The School of the Americas- Higher Learning for Terrorists?
By Sarah LeBaron von Baeyer
Peace is Our Profession
The School of the Americas (SOA), also referred to as the School of the Assassins, officially closed down on 15 December of the year 2000. Instead, it opened its doors to the 21st century dawning a new name and a freshly painted mask-- that of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHISC.
In the speech prepared for the closing of the SOA, the U.S. Army school based in Fort Bening, Georgia, the Hon. Luis Caldera spoke of a quest for peace and prosperity in the Western Hemisphere, as well as the U.S.s responsibility for helping to guarantee freedom throughout the world. The School of the Americas, Caldera said, was founded on the hopes of building a world based on common values and respect among nations. Those present at the closing ceremonies of the SOA, were asked to take a moment and reflect on the long and vibrant history of this School.
But let us recap. The history of the SOA is as controversial as it is long, and as violent as it is vibrant. Established in 1946 in Panama, the SOA was kicked out in 1984 under terms of the Panama Canal Treaty, only to be moved to its present location, 100 miles southwest of Atlanta. Each year, the SOA trains between 700 to 2000 soldiers from Latin America and the Caribbean, in war tactics such as counterinsurgency operations, psychological operations, sniper fire and military intelligence. The SOA does not screen its applicants, allowing known human rights abusers to attend. In an article for The Guardian, journalist George Monbiot wrote that for the past 55 years (the SOA) has been running a terrorist training camp. The following statement is cited from his article, dated October 30, 2001:
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. Im glad he said any government, as theres one which, though it has yet to be identified as a sponsor of terrorism, requires his urgent attention.
Indeed, the School of the Americas, which receives its funding from the American government, has an extremely ugly past, candy-coated in a new and prettier name. And, just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, the SOA by any other name would still reek of the bloody crimes it has fostered. Though the Canadian media hears little of this notorious army camp, the long list of SOA graduates responsible for murder and genocide in Latin America has not passed unnoticed.
The list never ceases to unfold. In June of last year, Colonel Byron Lima Estrada, once a student at the School of the Americas, 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 Guatemalas D-2, the military intelligence agency run by Lima Estrada with the help of two other SOA graduates, says Monbiot. D-2 coordinated the anti-insurgency campaign which obliterated 448 Mayan villages, and murdered tens of thousands of their people.
SOA graduates also include the officers who ran Augusto Pinochets secret police and his three principle concentration camps in Chile, Argentinian dictators Roberto Viola and Leopoldo Galtieri, and many other militant tyrants in countries such as Panama, Peru and Ecuador.
But this is hardly just a matter of the past. SOA graduates are presently involved in the dirty war being waged, with U.S. support, in Colombia. The SOA, or WHISC as it is now called, is drawing more of its students from Columbia than from any other country. Since 1946, in fact, almost 9,000 Columbians have graduated from the SOA, a higher number than from any other Latin American country. Escalating human rights abuses in Columbia as well as Mexico have occurred hand-in-hand with increased attendance from those countries.
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 an exact description of the activities performed by SOA graduates. Says Monbiot, But how can we be sure that their alma mater has had any part in this? Well, in 1996, the U.S. government was forced to release seven of the schools training manuals. Among other top tips for terrorists, they recommended blackmail, torture, execution and the arrest of witnesses relatives. And still, human rights and democracy remain a token part of the SOA curriculum. Most SOA students receive only the mandatory four hours of human rights training in courses that range from 8 days to 47 weeks.
Fortunately, the School of the Americas has met with organized opposition. SOA Watch ( website www.soaw.org) describes itself as an independent organization that seeks to close the US Army School of the Americas, under whatever name it is called, through vigils and fasts, demonstrations and nonviolent protest, as well as media and legislative work. In the year 2000, partly as a result of the campaign run by SOA Watch, several U.S. congressmen tried to shut the school down. They were defeated by 10 votes, however, and the House of Representatives voted to close it and then immediately reopen it under a different name. Paul Coverdell, the Georgia senator who had fought to save the school, told the papers that the changes were basically cosmetic.
In November 2000, in what was a nonviolent demonstration calling for the closure of the SOA, almost all of the 26 protestors present received a maximum sentence of six months in prison. The demonstrators included a NASA research scientist, a former corporate executive, and an 88-year old nun and her sister. Dorothy Hennessey and her younger sister, Gwen, both Dubuque Franciscan peace workers from Iowa, were incarcerated on 17 July, 2001. On 14 January of this year, they were released.
So, in the end, if elderly nuns are being put in prison for voicing their disapproval of the SOA, what can be done in the face of institutionalized terrorism? Journalist George Monbiot has this to say:
Well, we could urge our governments to apply full diplomatic pressure, and to seek the extradition of the schools 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.
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