No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and likewise a society with many sores will twitch when someone has the courage to touch one and say: “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that.” - Archbishop Oscar Romero (assassinated by graduates of School of the Americas - trained on US soil with our tax dollars - see below)

School of Americas
Death and torture squads and terrorists trained IN AMERICA with OUR TAX DOLLARS

On This Page:
Time to End a Horrific Legacy - David Batstone
Backyard Terrorism a report from the Guardian (UK)
Action Points

School of Americas Background: The US Army School of Americas (SOA), based in Fort Benning, Georgia, trains Latin American soldiers in combat, counter-insurgency, and counter-narcotics. Graduates of the SOA are responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America. Among the SOA's nearly 60,000 graduates are notorious dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador, and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia. Lower-level SOA graduates have participated in human rights abuses that include the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the El Mozote Massacre of 900 civilians.

SOA graduates have been responsible for some of the worst human rights atrocities in Latin American history, including:

• Two of the three officers responsible for the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980
• Three of the five officers responsible for the rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen in 1980
• 19 of 26 responsible for the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in 1989
• The man convicted in Guatemalan courts for the assassination of Guatemalan Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi in 1998
• The man arrested for the murder of Colombian Bishop Isaias Duarte in 2002

Originally set up as a counterinsurgency training school in 1946, the SOA has claimed numerous reforms in the way it selects and trains its students over the years, culminating in its name change to the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation" (WHISC) in 2001. Each of these changes came only because of grassroots and congressional activism, but none has permanently closed the school or allowed for a full accounting of its tragic legacy. The school continues to train soldiers from countries with the worst human rights records in the region.

Since 1946, the SOA has trained more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, psychological warfare, military intelligence, and interrogation tactics. Among its graduates are death squad leaders such as Roberto D'Aubuisson from El Salvador and military dictators such as Hugo Banzer of Bolivia and General Hector Gramajo of Guatemala. In 1996 the Pentagon was forced to release training manuals used at the school that advocated the use of torture, extortion, and execution. In response to public outcry over its poor human rights record, Congress in 2000 renamed the SOA as the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation" (WHISC).

Changing a leopard's name, however, does not remove its spots. The school continues to draw criticism and protest throughout Latin America. On February 26, 2004, Venezuelan Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel announced that all training of Venezuelan soldiers at the School of the Americas (WHISC) would be immediately ceased. In his address Rangel stated that the U.S., which considers itself a democracy, shouldn't have a school like this on its soil.

When I [David Batstone] was working in the countryside of El Salvador in the middle 1990s, I witnessed firsthand the atrocities that SOA-trained soldiers wreaked upon the families of peasant farmers. They terrorized the population and assassinated grassroots leaders from the church, including Archbishop Romero and six Jesuits.

Since our action alert went out, I received several letters from readers who argued that the SOA cannot be held responsible for the acts of its graduates any more than a university could be complicit in the crimes of its alumni. We contacted Carlos Castresana, the prosecutor who brought charges of war crimes against General Pinochet, and asked him if he believed this was a legitimate defense. His reply:

"The question has two possible responses. Some lessons are a priori innocuous, and do not make the professor responsible, unless the professor knows beforehand the use that the student will make of the lesson.... To know beforehand, however, turns the professor into a necessary collaborator, and he or she would be punished as a material author of the crime."

The U.S., both through the SOA and 180 other similar training programs for foreign militaries, continues to support regimes with known records of abuse and torture - in effect, arming criminals. Even since purported reforms, known human rights abusers continue to receive training. In one case, the 1992-U.N.-mandated Commission on the Truth for El Salvador found Col. Francisco del Cid Diaz as one of those responsible for the massacre of 16 residents of the Los Hojas cooperative of the Asociacion Nacional de Indigenas. Despite record of this massacre in the State Department Human Rights Record Country Reports, Col. del Cid Diaz received SOA training in 2003.

Vice President Rangel of Venezuela got it right. No society that considers itself a democracy should tolerate a school like the SOA to exist, or permit its government to jettison the provisions of the Geneva Convention. Terrorism is indeed the enemy of democracy, even when it emerges from within our own ranks. - David Batstone, Sojourners

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School of the Americas: Time to end a horrific legacy
by David Batstone

Activists march during the annual vigil to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas. (SOA Watch photo)
Last year many Americans were shocked by the revelation that U.S. soldiers had tortured Iraqi prisoners. Many American citizens felt it was a complete contradiction of our principles to be fighting for democracy in Iraq while violating its practice by abusing human rights.

