Washington, D.C.–On the weekend of November 16-18, thousands of human rights advocates from across the U.S. and Latin America will converge at Fort Benning, Georgia to demand a dramatic shift in U.S. foreign policy and the closure of the controversial U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA).
The annual Vigil to close the SOA at Ft. Benning has grown from a dozen people in November of 1990 to more than 20,000 in 2006. The annual event is held on the anniversary of the November 16, 1989 massacre at the University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador where Julia Elba Ramos, her fourteen year old daughter Celina, and six Jesuit priests where brutally murdered by the Atlacatl Battalion, a unit of the Salvadoran army. A U.S. Congressional Task Force reported that those responsible were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA).
“The school is an obstacle to democracy, which is really beginning to take root in Latin America,” said Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of School of the Americas Watch, a non profit human rights organization. “We should be investing our money and resources into civil institutions of these countries, and not on their militaries, which have a long history of oppressing their people, of torture, of causing untold suffering and death.”
The SOA, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), made headlines in 1996 when the Pentagon released training manuals used at the school that advocated torture, extortion and execution. Despite this admission and hundreds of documented human rights abuses connected to soldiers trained at the school, no independent investigation into the facility has ever taken place.
Thanks to an ongoing grassroots campaign, support for the SOA/ WHINSEC continues to erode. In 2007, Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Oscar Arias of Costa Rica announced that they would cease to send military and police to the school, becoming the 4th and 5th countries after Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela to withdraw from the U.S. Army training facility.
The events will culminate on Sunday, November 18 with a symbolic funeral procession to the gates of Ft. Benning. Many will negotiate a barbed-wire fence to enter the military base in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. Since protests against SOA/WHINSEC began more than a decade ago, 226 people have served federal prison sentences.
On June 21, 2007 a McGovern/Lewis amendment to the FY 2008 Foreign Appropriations bill that would have prohibited funding for the SOA/WHINSEC lost by a margin of only six votes. 203 members of Congress voted in favor of the amendment to cut the funding for the school quoting its connection to human rights abuses throughout Latin America.