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Synthesis/Regeneration 38   (Fall 2005)

The School of the Americas and its Role Today

by Christy Pardew

The School of the Americas (SOA) is a military training school for Latin American security personnel located at Fort Benning, Georgia. The school has trained over 60,000 soldiers, police and civilian forces since its founding in the 1940s. Some of the worst human rights abusers in Latin America, and no fewer than 11 dictators, including Manuel Noriega of Panamá and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia, have passed through the halls of the school.

In 1996, under intense public pressure, the Pentagon was forced to release training manuals used at the school for years that advocated militaries’ operating outside the rule of law as well as the use of torture, blackmail and the targeting of union organizers, religious people and those who advocate for the rights of the poor.

In 2000, Congress “closed” the SOA, only to have it reopen three weeks later with a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, with a much more convoluted acronym—WHINSEC. The move was widely seen as an attempt to distance the school from its well-known connections to torture and the training of human rights abusers.

SOA Watch formed in November of 1990 when a dozen people fasted and participated in nonviolent civil disobedience at Fort Benning on the anniversary of the massacre one year earlier of 14-year-old Celina Ramos, her mother Elba Ramos, and six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America in San Salvador. Nineteen of the 26 soldiers found responsible for those brutal murders were trained—with US taxpayers footing the bill—at the School of the Americas.

SOA Watch has held an annual vigil each year since then—this year’s is planned for November 18–20—and the movement to close the school has continued to grow. Last year more than 16,000 people gathered for three days of workshops, caucuses, demonstrations and civil disobedience—by far the largest and most diverse convergence to date. Besides organizing the annual demonstration, SOA Watch has active legislative and media campaigns.

SOA opponent murdered

During each of these November vigils, powerful speakers representing the communities most affected by the SOA/ WHINSEC have joined SOA Watch at the gates of Fort Benning to tell their stories of repression, hope and resistance.

One of the most compelling speakers at our 2002 vigil at Fort Benning was a man named Luis Eduardo Guerra, founder of the San José de Apartadó peace community in Urabá, Colombia. Since its founding in 1996, the peace community has taken a public stand of neutrality in the 40-year civil war—a virtually unprecedented attempt to live independently of the influence of armed actors and to not be forced off their land like so many other thousands of agricultural workers in Colombia.

In February 2005, Luis Eduardo, his partner Bellanira and their 11-year-old son Deiner were brutally murdered. The community found their badly beaten bodies discarded near a river with their throats cut. Five other community members were also killed: 3 adults and 2 children, six years and 18 months old, were found in a communal grave with their extremities severed. Witnesses identified the Colombian military as responsible for the massacre, and the 17th and 11th Brigades of the army were occupying the area at the time of the murders.

It turns out that Luis Eduardo is not the only person involved in this tragic case to have traveled to the School of the Americas. Years earlier, General Héctor Jaime Fandiño Rincón, the commander of the 17th Brigade, was there. Unlike Luis Eduardo, who came to speak out for justice, Fandiño Rincón was there in 1976 to learn the arts of “small unit tactical operations”—a key SOA course that supports tactics used in civilian-targeted warfare. Once again, a trail of intimidation, abuse and blood leads back to the School of the Americas.

These armies have served to maintain the status quo for the wealthy elite.

The Colombian military, paramilitary units and guerrilla forces have targeted this community, founded in an attempt to create a space free of weapons and independent of any armed actors, since its inception in 1996. One-hundred fifty-two members of the community have been killed in eight years, and not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice, even though the Colombian justice system has gathered the testimonies of hundreds of people identifying those responsible.

For years, official reports from the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and even the State Department have established the collusion and collaboration between the US-trained Colombian army and right-wing paramilitaries in many war-torn regions of the country. With military support, the paramilitaries are operating as surrogate death squads and thugs. A United Nations report confirmed this trend, stating that “Members of the military participated in massacres, organized paramilitary groups, and spread death threats. The security forces also failed to take action, and this undoubtedly enabled the paramilitary groups to achieve their exterminating objectives.”

