This weekend, an estimated 30,000 people will meet in protest at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia, to close the School of the Americas. Renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001, SOA/WHINSEC is funded by our U.S. tax dollars and has trained more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers in combat techniques, interrogation tactics and psychological warfare since its opening nearly 60 years ago. The school has trained 11 Latin American dictators and its participants have been linked to hundreds of thousands human rights abuses.
"Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor" (www.soaw.org). In Colombia, nearly every open liberation theologian had been killed by 1996. Atrocities in the country were attributed to 246 perpetrators; 100 were SOA graduates. In El Mozote, El Salvador, a massacre of 900 civilians was orchestrated by 12 officers; ten were SOA graduates. In 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero openly opposed the Salvadoran military's genocide (called so by a U.N. Truth Commission). His murder was plotted by three officers; two were SOA graduates. In the same year, four U.S. churchwomen were kidnapped, raped, and murdered by five Salvadoran military personnel; three were SOA graduates.
Despite efforts to clean up its image by changing its name in 2001, activists are not swayed by a bit of repackaging. For protestors who will convene this weekend, their collective conviction to shut down the SOA cannot be derailed by creative PR spin.
The first protest to close the school consisted of 10 people in 1990 and has sparked an annual vigil by peace activists that is now more than 25,000 strong. 18 years later, there are signs that this movement is gaining momentum. Five Latin American countries have denounced the SOA. With Paraguay's President Lugo and Chile's first female president and torture survivor Michelle Bachelet, a speculated sixth and seventh country may be added to the list as discussions and protests persist.
Another sign of hope is the Colombian Catholic Church's creation of Project Tevarey, a network of volunteers that tracks human rights abuses and assigns the offenders with responsibility to the violence. This wealth of information points to the disproportionate number of violations committed by SOA graduates toward their own people, and may stir legislators to think twice.
Indeed, the U.S. government is beginning to recognize that real reform must come. In 2007, the House nearly voted to discontinue funding to the SOA, but the measure was voted down 203 to 214. With new leadership emerging in the White House, Obama is not the only source of hope for people who want change. Rahm Emanuel, named the president-elect's Chief of Staff, is thought by SOA Watch to become a key player in shutting down the school.
However, the SOA is not a rogue institution. There are more than 200 U.S. military training programs and institutions in Latin America and around the world, including the Defense Department's recent addition of AFRICOM. The climb has been uphill for years, but the cloud of witnesses is growing and the humanity in us is calling us to reconciliation without repression, violence, overthrow of constitutional governments, disappearances, torture, and abuse of our brothers and sisters in Latin America.
Laurel Frodge is the advertising assistant for Sojourners.