A s 16,000 people listened, the names of 767 Salvadorans massacred at a single village rang out, one after the other, on a sunny afternoon last November in Columbus, Georgia. After each name we shouted "Presente!"—a salute to the dead.
- Cristina Guevara, 25 years old Presente!
- José Francisco Reyes Luna, age 5 Presente!
- Vicenta Marquez, 80, widow Presente!
- Elena Rodríguez, 16 Presente !
- José Romero, 6 months, son of Lucas Guevara and Rufina Romero Presente!
- Orbelina Marquez, age 45, seamstress Presente !
- Mirna Chicas, 10 Presente!
- Fabián Luna, 20, day laborer Presente!
- Domingo Claros, woodcutter, and 15 family members down to an 8-month old daughter Presente !
On and on went the list of Salvadorans murdered in and around El Mozote by a U.S.- trained battalion during Ronald Reagan’s "war on communism." Of the victims, 45 percent were children under 12. When those names finally ended, a group of Colombians arrived at the stage with a 3-page list of recent victims in their country. The atrocities born at Fort Benning’s School of the Americas have never stopped.
It was impossible not to weep during the two-hour naming especially, though not only, for a Latina. It was also impossible to watch the memorial procession slowly marching by the stage at the same time, a human river stretching too far to be seen, and not feel the promise of an ever-growing movement.
The protest on November 19-21, 2004 at the entrance to the School of the Americas, now an annual event, affirms no minor cause nurtured by a scattered handful of peace-lovers. It speaks loud and clear to the mounting danger from an empire-driven militarism engulfing the planet. It evokes, unmistakably, the torture of Iraqi prisoners in the current U.S. war. It speaks loud and clear of today’s growing liberation forces in Latin America that the empire will surely move to crush even more intensely than in the past. It speaks to the racism historically rooted in so many U.S. wars on humanity here and abroad, a racism inseparable from im- perialism.
Training to Torture and Murder Thousands
T oo many of us do not know the long-range reach and effects of the School of the Americas ( aka School of Assassins) whose purpose is so simple: to guarantee Latin America’s political, economic, and social conditions never threaten U.S. hegemony. No price for that is too high, it seems.
The names read on November 21 did not include the two million Colombians killed or displaced by civilian-targeted warfare under the direction of SOA graduates. Or the hundreds of thousands of indigenous people murdered, tortured, and disappeared in Guatemala when SOA graduate Ríos Montt ruled the country. Or the 30,000 killed or disappeared in Argentina when SOA graduate Leopoldo Galtieri headed the military. Or the ten SOA alumni indicted with Pinochet in Chile. Or the murders in Bolivia, Honduras, Mexico, and Haiti.
We may have heard of the 6 Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter murdered in 1989, but without knowing that 19 of the 26 Salvadoran soldiers cited for it were SOA alumni. Or that two of the three cited for assassinating Archbishop Oscar Romero as he conducted mass and that three of the five soldiers cited for the killing of four U.S. churchwomen in 1980 were also SOA graduates from El Salvador. Or that the slaughter continues today, no matter claims by SOA brass that the worst abuse has ended. No matter that this terrorist training camp was so gently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) three years ago.
Since it opened in 1946, the SOA has trained 64,000 Latin American dictators, death squad leaders, and assassins in the repression of their own people. The curriculum ranges from sniper training to psychological warfare to interrogation techniques. After being kicked out of Panama in 1984, the SOA settled at Fort Benning. In 1996 the Pentagon was forced to release training manuals used for torture, extortion, and execution. Public outcry nearly led Congress to close the SOA.
Activist protest dates back almost 15 years. A Congressional task force assigned to investigate the 1989 murder of the six Jesuit priests reported that the killers included soldiers trained at the SOA. This spurred Father Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest who had worked in Latin America, to visit the SOA and learn more about its deadly training.
Appalled by the information, 13 demonstrators held a vigil at the SOA gates on the 10th anniversary of the murder of the 4 churchwomen and called themselves the SOA Watch. A few years later, 3,000 came and the campaign to abolish the SOA has since drawn thousands, many of them more than once.
SOAW has a national office in Washington, DC to carry out fasts, non-violent direct action, media and legislative work. Its seven paid staff members operate nonhier- archally, each a coordinator of specific work. There is a council (instead of a board of directors) made up of regional representatives who collect feedback from SOAW groups in their region. Fifteen working groups composed of hard-working activists from all over the U.S. make events happen and build the movement. All that is possible only because of volunteers.
"Crossing The Line"
N ot long ago, in order to call public attention to the SOA, it was possible for thousands of participants to walk "across the line" at SOA’s entrance and be arrested. But since 9/11, protesters have had to climb over two separate fences, each topped with barbed wire. This was the challenge again last November 21 as hundreds of demonstrators watched, each holding a wooden cross bearing a Latin American victim’s name.
