“Hundreds of graduates from the School of the Americas have been involved in the massacre, torture, rape, and disappearance of many thousands of people throughout Latin America,” Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, recently told the World in a telephone interview.

“The operation of this school costs the U.S. tax payers $20 million every year. For years the SOA got away with this, hidden behind a wall of secrecy,” he said, “but now that wall is starting to crumble.”

The SOA was established in 1946 in Panama by the United States. In 1984 the SOA was kicked out of Panama under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty. Then-President Jorge Illueca called it “the biggest base for destabilization in Latin America,” and a major Panamanian newspaper dubbed it “The School of Assassins.”

SOA graduates were responsible for the assassination of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter in 1989, and the rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen in El Salvador, among other crimes.

Bourgeois was inspired to start SOA Watch after his military service in Vietnam. He left college and volunteered to fight in Vietnam, because at that time he believed it was the right thing to do. The death and violence he saw in that war made him question the motives of U.S. involvement.

“When my four years were up I wanted out of the military,” he said, “I left and became a peace activist and Maryknoll Catholic priest. This is what lead me to Bolivia, where I lived for five years in a slum,” he said. “I saw there how the men with guns, men trained at SOA, were the muscle, working for the small wealthy elite, helping them keep all of the wealth and resources in their hands,” he said.

Bourgeois visited Bolivian political prisoners and protested for their release. He was arrested by the Bolivian military and forced to flee the country.

In 1990 he moved into an apartment across from the entrance to Fort Benning and started SOA Watch with the mission of shutting it down.

“Right from the start,” Bourgeois said, “we drew on the wisdom of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, and Dorothy Day. Our way was going to be their way – the way of nonviolence and direct action against the school.”

That first year 10 SOA Watch supporters engaged in a water-only fast in front of the gates for 35 days. The next year 100 people demonstrated. The following year there were 500. The protests grew every year as the word spread. In 2003, there were over 10,000 people. Twenty-eight people were arrested in November in an act of civil disobedience, bringing the total to more than 160 arrests over the years. Many have spent time in jail.

Eric LeCompte of SOA Watch said, “I feel it really is a crime that so many people who oppose the SOA have served time while so many perpetrators of genocide, torture, and assassination in Latin America have never seen the inside of a courtroom, let alone the inside of a jail cell.”

Renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001 (“a cosmetic change,” Bourgeois says), the school continues to recruit and train human rights abusers and assassins. SOA Watch, in a March 25 press release, said a number of SOA students with histories of human rights abuses in their home countries have recently attended the institution, despite U.S. Army claims to the contrary.

“People who have heard George W. Bush say, ‘We’ve got to go to the terrorist camps and shut them down.’ The demonstrators counter with, ‘We say start in our own backyard,’” Bourgeois said.

“Bush and those like him offer the world only despair today, little hope. We put our bodies on the line for solidarity and we gather at Fort Benning to bring hope into the world,” Bourgeois said.

SOA Watch is lobbying Congress to pass HR 1258, a bill to halt government funding of SOA. For more information go to www.soawatch.org.

Jack York, a peace and justice activist in Buffalo, can be reached at pww@pww.org.