The Demonstration at the School of the Americas

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I WAS ONE OF OVER 25,000 WHO participated recently in
the demonstration at the gates of Fort Benning, in
Columbus, Georgia, where the School of the Americas
(SOA) is located. The annual demonstrations, this year
on Saturday–Sunday, November 17–18, are called vigils.
They are non-violent protests that involve speeches and
great music from a large stage in front of the gates, as well
as the drama of large “puppetistas,” and other demonstrations
related to SOA activities.
The most significant part of the weekend is the “funeral
procession” on Sunday, beginning about noon. It takes
about two hours. The participants slowly walk in procession
on the street leading up to the gates while the names
of hundreds of the victims of official violence in Central
and Latin America are being chanted. In response to each
name, the crowd chants “Presente,” recognizing that their
memory and spirit are still with us. During this activity,
military helicopters were loudly buzzing overhead while
soldiers from the Fort watched behind a ten-foot-high
chain link fence. It was a powerful experience.
On March 16, 1989, six Jesuit priest-professors at the University
of Central America and their cook and her 15-yearold
daughter were assassinated by a death squad. The death
squad activity had claimed thousands of other victims in El
Salvador during the 1980s, but this event stirred a great public
outcry throughout the world and in the United States.
During the 1980s, the U.S. had been deeply involved in
the dirty war that raged in that country. The U.S. supported
the Salvadoran military government with over $5 billion
in aid and many U.S. military advisers. The official
U.S. response to the Jesuit murders was swift. U.S Secretary
of Defense Richard Cheney stated emphatically, “There’s no indication at all that the government of El Salvador had any involvement.”
The U.S. Congressional Task Force concluded in its April 1990 report that the men
responsible for the massacre were trained at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning.
They were part of the elite U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion.
For decades the SOA functioned at the heart of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, yet few
U.S. citizens knew about the school or paid attention to its mission. The SOA was associated
with human rights atrocities, death squads and dictatorships throughout Latin America. The
fact that this was well known south of our border, while remaining largely unknown to citizens
in this country until the 1990s was the result of official secrecy and lies (like Cheney’s), the people’s
ignorance and the power of this nation’s myth as being a benevolent superpower.
CIA documents show that the Reagan White House was fully aware of who ran, funded
and protected the El Salvador death squads in the 1980s and planned the assassination
of Archbishop Oscar Romero.
To keep alive the memory of the Salvadoran victims and to raise the consciousness of U.S.
citizens, Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois organized a demonstration at the gates of Ft. Benning
on the first anniversary of the massacre of the Jesuits and the two women co-workers. It
was on November 16, 1990. There were ten persons in that demonstration.
It was a beginning. Father Roy and his friends called their effort SOA Watch. Each year
the numbers demonstrating at the gates of Ft. Benning have increased. This year there
were over 25,000.
The SOA has been an instrument of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, training over
70,000 soldiers from Latin America in commando operations, psychological warfare, and
counter-insurgency techniques. It’s graduates return to their countries with the skills necessary
to implement U.S. foreign policy—by whatever means necessary.
There has never been any official U.S. response to the accusation of U.S complicity with
the death squads and military coups throughout Latin America. A commander at the SOA
has said that the few graduates who engaged in these kinds of activities are a case of “a few
bad apples.” The fact is that the SOA has been implicated in every major human rights
atrocity in our hemisphere in the past fifty years. The SOA graduates linked to human
rights abuses have not betrayed their training. They have been faithful to their mission.
2007’s demonstration at Ft. Benning offered a special memorial to Rufina Amaya who
died last March. She had been the only survivor of the massacre at El Mozote in December
1981 that killed over 1,000 people. It was carried out by the infamous Atlacatl Battalion,
a special elite force trained at SOA. Forensic teams have determined that most of the
victims of El Mozote were children.
Though it was very painful, Rufina became a witness to the massacre, retelling the tragic
story over and over again. She felt that God had spared her so that she could tell the
story to others. She was a good friend to our annual delegations that have visited our five
sister mountain communities close to El Mozote. She met with many of our delegations to
accompany us to the small village where this worst massacre of the Salvadoran war took
place. Through her tears, Rufina would tell us about hiding under a bush while the killing
was taking place. The massacre took the lives of six of her children and her husband.
In a city park in San Salvador there is a memorial wall for the 75,000 victims of the
tragic war that took place in that country for fifteen years, beginning in 1977. The wall is
modeled after the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC. It is very sobering to see
thousands of names inscribed on a long black marble wall.
It should make us angry that the U.S. has never acknowledged its role in that war. During
the vice-presidential debate leading up to the 2004 election, Dick Cheney said “We’ve brought
democracy to El Salvador.” What our government brought to El Salvador was bloodshed and
tragic suffering across the country. The U.S. still dominates the Salvadoran military-politicaleconomic
picture. El Salvador is the only Latin American ally that still has its troops in Iraq.
The SOA is not the only military center for Latin American soldiers to receive training
in counter insurgency tactics. The U.S. has trained a large number in over 100 other facilities
in the United States, and even more in schools outside this country.
In comparison the SOA Watch seems insignificant. It is, however, an important effort to
unveil the secrets of a military machine that has been an instrument of enforcing U.S. foreign
policy “by whatever means necessary.” This policy has promoted economic and strategic
interests in a hemisphere marked by massive injustice. Today, economic leverage rather
than brute military force has become the key instrument for the U.S. to pursue its foreign
policy goals. The military machine, however, is ready when needed.
The annual vigils at the gates of Fort Benning provide an opportunity to join in solidarity
with the victims of official violence. The vigils also provide kinship with others
who are committed to justice. It has grown from the ten who stood at the gates in 1990.
But it’s still only a beginning. It will take a mighty effort to successfully challenge the
myth of the U.S. as a benevolent superpower. It is an inconvenient truth.

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