No Classes for Torture! Protests Escalate Against “School of the Americas”

— Anne Schenk

SPURRED BY AN enormous and unexpected victory in Congress, thousands of protesters will gather later this year at the gates of Fort Benning, GA to demand the closure of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), a military facility that provides training for Latin American and Caribbean soldiers and officers.

The November 20-21 event will mark the anniversary of the murder of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1983 by SOA graduates. The fact that an amendment to eliminate much of the funding for the School was adopted by a Congressional committee during the summer appropriations process offers an important opportunity to terminate this nefarious institution.

For more than fifty years, the armed forces of many Latin American countries have maintained a close yet controversial relationship with the U.S. military through participation in the SOA. U.S. Army instructors have provided training to more than 60,000 Latin American military personnel in counterinsurgency, psychological operations, military intelligence, and commando operations.

A 1996 report issued by the Intelligence Oversight Board, an independent body appointed by President Clinton, concluded that the SOA's training materials contained information condoning extrajudicial execution, extortion, physical torture and false imprisonment.

SOA graduates have been implicated in abuses including torture and murder. Some of the school's most notorious students include Panamanian dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos; Roberto D'Aubuisson, death squad organizer in El Salvador in the 1980s; Col. Julio Roberto Alprez of Guatemala, responsible for the torture and death in 1992 of rebel leader Efrain Bamaca, and the 1990 murder of U.S. citizen Michael Devine.

Several of the officers implicated in human rights abuses in southern Mexico since the 1994 Zapatista uprising also are SOA graduates.1

SOA officials deny the school ever taught methods of torture and intimidation, and maintain that the School is helping reform Latin American militaries. They claim soldiers are attending newly designed courses that teach the value of human rights and how to defend democratic institutions. They say the School serves a humanitarian role by involving soldiers in reconstruction projects and training them how to respond to natural disasters.

The School's supporters also claim that it remains vital to U.S. interests in Latin America long after the Cold War. The drug war has become a primary justification for the continued U.S. military presence in the region, and officials claim the School plays an important role in counternarcotics training.

But even if one accepts the drug war as justification for continued military involvement in Latin America, the war on drugs is hardly a priority of the SOA. The Latin America Working Group , a progressive Washington lobby organization, has shown that only 12% of the School's students attended its two counternarcotics courses in 1998. Students from Colombia and Mexico, two prime targets of the U.S. war against “narco-guerilla” activity, attended at a rate of only 15% and 13%, respectively. 2

Critics further argue that the School's newly implemented human rights curriculum is inadequate and underutilized. They point to the fact that even relatively recent graduates have been implicated in incidents of human rights abuse in countries such as Mexico and Guatemala. This, they say, is evidence that the new curriculum has more to do with public relations than with protecting human rights in Latin America.

The movement to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas has grown tremendously in recent years. It is spearheaded in part by Father Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest and founder of School of the Americas Watch (SOAW), and one of many to have been arrested and sentenced to months in federal prison for protesting on the School's grounds.

In 1998 more than 2000 attended an SOAW-sponsored vigil at the gates of Fort Benning, and 600 risked arrest by entering the compound, although police did not arrest anyone. Organizers this year are calling for 10,000 people to attend a vigil at the site, 5,000 to cross into Fort Benning in an act of peaceful protest, and 100 to risk arrest in acts of civil disobedience.

This grassroots pressure has not gone unnoticed by Congress. Since 1997, amendments to cut the funding for the School of the Americas have been introduced and only narrowly defeated. On July 31, the House of Representatives killed recruitment and transportation funding for the School ($1.5-2 million annually) by a 230-197 vote, which the New York Times described as “a shock even to critics of the school.” Pressure must be maintained to prevent the funding from being restored in the appropriations negotiating process.

For more information on the November vigil/protest, contact School of the Americas Watch at (202) 234-3440, website: http://www.soaw.org/The Latin America Working Group can be reached at (202) 546-7010, website: http:// www.igc.org/lawg/reform.html You can also view the School of the Americas' website at http://www.benning.army.mil/usarsa/main.htm

Notes

  1. SOA Watch web site.
  2. Latin America Working Group. “Why the School of the Americas Has Not Reformed.”

ATC 82, September-October 1999

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