More than 16,000 people converged on Fort Benning this past weekend to protest the School of the Americas, a US-run training camp for Latin American soldiers. Officially renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001, the SOA was founded by the US Army in Panama in 1946 and moved to its current location at Fort Benning, near Columbus, Georgia, in 1984.
Graduates of the facility return to their countries to utilize their training domestically and are consistently cited for human rights violations throughout Latin America. Its alumni include many notorious human rights abusers, including Manuel Noriega, the former Panamanian dictator, and Roberto D’Aubuisson, the late Salvadoran death squad leader.
The protest marked the fifteenth annual demonstration of its kind, and was the largest ever, a welcome sign that progressives aren’t lying down in despair after November 2. “I’m here because there’s been no accountability for manuals that were found here,” said Laura Slattery, an activist from Oakland, California, referring to SOA instructional material advocating torture that was first revealed in Pentagon documents released in 1996. “And I’m concerned about the fact that we’re teaching military skills to soldiers in Latin America,” she continued, “and, in turn, they’re using those skills to kill the poor, labor union leaders and church leaders.”
Indeed, throughout the decades, countless atrocities in Latin America have left trails of blood leading to the SOA. In one of the most widely publicized cases–the midnight massacre of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter in San Salvador in 1989–a UN Truth Commission implicated twenty-seven soldiers, nineteen of them graduates of the school. And in Peru, Honduras, and throughout the hemisphere, human rights groups have repeatedly linked SOA alumni to heinous crimes. As Linda Aguilare, a student activist whose family members in Guatemala were tortured and killed by the military, said simply: “It’s a school of assassins.”
With a rally Saturday and a solemn funeral procession Sunday, the two-day event at the main gate of Fort Benning included speeches from torture survivors, street theatre, musical performances, die-ins and vigils. Fifteen activists were arrested for crossing the line–an act of nonviolent civil disobedience likely to land them three-to-six months in prison. During the 1990s, crossing the line entailed a symbolic walk onto the official grounds of Fort Benning; but since 2001, the action has required scaling chain-linked fences covered in tarps and laced with barbed wire. (Since 1990, 170 activists have spent a collective eighty-five years in prison for protesting the SOA.)
In recent years, the movement to close the school has expanded its horizons, and the issues of war and military intervention in Iraq and Israel, among others, were present throughout the weekend. As Roy Bourgeois, the Catholic priest who founded SOA Watch in 1990, explained, “When we first started, we wanted to close the SOA. But then, people began to say that this was about US foreign policy, and it became a lot bigger.”