Paz, Libertad, y Fraternidad is the motto of Fort Benning’s combat training school, emblazoned on its official website over a watermark of blue sky and pristine, puffy clouds. Peace, Liberty, and Brotherhood: a lovely set of values, but it is hard to believe that the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security for Cooperation (WHINSEC)“as Congress strategically renamed the School of Americas in 2001”could really be upholding these utopian tenets.
Founded in Panama as the Latin American Training Center in 1946, and relocated to Georgia under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty in 1984, the School of Americas (SOA) has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in military and law-enforcement techniques. The Institute’s website touts its “tradition of cooperative training within the Western Hemisphere,” yet the School has done more to (uncooperatively) promote civilian repression, human rights abuses and political dictatorship.
Former Panamanian President Jorge Illueca called the School the “biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.” Through a sophisticated curriculum of counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics, the SOA has trained some of Central and South America’s most notorious killers.
According to SOA Watch, a nonviolent lobbying and advocacy group founded by Father Roy Bourgeois in 1990, SOA alumni have continuously waged war against their own people. After returning to Latin America, graduates of the school have targeted union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, educators and advocates for the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans, SOA Watch reports, “have been tortured, raped, assassinated, ’disappeared,’ massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins.”
Countries with the gravest human rights records send the most soldiers to this “Nursery of Death Squads,” which far too often has trained men known already to be violent criminals. In 2002, Bolivian Captain Filiman Rodriguez took a 49-week officer-training course at WHINSEC, though he had been found responsible three years earlier for the kidnapping and torture of Waldo Albarracin, then director of Bolivia’s Popular Assembly for Human Rights. In 2003, Salvadoran Colonel Francisco del Cid Diaz was a student at WHINSEC, even though the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had recommended eleven years earlier that he be prosecuted for the murder of sixteen residents from the Los Hojas cooperative of the Asociacion Nacional de Indigenas.
The SOA Watch list of incidents of “violence supported by the SOA and perpetrated by its graduates” is staggering.
Graduates of the SOA have helped to overthrow constitutionally elected governments in Panama, Ecuador, Chile, and Peru.
The majority of ranking generals involved in the numerous coups during Guatemala’s 35+ year civil war, a deliberate campaign of genocide against indigenous Mayan peoples, were trained at the SOA. The Guatemalan tyrant Jose Efrain Rios Montt, who summed up his political philosophy in the phrase frijoles y fusiles (“beans for the obedient; bullets for the rest”), was himself an alumnus.
According to the United Nations 1993 Truth Commission Report on El Salvador, over two-thirds of the officers responsible for the 1989 executions of Salvadoran priests were trained at the School of the Americas.
In 2005, eight members of the San Jose de Apartado Peace Community in Uraba, Colombia were murdered, under the command of an SOA graduate.
The movement to close this devastating “School for Dictators” has made significant progress, as Latin American countries like Bolivia and Costa Rica have cut ties with the School. The Pentagon has acknowledged the institute’s past advocacy of “coercive techniques” “ like those used in the abuses at Abu Ghraib. Just last year, the House of Representatives nearly voted to eliminate funding to the SOA”but not quite. The ethical issue does not seem to be a national priority.
Of the original slate of Democratic Presidential candidates, only Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel asserted that they would close the Institute if elected. Though Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both stressed the importance of human rights in military training programs, neither has committed to closing down SOA if elected to the White House.
While American politicians have done little to challenge WHINSEC, the American public has refused to stay silent on the matter. Each November, thousands of human rights activists gather at the gates of Fort Benning for a vigil to close the SOA. Eleven protesters, ranging from ages 25 to 78, were arrested last November for entering the base through a side entrance.
On Jan. 28, just last Monday, a trial sentenced the “SOAW 11” to federal prison on charges of “trespassing on a military base.” These courageous civil disobedients do us all a service by standing in witness against the SOA.
We already know that the United States is wreaking havoc with our tax dollars in multiple parts of the Middle East. Must we further erode our international image by continuously meddling in Central and South America, too?
President Bush frequently holds forth about the importance of freedom and democracy, yet the graduates of the SOA have all too often played key roles in repressing freedoms and democracies in Latin America.
I doubt Bush will be the one to end the sickening blood trail dripping from Fort Benning, GA. But he, or the next American president, would do well to close this “School of Assassins” once and for all.
And a more locally-related plea:
As a second semester senior, I am surprised and dismayed at the difficulty many of us have getting into classes that we not only want to take, but need to take, before graduation in May. I have many friends who have as yet been unable to get into classes they need in order to earn their degrees.
I hope that during President Roth’s tenure at Wesleyan, he might be able to smooth out this process. There are classes that, semester after semester, are overflowing with enrollment requests from eager students. With an able faculty and highly engaged students, we should all be able to match up academic supply and demand.
For the hundreds of thousands of dollars that our private education costs—and that our parents are spending—shouldn’t we be able to take the classes we want to take, and stretch our minds in the directions we wish? Isn’t Wesleyan all about the love of learning?