Over 10,000 people from far and wide gathered at the gates of Ft. Benning, Ga., Nov. 17 to demand closure of the School of the Americas (SOA), better known as the “School of Assassins,” where many death squad officers from Latin America have been trained.

It was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (SOA/WHISC) a few years ago in hopes of ridding the institution of its association with murder and torture. It ostensibly provides combat training for Latin American soldiers.

According to Schools of America Watch, the school is a training camp for terrorists, where the Pentagon instructs Latin American soldiers to terrorize and coerce civilian populations throughout the region.

Ninety-six people engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience and were arrested during the weekend protest. Their court date is set for Jan. 27, 2003.

The demonstration was the 13th and the largest one yet. Matthew Smucker, SOA Watch spokesperson, told the World in a Nov. 20 phone interview, “The response we got from local people was mixed. But there are a lot of people who are questioning our foreign policy right now. After Sept. 11 people were asking ‘why do people hate us?’ Bush said they ‘hate freedom.’ But that answer didn’t satisfy many and a number of people are beginning to realize our foreign policy is hijacked by corporate interests.”

Organizers also attributed the large turnout to growing criticism of the war on terrorism, coupled with concern over turmoil in Latin America this past year involving SOA graduates, in particular from Venezuela and Colombia. “As President Bush expands the ‘war on terrorism,’ thousands [took part in] nonviolent direct action to close what they call a terrorist training camp on U.S. soil – the School of the Americas,” an SOA Watch statement said.

“Bush said we must uproot every known terrorist training camp,” said Abi Miller, 23, from Harrisonburg, Va., one of the 26 presently in prison, “We’re shining a light on one that’s operating with impunity in our backyard.”

Twenty-six people are currently serving three-month and six-month prison sentences for peacefully crossing onto the base during last November’s demonstration. Smucker urged supporters to write letters to the editor, lobby elected officials, host educational events and other actions to keep this issue in front of the public.

The annual gathering marks the anniversary of the 1989 assassination of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador by SOA graduates, including Roberto D’Aubisson, who commanded death squads and was involved in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

In 1996 the Pentagon was forced to release training manuals used at the school that advocated the use of torture, extortion and execution. SOA Watch said the underlying purpose of the school is to control the economic and political systems of Latin America by training and influencing Latin American militaries. In April two SOA grads – Army Commander-in-Chief Efrain Vasquez and General Ramirez Poveda – helped lead a failed coup in Venezuela.

Additionally, State Department official Otto Reich, who sits on the renamed school’s Board of Visitors, met with the generals in the months preceding the coup. During the coup Reich advised business leader Pedro Carmona, who seized the presidency. Colombia, with over 10,000 troops trained at the SOA, is the school’s largest customer. Not surprisingly, Colombia currently has the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere. In June, Colombian police arrested SOA grad John Fredy Jiménez for the murder of Archbishop Isaías Duarte.

“I feel anger at the deliberate teaching of violence,” Caryl Hartjes, a 67-year-old nun from Fondulac, Wisconsin, told reporters as she entered the compound, where she was arrested.

“I don’t want to give up my freedom and I would enjoy peace and justice more, but as a person of faith, I can’t stand back and watch the atrocities,” Dorothy Pagosa, a 48-year-old nun, said as she was arrested.

SOA Watch founder Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who spent four years in the military and received a Purple Heart for service in Vietnam, became a Catholic priest and worked in Latin America for six years after leaving the military. He placed SOA in direct opposition to the democratic ideals that most Americans hold dear.

“The SOA is part of a corporate-hijacked foreign policy that’s making us a lot of enemies,” said Bourgeois. “If we want lasting peace and security we need a foreign policy that reflects our values of justice, democracy and dignity.”

SOA Watch, founded in 1990, is a growing movement focused on closing the training school, and changing U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. SOA Watch, which has many faith-based leaders and activists among its ranks, educates the public, lobbies Congress and participates in creative, nonviolent resistance.

Smucker urged supporters to write letters to the editor, lobby elected officials, host educational events and other actions to keep this issue in front of the public. For more information visit www.soaw.org.

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org

PDF version of ‘10,000 demand: Close U.S. terror school’