I had the opportunity to travel on a packed charter bus last weekend with 40 other activists to Fort Benning near Columbus, Ga., to stand outside the fort’s gates with thousands of others, practicing a nonviolent protest of U.S. foreign policy in solidarity with the millions of Latin American people it has abused.
The Department of Defense’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, based at Fort Benning and once known as the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA), is a training school for Latin American soldiers whose graduates use their training to wage war against their own people. Its graduates include known dictators who have favored targeting students, union organizers, educators, religious workers and others concerned with the poor.
Background on the SOA
A movement began after the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests and two other civilians at the University of Central America in El Salvador. A U.S. Congressional Task Force reported that those responsible had been trained at the SOA. The next year, a small group gathered outside Fort Benning’s gates to pray and fast and more people have returned every year since.
Now, it has turned into an extravagant event with speakers, workshops, puppetistas and a vigil to remember the SOA’s countless victims. I first traveled down in 2008, a year that drew more than 20,000 people and was excited to return again one year later.
Enthusiasm and anticipation characterized the trip down. Many on the bus, which included members from St. Thomas, Macalester College, St. Catherine University and the Community of St. Martin, had never experienced any protest of this size before. My own thoughts strayed back to my experiences of the year before. I had felt a huge range of emotions then – pride and joy from being surrounded by so many people gathered under one cause, but also a heaviness when thinking of the immensity of the SOA’s effect on the daily lives of Latin Americans.
‘It is difficult to realize that this has all been done with our tax dollars’
We listened to people whose families have been ripped apart by the violence – fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, religious leaders and educators who have been murdered, raped, tortured, or simply “disappeared,” never to be seen again. It is difficult to realize that this has all been done with our tax dollars and that the majority of Americans have absolutely no idea that this place exists. Ignorance is bliss, right?
We drove through the night Friday, Nov. 20, and pulled into Columbus by Saturday morning. Sunshine and warmer temperatures greeted us as we poured out of the bus and onto the road in front of Fort Benning. Music, vendors selling T-shirts, books, and goods surrounded us, as did countless people. I saw people who had come from all over the country and beyond to be here this weekend. I even spoke with a woman from Bulgaria who has been attending for 10 years. I saw people mediating and reunions of old friends who meet each other here every year. A deep sense of community was embedded in this place as well as a curious sense of hope. This year may be the last year SOA remains open. A congressional amendment suspending the school, HR 2567, has received 88 house co-sponsors and is currently in committee.
I listened to numerous speakers who spoke of their personal experience with SOA graduates. A torture survivor and priest from El Salvador spoke about how he had been captured and mercilessly beaten and electrocuted because he worked on behalf of the poor. A woman from Honduras talked about how her husband had been ripped out her arms in the middle of the night in the mid 1980s because he worked for labor rights – he was never seen again. There was a deep and tired sadness in her eyes that made me realize that we as Americans have no concept of what it is like to live this way. I feel genuinely guilty because training manuals from this school run by my government instructed soldiers to use execution, extortion, physical abuse and false imprisonment as methods to control dissent in their own countries.
Some 20,000 remember the victims
The following morning, we held a solemn vigil to remember the many victims. Thousands of people were in attendance and each carried a small wooden cross that bore the name of someone killed from the violence. On the stage singers called out each name, which was followed by a chorus of “presente” that was 20,000 strong.
On and on it went, for hours. I heard the names of villagers, which included young children, women, and elderly, who had been some of the 900 massacred at El Mozote in 1980. I heard the name of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had been assassinated by SOA graduates in El Salvador while saying Mass in 1980. Giant puppetistas representing the six murdered Jesuits were part of a funeral procession that culminated at the gates to Fort Benning.
I carried a cross, too, and it bore the name of a labor leader, Alexander Uribe, who was killed in Colombia. I slowly progressed to the gate, holding the cross up and calling “presente” to commemorate those who had been killed. When I reached the gate, I placed the cross in one of the links of the chain. I stepped back and looked at the enormous stretch of fence that had been erected. It was one of three fences that had been placed in front of the gates to keep us out and it must have been hundreds of feet wide, topped with stretches of cruel-looking barbed wire.
‘I stepped back and was immediately brought to tears’
I stepped back and was immediately brought to tears, for the fence had been transformed into a solid wall of crosses displaying the names of the SOA’s victims. There were thousands of them, along with photographs of victims and signs, calling for the SOA’s closure. It is difficult to see this sight and not feel heavy.
I tried to think of how I would explain this moment to my peers when they would ask me, “How was your trip?” I can’t just smile and say, “It was great!” because that would give no credit to what I have witnessed this weekend. Before leaving for Georgia, I helped coordinate a demonstration on campus to raise awareness of the SOA. After it I spoke to a couple of students who had passed by and were curious about what we were doing. I began to explain a little about the school and why we just held a demonstration. I was shocked at their reaction to it.
They had no idea that anything like this was going on and were completely stunned at the implication it had. Our tax dollars training dictators? And death squads? They say that knowledge is power, so the most successful way to combat resistance to the SOA would be to keep people in the dark. Therefore, I’d say the U.S. has done a pretty good job up to now. Now that I have that knowledge, however, I can’t just smile and say, “The trip was great!” I have to tell their story.
WHINSEC was merely a cosmetic change from SOA, nothing more
In 2001, Washington’s response to growing public outrage about the SOA was to officially close it and reopen a new school on the same site called the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security and Cooperation,” or simply WHINSEC. Please do not be fooled because it employed the same staff teaching the same courses to the same students. It was merely a cosmetic change, nothing more.
It is evermore urgent that this school be closed today. Because on June 28, the democratically elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown in a military coup as he was slowly starting to address problems afflicting the indigenous and poor people of his country. The general in charge of the coup, along with several of his officers, had all received training at the SOA/WHINSEC. In the aftermath, 28 members of the resistance movement were killed. Reports have also come in saying that hundreds of nonviolent protesters were also detained, and many were beaten by police.
The SOA/WHINSEC policies of intimidation, violence and fear are still used today as weapons used against their own people by the de facto coup regime. While the U.S. government has joined the world in denouncing the coup, its refusal to close the SOA/WHINSEC shows its compliance.
While none of the SOA/WHINSEC graduates who have been convicted of human rights abuses have served any sort of sentence, 238 activists have served more than 90 years in federal prison for their acts of civil disobedience at the gates of Fort Benning.
Aaron Hays can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org