The Thistle Volume 13, Number 4: June/July, 2001.

Forgive Us Our Trespasses?
On the Political Imprisonment of Activists Fighting the School of the Americas

While on a pilgrimage to the nation’s capital in March, 1868, Mark Twain sent a letter home to his newspaper in Nevada, in which he made the following observation:

Right here in this heart and home and fountain-head of law—in this great factory where are forged those rules that create good order and compel virtue and honesty in the other communities of the land, rascality achieves its highest perfection. Here rewards are conferred for conniving at dishonesty, but never for exposing it ...

More than a century later, has anything changed?

Two weeks ago in a federal district court in Columbus, Georgia, 26 citizens of the United States who had mounted a protest against the acts of their government were found guilty of criminal trespass and sentenced to spend a total of more than twelve years behind bars. The sentencing went virtually unreported in the mass media: it rated one paragraph in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; not one of the major national newspapers bothered to even mention it.

And who were these dastardly criminal trespassers? Non-violent peace activists!

The 26 defendants, ranging from a teen-ager and her mother to an 88-year-old nun, were among more than three thousand protesters who marched into nearby Fort Benning on November 19 last year. The base is home to the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation”—until recently known as the “School of the Americas” (SOA), whose graduates have for decades committed murder, torture, and other abuses of human rights throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

Over the course of its 55-year history, the SOA has trained over sixty thousand soldiers. Under its new name, it continues to prepare hundreds of soldiers for combat each year, schooling them in commando tactics, mine warfare, military intelligence, and so-called psychological operations. While the training is in part based on that given to US troops, the latter, at least, are part of a military that must answer to duly constituted civilian authority; whereas when SOA-trained troops return to their home countries, they return to societies where elites have long ruled by brute force and civilian control of the military is at best a bad joke. As a result, the role of the typical SOA alumnus, far from defending his nation by repelling foreign invaders, is instead to control “the masses,” even to wage war against his own people—which he does all the more effectively for having been trained by the US Army. Over the years, dozens of elections have been sabotaged; justice has been perverted countless times; and hundreds of thousands of victims have been “disappeared,” tortured, raped, assassinated, massacred, displaced, and forced into refugee camps by officers and troops trained at the SOA. Moreover, not satisfied with committing these crimes, SOA graduates have often been instrumental in covering them up as well, often successfully for decades.

In Haiti, for example, Col. Gambetta Hyppolite (SOA Class of 1959) demonstrated his commitment to American-style democracy in 1987 by ordering his troops to attack the Provincial Electoral Bureau in Gonaives. (His colleagues ordered similar attacks all across the country in a largely successful effort to derail democratic elections.) Col. Franck Romain (SOA Class of 1956), serving as mayor of Port-au-Prince in 1988, took his commitment to democracy even further: when his deputies were identified among the “gang” of armed men who had attacked and set fire to a church while a mass was in progress (killing twelve people and severely burning nearly eighty), he explained to a concerned public that the massacre was not only legitimate but necessary.

In El Salvador, Roberto D’Aubuisson (SOA Class of 1972), organizer over a fifteen-year period of the Salvadoran government’s network of death squads, planned and ordered the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Eduardo Avila (SOA Class of 1967) ordered the 1981 murder of two American advisors as well as the killing of the head of the country’s agrarian reform efforts. Colonel Carlos Armando Aviles Buitrago (SOA Class of 1968) took part in the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests plus their housekeeper and her daughter. Mario Canizales Espinoza killed three unarmed Dutch journalists not long after having been taught “patrolling” skills at Fort Benning earlier the same year. Major Armando Azmitia Melara (SOA Class of 1967) served as Chief of Operations for the Salvadoran Army’s hated Atlacatl battalion, now proven to have been responsible for the El Mozote massacre (1981, hundreds of unarmed men, women and children); the Lake Suchitlan massacre (1983, 117 people); the Los Llanitos massacre (1984, 68 people, mostly children); and no doubt other massacres. The list is endless.

In Colombia, Captain Gilberto Alzate Alzate (SOA Class of 1983) was implicated in the 1988 massacre at Segovia in which 43 people, including several children, were butchered. Lt. Luis Enrique Andrade Ortiz (SOA Class of 1983) planned and ordered the 1989 massacre of officials and judges who were investigating links between the Colombian armed forces and right-wing terrorist groups. Major Jorge Enrique Duran Arquelles (SOA Class of 1991) participated in the 1991 Caloto massacre, in which 20 indigenous people were killed. Lt. Carlos Alberto Acosta (SOA Class of 1992) was sentenced to 58 years in prison for his part in the 1994 Lebrija massacre. General Hernán José Guzmán Rodríguez (SOA Hall of Fame, 1993), Commander of the Colombian Army, was dismissed in 1994 for decades of corruption, drug trafficking and human rights abuses. He protected the notorious right-wing MAS death squad for years while it killed at least 149 people and probably dozens more; and led the troops in 1986 who detained, tortured, gang-raped and murdered Yolanda Acevedo Carvajal, then suggested that she had shot herself in the neck (no word on whether she had also gang-raped herself).

