A Long, Bloody History: Torture American Style

Revolutionary Worker #1241, May 23, 2004, posted at http://rwor.org

U.S. Rangers' knife-point interrogation in Vietnam

Torture device used by U.S.-backed Iranian secret police
to pull out fingernails of detainees

During the CIA-backed coup in Chile, 1972

A drawing by a prisoner at Pelican Bay SHU
showing a prisoner who was stripped and hog-tied
(photo: Pelican Bay Prison Express)

Abner Louima in the hospital
after he was tortured by police, 1997

"This does not represent the America that I know."

President George Bush,
about the Abu Ghraib torture by U.S. troops

When the photos from Abu Ghraib came out, U.S. President George Bush said, "This does not represent the America I know." But people around the world know that the torture and degradation carried out under U.S. command at Abu Ghraib is standard procedure for the U.S. And these atrocities are also painfully familiar to many people who live inside the U.S. itself.

Compiled here are brief descriptions of a few examples of torture carried out directly by the U.S. government, military, and police and by reactionary forces closely backed by the U.S.

Vietnam War

Many of the U.S. government's torture techniques used over the past 30 years date back to the 1960s and the Vietnam War. The U.S.'s Phoenix Program killed tens of thousands of Vietnamese. Vietnamese prisoners were thrown into "tiger cages"--built by Texas military conractor RMK-BRJ, the forerunner of Halliburton subsidiary KBR--and routinely tortured.

A recent series in the Toledo Blade focused on the atrocities carried out by one U.S. unit--the "elite" Tiger Force. The series described how U.S. troops tortured and executed prisoners and cut off their ears as souvenirs and to make into necklaces. "There was a period when just about everyone had a necklace of ears," one soldier remembered. When women and children in one village crawled into a bunker to try to hide, GIs threw grenades into the bunker and ignored the pleas and screams of the wounded until all were dead. Such actions were not limited to this one unit--they were typical of U.S. forces in Vietnam. The widespread murder and torture had a strategic purpose--to terrorize the people, drive them away from the revolutionary fighters, and to force them to follow U.S. orders.

School of the Americas

Graduates of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas have carried out countless murders, massacres, tortures, "disappearances," coups, and other crimes against the people in Latin America and the Caribbean. In 1996 the U.S. Defense Department admitted that training manuals used at the School included instructions on the use of torture, beatings, murder, and extortion. The manuals were based on "Project X"--the U.S. Army's foreign intelligence program from the 1960s.

Honduras and the Contras

From 1981 to 1985, John Negroponte was President Reagan's ambassador to the bloody U.S.-backed regime in Honduras. Negroponte oversaw the training of the Honduran army. According to the Baltimore Sun,a secret CIA-trained Honduran army unit, Battalion 316, used "shock and suffocation devices in interrogations.... Prisoners often were kept naked and, when no longer useful, killed and buried in unmarked graves."

Negroponte also oversaw the brutal Contra war against Nicaragua. The CIA supplied the Contras with a manual titled "Psychological Operations In Guerilla Warfare." It called for the use of assassinations, kidnappings, extortions, and other "violence for propagandistic effect."

On April 19, 2004, Bush named Negroponte as U.S. ambassador to Iraq and declared that Iraq "will be free and democratic and peaceful."

U.S. Border Patrol

A 1988 Amnesty International report documented the torture of immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border by U.S. Border Patrol agents. One example in the report is of two Guatemalan women, Luz Lopez and Norma Contreras, who were arrested near El Paso: "[A Border Patrol agent] lifted up Contreras' dress, pushed her legs open, pulled aside her underwear and stuck his fingers into her vagina... Lopez was told to undo the buttons on her jumpsuit and the agent put his hands inside her top and felt her breasts... The agent then left them in the vehicle while he went to speak to the lone driver of another Border Patrol vehicle. Both men returned and, in full view of the second agent, the arresting agent assaulted both women again. Lopez and Contreras say they were then taken to the Border Patrol office where the same agent sexually assaulted both women a third time in a detention cell and in a bathroom."


On September 11, 1973, Chilean general Augusto Pinochet led a CIA-organized coup to overthrow the government of Salvador Allende. The Pinochet regime carried out massive torture, murder, and "disappearances." In a 1974 document, the CIA refers to torture carried out by DINA, the Chilean secret police, using methods "taken directly from the Spanish Inquisition, which often left the person interrogated with visible bodily damage." During the 1970s, Pinochet's Operation Condor kidnapped, tortured, and killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Latin Americans and others. According to Covert Action Quarterly , "The U.S. provided inspiration, financing and technical assistance for the repression" carried out under Operation Condor. "CIA operatives provided torture equipment and training."


