Assassins' School Still in Session

Slowly, 601 of us began to "cross the line" and walk onto the grounds of Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, separating ourselves from the 1,000 or more who remained at the U.S. Army base's main gate. It was the last day of a four-day vigil, which included a delegation from Cleveland's InterReligious Task Force, calling for the closing of the Army School of the Americas (SOA), housed within the 287-acre infantry training ground. Easily spread out over a mile, we marched silently, each carrying a wooden cross with the name of someone killed in Central or South America, memorializing those who have been tortured, murdered, raped, kidnapped, beaten, arrested, intimidated and silenced by the brutality of SOA graduates. At the head of the procession were eight wooden and cardboard coffins bearing the names of the six Jesuit priests and their two women co-workers massacred in their residence at the University of Central America in El Salvador in 1989 (19 of the 26 Salvadoran military officers finally implicated in the killing had been trained at the School). Inside the coffins were petitions signed by more than a million people calling for the closing of the SOA. As expected, we were not permitted to reach our destination, the actual School of the Americas facility, where we had hoped to deliver the petitions, but instead were loaded onto waiting buses by Department of Defense police, and driven to a walled-in training compound. Over the next four hours, we were searched, photographed and processed, and finally charged with "criminal trespass" by military police, before being released. We were all prohibited from re-entering Fort Benning for one year. Twenty-eight people who had crossed the line last year and/or in previous years, were required to appear in U.S. District Court in Columbus, Georgia, on Wednesday, November 19. All 28 were charged with "unlawful entry," a misdemeanor. Three were given the maximum sentence of six months in prison and fined $3000 each, and the other 25 chose to appear before a federal judge at a later date.Since 1990, on the first anniversary of the slaying of the Jesuits, there has been an annual gathering at the main gate of Fort Benning, protesting the continued operation of the SOA. Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois, a Vietnam veteran and Catholic priest who worked in Bolivia and El Salvador for six years, has lead the fight. At that first vigil, he and two others "crossed the line" in an act of civil disobedience and protest. Last year, sixty people entered the base and were arrested. This year, ten times that number chose to be arrested.The School of the Americas, formerly located in Panama, moved to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1984. Since 1946, the school has trained some 60,000 military officers and soldiers from Latin America. The U.S. Department of Defense has long claimed that the SOA has promoted stability in Latin America and taught democratic principles and concepts in an effort to "modernize" the armies of the region. During the Cold War, the school was touted as a way for Latin American military personnel to learn to combat the communist threat. Father Roy and other opponents of the School have maintained that Latin American soldiers and officers were taught counterinsurgency techniques that included the torture and assassination of unarmed civilians. Indeed, graduates of the SOA have included some of the worst human rights abusers of Latin America, among them General Manuel Noriega of Panama; Roberto D'Aubuisson, leader of El Salvador's right-wing death squads and architect of the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero; three of five soldiers cited for the murder of four U.S. churchwomen in El Salvador in 1980, two of whom were from Cleveland; and General Hugo Banzer Suarez, brutal military dictator of Bolivia, 1971-1978. The list goes on. In April, 1995, a Boston, Massachusetts Appeals Court found General Hector Gramajo, Guatemala's defense minister from 1987-90, guilty of crimes against humanity, and ordered him to pay $47.5 million in damages to Sister Diana Ortiz, an American nun, and nine Guatema!lan Indians. A few weeks later, Gramajo, a 1967 SOA graduate, was flown to Georgia to speak at the SOA graduation.In September 1996, under intense pressure from religious and grass-roots groups, the Pentagon released training manuals used at the SOA between 1982 and 1991. The New York Times reported: "[The SOA manuals] recommended interrogation techniques like torture, execution, blackmail and arresting the relatives of those being questioned."The release of the training manuals has spawned greater protest and a broader national campaign to shut down the SOA. Intensive lobbying on Capitol Hill led to the re-introduction last spring of a bill in the House to close the SOA. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate. Both bills lack enough co-sponsors to be voted on, and are thus still pending. An amendment to cut the funding for the SOA's operational budget was narrowly defeated by a vote of 217 to 210 in the House on September 4. As I sat on one of the buses, detained and awaiting arrest, I couldn't help reflecting on how a Guatemalan, or a Salvadoran, or a Colombian in a similar situation might feel, unsure if they would be released, or tortured, or taken away and killed. How could I not speak out against a US Army training facility, paid for by my tax dollars, that works with such repressive militaries, and helps to train them in techniques that have oppressed and violated the basic human rights of the citizens of their countries?Perhaps by next year, the SOA will be permanently closed. That 2000 people traveled from all over the country to Georgia and that 600 opted to march onto the base, is a sign of rising public concern and outrageBoesger spent three years in Guatemala doing human rights work. Moller is a photographer who was arrested at Fort Benning. For more information about how you can help close the SOA, contact the IRTF on Central America at (216) 961-0002, or SOA Watch, 1719 Irving St. NW, Washington, DC 20010, (202) 234-3440.

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