COLUMBUS, Ga. -- Steve Weil walked solemnly up to the 8-foot-high, barbwire-topped fence stretching across the gates to Fort Benning in Georgia, and in an act of quiet defiance, he gently thrust his fist against the barricade before turning around and walking away.
On his mind were an estimated 200,000 people killed during four decades of civil war and dictatorships in Guatemala, where Weil served among the poor as a Catholic priest in the 1960s. The country's long nightmare began in 1954 with a CIA-sponsored coup, and over the years numerous Guatemalan soldiers who committed atrocities were trained, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers, at the institution now located inside these gates -- the Army-run School of the Americas, whose historic mission was to teach military tactics to soldiers from Latin American countries allied with the United States.
Weil, along with a handful of other activists, had traveled from Colorado Springs in protest and to take part in a mock funeral procession on Nov. 17 at the main entrance to Fort Benning, two hours southwest of Atlanta on the Alabama border. Altogether, an estimated 7,500 people marched on the gates, carrying crosses inscribed with the names of people killed by SOA graduates. For hours, the marchers chanted the names of the dead as they slowly approached the gates, affixing the crosses one by one, along with flowers, ribbons and signs, onto the gates until they were completely covered.
The crowd included college students, nuns, priests and war veterans. Some demonstrators, dressed in black funeral garb, wearing white makeup and carrying coffins, poured fake blood on themselves and lay down in front of the gates, simulating death.
Citing security concerns in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the nearby city of Columbus had sought to bar demonstrators from marching on the gates, but a federal judge overturned the ban. The fence was also erected as a new security measure following Sept. 11, but dozens of demonstrators simply walked around the barrier -- which stretches for just a few hundred feet across the entrance -- and were arrested. Columbus police later jailed 31 others for blocking the road outside the installation.
The call of the demonstrators, who descended upon this Southern city from all across the nation, is simple: They want the government to shut down the SOA, which was originally founded in Panama in 1946, moved to Fort Benning in 1984 and was recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
Noting that several hundred SOA graduates have been implicated in murders, rapes, torture and kidnappings throughout Central and South America over the past several decades, critics allege the institute has taught soldiers how to terrorize and kill the people of their own countries -- in the name of democracy.
The institute's graduates have included several infamous dictators, such as Panama's Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega. The fact that Noriega was trained by the U.S. government but subsequently fell out of Uncle Sam's favor wasn't lost on demonstrators, many of whom pointed out that Middle Eastern terrorist suspect Osama bin Laden was once trained by the CIA. And many compared Fort Benning to the terrorist training camps the United States is now bombing in Afghanistan.
"More than ever, it's important for us to be here to really address this issue of violence," said the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, founder of the organization School of the Americas Watch. "We will grieve and mourn for those in our country who have been victims of violence, of terrorist acts. But we cannot forget the 75,000 killed in El Salvador, the 200,000 in Guatemala, the many who are being killed today in Colombia."
With an iron hand
Bourgeois became a priest after he met a missionary while serving in the Vietnam War. In the 1970s, he was sent to serve in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, whose military dictator at the time was an SOA graduate, Gen. Hugo Banzer.
"Living in a slum on the outskirts of La Paz really is where I was taught by the poor," Bourgeois recalled. "I also saw the brutality of the military there." Banzer, he said, "ruled with an iron hand."
In the 1980s, while he was working in Minneapolis, Bourgeois' attention was drawn toward El Salvador, where SOA graduates were involved in several atrocities: the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen the same year, the 1981 El Mozote massacre in which 900 unarmed men, women and children were slaughtered, and the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.
In 1990, Bourgeois moved into a small apartment outside the gates of Fort Benning, where he founded SOA Watch. He was joined by a friend, Charles Liteky, who had served two tours of duty in Vietnam as an Army chaplain and won the Congressional Medal of Honor for braving gunfire to save the lives of wounded soldiers in his unit.
Each year since, SOA Watch has held a nonviolent rally at the gates, demanding the school's closure. About five years ago, large numbers of people began to attend.
"As we began to get this information into colleges, church groups, peace organizations, veterans groups, a movement began to take root -- a movement that was rooted in nonviolence and connected in solidarity with suffering, poor Latin Americans," Bourgeois said. "Our objective was a simple one -- to shut down this school, and to say to our members of Congress, 'We don't want you using our tax money, millions of dollars, pumped into this school of violence,' which today is really seen as a training camp for terrorists."
Beginning in 1997, dozens and eventually thousands of demonstrators would enter the installation each year and be detained. First-time offenders would be processed and released with an order not to return, while repeat offenders were prosecuted for demonstrating on federal property.
Last year, 25 repeat offenders received prison sentences, which many of them are still serving -- including a Colorado man, Richard John Kinane of Boulder, and two nuns from Iowa, one of whom, Dorothy Hennessey, is 88 years old.