U.S.-backed regimes in Peru have used torture extensively against political prisoners, especially those accused of being part of the Maoist people's war led by the Communist Party of Peru (PCP). Most were convicted by secret tribunals. In 2002 families of poltical prisoners at one notorious prison, Challapalca, issued a statement which said in part: "The policy at the Challapalca prison is officially called `The Special Closed Regimen,' but it is commonly known as the `punishment' prison because the guiding philosophy at the prison is that prisoners can be `rehabilitated' through the application of pressure, torture, and even death." In 1992 the Peruvian secret police, with CIA help and direction, captured Chairman Gonzalo and other PCP leaders. Today, Chairman Gonzalo and other PCP leaders are still locked away under cruel and isolated conditions in a specially constructed underground prison. The treatment of the PCP prisoners and other political prisoners in Peru has been widely condemned as a violation of all international standards.


From 1957 to 1986, "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier ran Haiti--backed by the U.S. "Papa Doc" established the Tontons Macoute death squad which tortured, murdered, or "disappeared" thousands of Haitians. After the Duvalier regime was overthrown, the CIA backed the FRAPH, which was responsible for the torture and death of many people from 1990 to 2000. They attacked entire neighborhoods and towns where elected President Aristide was popular. The recent coup in Haiti that ousted Aristide was led by former members of FRAPH and backed by the CIA and the U.S. government.

Indonesia and East Timor

Indonesian dictator Suharto came to power in a CIA coup in 1965 during which an estimated million members and supporters of the Indonesian Communist Party were massacred. In 1974 Indonesia invaded East Timor when the people demanded independence. The U.S. increased weapons sales to Indonesia and vetoed a UN resolution condemning the invasion. The CIA urged the Indonesian military to use "overwhelming force" against Timorese resistance. In 1977, Indonesian planes, reportedly aided by U.S. pilots and mercenaries, began daily saturation bombing using defoliants, napalm, and other chemical and biological weapons--combined with ground assaults and deliberate attempts to starve the population. Indonesian troops--trained and supplied by the U.S.--carried out widespread torture, rape, and "disappearances" of the East Timorese people. Over 250,000 people were killed.


For over two decades, Iran under the Shah was a key outpost of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. The Shah's brutal secret police, the Savak, was originally formed by the CIA and Mossad (Israeli intelligence agency). In Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran,Ervand Abrahamian describes the techniques used by Savak against thousands of prisoners: "Brute force was supplemented with the bastinado; sleep deprivation; extensive solitary confinement; glaring searchlights; standing in one place for hours on end; nail extractions; snakes (favored for use with women); electrical shocks with cattle prods, often into the rectum; cigarette burns; sitting on hot grills; acid dripped into nostrils; near-drownings; mock executions; and an electric chair with a large metal mask to muffle screams while amplifying them for the victim. This latter contraption was dubbed the Apollo--an allusion to the American space capsules. Prisoners were also humiliated by being raped, urinated on, and forced to stand naked."


A group of cops led by Police Commander Jon Burge operated a torture ring on Chicago's South Side. They subjected their victims to beatings, pistol whippings, mock executions, suffocation, and electroshock. Complaints were answered with denials and cover-ups while members of the ring were promoted. This went on for 20 years, until public protest forced the firing of Burge in 1993. The People's Law Office documented over 60 cases of torture-- mostly of African-American men. One was 13 years old. Many were forced to make statements that resulted in their unjust imprisonment. Ten ended up on death row. While Burge's victims spent years in prison and had their lives destroyed, Burge was allowed to retire unpunished and still walks the streets.

Pelican Bay Supermax

A hunger strike in June 2001 by over 1,000 prisoners at Pelican Bay and three other Security Housing Unit (SHU) prisons in California shed light on the torture inside the prison walls. Prisoners are held in isolation in 8 x 10 steel boxes with no bars or windows. These conditions were condemned by the UN Committee on Torture, Amnesty International, and other human rights organizations. Charles Carbone from California Prison Focus said, "The SHUs are used to capture those people who are able to gain any political visibility, political notoriety, or those people that are able to mobilize and radicalize other prisoners. They're essentially cut off from the rest of the world and other prisoners." The SHU is meant to create a climate of hopelessness and an atmosphere meant to break people down and crush their will to resist.

New York City

On August 9, 1997, Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was brought to the 70th Precinct in Brooklyn, New York, after cops arrested him and repeatedly beat him. Louima's pants were pulled down to his ankles for a "strip search"--in full view of the whole station. Justin Volpe and another cop took Louima to the bathroom and rammed a broom handle into his rectum. Louima yelled out in pain. Volpe threatened to kill Louima if he talked about what happened. None of the dozens of cops in the station came to the aid of Abner Louima.