U.S. Involvement in Colombia's War: One Man's Story
His hands tremble so much he has to hold them in his lap as he sits in front of the small crowd of gringos gathered in the tiny church in the capital city of Colombia, Bogota. His name was not printed on our schedule of meetings. He was known simply as a "human rights activist." When he left us for the evening, we'd not know his destination but the bed he'd sleep in would not be the bed he'd sleep in the next night. Or the next, or the next.
Hector Mondragon is trained as an economist. I was one of a delegation of about fifty people who traveled to Colombia on a recent Witness for Peace/SOA Watch delegation to meet with him and others to talk firsthand about the political turmoil in their country and the role of the United States in that turmoil. For years Hector has worked for peace and justice throughout Colombia's civil war and after he finished his political analysis of the situation, he told us his own personal story. The room fell still as we listened with shame, anger, sadness and amazement to what was revealing itself before us.
Hector is a survivor of torture. Twenty years ago he was left hanging for two days tied by his hands from a tree in the city of Barrancabemeja, an oil industry town about 8 hour's drive north of Bogota. His assailant was a graduate of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas.
We were amazed that someone who had suffered so much, could still do the work that he did, speaking out for truth and justice in a country where paying with one's life was all too often the cost of doing so. We were sad that we could do nothing to quiet the constant tremor of his hands. We were angry and shamed that our own government played a role in his suffering.
Hector's eyes are piercing and sincere as he relates the story of why his hands still shake from nerve damage from that ordeal. Through the difficulty of his story the gentleness of his voice is unmistakable. "I have said from the beginning that I forgive him," he explains of the man who left him shaking. "If I saw him today I would embrace him. But we will only be truly reconciled when the School of the Americas is closed, the place where he learned to leave me trembling forever,".
As most of us active in the movement here in the States well know, the School of the Americas is not closed, but due to the persistence of that pesky Maryknoll priest, Father Roy Bourgeois, the movement to shut its doors forever has grown into one of the largest social movements in the United States since the Vietnam War. People from all over the country gather every year at the gates of Fort Benning for the November vigil and nonviolent civil disobedience. About half our delegation with Witness for Peace was specifically made up of prisoners of conscience, those who had served time in prisons for protesting the school including Steve Jacobs, a folksinger and Catholic Worker from the heartland who had just been released from serving a one year sentence only a few weeks' prior to our trip.
In response to all this public pressure, the School now has a new name, the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), and a slick new image supposedly emphasizing human rights and democratic values (but of course! where else can one learn about democracy but in that oh-so-democratic institution known as the military?). As we prepare for another vigil and protest in November, I thought it would be appropriate to review some latest statistics on what the graduates of the SOA/WHISC have been up to lately in Colombia. You can cite these examples when talking to the media or to friends and family about the need for closing the school. And to underscore how the shameful legacy of the SOA continues to this day I'm going to use statistics from a very radical out there kind of organization: the U.S. State Department.
According to their "Report on Human Rights in Colombia"
The evidence is overwhelming: according to School of the Americas Watch, over 100 of 246 officers cited for human rights violations in Colombia are graduates of the School of the Americas.
Hector's story left those us who had traveled to Colombia on this delegation shaken but more committed than ever to our task of closing the SOA/WHISC. We vowed to bring his words of forgiveness and reconciliation to the school itself in a nonviolent act of civil disobedience so immediately upon our return from Colombia spent the following day creating and preparing for an action at the school. That night we stayed up 'til 2 am painting banners bearing his powerful words in thick black letters and the following morning we gathered outside the gates. After crossing the line and tying the banner to the fence, three of us proceeded to climb over the barbed wire on top to take the entire text of his statement right up to the doors of the school. We were immediately arrested, processed and released. Two of us who previously had five year ban and bar letters got permanent ones and the third who had a one year ban got a five year one.
Compared to what Hector had lived through and what he continues to live through, our action at Fort Benning was very modest. Those of us who chose to risk arrest did so at the stake of interrupting our family lives, our careers, our studies for a few months if the Army chose to press the charges of trespassing and damage to government property (as we supposedly bent the barbed wire when we climbed over the fence). But as serious as it is to go to prison for six months, the price seemed so very small compared to what Hector and others like him have paid. We do what we can. Hector and others we talked with in Colombia never once belittled the small risks we take as activists in North America. Indeed they seemed sincerely grateful for what we had done in the past. When they asked us to continue doing everything we could to change U.S. policy towards Colombia, including closing the school that leaves them trembling, we could hardly say no.
As activists, as citizens of conscience, it is our responsibility to keep the faith alive, to keep believing that one day we can have a world full of peace, a world where imperialism of any kind is a thing of the past. As citizens in this country where we don't face what people like Hector face, we have all the more responsibility to speak out. Please join us in Fort Benning this year to say no to more violence, no to more military training, no to more bombs and bullets. In the words of another activist group in Colombia "Not another penny, not another child, not another man or woman for war".
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