F R O M   T H E   A R C H I V E S

 UU World
July/August 1999

School of the Americas

by Vicki Sanders

The history of protests against the School of the Americas (SOA) — called by critics the School of Assassins — began as these things often do: with one man's personal outrage. It was 1990, and the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest and Vietnam veteran, had just learned from a congressional task force report that the 1989 murders in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests and two women had been the dirty work of Salvadoran officers, several of them graduates of the SOA. Bourgeois, who was living in Minneapolis at the time, packed his bags and wasted no time in setting up residence in a small apartment in Columbus, Georgia, at the entrance to Fort Benning, the Army base where the school is housed. His job as SOA watchdog had begun.

See also

Notes from Camp Allenwood
by Nick Cardell

Nine years and numerous hunger strikes and arrests later, Bourgeois has seen his cause grow into two annual protests — one at Fort Benning every November on the anniversary of the priests' slayings; and one at the White House, Capitol and Pentagon in Washington, DC, every May. The number of activists has also burgeoned, from the handful who staged the first vigil in Georgia in 1990 to the 7,000 who turned out in 1998, carrying coffins filled with tens of thousands of petitions demanding that the school be shut down. This spring, nearly 4,000 protesters gathered in the nation's capital to voice their opposition to the school, and 60 people were arrested.

School of the Americas Watch, the organization that grew out of Bourgeois's efforts, now operates year-round from offices in Washington and Columbus. Codirector Carol Richardson, who like the Rev. Nick Cardell spent six months in prison for her participation in the 1997 march at Fort Benning, attributes much of the recent groundswell to the high visibility of activists' arrests and harsh sentences and to continuing revelations about atrocities by graduates of the SOA.

In 1996, for example, a White House review board found that the Army had used "improper instruction materials" that seemed to condone executions, false imprisonment, and torture, this despite years of denials by the SOA that such manuals existed. The Presidential Intelligence Oversight Board had been asked to investigate CIA operations in Guatemala following the torture and rape of Ursuline Sr. Dianna Ortiz and the killings of American innkeeper Michael Devine and Guatemalan rebel leader Efrain Bamaca. School of America graduates were involved in all three cases.

SOA's list of alumni reads like a Who's Who of thugs and political bad guys: former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega; Salvadoran death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson, who was linked to the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero; and former Argentine junta leader Leopoldo Galtieri. According to United Press International, 19 of 26 Salvadoran officers cited by the United Nations Truth Commission in the Jesuit priests' slaying and 100 of 246 Colombian officers charged with abuses in a 1992 report by international human rights groups, were trained at the SOA. Ditto the officers who oversaw the massacre of 900 peasants at El Mozote, El Salvador, and three of the five men who raped and killed four American churchwomen in El Salvador in 1980.

Until he left office last year, US Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-MA) had spearheaded congressional efforts to cut funding for the SOA. An amendment to a House defense appropriations bill in 1993 was defeated 256-174, but by 1998 support had grown significantly, with a similar measure losing by a mere 11 votes.

School of the Americas Watch suggests several courses of action for anyone wanting to become involved in closing the "school of assassins":

  • Contact your representatives and senators and urge their support of the new bills pending before Congress, HR-732 and S-873. The key sponsors are Rep. Joe Moakley (D-MA) and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL).

  • Participate in the protest at Fort Benning on November 19-21. SOA Watch is calling for 10,000 people to stand vigil and for 5,000 to risk arrest by crossing the line onto the base.

  • Start your own SOA Watch group.

  • Organize a solidarity event in November in your community.

  • Educate your community. To help others learn more about the cause, SOA Watch has three videos available: the Academy Award-nominated School of the Assassins, narrated by Susan Sarandon; An Insider Speaks Out, an interview with former SOA instructor Major Joe Blair; and Crossing the Line, about the 1998 vigil, narrated by Sarandon and featuring Martin Sheen as one of those who crossed the line. Also recommended is the book School of the Assassins by Jack Nelson Pallmeyer, available through SOA Watch for $15 or by calling Orbis Books at (800) 258-5838.

For more information, help with organizing or to obtain materials, visit the SOA Watch website; call (202) 234-3440; or write P.O. Box 4566, Washington, DC 20017.

 UU World
World XIII:4 (July/August 1999): 26-27

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