where more than here in the Lone Star State.