The Thistle Volume 13, Number 2: Sept./Oct., 2000.

Crossing the Line

Since its beginnings in 1946, the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) has provided, in its own words, a “doctrinally sound, relevant military education” to over 60,000 Latin American military personnel. More than a handful of graduates have succeeded in making names for themselves in real-world applications of such courses as infantry tactics, military intelligence, and commando operations. While some have even made headlines in this country (two of three officers cited in the assassination of Archbishop Romero; three of five officers cited in the rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen), there are many more whose distinctions have been less widely publicized: nine SOA graduates contributed to the El Mozote massacre of over 900 peasants in El Salvador; over a hundred are cited in a 1993 humans rights report on state terrorism in Columbia; this past January two were arrested for the murder of a Guatemalan bishop who published a report on the army’s complicity in genocide. Decades of civil wars, coups, and terror campaigns waged by the military elites of Latin America have made the SOA pedigree synonymous with U.S. hypocrisy: where do torture, extrajudicial murders, and “counter-insurgency” (read: war on indigenous populations) fit into the scheme of promoting democracy and freedom abroad?

For ten years now, the movement to close down the School of Americas has been gaining grass-roots and legislative support. The annual culmination of the protests has been a three day vigil every November to commemorate the assassination of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter by 26 Salvadoran army officers in 1989. Nineteen of those 26 were trained at the School of Americas. Two years ago, I went down with a student group to Fort Benning, Georgia, to join the thousands of other mourners who had come to protest at the gates of the SOA. The diversity of interests in our group was only a small sample of the broad coalition which has united in condemning the school: among others, we had a labor-rights activist, members of Chicano and Latin American advocacy groups, representatives of various religious organizations, and a student who had spent spring break in rebel-occupied Chiapas. We were joined at the school itself by seven thousand more, among which were first-hand witnesses to the brutalities of SOA graduates, as well as family members of victims.

On the last morning of the vigil, as happens every year, there is a memorial service followed by a silent procession onto the base. Two thousand, three hundred of us walked four abreast, carrying white wooden crosses with the names of the dead and missing. Trespassing onto the army property carries a maximum sentence of 6 months in prison and a five thousand-dollar fine. The act of civil disobedience was a humbling one; as first-time offenders our group faced little or no risk, while others in the procession had already received ban and bar orders from previous events. If arrested, they would very likely face imprisonment. That year, the army was overwhelmed by the turnout, and simply herded everyone onto buses and drove us out to a local park. In 1999, the numbers crossing the line were more than twice as many, and 23 of the second-time protesters were arraigned on federal trespassing charges. Nine are currently in prison, bringing the collective time served by SOA resisters to over thirty years.

This year the vigil happens again, and the Social Justice Cooperative is hoping to lead a group of MIT students and others from the Boston area to Fort Benning for the Nov. 17-19 event. We will be protesting the school in its new incarnation, since Congress this past May redubbed the SOA the Defense Institute for Hemispheric Security Cooperation. The location, the principles, of the school are the same. Only the urgency and timeliness of the issues surrounding its continued existence have grown. As the billion-dollar aid package to Columbia has recently shown, supporting armies with close links to paramilitary death squads continues to be one of the key tools in defending hemispheric security. For all those interested in disagreeing, sign up for the protest at the Fri, Oct. 6th organizational meeting. Keep an eye out for posters announcing time and place.

The US Army School of the Americas, based in Fort Benning, Georgia, trains Latin American soldiers in combat, counter-insurgency, and counter-narcotics. Graduates of the SOA have been responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America. Among the SOA’s nearly 60,000 graduates are notorious dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador, and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia. Lower-level SOA graduates have participated in human rights abuses that include the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the El Mozote Massacre of 900 civilians. For a list of human rights violators please visit the School of the Americas Watch.


The Thistle Volume 13, Number 2: Sept./Oct., 2000.