SOA Watch


en years ago the Pentagon released training
manuals from the School of the Americas that advocated the use of
torture, extortion, and execution. Ishi Fales recalls seeing one
when he was volunteering at a Catholic Worker house in Chicago.
“It really twisted my stomach,” Fales says, as he explains
why he went to protest the SOA in Georgia last November. It was
the 19-year-old’s first trip to Ft. Benning, but he says it
won’t be his last. 

Protesting the facility that trains soldiers from Latin America
has become an annual pilgrimage for many since Father Roy Bourgeois
moved into a tiny apartment outside the main gate and founded SOA
Watch in 1990. Each year the number of people who come to the November
vigil grows larger, a trend that apparently disturbs the Federal
Bureau of Investigation. Recently declassified FBI documents show
that the FBI elevated its concern and subjected SOA Watch to counter-terrorism

The federal agency monitored media attention the annual vigil and
consequent trials received, noting which court tactics had chilling
effects on people’s decisions to participate in civil disobedience,
according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties
Union. “The files demonstrated a clear attempt to stifle political
opposition,” says Bourgeois. This surveillance was carried
out despite the fact that FBI reports consistently describe SOA
Watch vigils as “peaceful” and no criminal activity outside
of public civil disobedience is cited. 

The November 2005 vigil drew an estimated 18,000-20,000. The weekend
protests culminated on Sunday, when 41 people were arrested after
they climbed the ten-foot high chainlink fence topped with razor
wire that borders the main gate to the base. 

Two Iowa Women Arrested 


wo of those arrested were Iowans 80-year-old
Rita Hohenshell of Des Moines and 49year-old Christine Gaunt, a
farmer from Grinnell—both “crossed the line” by crawling
under the fence. Both had previously served three-month prison terms
for protesting the SOA. Before her arraignment, Hohenshell was told
to expect 6 months in prison, a $5,000 fine, and, the loss of her
Social Security while in prison. “But they don’t have
my soul,” she said. “Just my money and my time.” 

Gaunt pled guilty and was sentenced to 6 months and given a $2,000
fine. She completed her six-month sentence on May 19. “I take
really seriously my job to expose and close the School of the Americas,”
Gaunt said before her arrest. “It’s like when you know
something as a human being, you take responsibility for what you
know, if you’re in a position to act.” Gaunt’s 24-year-old
daughter, Jody Peake, also protested, but did not cross the line.
This was the eighth time the mother and daughter had made the trip

“I’m really proud of my Mom,” Peake says, noting
that it is hard on the family, but she understands why her mother
is so committed. She says she, too, may cross the line some day. 

SOA Victims Remembered 


OA Watch estimates that over 64,000 Latin
American soldiers have been trained by the SOA over the last 60
years. The actual number of people killed by SOA graduates is hard
to determine, but Bourgeois estimates that 75,000 have been killed
in El Salvador, 200,000 in Guatemala, and thousands more in Columbia. 

SOA Watch reports that, despite all of the evidence, few have been
held accountable for these deaths. Victims tend to be poor people
who work the land, but also targeted are union leaders, educators,
student leaders and religious people. Archbishop Oscar Romero, six
Jesuit priests, and four American nuns are some of the most widely
know victims. 

Vigil organizers held civil disobedience training on Thursday and
Friday. Over the weekend literature tables lined the entryway to
the main gate of the base. On Sunday, from the stage set up in front
of the gate, a woman from Columbia spoke in Spanish and another
woman translated into English: “We remember today that on February
21 of this year, in our peace community eight of our members were
massacred, including three children, one of whom was 18 months old
and all of whose bodies were cut into pieces.” Names and ages
of SOA victims were chanted over the loudspeaker as the solemn funeral
procession began: “Bruno Claros, 50 years old,” a woman’s
voice echoed above the crowd. 

“Presente!” the crowd chanted back in unison as they held
up wooden crosses.

Next, a man chanted the name of another documented victim of SOA
graduates. “Eva Romero, 11 years old, daughter of Bruno Claros.” 