On the base, 15 people were arrested for crossing, including 2 minors (who may therefore not be prosecuted); 14 were released on bond and 1, who is blind, had his charges dismissed. Three others were arrested in Columbus.
The hour of "crossing the line" was a memorable moment in a powerful weekend. From 9:00 AM to midnight on Saturday there were trainings, speakers, music, gatherings of different affinity groups, films, discussions at different buildings in Columbus. The same kind of rich program unfolded all day Sunday with an array of huge "puppetistas" leading the way. Throughout, the level of organization and punctuality was amazing.
One high point was the appearance of Carlos Mauricio, who had been tortured in El Salvador and won a lawsuit in a Florida court against the generals who had ordered it and had been living in the U.S. for years. His victory was based on the same U.S. doctrine of "command responsibility" that can be invoked against those who ordered the U.S. torture in Iraq. Carlos’s current campaign emphasizes halting the impunity often granted to those like his torturers.
For the SOAW action, Carlos obtained a Veterans for Peace bus and drove a group of demonstrators from San Francisco across the U.S., stopping in ten cities. One rider, Aaron Schuman, reported the warm and educational welcome they received that included meeting with Sanctuary movement activists along the border at El Paso/Juarez; seeing "Alto a la impunidad!" (Stop the Impunity) graffiti on the dry riverbank there; meeting with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Austin, Texas; and visiting organizing projects in New Orleans warehouses.
The SOAW has a huge network. Those 16,000 students, activists, veterans, union workers, and others, of all ages, from all parts of this country, represent a vast array of church groups and many other local organizations. To ask someone "Where are you from," which I often did, the answer would be Minnesota, Illinois, or Iowa as often as California or New York.
Climate of Community
S urely they did not all agree politically beyond the need to speak out against the SOA and stand in solidarity with the peoples of Latin America. Differences about the meaning of "non-violent," have generated energetic debate. Some participants express a wish that the goals were more explicitly anti-capitalist. Such complaints and suggestions reflect growing pains as in all healthy movements. But there was an unmistakable climate of community.
As one participant, Chris Crass, coordinator of the Catalyst Project, a center for political education and movement building, commented, "The overall sense of community and the shared meaning of struggle was deeply powerful. It felt like an education on U.S. imperialism in Latin America joined to a spiritual base of struggle for human liberation."
One huge absence has long diminished that sense of community: participants of color. It has been a serious absence in many anti-war, global justice organizing projects. Two years ago SOAW began concrete steps to address the problem by establishing an Anti-Oppression Working Group (an article on this group will appear next month). The group has worked to bring anti-racist, anti-sexist, and other anti-oppression politics into the SOAW so as to undermine such oppression internally while building a movement able to challenge the forces that sustain a school of assassins in all its oppressiveness. Much of this year’s anti-SOAW agenda was devoted to Working Group activities.
To be self-critical about internal, organizational weaknesses does not happen as often as it should in our movements. Along with its strengths in advancing a huge protest movement, SOAW organizers often manifest a striking modesty that might even be called humility. There are reasons for that and the best-known one is Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of the SOAW.
As a Maryknoll priest in Bolivia, Father Bourgeois was expelled by the military dictatorship for his work among the poor. When two Maryknoll Sisters he knew were raped and killed by Salvadoran soldiers, he traveled there and again saw the suffering inflicted by a government the U.S. supported. He began openly protesting those policies.
Roy was first arrested for an anti-SOA action in 1983 when he went onto SOA grounds with two friends, all wearing high-level military officers’ uniforms and briskly saluted. They located the barracks holding 525 Salvadoran soldiers. After nightfall, Roy climbed a 40-foot tree next to the barracks, holding a boom-box that contained a tape of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s speech the day before he was assassinated. The speech had addressed the Salvadoran military and anticipated Romero’s murder. That was what came blasting out of the boom-box at the men in the barracks.
Roy Bourgeois’s four years in prison for various anti-SOA actions began that night and continued as he worked to build the SOAW. The more it grew organizationally, the less Roy Bourgeois felt he needed to run the show. In a rare example of rejecting what can be called "founder syndrome," he has stepped so far into the background that at the 2004 protest his assignment was reportedly to guarantee the supply of toilet paper in the porta-potty by the stage. And yes, there was always enough.
With such a tradition of humanity and humility, SOAW inspires us all. Latinos and Latinas in particular should think about SOAW’s work, which serves our Raza above all. If its present whiteness seems a barrier, don’t stop there. Its commitment to change is political, spiritual, and very real. It can help save the future of our America and its people. History tells us that nothing has ever been stronger than: los pueblos unidos, jamás vencidos¡¡Adelante siempre!
A Chicana activist, author, and professor based in San Francisco, Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez has organized against racism and U.S. imperialism for 50 years, and published 6 books about social justice struggles in Las Americas.