Written by Sandra Sorensen
School of America protestors carried crosses bearing the names of those killed in low intesity coflict throughout Central and South America. Sandra Sorersen photos
They may be changing the name, but not necessarily the game. The U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) will soon become known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
Yet opponents of the school, thousands of whom gathered outside the gates of Fort Benning, Ga., on Nov. 18-19 under cold, rainy skies, believe that the name change is merely cosmetic. They charge that the school will still offer training in "low intensity conflict" tactics, far outweighing any emphasis on democracy and peace operations.
Since 1990, human rights advocates have gathered at Fort Benning in mid-November to mark the Nov. 16, 1989, massacre in El Salvador of six priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter. With the leadership of Father Roy Bourgeois, the movement has grown steadily. From a handful of protesters in 1990, the annual vigil has grown to include thousands.
This year, despite rain, sleet and freezing temperatures, more than 6,500 gathered, with 3,500 "crossing the line" into the base in an act of civil disobedience. Clad in ponchos and draped in plastic bags, protesters let it be known that they would not be fooled by the school's name change. Buttons, banners and voices declared, "different name, same shame." Many fear that the name change will not only obscure the school's mission but will also hide its painful legacy of human rights abuses.
UCC members numbered among the rain-soaked participants, which included a wide range of faith groups and a strong showing of students. The steady rain did not dampen the resolution of the demonstrators. Marchers crossing the line in a funeral procession carried crosses bearing the names of the thousands killed in low intensity conflict throughout Central and South America.
The raised crosses were framed in stark solemnity by the gray Georgia skies. A meditative humming from the marchers mixed with the unison call, "Presente," as the name of each victim was chanted. As protesters made their way onto the base, many planted their crosses in the ground or hung them in trees lining the road.
Military officials arrested 1,700 protesters. They were given "ban and bar" letters banning them from the base for five years. In contrast, only about 65 people were processed by military officials in last year's demonstration, when 4,400 of the 8,000 there crossed the line. The move seemed to reflect post commander Maj. Gen. John Le Moyne's vow that he would not let the school "become politicized."
Human rights violations
For 54 years (16 housed at Fort Benning), the SOA has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counter-insurgency measures such as "psychological operations" and commando training.
Human rights reports have linked SOA-trained soldiers with a long list of human rights violations.
The 1993 U.N. Truth Commission Report on El Salvador cited army officers responsible for atrocities committed during the country's civil war. Of the officers named, two-thirds were trained at the SOA. SOA graduates have been linked to human rights abuses throughout Central and South America.
The training comes at the expense of U.S. taxpayer dollars—based on Pentagon figures, between $10-$20 million annually.
As participants returned to the vigil site after crossing the line, off to one side of the road a grandmotherly woman stood outside the police tape. As marchers passed beneath the tape, she said, simply, "Thank you for crossing." "Presente." You are not forgotten.
[Note: The effort to close the School of the Americas will move to Washington, D.C., next spring. A week of lobbying, workshops and demonstrations to close the school is set for March 29-April 3, 2001. Contact SOA Watch, Box 4566, Washington, DC 20017; www.soaw.org; phone 202-234-3440.]
Sandra Sorensen is an Associate for Communications and Media Advocacy in the Washington office of Justice and Witness Ministries.