CONGRESS WILL soon decide the fate of the School of the Americas, a training center in Georgia for Latin American military officers. The House has already voted, by a margin of 230 to 197, to kill funding; now the matter goes to conference. The center's critics, mainly Democrats, argue that the Pentagon should stop training Latin America's military establishment, given its history of coups and human-rights abuse.

The School of the Americas does have a brutal past. In 1996 the Pentagon admitted that between 1982 and 1991 it used training manuals recommending torture. This practice has now ceased. In 1992 the school made human-rights instruction mandatory, and last year it increased classroom time in this subject. Critics complain that attendees still spend most of their time on combat training; the school's defenders retort that even these standard programs include a human-rights component. Though doubts may remain about the effectiveness of the training, it seems hard to argue nowadays that the school promotes abuses.

It is not hard to argue, however, that America has an interest in training Latin military officers. The school's efforts to improve their skills address a real problem: Across the region, armies are hard-pressed to defend elected governments and the rule of law against drug lords and insurgents. In Colombia, for example, swaths of the countryside are under the control of two leftist guerrilla groups that ignore the government's peace overtures. Until the Colombian army makes gains on the battlefield, the guerrillas will have little incentive to negotiate, and the endless civil war will protect Colombia's status as a drug haven. Congress cannot easily object to military training that might break this destructive cycle.

The main threat to Latin democracy used to lie in military coups. In the 1990s that threat has been replaced by constitutional crises, which in turn reflect societies fractured by drugs and poverty. Strengthening the region's democracies will take a broad range of economic and administrative reforms designed to give more people a stake in the rule of law. But it also requires victory over those who take up arms against the democratic state. If there were no school to help Latin armies accomplish this, Congress would no doubt be inventing one.