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Ecuador's military trained in rights

Published Oct. 6, 2005

Not long ago, Latin American soldiers were waging an all-out war on human rights.

Egged on by the dictators who once ruled the political roost, the region's armed forces "disappeared" thousands of dissidents in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. The cost of speaking out was exile, torture or execution.

To the man in the street, the archetypal soldier was _ and often remains _ a jack-booted thug.

Ecuador, however, is taking steps to repair that image.

Last July, Defense Minister Gen. Jose Gallardo and the Quito-based Latin American Association for Human Rights (ALDHU) signed a landmark deal that will put every Ecuadorian soldier through schooling in human rights and democracy. The scheme also includes seminars on a subject that remains anathema to militaries up and down the continent: past abuses.

"This is a big breakthrough for human rights and modernization in Latin America," says Gloria Maira, general coordinator at ALDHU. "A few years ago, to expect even a simple dialogue with the armed forces was absurdly utopian."

Funded by the United Nations and taught by civilian academics, the two-year program is gradually working its way down Ecuador's military chain of command. The chiefs of staff have already attended seminars, and 6,000 more senior officers are next in line. Over the following months, workshops will be held in academies, bases and military colleges around the country. Not one of Ecuador's 85,000 soldiers is exempt.

It is no surprise that Ecuador is taking the lead. Although this tiny republic suffered bouts of dictatorship before the return to democracy in 1979, its military regimes were mild compared with those in neighboring countries. In fact, the Ecuadorean military has a strong liberal tradition with roots stretching back to the revolutions at the turn of the century.

Soon after taking over government in 1896, Gen. Eloy Alfaro, himself a member of the Liberal Party, curbed the power of the church and tried to modernize state administration. Today, former military regimes are remembered as able agents of reform, and in polls the military ranks among the country's most trusted institutions.

Says Maira, the rights coordinator: "Its experience makes Ecuador's military the most receptive to human rights teaching."

The ALDHU scheme appears to be more than window-dressing. Soon after becoming defense minister in 1992, Gallardo launched an internal investigation into codes of discipline and alleged human rights abuses. Conceding that his men have committed offenses, he says the course is essential: "We can't be monitoring our troops and officers at every moment so we need to instill into them a sincere respect for human rights."

Across the continent, human rights activists are keeping an eye on the ALDHU experiment. Although democracy has taken hold in most Latin countries, the armed services remain, by and large, a reactionary force. Many officer corps are staffed by the same men who carried out, or turned a blind eye to, human rights abuses under earlier regimes. A basic distrust of democracy and civil liberties still holds sway.

In Chile, civilian rulers tiptoe around army chief Augusto Pinochet's reluctance to reveal the whereabouts of the remains of the 3,000 detainees who "disappeared" in the '70s. Amnesty laws suspended trials of human rights abuses against the armed forces in Argentina and Uruguay. In Brazil, police earn pocket money by assassinating street children.

According to Maira, Venezuela is the only other country to consider following the Ecuador's lead. But hard-line military uprisings in Caracas scuttled negotiations there in 1992. And in Colombia, despite the firing of many military personnel for corruption and human rights abuses, the government is disinclined to open its barracks to the rights association.