Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Thousands Call for Shutting the School of the Americas Down

by Clark Peters [Chark participated in the rally]

On November 21 and 22 at Fort Benning, Georgia, more than ten thousand people rallied and participated in a moving vigil demanding that the School of the Americas (SOA), operated by the U.S. Department of Defense, be shut down.

The school, renamed in 2001 the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation”, has trained more than 60,000 Latin American soldiers. Graduates of the SOA have long been associated with political murders and “disappearances”, torture, and the military suppression of popular movements.

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the initial impetus to the protesters' annual call to close the school - the execution by a Salvadoran army patrol of six Jesuit priests as they lay face down on the ground, as well as their housekeeper and her teenage daughter. A United Nations Truth Commission on El Salvador report (1993) identified 26 military officers involved in that massacre; 18 of them were trained at the School of the Americas. Here are a few other selections from that UN report:

· Archbishop Oscar Romero assassination: 2 of 3 officers cited were SOA graduates.
· Murder of three US nuns and a lay missionary: 3 of 5 officers cited were graduates.
· Union leader murders: all 3 officers cited were SOA graduates.
· El Mazote massacre (a village where close to one thousand men, women, and children were killed): 10 of 12 officers cited were SOA graduates.

Graduates of the SOA are similarly associated with the assassinations of thousands of political activists and opponents of government policies in Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s, and with thousands of citizens "disappeared" by the military junta in Argentina. In Honduras, many of the highest ranking officers of the infamous Death Squads were SOA trained. In Peru, the most senior officers convicted of the February 1994 murder of nine university students and a professor were graduates of the SOA.

Luis Posada Carriles, mastermind of the 1976 bombing of Cubana airline flight 455 - which killed 73 people, including the national fencing team of Cuba - trained at the school in 1961. Posada currently resides in Florida, where the United States refuses his extradition to Venezuela to face criminal charges.

There were two areas of particular note to this year's protest:
First, the crisis in Honduras, where SOA trained personnel, including the general who heads up the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as the general who leads the Honduran Air Force, were key participants in the June 28 military coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya. Elections are now being held in an attempt to paint a democratic face on the Honduran military's seizure of power.

Secondly, Colombia - a country with a military heavily populated by SOA graduates and long associated with paramilitary groups known for assassinations and political “disappearances”. The United States now seeks to create not one but seven U.S. military bases, a prelude to possible US military actions in the region.

At the vigil on Sunday morning, thousands solemnly held crosses, each with the name of an individual murdered or disappeared. The names were read off for nearly three hours, as the crowd marched slowly towards Fort Benning. The crosses were placed one by one on the chain link fence separating the protesters from the base. As the vigil wound down, there was no longer any room on the fence for the crosses of those who had been killed.

Other photos from the rally:

Photo above: Crosses on the fence

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