In a public statement released after the massacre, the Peace Community stated:

It is important to understand the Army-paramilitary strategy to clear villages and take control of the land. First come the indiscriminate bombings and then the operations in which they eliminate everything they come across: animals, crops, homes and, as the most recent events show, entire families…. But there is no doubt that the strategy is working: just two weeks ago we pointed out that as a result of these operations ... only 10 families remained, and now 9 of them have been displaced...

Since the assassinations, police have occupied the community, forcing nearly every one of its members—intent on living free from any armed actors—to flee the area.

Small piece of the pie

Establishing connections of SOA graduates to human rights abuses has provided crucial impetus in the campaign to close the SOA/ WHINSEC. Despite the work of SOA Watch and other human rights organizations in the United States and Latin America, only a small portion of the US training connections to murder and repression around the world have been brought to light.

The fact is that the School of the Americas represents only a small percentage of the actual training of Latin American security personnel by the US military. Many readers have, no doubt, heard of the School of the Americas, but how many have heard of the Inter-American Air Force Academy or the US Navy’s Naval Small Craft Instruction and Technical Training School? These schools, located at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas and at Stennis Island, Mississippi, respectively, have trained nearly 50,000 Latin American security personnel, and are just two examples of training institutions for foreign security forces located here in the United States.

The most recent trends in the training of Latin Americans indicate that the United States is shifting most programs out of the country (and therefore farther from oversight). WHINSEC accounts for less than 5% of the Latin American military personnel trained each year. In 2003 the US military trained nearly 23,000 students from Latin America and the Caribbean. Nearly 13,000 of them were from Colombia alone.

Military roles

The function of militaries in Latin America is different than the function of militaries in the United States. As countries that don’t have border conflicts and aren’t involved in foreign wars, the purpose of militaries in Latin America is to operate internally, whether that’s through policing, counter-narcotics work or suppressing social movements. The question then becomes why the US Army feels that it needs to maintain a special school, at taxpayer expense, just to help these armies that in many countries are already the strongest state institution; armies with histories of human rights abuse, questionable commitments to open societies that tolerate dissent, and who operate within judicial systems where impunity is often the highest rule of law?

These armies have served to maintain the status quo for the wealthy elite, and to assure that multinational corporations have access to cheap labor and natural resources. In Colombia, for example, the US has trained an elite force of Colombian soldiers for the sole purpose of guarding an Occidental Petroleum pipeline. It’s interesting now to see how clearly military suppression of popular dissent is connected to the passage of free trade agreements throughout Latin America.

As just one example, on March 15, 2005 the Guatemalan president ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement while thousands of people demonstrated in the streets. That day, two protestors were killed and several were wounded when police and soldiers fired live rounds at a group of nonviolent demonstrators. Massive anti-CAFTA protests in Guatemala City had delayed the vote on the treaty, but CAFTA was finally passed with thousands of police surrounding the Guatemalan Congress and tear gas filling downtown.

Nine days later, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld unabashedly announced that the United States was rewarding Guatemala with military aid, which had been suspended since 1990, commenting that he was “impressed by reforms.” This is a clear example of a pattern of US military training and support being fundamentally tied to the expansion of the US economy’s ability to benefit from the exploitation of the people and resources of Latin America. There’s a word for this pattern: imperialism.

The United States has more than 182 training schools where the military trains foreign security forces within its borders. In Latin America and around the world, the US government is focusing the most money and military resources on places where the largest civil uprisings are occurring.

Closing the School of the Americas, which is a realistic and attainable goal, isn’t going to have massive implications on human rights or on the broad spectrum of US military training. The success of a popular movement forcing the closure of the school will, however, send a critical message everywhere that militaries perpetuate human rights abuses with the support of the US government.

It is up to us to change the political climate by working towards a culture of justice and peace and by defying systems of violence and domination. History is made by movements, mass movements of people who organize themselves to struggle collectively for a better world.

Christy Pardew is the Communications Coordinator at School of the Americas Watch (http://www.SOAW.org/).

[12 aug 05]

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