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Paved With Good Intentions:
A Profile of the School of the Americas
by Nathan Perz, Green Party of St. Louis
The “War Against Terrorism” begins at home. For over 50 years, the United States has been training Latin American terrorists and turning a blind eye to their crimes. The most notorious training facility of these persons is the School of the Americas located at Ft. Benning, Georgia. This note will briefly discuss the SOA’s history, the movement to shut it down, and the significance of the issue to the Left.
By 1948, anti-Communism had become not only the centerpiece of US foreign policy, but a national secular religion as well. It was acknowledged among upper-echelon foreign policy planners than American-style capitalism would never have the same mass appeal as did communist ideologies. Therefore, to ensure the dominance of American capitalism in the post-World War II era, extensive programs were needed to control the flow of money, political power and information.
Nowhere was this more true than in Latin America. Ever since the Monroe Doctrine of the early nineteenth century, the US government has considered Latin America to be within its “sphere of influence,” America’s private “backyard.” After World War II, numerous policies were put into action to ensure that Latin America would remain pacified, obedient and available to exploitation by US capital.
One specific manifestation of this larger policy was an institution called the School of the Americas (SOA), later referred to by opponents as the “School of Assassins.” Established in Panama in 1946, the SOA quickly evolved from a relatively benign technical training facility to an advanced school for what is called “counter-insurgency,” perhaps better described as population control and domestic terrorism. Every year, military officers from across Latin America attend the SOA. In total, the SOA has produced over 60,000 “graduates.”
Since 1968, ten SOA graduates have become heads of state in six different Latin American countries through non-democratic means.
Between 1961 and 1966, nine Latin American governments were overthrown by military coups, including those of Guatemala and Honduras.  SOA graduates were involved with all of these coups. Since 1968, ten SOA graduates have become heads of state in six different Latin American countries through non-democratic means. 
Unfortunately, overthrowing democratic governments is not the worst of the crimes attributable to the SOA. What is even worse is the methods employed by SOA graduates to achieve and maintain political power. When SOA graduates return to their home countries, they frequently become members of secret police or “death squad” units. Their tactics include kidnapping, torture, murder, infiltration and spying, using rape as a political weapon, psychological warfare, and the massacre of entire families or villages.
For many people, the SOA protests have been their introduction to the politics of protest.
While most victims are simply “disappeared” and never heard from again, more and more cases have come to light. Documenting all the crimes of SOA graduates would take an entire volume. A few of the more well-known incidents are:
- 19 of 27 Salvadoran officers responsible for killing 8 people at Central America University were SOA graduates, as were almost three-fourths of Salvadoran officers involved in 7 other massacres.
- Six Peruvian officers involved in the death-squad murders of 9 students and 1 professor near Lima were SOA graduates.
- 19 officers linked with the infamous Honduran death-squad “Battalion 16” were SOA graduates.
- 10 of the 12 Salvadoran officers implicated in the massacre of 900 people in the village of El Mozote were SOA graduates.
- SOA graduate Roberto D’Aubuisson ordered the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980. Romero was killed in the middle of celebrating Mass. Two of the three assassins were also SOA-trained.
In 1984 the SOA was moved from Panama to Fort Benning, Georgia. In the early 1990s, $30 million of taxpayers’ money was spent on renovation and new buildings for the school. In 1995 alone, the SOA’s operating budget was $18.4 million.  This amount includes vacations, professional baseball tickets, and other perks for the SOA’s “guests.”
On January 17, 2001 the School of the Americas was closed down and then immediately re-opened as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. This change was a feeble attempt to create the illusion of change and to avoid the now nation wide recognition of the name “School of the Americas.” The essential program of the facility, however, remains the same.
It cannot be denied that Latin America has made progress since the region-wide violence of the 1980s. The region as a whole, however, is still very far from being safe or democratic. Without a doubt, the most violent place in Latin America today is Colombia. It is perhaps no surprise to learn that over 10,000 Colombian soldiers have graduated from the SOA, more than any from other country. 
Crimes by SOA-trained soldiers continue to be documented in Colombia. In 1999 the US State Department report on human rights named two SOA graduates as the murderers of the Peace Commissioner, Alex Lopez. In 2000, Human Rights Watch revealed that seven SOA graduates were running paramilitary groups responsible for kidnappings, murders and massacres. In February of 2001, an SOA graduate was actually convicted of complicity in the torture and murder of 30 civilians.  Of course, these are only the crimes that actually make the news.
The SOA has been described as “the military wing of the IMF and World Bank.”
SOA graduates, in both the Colombian military and in paramilitary groups, have tortured and murdered human rights workers, political activists, labor organizers, union members, priests, and anyone else who would dare to challenge the most brutal government in the Western Hemisphere. With the passing of “Plan Colombia” by the United States government, US involvement with Colombia will only deepen. Committing $1.3 billion to one side of what is essentially a brutal civil war will likely only intensify the level of conflict and undermine peace efforts. Since the events of September 11, 2001, governments around the world have taken President Bush’s “War on Terrorism” as a carte blanche to aggressively suppress dissent and resistance. Colombia is no exception. As the conflict in Colombia deepens, SOA personnel and tactics will become more prevalent.