SOA Watch also lobbies Congress to shut down the school and nearly succeeded last January, when 204 House representatives -- including Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Joel Hefley and the entire Colorado delegation except Rep. Tom Tancredo -- voted to eliminate the school's funding. The measure lost by a mere 10 votes, and a similar measure has been reintroduced this session, co-sponsored by Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colorado).
While the school survived the most recent attempt to de-fund it, Army spokespeople point out that Congress renamed and restructured it. Institute spokespeople reject contentions by critics that they ever promoted state-sanctioned terrorism, but at the same time underscore the school is changing its mission and curriculum to focus more on democracy and human rights than commando training. Though it is still operated by the Army, the school is now under the direct authority of the Department of Defense.
With a $5.1 million annual budget, it has a new commandant and is appointing an independent Board of Visitors, which will include members of the armed services, Congress, clergy and non-governmental organizations, to report on its activities.
A 'very different place'
The institute recently dropped 26 of its former courses, including sniper and commando training -- and the courses, which are taught entirely in Spanish, now emphasize leadership training, disaster relief, resource management and counter-drug operations, the Army says.
"It is a very different place," said Col. Richard Downie, the institute's commandant, during a press briefing held during the recent demonstrations.
The school's students, who sign up for courses that stretch as long as 49 weeks, are also no longer exclusively soldiers. Of 698 who have attended so far this year, 492 were from the military, 159 were police officers, and 47 were civilians. Twenty-five were U.S. military personnel, some of whom are sent to the institute to prepare them for service as attachs in Latin America.
With the exception of the weekend of the demonstrations, Fort Benning is normally an open installation that anyone can visit at any time, and the public is welcome to sit in on institute courses and use its library, said a spokesman, Lee Rials.
The day before the demonstrations, journalists were given a tour of the school and sat in on a human-rights instructor course attended by military personnel from several Latin American countries. The students said they did not recognize the image of the school painted by demonstrators. One student, Capt. Eusebio Montillo of the Dominican Republic, said he had also attended the School of the Americas as a cadet.
"The reality that was taking place inside the School of the Americas was not in keeping with the accusations [of the protesters]," Montillo said.
While critics have construed the school's changes as an admission of past wrongdoing, the institute makes no such concessions. Downie said the changes came about because the world is changing. Most Latin American countries, he said, have moved toward democracy, and their security needs have shifted.
"We really see ourselves as a new institute for a new century," Downie said.
While the fear of communism that once underpinned U.S. foreign policy in the region has dissipated, it remains America's goal to engage with Latin American countries, Downie said. The aftermath of Sept. 11 has underscored the need for international cooperation, he said. "A number of groups" in Latin America have links to terrorist organizations, and Middle Eastern operatives are believed to be in the region, he said.
Downie did concede that the controversy surrounding the school -- especially the annual attempts by members of Congress to take away its funding -- played a role in the recent changes. However, he dismissed the arguments made by critics as "rhetoric" and compared their theories to those found in The X Files, a television show.
"All these conspiracy theories are great, but I just can't believe people in this day and age believe all that rubbish," Downie said.
Even if a few hundred out of more than 63,000 SOA graduates have been implicated in atrocities, that doesn't mean attending the school is what turned them into rapists and killers, Downie maintained. "It's a very circular logic," he said.
Moreover, atrocities have been committed by many different people, not just SOA graduates, Downie said. "We've also committed our own atrocities," he pointed out, such as the My Lai massacre carried out by U.S. forces in Vietnam -- an incident that is revisited in the institute's human-rights classes.
Gen. Paul Eaton, the commandant for Fort Benning, added that "criminals often commit crimes in spite of the intentions of the institutions they attended." But when asked by reporters whether SOA training may nonetheless have made them "better criminals," Eaton grew irritated.
"What you're talking about is in the past," the general said sternly. "The problem is, people are focused on the past. We're focused on the present."
Yet critics say they're not convinced much has changed at the institute or in many Latin American countries.
"You're crazy if you believe anything's new at the new institute," wrote Joseph Blair, a retired Army captain and former SOA instructor, in a recent op-ed in the local newspaper, the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. "SOA produced an evil fraternity of Latin American Osama bin Ladens, and I'm still waiting for an argument why Americans should not be calling for international justice and prosecutions of SOA's barrel of bad apples."
Weil, who recently returned to Guatemala for five months as a human-rights observer, said he's concerned about not just the past, as Eaton suggested, but also the present. Guatemala may nominally enjoy peace and democracy these days, but poverty, violence and lawlessness still grip the country, Weil said.
"The amount of lawlessness can be directly traced to the war that went on there and that we supported," he said.
One of Guatemala's former military dictators, SOA graduate Rios Montt, remains a powerful man, serving as president of the country's congress. And the Guatemalan army remains the muscle behind a socioeconomic status quo that benefits a few rich and powerful people, including U.S. corporations that do business there, Weil said.
Like many other critics, Weil says the U.S. government's talk of "engagement" is code for protecting corporate interests and promoting trade liberalization.
"What they want to see is an economic hegemony that doesn't have anyone but our friends in control throughout Latin America," Weil said.
