Each November, several members of Colgate’s Students for Social Justice (SSJ) club travel to Fort Benning, GA, to protest the School of the Americas. Over the next week, SSJ will set up Coop tables and run several events as part of its “Close Down the SOA” Week.
The School of the Americas (SOA) was originally established in 1946 to provide advanced U.S. military training to the most promising young officers in Latin America. The strategic goals of the academy were twofold. First, it was hoped that the SOA would improve U.S./Latin American diplomatic relations. The more immediate and direct purpose, however, was for graduates of the school to better secure the Latin American region against the spread of communism.
For too long, however, the legacy of the SOA has been measured in brutal atrocities committed against innocent civilians. In countless acts of violence across several Latin American nations, SOA graduates have utilized their American-training to target political leaders, labor organizers and even members of the clergy. While exact statistics are often difficult to uncover, many SOA graduates have been confirmed as responsible for the Uraba massacre in Colombia, the El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians in El Salvador, the high-profile assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the Jesuit Massacre of 1989.
Among those trained at the SOA 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 Banzar Suarez of Bolivia. The SOA curriculum continues to include a variety of counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. In a disturbing note, many of the techniques from Abu Ghraib and Guant??namo Bay have been found in the official interrogation manuals taught by SOA instructors.
Due to the growing efforts of anti-SOA activists, American citizens have become more aware of what the SOA is and where their tax dollars are going. In fact, the School of the Americas was officially closed down by a congressional vote in December of 2000.
Yet the problem remains. One month later, another training academy was established with an identical mission statement using the same U.S. military instructors and facilities at Fort Benning, GA. The only difference in this cosmetic makeover is a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). Most experts believed it would not last a year and would soon be voted down like its predecessor, but following the September 11 attacks, many congressmen chose not to confront the Department of Defense, and WHINSEC was allowed to continue operating.
Reports of graduate atrocities continued. Earlier this year, Jim McGovern (D-MA) introduced HR 1217 to fully suspend operations at WHINSEC and investigate the use of “torture manuals” in the training provided by U.S. military personnel. At last count, the bill had over 122 bipartisan co-sponsors, and a close vote is expected before the end of the year. I would strongly urge anyone who cares about the SOA/WHINSEC to contact his or her congressional representatives before HR 1217 reaches the floor.
There are many issues that need to be dealt with and reassessed regarding U.S. attitudes towards the Latin American region. It is clear, however, that the SOA/WHINSEC must be shut down as a first step. It has proven to be a complete diplomatic failure and has fueled anti-American sentiment and destabilized many Latin American nations for decades. Supporters of the SOA/WHINSEC have argued that critics should not hold the school responsible for the actions of its graduates. Yet if we do nothing, then we are giving our tacit or even explicit consent to death squads, assassinations and countless “disappearances.”
America may not be able to prevent any future unrest in Latin America, but it should not help transform vicious individuals into better and more efficient killers. Our nation has already vowed to shut down all terrorist camps worldwide, and the SOA/WHINSEC should not be treated as an exception.
This is more than the case of a few bad apples. This remains an overgrown, blood-soaked tree whose roots extend deep into the heart of American foreign policy. Cut it down. Close it down. No m??s. No more.