And They Will Come: School of the Americas Protest Gains Momentum
By Gale Greenlee
Vol. 21, No. 4, Winter 1999 pp. 1, 6-7
In the beginning, only a faithful few gathered outside the gates of the Fort Benning military base to protest violence and human rights abuses perpetrated by graduates of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA). That’s a far cry from the thousands of demonstrators who descended on the small town of Columbus, Georgia, last November to call for the closing of the school known by many as “Escuela de Asesinos” or “School of Assassins.” Last year, an estimated 12,000 demonstrators turned out for the vigil-up from 7,000 in 1998-and 4,408 crossed the line onto the military base, simultaneously risking arrest and almost doubling the number that marched onto the property in solemn protest the previous year.
The much-talked about annual vigil started in 1990, following the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador; a United Nations Truth Commission found that nineteen of the twenty-six soldiers involved in the “execution style” murders graduated from the school. In ten years, the protest has developed into a full-blown grassroots movement attracting members of faith communities, labor leaders, and student activists, and gaining national media attention, as well as allies in Hollywood and on Capitol Hill. This has left SOA to denounce allegations of unscrupulous teachings of counterinsurgency, commando, and torture tactics.
Originally designated the Latin American Training Center-Division, the SOA was founded in 1946 at Fort Armador in Panama. According to SOA’s web site, during the Kennedy administration, the school’s named changed “to more accurately reflect its hemispheric orientation.” Under provisions of the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty, the school moved to Fort Benning in 1984. Early on, SOA adopted a Cold War stance, asserting its role as protector of democracy throughout Latin America.
“The purpose of the School is to make sure students learn about democratic principles,” says SOA Public Affairs Officer Nicolas Britto.
But, as Maryknoll priest and Vietnam veteran Father Roy Bourgeois insists, “You do not teach democracy through the barrel of a gun.” Bourgeois, who lived in Bolivia for five years, founded and co-directs SOA Watch (see its web site at: www.soaw.org), the nonprofit organization that sponsors the annual demonstration. Along with other SOA foes, he asserts that the school teaches counter-insurgency, military intelligence, anti-narcotics operations, and torture-at the expense of the poor and U.S. taxpayers.
“Saying we teach those things is ridiculous,” states Britto, who maintains that no one has provided any evidence of wrongdoing.
“It’s not a complicated issue. It’s about men with guns. It’s about bullies. It’s about violence,” says Bourgeois, who has spent a total of four years in prison for his protest activities. “This SOA gives the Army a black eye. It brings shame upon the armed forces; it’s identified with bullies.”
With an annual enrollment of approximately 1,000 students, SOA has trained more than 60,000 soldiers and military personnel from 22 Latin American countries and the United States. Among its most “distinguished” alumni are Argentina’s Leopoldo Galtieri, Bolivia’s Hugo Banzer Suarez, Roberto D’Aubission, “father” of El Salvador’s notorious death squads, and Panama’s General Manuel Noreiga, who is now in a U.S. prison on drug charges.
Yet despite this infamous “who’s who” list, the Army repeatedly denies any wrongdoing, and as the school’s commandant, Col. Glenn Weidner said in an interview on the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” the Army maintains that “less than one percent of those graduates have ever been linked to human rights abuses.”
While that figure may seem almost insignificant, SOA must deal with the gruesome realities obscured by the numbers. In 1993, a U.N. panel implicated two SOA graduates, out of three Salvadoran officers who were involved in the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Later in 1980, four Americans church workers-including two nuns who were friends of Bourgeois–were raped and killed. Again, SOA graduates were involved, according to the panel. The U.N. Truth Commission on El Salvador also implicated SOA graduates in the 1981 El Mozote massacre, which left nearly 1,000 villagers dead, and only one survivor.
Further supporting SOA Watch’s accusations, a U.S. Intelligence Oversight Board released a report in September 1996 referring to seven training manuals used at SOA, which outlined methods of execution, torture, and intimidation. According to Britto, “Someone brought in some books from outside the institution.” Britto did acknowledge
there were some portions of the manuals that were not in line with Army policies and procedures.
Still, SOA’s opponents relish each small victory, in an effort to gather enough momentum to see the school closed. Last July, the House voted 230-197 to cut almost $2 million of the school’s $4.5 million budget, mainly funds used to bring trainees to the school. The vote, which marked the first time the Army has lost in five votes since 1993, later suffered a blow in a conference committee. According to SOA Watch Co-Director Carol Richardson, there are “varying figures” about what it costs to run the school, and according to 1994 Pentagon lobbying materials, which supported the school, the figure is closer to $18 million. Despite the loss, SOA Watch remains hopeful. “We feel pretty positive,” Richardson said, “because the fact remains that there were 230 people who voted to cut funding in the House. It was essentially some manipulation that cut the vote.”
Currently, companion bills H.R. 732, introduced by Representative Moakley (D-Mass.) and S 873, introduced by Senator Durbin (D-Ill.) are still pending in Congress, and may come to a vote as early as the summer. In an attempt to gain further legislative support, SOA Watch prepares for its April event, Fast 2000, a juice-only fast to close SOA, as well as major lobbying efforts. SOA Watch continues to join forces with other organizations, such as AFL-CIO, NAACP and SCLC, which have all passed resolutions calling for the school’s closure, and churches such as the predominately-black Atlanta-based Iconium Baptist Church, whose pastor, the Reverend Tim McDonald, sees a definite parallel to issues of poverty and civil rights in the United States.
Meanwhile, despite statements by Army Secretary Caldera, which alluded to potential changes at the school-such as a new location, different name or student reconfiguration-SOA continues to declare its mission to “promote democratic values and respect for human rights.” In fact, the school plans to host a “Human Rights Week” in February. For Bourgeois and SOA Watch supporters, any changes would be “cosmetic.” “There’s so much horror, bloodshed, torture and rape connected to this school. So it cannot be reformed, it can only be closed,” he said. “We’re going for the big enchilada; we want SOA closed down. We’re not going away.”
Like other anti-SOA activists, Kathryn Temple, of Asheville, North Carolina, one of sixty-five people arrested during last year’s protest, sees the school “in the context of international domination-the U.S. supporting the needs and wants of lots of multinational organizations.” Acknowledging that many of the 31 million Latinos living in the United States fled their homelands seeking refuge from militaristic regimes may cause many Americans to question the violence and oppression in Latin America. Ultimately, with the anti-SOA movement growing, the U.S. must examine not only its hostile immigration policies but its role in supporting repressive governments.
As Bourgeois explains, “This issue must be put in the context of U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America, which we want changed dramatically. Foreign policy should be built on helping to relieve the suffering of people. Rather than healing, it’s causing suffering.”
Gale Greenlee is a writer and editor at the Carolina Peacemaker in Greensboro, North Carolina. She served as a training and technical assistance coordinator for the Corporation for National Service’s LEARNS program at the Southern Regional Council until October 1999