With that same sentiment, thousands of faith-based activists will gather in a few weeks at Fort Benning, Georgia, to express their conviction that the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School of the Americas, which trains Latin American soldiers for combat, should be closed down.

If you have never attended the SOA vigil before, I urge you to make your peacemaking pilgrimage to Georgia Nov. 18 to 20. A vote to close down the SOA most likely will come up before Congress during the next nine months. A strong presence at the vigil this year will send Congress a powerful message that public sentiment runs deep against keeping the SOA in business.

The SOA has been controversial for nearly two decades, according to the School of the Americas Watch, a Washington-based organization that has spearheaded the grassroots movement to close the school. In its 50-year life span, many of the school's 61,000 graduates have been involved in major human rights abuses, the watch states on its Web site. Founded by Father Roy Bourgeois, the watch has raised awareness of the involvement of SOA-trained soldiers in the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the massacre of the six Jesuit priests and two women working for them, and other killings.

In 1999 a budget amendment was made in the House to cut funds to the school. Though the amendment lost by one vote in congressional conference committee, soon thereafter the Pentagon introduced a "reform" package. In 2001, the School of Americas was officially closed and replaced in the same location with the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Yet, as the old saying goes, a leopard does not change its spots.

I bear witness to the SOA's horrific practice. I worked in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and surrounding countries for more than a decade. I know what they taught at Fort Benning, and a name change does not alter that legacy.

Many of my best friends in El Salvador were "captured" - kidnapped out of their homes and churches - by security forces that had been trained by the American military. They were tortured by the book - electrodes sending shock impulses to their private parts, chalk lime bags put over their heads intending to suffocate, and worse tortures too terrible to name. Once they were pumped for information - such as the names of other members of their community service project or literacy study group - they would be scheduled for execution.

I established a human rights organization, Central American Mission Partners, in 1984 that aimed to stop these kidnappings from happening. We sent U.S. citizens to live with any Central American targeted by the security forces, otherwise gruesomely known as the death squads. The reason this strategy worked: The military did not want to kill a U.S. citizen and alert the American public of its disregard for human rights. A Salvadoran or Guatemalan gets tortured and killed - we would never hear about it. A U.S. citizen gets killed, and it's often front-page news and the Congress debates whether to keep the aid flowing to undemocratic forces.

Now is another occasion for U.S. citizens to speak up vigorously on behalf of those children of God who are often ignored in the halls of Congress. We must not allow the legacy of the SOA to continue. In God's name, put an end to this awful blemish on the republic for which we stand.

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Backyard Terrorism:
The US Has Been Training Terrorists At a Camp in Georgia for Years - And It's Still At It
 by George Monbiot, The Guardian (UK)

 "If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents," George Bush announced on the day he began bombing Afghanistan, "they have become outlaws and murderers themselves. And they will take that lonely path at their own peril." I'm glad he said "any government", as there's one which, though it has yet to be identified as a sponsor of terrorism, requires his urgent attention.

 For the past 55 years it has been running a terrorist training camp, whose victims massively outnumber the people killed by the attack on New York, the embassy bombings and the other atrocities laid, rightly or wrongly, at al-Qaida's door. The camp is called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or Whisc. It is based in Fort Benning, Georgia, and it is funded by Mr Bush's government.

 Until January this year, Whisc was called the "School of the Americas", or SOA. Since 1946, SOA has trained more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers and policemen. Among its graduates are many of the continent's most notorious torturers, mass murderers, dictators and state terrorists. As hundreds of pages of documentation compiled by the pressure group SOA Watch show, Latin America has been ripped apart by its alumni.

 In June this year, Colonel Byron Lima Estrada, once a student at the school, was convicted in Guatemala City of murdering Bishop Juan Gerardi in 1998. Gerardi was killed because he had helped to write a report on the atrocities committed by Guatemala's D-2, the military intelligence agency run by Lima Estrada with the help of two other SOA graduates. D-2 coordinated the "anti-insurgency" campaign which obliterated 448 Mayan Indian villages, and murdered tens of thousands of their people. Forty per cent of the cabinet ministers who served the genocidal regimes of Lucas Garcia, Rios Montt and Mejia Victores studied at the School of the Americas.

