In the past week, the defense ministers of both Uruguay and Argentina have declared that their governments plan to cut ties with the US Army’s School of the Americas. The Montevideo newspaper La República quoted Uruguay’s defense minister explaining her country’s position in an article published Thursday, and Argentina’s defense ministry has issued a statement to The Nation confirming that the lone Argentine soldier currently training at the SOA will be the country’s last to enroll there. These developments represent two of the strongest indications to date that the people of Latin America have come to view the SOA as a destabilizing force and a gateway to human rights atrocities.
Since its founding in 1946, the SOA–now located at Fort Benning in Georgia and renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation–has trained more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers in commando and psychological warfare, counterinsurgency techniques and intelligence-gathering. The Pentagon has acknowledged the school’s use of field manuals advocating torture in the past, and UN commissions and research organizations have linked SOA graduates to many of the region’s most heinous massacres, assassinations and torturous interrogations over the years. Graduates from Uruguay and Argentina figure prominently into this sordid history, from Uruguayan soldiers linked to kidnappings and torture through Operation Condor to the notorious Argentine dictators Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri.
Roy Bourgeois, the Catholic priest who founded SOA Watch in 1990, catalyzed the developments in Uruguay and Argentina by appealing directly to the two countries’ defense ministers in face-to-face meetings during a visit to the region. “We did not have to convince them,” said Bourgeois, speaking by phone from Buenos Aires. “The people here are very educated about the SOA and US foreign policy, simply because they’ve been on the receiving end.”
Joined by Salvadoran torture survivor Carlos Mauricio and human rights activist Lisa Sullivan-Rodriguez, Bourgeois met with Azucena Berrutti, Uruguay’s defense minister, on March 24 in Montevideo. Berrutti demonstrated deep knowledge of the SOA, according to Bourgeois and Sullivan-Rodriguez, and assured her visitors that Uruguay, which has not sent any soldiers to Fort Benning since President Tabaré Vázquez took office last year, has no intentions of sending its citizens there in the future. “From the beginning of the conversation, Minister Berrutti told us that there was no need to explain the atrocities of the SOA, as [she and the people of Uruguay] were fully aware of this reality, having experienced firsthand the horrors of the tortures, detentions, imprisonments and ‘disappearances’ caused by its graduates,” wrote Sullivan-Rodriguez in an e-mail message from Buenos Aires. On Wednesday, five days after the Montevideo meeting, Berrutti stated publicly that Uruguay will not send any more soldiers to the SOA, which La República reported.
On Monday in Buenos Aires, Bourgeois and his allies, this time including Hebe de Bonafini of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, encountered a similar reaction from Nilda Garré, Argentina’s defense minister. The Buenos Aires meeting occurred just days after the thirtieth anniversary of the coup that launched years of military dictatorships in Argentina, and in an era in which the country has sent between 12 and 22 soldiers to the SOA annually. In its statement to The Nation three days after the meeting, the defense ministry declared that though the one soldier from Argentina currently training at Fort Benning will remain there until July, “In the future, there are no plans to send more personnel.”