School of the Americas 24th Vigil

Diego Lopez, Guatemala. Presente!
Francisca Chavez, El Salvador. Presente!

We tearfully placed the man and the baby’s little wooden crosses into the cyclone fence, one of three barbed-wired steal barriers separating thousands of peace-makers from the war-makers at Fort Benning, Georgia.

School of the Americas (SOA) Watch Vigil, the 24th since 1990, drew me from Denmark, my friend James from Ensenada, Mexico, and upwards to 3000 others from across the United States, Canada, and Latin American countries to protest in front of this key US Army combat-counter-insurgency training base.

SOA is also known as the School of the Assassins by families and supporters of the hundreds of thousands who have been murdered—many tortured and raped beforehand—by Latin American soldier and officer graduates.

Founded in 1946, the killer school has trained 65,000 soldiers from 18 Latin American countries. Many commanders of civilian massacres have been trained here, even top generals and some who have become national leaders, according to the United Nations Truth Commission report on El Salvador (1992-3). Those murdered include Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (and several of his family), four US churchwomen, scores of priests and nuns, peasants, unionists, educators, journalists, social-political-religious activists. The Washington Post reported, in 1996, that techniques in torture had been part of SOA training; a training manual also revealed such.

Other SOA victims include: 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly Mayans, murdered during three US-backed dictator regimes (15 of 27 military cabinet members were trained at SOA); nearly 100,000 Colombians killed and six million displaced by 10,000 troops (and others) trained in Georgia; 18 high-ranking Mexican army graduates have played key roles in civilian-targeted warfare against indigenous communities, and drug gangs have obtained training and military weaponry from SOA because many deserted from Mexico’s military; 400 resistance movement Hondurans have been murdered by troops under the leadership of SOA graduates also responsible for the coup against President Manuel Zelaya, in 2009; and hundreds of thousands other Latin Americans have been murdered by graduates of SOA.

In the last decade, progressive politicians representing people’s parties have won elections in several of these countries. SOA Watch has sent delegations to many Latin American countries endeavoring to convince them to stop sending their soldiers for SOA killer training. Six nations have done so: Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Killer Training Protest

As we circled around the barricaded main entrance of the killer training base hundreds of names of its victims were read from a rallying stage. With each name called we raised the little crosses with their names written on them, and many were inserted into the cyclone fence.

From the loud speakers booming from the base we were informed that if we entered the killing center, or attempted to, we would be in violation of Title 18 and would be fined and imprisoned.

The base’s current newspaper, “Bayonet & Saber”, a weekly published for GIs and freely distributed at the motel where we stayed and other public places in the local town, maintained that while our protest had a legal permit the School of the Americas no longer exists.

“In January 2001, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation opened in its stead, with a refined purpose and mission, an even more stringent focus on human rights and democracy and an independent oversight committee.”

Nevertheless, since that “stringent focus on human rights” thousands more peasants and others “in the way” of elites’ power and wealth have been murdered by graduates of the “Institute”.

Shut-it-down protests began here in 1983 when three activists of the theology of liberation entered the base dressed in military officer uniforms. They climbed a pine tree where they played a tape recording of Archbishop Romero’s last sermon. The Catholic leader had been murdered on March 24, 1980, the day after he read his “special appeal to the men of the army”. His murderers were a Salvadoran military death squad trained at SOA. Its leader was Roberto d’Aubuisson, known as “Blowtorch Bob” at the SOA for his use of this tool during interrogations of political prisoners.

Romero’s last sermon was heard by 525 Salvadoran soldiers being trained at the base. He said:

“No solider is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God…It is time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order…I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”

The three activists were Catholic priests Roy Bourgeois and Larry Rosebaugh, and Linda Ventimiglia. They were sentenced to 18 months in prison, which they served.

Following their prison time, the activists organized SOA Watch with regular actions. Father Bourgeois has served four years in prison and 300 others have served a total of 100 years for acts of civil disobedience. Rosebaugh was murdered in Guatemala in 2009 by a band of robbers.

The current federal magistrate in Columbus gives out maximum six month sentences for trespassing on military terrain so direct action activists are not currently doing this. There were no arrests at this pre-Thanksgiving rally and vigil. Local sheriffs were clearly not interested in harassing or arresting anyone. The sheriffs and the base had gotten a lot of bad publicity for so many arrests and prison terms.

SOA Watch is the largest US anti-war organization, a permanent grassroots anti-war movement standing in solidarity with Latin American oppressed, and victims of US wars anywhere. It has a full-time staff of 13 with four offices. The first is an apartment office right next to the main gate where Bourgeois often works and sleeps. Right-wingers set up the “Freedom House Christian Servicemen’s Center” nearby. Other offices are in Washington DC, Venezuela and Chile. SOA Watch receives no corporate or government funding. It gets a few religious institutional grants but 94% of its budget comes from individual donations and action participants.

Calvary Swordsmen and Peace-maker Ploughshares

The Sunday (November 24) vigil was preceded by two days of talks, workshops, meetings and two musical-poetic concerts.

We were war veterans turned anti-war, other gray-haired anti-war activists, Buddhists who had marched 10 days to get here, many Christian social justice activists, workers from the United Auto Workers union, and other workers, and high school and college student novice protestors in greater numbers than previously. We had to walk past a uniformed sword-carrying cavalry regiment celebrating in a ballroom on our way to a back ballroom at Columbus’ convention center. Here we spoke, sang and danced in the spirit of melting swords into ploughshares.

Our speakers were mainly from Latin America. Some had been tortured by SOA graduates and one is a Watch staffer from Colombia. A black civil rights leader also spoke as did Bob King, UAW national leader, and Father Roy Bourgeois.

Some 70 workshops covered many struggles in the US, in Latin America, immigration discrimination, the US’s various wars and new encroachments into Africa, peace-maker training and membership-leadership relationships, non-violent life forms, radical education, connecting global struggles for peace and justice with racism. Whistle-blower Chelsea Manning’s face was prominent everywhere.

Music in many forms filled our hearts: country-western, gospel/civil rights, hip hop and rap, political/folk…all with potent messages and performed with great talent. Many of the musicians engage in social-political issues, just as do the lawyers provided by the National Lawyer Guild.

Our batteries recharged and our hearts morally revitalized, we left the scene of the crime ready to oppose other crimes against humanity. As Roy Bourgeois says: “It has always been about solidarity…to accompany, and to make another’s struggle for justice and equality your struggle.”

Ron Ridenour is a veteran journalist and author of nine books, the latest is Tamil Nation in Sri Lanka. Read other articles by Ron, or visit Ron's website.