Members of the Ithaca community will march from Ithaca to Corning today in an effort to urge New York State Representative Amory Houghton to vote to close the School of the Americas (SOA), a Latin American military training school in Fort Benning, Georgia.
The march is sponsored by School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch), an organization that aims to shut down what it calls a “school of assassins.” Hougton, representative of Newfield, Lansing, Groton, and Ulysses, as well as suburban Ithaca, has not supported the SOA Watch cause in past votes.
Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA watch, kicked off today’s march by speaking at both Cornell and Ithaca College last night.
In 1990, Bourgeois founded SOA Watch, an organization located outside the main gate of Fort Benning, GA, which works to inform the public, the government, and the media about the SOA and the work it does.
“We started to do research about the school,” Bourgeois said. “And what we pieced together… was that it is a school of assassins, a school of dictators, a school of death squad leaders. But here in the U.S., it is unknown, it is hiding behind this wall.”
According to Bourgeois, “hundreds of its graduates were involved in crimes against humanity… as we got out this information to colleges, church groups, religious groups, a movement was born.”
The school was originally established in 1946 in Panama to better develop Latin American and Caribbean militaries. In 1963, it was renamed the School of the Americas and its focus was turned to fighting communism. In 1984, the SOA was moved to Fort Benning, Georgia, where it remains today.
The SOA trains soldiers and other military personnel from Latin American countries. These men are trained in such subjects as commando operations, anti-narcotics operations, and military intelligence. In 1996, an investigation of the SOA training manuals revealed lessons promoting beatings and other torture, blackmail, and even execution.
The SOA has trained over 60,000 Latin American troops in its 54 year existence, and it is estimated that it trains 1,000 to 2,000 more soldiers a year and “hundreds of its graduates were involved in crimes against humanity,” said Bourgeois.
The SOA is paid for entirely by U.S. taxpayers. According to the Pentagon, it costs Americans ten to twenty million dollars each year. The money is used for SOA teaching salaries and travel expenses, and the travel expenses of the Latin American soldiers who attend the school.
“We are lobbying to Congress to cut all funding from the SOA… we are calling upon them to use that money to educate our kids,” said Bourgeois.
SOA graduates have been found responsible for many human rights violations and countless deaths. Many of the crimes committed by SOA graduates target religious workers or union organizers who try to help or protest for the poor.
El Salvador has been the sight of many of these tortures and deaths. In 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero, a crusader for nonviolence and justice for the poor, was assassinated while celebrating mass. Two of the three officers accused of his death were SOA graduates. In 1981, 900 civilians, virtually the entire town of El Mozote, was killed, and their bodies burned or mutilated. Of the bodies that could be examined after the killing, 130 were children under the age of ten and three were infants under three months old. Twelve officers were accused for their involvement, and ten of those were SOA trained.
In 1989 at the University of Central America in El Salvador, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter were dragged from their home and executed at point blank range. nineteen of the 26 officers cited for the killings were graduates of the SOA.
In 1999, a bill was proposed in Congress to Close the SOA. After going back to a committee of the House and Senate, the bill lost by one vote. However, Pentagon officials did shut down the SOA this year, and reopened it in January under the name Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation.
“No one has been fooled by the name change,” said Bourgeois, “its a new name, but the same shame.”
SOA Watch organizes many peaceful protests to close the SOA, including its annual November protest at the gates of Fort Benning and its spring protest in Washington. According to Bourgeois, the first Ft. Benning protest had ten participants.
The most recent one, last November, had over 10,000 protesters.
Each year, protesters are arrested for crossing a line marking the entrance to Fort Benning. Several, including a local activist, have even been jailed and are awaiting trial for trespassing. However, this does not dissuade Bourgeois and his fellow protesters from their cause, “they could send us to prison, but they couldn’t silence us. You can still speak out from prison,” Bourgeois said.
The Ithaca SOA Watch walk will begin on Friday at noon at Dewitt Park in Ithaca. In the three days of traveling, participants will walk approximately 42 miles to Houghton’s office in Corning. Each night, walkers will be provided with meals and accommodations.
According to Ellen Grady, Ithaca SOA watch spokesperson, walkers are a “cross section of people,” including Cornell and Ithaca College students, members of the Ithaca Community, and members of local religious groups. “We have a lot of support from different religious communities,” Grady said.
Grady’s reason for getting involved with SOA watch was a personal one. “My husband’s brother is a Maryknoll priest… the people who were trained at the SOA were trained to target union workers and religious people like my brother in law,” Grady said. According to Grady, hearing the stories of the victims of SOA grads also caused her to get involved.
“How can we remain silent when so many people have suffered at the hands of these people?” she said.
Lisa Guido, Ithaca SOA watch volunteer and member of the Ithaca Catholic Worker, also was touched by the stories of the victims and moved to act, “I went on a delegation to El Salvador,” Guido said, “I was able to learn firsthand about what had happened.” Guido met families who had to go on the run from SOA graduates and were living in fear, “the people who were afraid were the poor people,” she said. Guido has been involved with the SOA watch protest in Georgia and Washington DC.
Protesters of the SOA point to large corporations as being largely at fault for the SOA actions. According to Grady, “the movement is also about making the connections between this school and globalization. Corporations need this kind of training to keep people down.”
Guido agreed, “there is a connection between corporate power and the SOA.” According to Bourgeois, “large corporations come in to exploit cheap labor … people begin to protest and you need the men with the guns … to protect the status quo.”
A representative of Houghton said that no statement would be issued until the walk had already occurred.
Archived article by Kate Cooper