1996 is the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. "Let it be the year we close this school of assassins," says Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois, who heads the SOA Watch, a citizens' group that is working to abolish the School of the Americas.
Since 1993 he has led a fasting vigil at the school's gates each year between November 11 and 16. The first day marks Veterans' Day, and the last marks the day in 1989 when six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her young daughter were murdered in El Salvador. Of the 26 officers cited for this massacre, 19 were School of the Americas graduates.
SOA Watch has scheduled a vigil on the U.S. Capitol steps March 19 through 28 to demand enactment of HR-2652, a bill sponsored by Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) that would close the School of the Americas.
The Pentagon established the school in Panama to promote "internal stability" in Latin America, having deemed such stability essential in the "battle against ... Communist subversion." Its real purpose soon became evident: to train local armies for the repression of movements of peasants and workers for relief from crushing poverty and exploitation. In 1984, under provisions of the Panama Canal Treaty, it was expelled to its present home at Fort Benning. At the time so many of its graduates had been implicated in human rights violations that a major Panamanian newspaper dubbed it, "School of assassins."
The school trains officers and men from Latin America and the Caribbean in counterinsurgency operations and guerrilla warfare, commando tactics, military intelligence and psychological warfare. Students also receive some human rights instruction. They are often given hypothetical situations to "act out" but this training may not always have the desired effect: "[W]hen... soldiers go through the urban-combat exercises with blanks in their weapons, half the time the village priest (played by a U.S. Army chaplain) is killed or roughed up.
"I don't know what effect we have on the students," a former instructor admits. "It may not be positive."
Most teaching is done by U.S. and Latin American instructors, but only U.S. officers may give the human rights courses. Apparently the school does not trust its Latin American instructors to teach human rights.
Since 1946, the school has graduated approximately 57,000 soldiers. Most are from Colombia which has the dubious privilege of being the Latin American country most cited for human rights abuses. Of 246 officers cited for war crimes in Colombia by a 1992 international human rights tribunal 100 were SOA graduates. Of the 12 officers cited for the 1981 El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, ten were SOA. graduates. Of three officers cited in the 1980 murder of Archbishop Romero, two were SOA graduates. So too were the three highest ranking officers convicted in the 1992 murders of nine Peruvian University students and a professor.
Some of the school's better known graduates include Roberto d'Aubuisson, founder of El Salvador's ARENA party and of much death-squad activity; Raoul Cedras and Michel Francois, whose 1991 coup ousted Haitian President Aristide; Manuel Noriega, former dictator of Panama who is currently serving a 40-year sentence in U.S. federal prison; and Julio Roberto Alpirez, accused mastermind of the Guatemala murders of Michael DeVIne and Efrain Bamaca Velasquez. The list goes on. The newsletter, SOA Watch reported, "Consistently [the countries] with the worst human rights record send the most soldiers to the School of the Americas. Bolivia under General Banzer, Nicaragua under the Somozas, El Salvador during the bloodiest years of the civil war -- all [were] top clients ... in the heyday of their military abuse."
The cost of this attempt to "maintain stability" varies from $3 million to $43 million a year depending on the source cited. For the past four years Kennedy has introduced legislation to end funding for the school. Contact SOA Watch at PO Box 3330, Columbus, GA 31903. Telephone (706) 682- 5639.
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