Fort Benning is the site of the internationally notorious US Army training school for Latin American military and security personnel. For decades it was called the School of the Americas (SOA) – it is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The school has graduated hundreds of military officers who have led or participated in nearly every human rights atrocity in the hemisphere. Organizations across the world, including Amnesty International USA, have called for its closure since discovering copies of torture manuals used at the school. In June 2007, 203 members of the US House of Representatives voted to close the scandal-ridden school – six votes shy of the margin of victory.
Thousands listened quietly as Adriana Portillo-Bartow told how her father, stepmother, sister, sister-in-law and two daughters, ages nine and 11, were "disappeared" in Guatemala in a war directed and carried out by graduates of the US Army School of the Americas. Thousands moved towards the gates of the Fort and called out "presente!" as the names of hundreds of other victims of graduates of the school were sung out.
Veterans of WWII, Korea, Vietnam and the never-ending Gulf Wars marched side by side with Catholic sisters and Buddhist monks. Flowers, posters, pictures and thousands of small white crosses bearing the names of people executed by graduates of the school were put on the closed padlocked gates topped with barbed wire. Thousands of college and high school students chanted and prayed Grandmothers for Peace as military loudspeakers blared warnings and law enforcement helicopters hovered overhead. Huge puppets, singing children and drum circles alternated with the spirited calls of priests, rabbis and ministers of many faiths and races. Songs in many languages, indigenous chants, guitars, horns and mountain flutes filled the air.
The eleven people who crossed onto the grounds were arrested by military police. The eleven, ranging in age from 25 to 76, are scheduled for federal criminal trial January 28, 2008, for trespass – punishable by up to six months in federal prison. Over 200 people have served federal prison time for civil disobedience at prior protests – dozens of others arrested have served years of supervised federal probation. The movement to close the school started in 1990 when about 20 people held the first protest outside Fort Benning.
Even if the US government is reluctant to close the school, Latin American countries look like they will do it themselves. Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Uruguay and Venezuela have announced they are withdrawing their militaries from the school.
Crimes by graduates continue. Colombia recently arrested five high-ranking military officers who received training at the US Army School of Americas and two additional officers who were instructors at WHINSEC. All are charged with providing security and troops for the major drug cartel in Colombia.
Simultaneous protests occurred in Santiago, Chile, Tucson, Arizona – outside of Fort Huachuca – where three people were also arrested and face federal criminal charges, Toronto, Canada, as well as Berkeley and Monterey California.
For more on the movement to close the School of the Americas see www.soaw.org.
Bill is a human rights lawyer and professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. Bill is also a member of the legal collective of School of Americas Watch. [email protected]