 In 1993, the United Nations truth commission on El Salvador named the army officers who had committed the worst atrocities of the civil war. Two-thirds of them had been trained at the School of the Americas. Among them were Roberto D'Aubuisson, the leader of El Salvador's death squads; the men who killed Archbishop Oscar Romero; and 19 of the 26 soldiers who murdered the Jesuit priests in 1989. In Chile, the school's graduates ran both Augusto Pinochet's secret police and his three principal concentration camps. One of them helped to murder Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffit in Washington DC in 1976.

 Argentina's dictators Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri, Panama's Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos, Peru's Juan Velasco Alvarado and Ecuador's Guillermo Rodriguez all benefited from the school's instruction. So did the leader of the Grupo Colina death squad in Fujimori's Peru; four of the five officers who ran the infamous Battalion 3-16 in Honduras (which controlled the death squads there in the 1980s) and the commander responsible for the 1994 Ocosingo massacre in Mexico.

 All this, the school's defenders insist, is ancient history. But SOA graduates are also involved in the dirty war now being waged, with US support, in Colombia. In 1999 the US State Department's report on human rights named two SOA graduates as the murderers of the peace commissioner, Alex Lopera. Last year, Human Rights Watch revealed that seven former pupils are running paramilitary groups there and have commissioned kidnappings, disappearances, murders and massacres. In February this year an SOA graduate in Colombia was convicted of complicity in the torture and killing of 30 peasants by paramilitaries. The school is now drawing more of its students from Colombia than from any other country.

 The FBI defines terrorism as "violent acts... intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government, or affect the conduct of a government", which is a precise description of the activities of SOA's graduates. But how can we be sure that their alma mater has had any part in this? Well, in 1996, the US government was forced to release seven of the school's training manuals. Among other top tips for terrorists, they recommended blackmail, torture, execution and the arrest of witnesses' relatives.

 Last year, partly as a result of the campaign run by SOA Watch, several US congressmen tried to shut the school down. They were defeated by 10 votes. Instead, the House of Representatives voted to close it and then immediately reopen it under a different name. So, just as Windscale turned into Sellafield in the hope of parrying public memory, the School of the Americas washed its hands of the past by renaming itself Whisc. As the school's Colonel Mark Morgan informed the Department of Defense just before the vote in Congress: "Some of your bosses have told us that they can't support anything with the name 'School of the Americas' on it. Our proposal addresses this concern. It changes the name." Paul Coverdell, the Georgia senator who had fought to save the school, told the papers that the changes were "basically cosmetic".

 But visit Whisc's website and you'll see that the School of the Americas has been all but excised from the record. Even the page marked "History" fails to mention it. Whisc's courses, it tells us, "cover a broad spectrum of relevant areas, such as operational planning for peace operations; disaster relief; civil-military operations; tactical planning and execution of counter drug operations".

 Several pages describe its human rights initiatives. But, though they account for almost the entire training program, combat and commando techniques, counter-insurgency and interrogation aren't mentioned. Nor is the fact that Whisc's "peace" and "human rights" options were also offered by SOA in the hope of appeasing Congress and preserving its budget: but hardly any of the students chose to take them.

 We can't expect this terrorist training camp to reform itself: after all, it refuses even to acknowledge that it has a past, let alone to learn from it. So, given that the evidence linking the school to continuing atrocities in Latin America is rather stronger than the evidence linking the al-Qaida training camps to the attack on New York, what should we do about the "evil-doers" in Fort Benning, Georgia?

 Well, we could urge our governments to apply full diplomatic pressure, and to seek the extradition of the school's commanders for trial on charges of complicity in crimes against humanity. Alternatively, we could demand that our governments attack the United States, bombing its military installations, cities and airports in the hope of overthrowing its unelected government and replacing it with a new administration overseen by the UN. In case this proposal proves unpopular with the American people, we could win their hearts and minds by dropping naan bread and dried curry in plastic bags stamped with the Afghan flag.

 You object that this prescription is ridiculous, and I agree. But try as I might, I cannot see the moral difference between this course of action and the war now being waged in Afghanistan.

 © Guardian Newspapers Limited

return to top of page action points: The SOA's legacy isn't just Cold War history. As recently as 2002, a SOA graduate was arrested for the murder of a Colombian archbishop. In 2003, several soldiers received training at the school even though they were known to have past records of human rights abuses.
Write etters to the editor asking why their newspaper is not covering the attrocities being propogated by SOA.
Find out more about the SOA vigil in Columbus, Georgia, Nov. 18 to 20
• Tell your member of Congress to support HR 1258, a bill to close, investigate, and prevent another cosmetic remake of the SOA: Click here to e-mail your member of Congress

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