Thousands protest at School of the Americas

Thousands gathered over the weekend at Fort Benning, Ga., demanding the closure of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas, a U.S. military institution that trains Latin American soldiers.

Protestors commemorated the 20th anniversary of the killings of 14-year-old Celia Ramos, her mother Elba Ramos, and six Jesuit priests in El Salvador. Eighteen of the soldiers involved in the slayings were graduates of the Fort Benning school. The school, critics charge, continues to be linked to human rights violations across the region.

School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch), a nonviolent grassroots organization, led the weekend demonstrations. The group seeks to shut down the school through vigils, fasts, protests, civil disobedience, media campaigns and legislative work.

During the weekend, musical performances, dancing, speakers, demonstrating and mourning took place.

Vera Leone, a spokesperson for SOA Watch said the weekend activities were a real success.

“This military school is a symbol of and a real physical root problem of U.S. violence in Latin America,” she said in a phone interview. “And the violence continues during a time where there is such a sweep of people’s movements taking shape across the continent.”

Leone said, “It’s time for a completely new direction between the U.S. and Latin America and we need to stop the system of violence and oppression in both the North and South parts of America.”

SOA Watch says the School of the Americas has been around for over 60 years and has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counter-insurgency techniques, sniper skills, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics.

Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest, a Vietnam Veteran and a Purple Heart recipient who helped found SOA Watch, said in a press release, “It is up to us to hold those responsible accountable and to push for the closing of the School of the Americas and a change in U.S. foreign policy. Too many have died and continue to suffer at the hands of graduates of this notorious institute.”

SOA Watch says the June 28 military coup in Honduras against democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya was carried out by SOA graduates. They include Gen. Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Honduran military, and Gen. Luis Prince Suazo, head of the Air Force.

The National Lawyers Guild led a fact-finding delegation to Honduras recently and reported that in four months of military rule there, massive human rights violations have occurred.

SOA Watch says the leadership of SOA graduates in the Honduran coup follows a pattern of anti-democratic actions by graduates of the school. The SOA is continuing to train Honduran officers even though the Obama administration said it cut military ties to the coup leaders.

The Foreign Operations Appropriations Act requires that U.S. military aid and training be suspended when a country undergoes a military coup, the group points out. However, according to SOA Watch, the SOA has confirmed that Honduran officers are still being trained at the Fort Benning school.

SOA Watch charges that the school is pouring millions into failing military solutions to combat the drug problems in Mexico while the Pentagon is moving forward with plans to use seven Colombian military bases in Colombia for offensive U.S. military operations.

This fall, opponents of the Fort Benning school achieved a victory when a joint House and Senate conference committee agreed to include language in the FY 2010 Defense Authorization bill that requires the Pentagon to release the names of the graduates of the school to the public. The Pentagon had classified the names after the continued involvement of SOA attendees in human rights abuses became public.

Over the weekend the American Friends Service Committee, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, nominated Father Bourgeois and SOA Watch for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. AFSC said it nominated Bourgeois and his group for their sustained faithful nonviolent witness against the disappearances, torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians (peasants, community and union organizers, clerics, missionaries, educators and health workers) by foreign military personnel trained by the U.S. military at U.S. taxpayer expense at the Fort Benning location.

“We are deeply honored and deeply humbled to be nominated for this prize for peace,” said Bourgeois. “This nomination is a recognition of the work of the thousands struggling against militarism across the Americas.”

Photo: Linda Panetta, courtesy of SOA Watch