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.”
So this weekend, less than a month after the re-election of George W. Bush, these activists channeled their energy into the fight to close this institution and change the direction of US foreign policy. “This was the first major national demonstration since the election,” said Christy Pardew, the communications coordinator for SOA Watch, which organized the event. “And my sense is that people are feeling stronger than ever about the need to speak out for human rights and stand up for justice.”
Many protesters also made connections between the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib and the infamous SOA training manuals. Carlos Mauricio, who was tortured for nearly two weeks by members of the national police in El Salvador in 1983, called the abuses in Iraq “torture by the book” and said the techniques on display in the photographs from Abu Ghraib were strikingly similar to those he endured. “What happened in Latin America, in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Guatemala, El Salvador, now is happening in Iraq,” he said. As one demonstrator’s sign read: “US Torture Has A Long History.”
Overall, the crowd in Columbus included a large youth contingent, with thousands of college students traveling many hours to participate in the demonstration. “The movement has always had a lot of old-timers, and a lot of vets,” said Bourgeois, a Vietnam veteran himself. “But something happened six, seven years ago–I’m not quite sure what–but a lot of college students started showing up.” He estimated that this year, roughly half of the protesters were students.
Ray Wise, a junior from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, made the twenty-six-hour trip with thirty-five fellow students in a seven-car caravan. “I just don’t agree with what they’re doing on the other side of that fence there,” he said. “And I want to give all the support I can to the effort to stop it.” Students from colleges and universities from Cal-Berkeley to Ball State to Swarthmore also made the trip, while nearly all of the nation’s Jesuit colleges and universities–including Holy Cross, Xavier, Regis and Santa Clara–sent groups on planes, trains, buses and vans. Cara Caponi, one of 105 students on hand from Boston College, framed the SOA issue as one piece of a broader puzzle. “The SOA is representative of much larger issues, much larger problems,” she said. “This is just one step of a larger mission.”
The students were joined by thousands of older activists, from hundreds of members of the United Auto Workers union to busloads of retirees. Rita Corcoran, 73, who traveled to Columbus with a peace group from Minneapolis, said plainly, “If we don’t speak up, who will?”
And, in fact, it was that same sentiment that in 1990 lured Bourgeois, then recently returned from Bolivia, to move into a small apartment just outside Fort Benning to begin protesting the SOA with a small group of friends.
In an interview with The Nation, Bourgeois looked back on his early days in Columbus. “When I came here, I saw those soldiers on the firing range, from El Salvador, Bolivia and Guatemala, and I thought, this is serious stuff. And I didn’t see how these courses were improving the quality of life for these people–and that’s the big issue for many of us here, who have lived with the poor of Latin America. And still today, leaders are saying, ‘Our hope is in our military. Our hope is in our weapons.’ But hope, to me, is going to be found in peace, and people coming together as we are today.”