“Presente!” the crowd chanted again as they raised a sea
of white crosses.  

Marcos Rubenstein, 54, heard the names of several friends and co-workers
he knew in Argentina. As a journalist and active union member, Rubenstein
explained that journalists and people organizing unions were often
the first to be captured, tortured, and disappeared. 

It took more than three hours to complete the list of names and
as the marchers passed the front gate, they placed their crosses,
flags, and tokens onto it. 

Carol Tyx, a professor of English at Mount Mercy College, described
her two-week visit to Colombia with Christian Peacemaker Teams in
May 2005. She met people who had fled from two small villages after
violence resulted in the deaths of many family members. They had
only recently returned to their homes. Tyx brought a banner to the
vigil she had watched them paint in Spanish that translates as,
“The Communities of La Florida and Los Neques don’t want
Colombian officials trained at the School of the Americas in the
United States.” 

The Hennessy Family 


n the years before 9/11 thousands crossed
the line and were released with a simple ban and letter telling
them not to come back. Only those who returned were sentenced to
prison. Sister Gwen Hennessy is one of many arrested for returning
to cross the line. At age 68, she went to prison on July 14, 2001
for 6 months. She recalls walking around the track two months later
when she heard that a plane flew into the World Trade Center. When
she went inside, she found the other prisoners gathered around the
TV. “That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?”
one of the women said to her. “To stop terrorism.” 

“I was so taken aback, that somebody understood the whole thing,”
Hennessy recalls. “And another one stood up and said, ‘What
goes around, comes around,’ and I thought, she understands,

Protesting the human rights abuses in Latin America is a family
affair for the Franciscan Sister. Her sister, Dorothy Marie Hennessy,
91, is also a nun of the St. Francis Order. Like Gwen, Sister Dorothy
has crossed the line on several occasions and served time in prison.
Their brother, Father Ronald Hennessy, was stationed in Central
America from 1964 until his death in 1999. He wrote to his family
describing how young men were being taken to jail, their mothers
coming to him out of desperation. “Villages were being wiped
out, men, women and children, and no one was caring,” Gwen
explains. “So he wrote a letter home to Iowa and said, ‘Publish

Sister Gwen recalls that the church and the U.S. Embassy told him
he should leave, but her brother refused. “No way, I am not
leaving,” he said. “I can leave, but they can’t.”
Later elected regional superior, he was assigned to a very conflicted
zone in El Salvador. A book about Ron Hennessy’s experience
with the genocidal practices of U.S.-backed Guatemalan governments,

Through a Glass Darkly

, by Tom Melville, was recently released
by Xlibris. “It really tells this whole story of oppression,
from way back when they had what they called, ‘ten years of
spring,’ when they had a leader who tried agrarian reform,
” Gwen explains. 

Beyond the SOA 


ike Hennessy, Tyx believes that shutting
down the school is only part of what they are working towards. “We’re
trying to change a whole foreign policy, a whole attitude about
militarism. And the school almost feels symbolic,” Tyx said.
“Not that closing it is not important. But if we close the
school, you know, that wouldn’t change Plan Columbia.” 

The official name of the SOA was changed in 1999 to the Western
Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation or WHINSEC. Jim McGovern
(D-MA) introduced Bill HR 1217 that would suspend operations at
the SOA/WHINSEC and investigate the development and use of the training
manuals. Congress began considering the bill in June. 

All these efforts are having an impact. Argentina and Uruguay announced
in March that they would no longer send soldiers for training at
the SOA due to the history of human rights abuses. They join Venezuela,
whose president Hugo Chavez announced in January 2004 that Venezuela
would no longer send troops to train at the school. 

Ishi Fales did presentations about the School of the Americas in
his classes at Kirkwood College after he returned to Iowa City from
the 2005 vigil. “I thought it was very powerful,” he says,
“It was an experience that I will really keep with me for a
long, long time.”

Williams is a freelance writer, a member of WRL, and a journalism
student at the University of Iowa.