This tour of America’s neighbors (and influence) could go on for quite a while. All the facts stated above, and too many others, have been documented by various international human rights agencies and are available for review ( It seems clear that whatever the School of the Americas has been teaching its over-eager students for half a century, respect for democracy and the most basic human rights is not exactly the crux of the curriculum. Can any American with a conscience become aware of the situation and not want to do something to improve it?

The question leads, of course, to our twenty-six defendants (the following list is adapted from a document prepared by Eric LeCompte and Roy Bourgeois of SOA Watch):

* Mary Lou Benson (Minnesota): Homemaker, 56, married, mother of four, sister of Martha, aunt of Rachel. Sentence: 6 months.

* Josh Raisler Cohn (Oregon): Social and environmental justice activist, 24. Sentence: 6 months, $1000 fine (currently in custody).

* David Corcoran (Illinois): Hospital chaplain, 67, married priest, father of three adopted Korean children. Sentence: 6 months, $1000 fine.

* Russell De Young (Virginia): NASA senior research scientist, 54, married, father of two. Sentence: 6 months, $1000 fine.

* John Ewers (Ohio): Retired manager at NCR Corporation, Habitat for Humanity volunteer, 66, married, father of four. Sentence: 6 months, $1000 fine.

* Jack Gilroy (New York): High school teacher, married, father of four. Sentence: 6 months, $500 fine (currently in custody).

* Clare Hanrahan (North Carolina): Freelance writer/journalist, gardener, 52, mother of one. Sentence: 6 months, $500 fine.

* Martha Hayward (Michigan): Middle school teacher, 56, married, mother of four. Sentence: 3 years’ probation, $3,000 fine.

* Rachel Louise Hayward (Michigan): Student, majoring in biology and Spanish, 19, daughter of Martha. Sentence: 6 months.

* Dorothy M. Hennessey (Iowa): Dubuque Franciscan, peace worker, 88, sister of Gwen. Sentence: 6 months.

* Gwen Hennessey (Iowa): Dubuque Franciscan, peace worker, 68, sister of Dorothy. Sentence: 6 months.

* Rita Hohenshell (Iowa): Retired, 76, mother of four, grandmother of five. Sentence: 3 months.

* William Houston (Ohio): Retired professor, 72, father of two, husband of Hazel. Sentence: 6 months, $1000 fine.

* John Alfred Hunt Jr (North Carolina): Community educator and activist. Sentence: 6 months, $500 fine.

* Steve Jacobs (Missouri): Member of the St. Francis Catholic Worker, veteran and folksinger. Sentence: One year.

* Rebecca Kanner (Michigan): Environmental educator, UAW member, 43. Sentence: 6 months, $500 fine.

* Joel Kilgour (Minnesota): Baker in cooperative bakery, member of Loaves and Fishes Catholic Worker, 24. Sentence: 1 month.

* Richard John Kinane (Colorado): Teacher and contemplative psychotherapist, 51. Sentence: 6 months, $500 fine.

* Elizabeth Anne McKenzie (Minnesota): Retired teacher, Sister of St. Joseph, 71. Sentence: 6 months.

* Karl Meyer (Tennessee): Member of Nashville Greenland Community, activist with Catholic Worker movement for 44 years. Sentence: 6 months (currently in custody).

* Lois Putzier (Arizona): Union organizer, married. Sentence: 6 months.

* Eric Robison (Washington): Social justice activist, 21. Sentence: 6 months, $500 fine.

* Miriam Spencer (Washington): Member of Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, actively retired, 75. Sentence: 6 months.

* Kathryn Temple (North Carolina): Artist, writer, feminist, 28. Sentence: 2 years probation, $500 fine.

* Hazel Tulecke (Ohio): Retired, 77, mother of four, wife of William. Sentence: 3 months.

* Mary Alice Vaughan (Minnesota): Retired elementary school teacher, former Sister of St. Joseph, 68. Sentence: 6 months, $150 fine.

Since 1990, Americans protesting the School of the Americas and the brutality of its graduates have spent collectively thirty years in federal prisons; our 26 defendants will now bring the total up to more than forty years; and all for daring to engage in non-violent acts of civil protest.

This is justice?

In an ideal world, the US government might be less interested in prosecuting nuns for trespassing; less interested in sentencing retired school teachers to prison.

In an ideal world, the US government might be more interested in preventing murder, mayhem, and misery; more interested in encouraging a modicum of respect for human rights among its clients and allies.

We, of course, do not live in an ideal world. Our world is real. It presents challenges.

In her last book, The Ever-Present Past (1964), Edith Hamilton spoke of an ancient Greek inscription which says that the essential human challenge is “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.” Twenty-six Americans were convicted in a federal court in Georgia last month for taking up this challenge.


The Thistle Volume 13, Number 4: June/July, 2001.