Vets to protest U.S. Army's torture school at Ft. Benning, Georgia Nov. 16
Seven years ago, a Salvadorean death squad murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. When a UN Truth Commission investigated the crime, it named 26 Salvadorean Army officers as responsible -- 19 of whom were trained, at US taxpayer expense, at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA) in Ft. Benning, Georgia.
An aberration? The SOA, established to train Latin American military officers as the Cold War began 50 years ago, claims to instruct its students about democracy and human rights as well as warfare and "intelligence" tactics.
As usual with US government policies on Central and South America, official statements are contradicted by reports from the field. SOA trainees have been implicated in so many dictatorships and atrocities that their alma mater has earned the Spanish nickname "Escuela des Golpes" ("School of Coups"); in English it's often called the School of Assassins. For the first 38 years of its existence, the SOA was based in Panama; in 1984, as local resentment grew, the Reagan administration relocated it to Ft. Benning.
For the last several years, the SOA Watch, led by Fr. Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest, has led the North American resistance to the School's existence. As evidence has mounted to support SOA Watch's position that this program has only worsened the lives of Latin Americans, while fueling their hostility toward the United States, more citizens have joined the call to abolish SOA.
Among these is Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-RI), who has introduced several Congressional bills to cut off all SOA funding. Karen Thurman and Harry Johnston are alone in Florida's 23 Representatives in supporting Kennedy's bills consistently; Reps. Peter Deutsch and Alcee Hastings voted for the most recent bill to have made it to a vote, in 1994. The Newt Gingrich Congress, unsurprisingly, stifled Kennedy's proposal without allowing it to reach the floor.
The SOA gained further attention in September when a White House panel revealed that the SOA had used textbooks recommending executions, threats to individuals and their family members, beatings, bounty payments, blackmail, and "neutralizing... governmental officials, political leaders, and members of the infrastructure" ("neutralizing" is a common euphemism for murder). The Pentagon claims that these texts were removed from the SOA curriculum in 1992: it will not reveal with what material they were replaced.
The Intelligence Oversight Board reported that the earlier curriculum was based, in part, on "material dating back to the 1960's from the Army's Foreign Intelligence Assistance Program, entitled 'Project X.'" No one has yet disclosed the nature of Project X, or who in the US Army was killing, torturing, and blackmailing whom during or since the 1960's. The Defense Depertment maintains that such acts are against US policy, but has shown no interest in investigating or prosecuting those responsible.
Last year, Fr. Bourgeois and 12 others were arrested for protesting at the SOA on the sixth anniversary of the priests' murder. (Bourgeois's civil disobedience actions against the SOA have resulted in about two years of total jail time so far; the others received sentences of two to four months each. Upon learning of the terrorist practices advocated by the School curriculum, Rep. Kennedy and three other Congressmembers called for Pres. Clinton to commute the SOA Watch protesters' sentences: the White House, predictably, did nothing.)
This August a group of 300 leading Catholic women held a prayer vigil at the SOA gates; in October, Amnesty International-USA issued a report on the torture curriculum, demanding that the US government identify and punish the persons who created and implemented it, as well as make public the materials taught, the subsequent actions taken by the students in their homelands, and the details of Project X.
The 16th of November this year will mark the seventh anniversary of the killing of the Jesuits, and a larger demonstration is planned for that day as the cap for four days of a vigil. Peace groups from across the country are scheduled to participate. (At least one simultaneous rally is being planned in Philadelphia, PA.)
Gainesville's Veterans for Peace chapter and other local activists plan to car-pool to Georgia to join in this year's protest against the School. Call 378-5655 for carpool information.
Further information is available in Gainesville at the Civic Media Center (373-0010) and online at the SOA Watch Web site: http://www.derechos.org/soaw/ (which also includes links to a wide range of other human-rights information). Donations, letters and queries are welcome at: SOA Watch, P.O. Box 3330, Columbus, GA 31903, (706) 682-5369.
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