In 1990, Catholic priest Father Roy Bourgeois founded the School of the Americas Watch to educate the public and work for the closure of the facility. Father Bourgeois, along with many others, has served jail time for protesting the SOA and now maintains an extensive speaking tour educating people about the SOA. 
Every November, thousands of people gather at the gates of Ft. Benning in Columbus, GA to protest the continued operation of this “School of Assassins.” In the past, these protests have culminated in massive acts of non-violent civil disobedience—thousands march in a funeral procession onto the military base. Most participants are arrested and, every year, a handful are charged and imprisoned. In 2001, however, the Army erected a ten-foot-tall barbed-wire fence around the base (although a few managed to get in anyway).
In Congress, attempts to terminate the SOA’s funding continue. Past bills have failed by ever-narrowing margins. The latest attempt is H.R. 1810. Write or call your Representative and ask them to support H.R. 1810.
What is the significance of the SOA to the Green Party and the Left in general? The unfortunate reality is that, even if the SOA were closed down tomorrow, there would be little change in US policy. There are other facilities where this training would continue. In light of this, is the SOA an issue worth pursuing?
This author believes the answer to be a very definite “yes.” Leaving aside the moral imperative to oppose injustice and evil in any form, there are definite advantages to be gained by the Left in pursuing the issue. Using the moral and human rights issues around the SOA as a flagship, the SOA can be a vehicle for introducing people to less familiar ideological seas.
For many people, the SOA protests have been their introduction to the politics of protest. With its clear moral outrage and lack of overarching ideological agenda, the SOA movement is intellectually “safe” in the mind of the average non-political American. As a result, many “mainstream” Americans have been introduced to the culture of resistance and activism.
When one becomes familiar with the history and consequences of the SOA, connections with larger issues begin to become clear.
When one becomes familiar with the history and consequences of the SOA, connections with larger issues begin to become clear. Corporate imperialism, globalization, environmental degradation, racism, the attack on indigenous peoples, class war; all of these issues converge in the existence of the SOA.
The SOA has been described as “the military wing of the IMF and World Bank.” This is, on a certain level, true. The SOA is a product of the larger policy goals established after World War II. The IMF and World Bank, at the behest of the major industrialized nations, work to maintain climates friendly to freely transferable investment capital. This is done through “structural adjustment programs” where the IMF lends struggling governments money on the condition that they take steps to generate revenue, cut spending, and reduce debt.
Since these measures tend to be regressive (they place the heaviest burden on the poorest people), political and civil discontent usually results. People resist in the usual ways: forming unions, joining opposition parties, advocating populist reforms for the general good, etc. Until very recently, these actions were automatically labeled “communistic” and portrayed as being part of the (mythical) seamless web of global Soviet conspiracy. With the help of SOA-trained soldiers, “communist” individuals were eliminated and “communist” (read: “democratic”) governments were overthrown.
The result has frequently been right-wing military dictatorships, subservient to the US and more than willing to enrich themselves assisting foreign interests in exploiting their people and natural resources. These unpopular regimes stay in power by oppressing their own people. In Colombia, there is an average of one political killing every week. Extortion and intimidation are rampant. Population control like this is the real purpose of the “counter-insurgency” taught at the SOA.
The tie-ins to Green ideology are numerous: The SOA helps to bust unions, contributing to class war. The SOA helps oil companies steal land from indigenous peoples. The SOA-supported civil war in Colombia is resulting in mass deforestation by poisons supplied and sprayed by the US. SOA-supported authoritarian regimes tend to institutionalize racism and prevent popular action for change. The US dependence on oil leads the US to maintain the SOA to ensure “stability.” American corporations make fortunes in Latin America while the local people often work for slave wages and live in abject poverty.
When “ordinary” Americans can be brought to see these connections, perhaps they will realize that socialist and/or progressive ideology has validity and makes sense. Only when people see for themselves the fundamental hypocrisy of capitalism and American conservatism will they be inclined to move their thinking to the Left. The SOA issue is an ideal point to begin that journey.
There are many, even today, who defend the School of the Americas. They claim that, despite the actions of individual graduates, the intentions of the program are to promote peace and stability. Given the long and increasingly well-documented history of the SOA and the war criminals it has helped to produce, more and more decent people are refusing to accept the hollow policy justifications of the past. The SOA represents the darkest elements of US foreign policy and transnational capitalism. No doubt some of SOA’s supporters mean well, but, as the people of Latin America well know, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”
1. Katherine Dwyer, School of the Assassins, International Socialist Review, Fall 1999, pp. 23–24.
2. Robert Brophy and Peter Zirnite, US Military Training for Latin America (Volume 2, Number 48, October 1997), at http://www.foreignpolicy-infocus.org/briefs/vol2/v2n48mil_body.html [url corrected from print s/r; see links at this page for additional information]
3. Timothy Kepner, Torture 101: The Case Against the United States for Atrocities Committed by School of the Americas Alumni, 19 Dick. J. Int. Law 475, 479 (2001).
4. George Monbiot, Backyard Terrorism, The Guardian, October 30, 2001.
5. For the School of the Americas Watch website and Father Bourgeois’ speaking tour, see http://www.soaw.org
6. Andrew Gumbel, A Truly Turbulent Priest, The Independent (London), August 24, 2002.
For general reading, see: Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, School of Assassins (1997).