In fact, the institute's curriculum includes teaching students an understanding of "U.S. customs and traditions," including free-market economics. The courses are supervised by a State Department economist, Joel Cassman, who expresses a near-religious belief in the benefits of free trade and American corporate investment in Latin America. (Cassman told reporters the North American Free Trade Agreement has created "millions of jobs" for Americans and claimed he was not familiar with the well-publicized cases in which U.S. and Canadian corporations have used NAFTA trade tribunals to overrule local environmental regulations in California and Mexico.)
Cassman emphasized, however, that the classes explore both the pros and the cons of free trade.
"We look at things in an academic fashion here," Cassman said. "We don't teach doctrine."
Critics of the school also note that terror and repression have far from ended in many Latin American countries. Colombia, the nation with the highest current number of students at the institute, is still in the midst of a decades-long civil war and an epidemic of kidnappings and assassinations. The U.S. government recently gave more than $1 billion in mostly military aid to the Colombian government, whose army is tied to right-wing paramilitary groups judged responsible for the majority of human-rights violations in the country.
According to a U.S. State Department report issued for last year, at least five members of the Colombian army who had attended the SOA were being investigated or prosecuted for murders, kidnappings and massacres taking place between 1995 and 1999.
Meanwhile, in Guatemala, SOA graduate Byron Lima Estrada is on trial for the assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi. Gerardi was killed two days after he released a report linking the Guatemalan army to most of the atrocities committed during the country's civil war. Lima Estrada formerly headed the D-2 intelligence agency, which was heavily cited in Gerardi's report. The night before Lima Estrada's trial began, the home of the presiding judge was attacked with grenades.
Pledging to return
Asked about the continuing atrocities in Colombia, Downie said, "I can't speak for the government of Colombia," though he asserted that the Colombian government treats the right-wing paramilitaries as terrorists and has carried out "a number of operations" against them.
Rials said the institute isn't responsible for U.S. foreign policy but is nevertheless being used by demonstrators who want to put a spotlight on foreign-policy issues ranging from economic globalization to military engagement.
"We're not their target," he said of the demonstrators. "We're their meal ticket."
Bourgeois partly conceded Rials' point.
"We want to close the school, but it's bigger than that," Bourgeois said. "We want to change U.S. foreign policy."
Protests will continue as long the institute is open and no matter what the government names it, he pledged.
"For us, it's still a 'School of Assassins,'" Bourgeois said. "This is still a combat school. They have done a little window-dressing, a few more hours of human-rights training. They say they're teaching democracy now, but we say, 'You don't teach democracy through the barrel of a gun.'"
The name change, he said, "is similar to taking a bottle of poison and writing 'penicillin' on it. It's still deadly. This school is still about combat, about men with guns, and we're not going away. We're going to keep coming back in ever greater numbers, until it's shut down."
A History of SOA
1946 The SOA opens in Panama.
1970s Members of the National Guard of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza train at the SOA.
1980s During the Salvadoran civil war, SOA graduates are involved in several atrocities, including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians, the rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen, and the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.
1984 The SOA moves from Panama to Fort Benning, in Columbus, Ga.
1990 The Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest, moves into a small apartment outside the gates of Fort Benning and founds the organization SOA Watch. He and nine others fast for 35 days outside the gates.
1993 Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., sponsors legislation to close the SOA; the measure loses by 82 votes.
1994 On Jan. 1, in response to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Zapatistas begin a rebellion in the Mexican province of Chiapas; Mexico begins sending many of its servicemen to the SOA. Eleven SOA Watch members fast for 40 days on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Kennedy introduces another resolution to close the school, which loses by 42 votes.
1995 First "direct actions" at main entrance to Fort Benning. Demonstrators simulate the Salvadoran Jesuit massacre at the gates and receive prison sentences ranging from two to six months.
1996 SOA Watch opens its Washington, D.C. office. In a front-page report, the Washington Post reports that "torture manuals" have been found at the SOA. Sixty protesters are arrested for entering Fort Benning during first annual "funeral procession"; 25 of them receive six-month prison sentences and fines of $3,000 each.
1997 Six hundred demonstrators enter Fort Benning during annual march and are detained, but none are prosecuted.
1998 More than 2,000 cross the line into Fort Benning, marking the largest civil-disobedience action in the United States since the Vietnam War. None are prosecuted.
1999 More than 4,000 cross the line; 10 of them receive three-month prison sentences.
2000 Thousands cross the line again; 25 receive prison sentences.
2001 A measure to take away SOA's funding, sponsored by Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., loses by 10 votes. The SOA closes but reopens as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., introduces another resolution to close the institute. During the annual protest in November, 83 people are arrested for entering Fort Benning despite the construction of a fence at the main gates; 31 others are arrested by Columbus police for blocking the road outside the gate.
Source: SOA Watch
The Georgia-based School of the Americas has trained 63,000 people from the following Latin American countries. (For a complete list of graduates, including those most notorious for committing atrocities against their country's own peoples, log on to www.soaw.org/soag.html.)
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, Venezuela