SOA Watch marks 25th year of speaking out against 'School of Assassins'

Bill Barnett, center, takes the blood pressure of David Scott of Detroit Sept. 27, 1990, at Fort Benning, Ga., as Scott and other hunger strikers continue their protest begun Sept. 3 to end U.S. training of Salvadoran troops. (AP/Charles Kelly)

Bill Barnett, center, takes the blood pressure of David Scott of Detroit Sept. 27, 1990, at Fort Benning, Ga., as Scott and other hunger strikers continue their protest begun Sept. 3 to end U.S. training of Salvadoran troops. (AP/Charles Kelly)

Linda Cooper


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For a quarter of a century, the government has tried to silence them. It's beaten them, spied on them, infiltrated their ranks, denied them permits, arrested them, strip-searched them, handed them steep fines and maximum sentences.

And yet they keep speaking out -- determined to shut the doors of a secretive U.S. combat school for Latin American soldiers and to keep alive the memories of those tortured and killed by its graduates.

This November marks the 25th year that SOA Watch -- a human rights group founded by Roy Bourgeois -- has organized demonstrations outside Fort Benning, Ga., home of the U.S. Army's controversial School of the Americas, known since 2001 as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

The annual events began on Nov. 16, 1990, on the first anniversary of the murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador -- murders carried out by SOA-trained officers.

This year, as in so many years past, the government tried to disrupt the Nov. 21-23 protest, which features the leader of an association of families of the disappeared in Colombia, along with a Jesuit priest who's received death threats for his human rights work in Honduras.

The story of how the government has tried to silence the school's critics is also the story of how SOA-trained officers have silenced its victims forever, from international figures like Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero to tens of thousands of nameless Latin Americans, a huge percentage of them women and children.

While the first SOA demonstration came on the first anniversary of the Jesuit massacre, the first protest against the U.S. training of Salvadoran troops at Fort Benning harkens back to 1983, when the School of the Americas was still located in Panama and coming under increasing fire. The Panamanian newspaper La Prensa dubbed it the "School of Assassins," while Panamanian President Jorge Illueca called it "the biggest base for destabilization in Latin America."

The U.S. Army brass were quietly contemplating moving the school to Georgia in 1984 and, as a trial run, had flown some 525 Salvadoran soldiers there for training in the summer of 1983.

When Bourgeois, then a Maryknoll priest, learned of the training on U.S. soil, he headed to Georgia to organize protests, although he knew nothing about SOA then.

But as a former naval officer and Vietnam veteran, Bourgeois knew firsthand what the training meant. And he knew that the Salvadoran military had been behind the 1980 murders of Romero and four U.S. churchwomen, two of whom were friends and fellow Maryknollers, Srs. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke.

After weeks of protesting to no avail, Bourgeois and two friends -- Oblate Fr. Larry Rosebaugh and Linda Ventimiglia -- devised a plan to speak directly to the Salvadorans. They sneaked onto the base in military uniforms, climbed a pine tree near the Salvadoran barracks, and broadcast a recording of Romero's last homily, in which he urged members of the Salvadoran military not to obey orders to kill.

As the startled Salvadorans heard the dead bishop's voice booming from the treetops in the middle of the night, military police with dogs and M-16s swarmed under the tree, cursing and threatening to shoot down the three trespassers. The homily played on and on before the MPs got them down, strip-searching Rosebaugh, gagging Ventimiglia, and striking Bourgeois from behind and throwing him against a tree.

They were all given maximum sentences by U.S. District Court Judge J. Robert Elliott, known for halting marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. and for overturning the conviction of Lt. William Calley for murdering 22 unarmed Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai massacre.

Apartment across the road

Seven years later, Bourgeois would be back at Fort Benning. Although Elliot had banned him from the base, he returned in 1990 after a congressional task force reported that some of the killers of the six Jesuits had been trained at SOA, now embedded at Fort Benning.

Bourgeois located the SOA headquarters building, and then came upon a firing range where Latino soldiers were firing at paper silhouettes of people.

"The silhouettes were torn apart," Bourgeois said, and he thought about photographs he'd seen of the Jesuits lying on the ground, with the backs of their heads blown out, and of their slain housekeeper and her daughter side by side. "As I listened to the gunfire, I thought about how few Americans know what's going on here. I realized this is where I belonged."

Bourgeois rented a cheap three-room apartment on Fort Benning Road across from the base's entrance. The apartment's front room was soon to become SOA Watch headquarters.

Wasting no time, he organized a hunger strike on Labor Day and was joined by nine others, including two Salvadoran refugees, just as Fort Benning troops were preparing to be deployed to the Persian Gulf. Despite the town's hostility, the fast lasted 35 days.

Then, on Nov. 16, the first anniversary of the Jesuit massacre, Bourgeois took stronger action with Charles Liteky -- a former chaplain in Vietnam who had returned his Medal of Honor in protest of U.S. policies -- and his brother Patrick.

To dramatize the school's complicity, the three splashed their blood -- mingled with that of the Jesuit martyrs -- on the school's walls and on a gallery of photographs of prized SOA graduates known as the "Hall of Fame." One of the photographs was of Bolivian Gen. Hugo Banzer, who had overthrown the government and sheltered a Nazi war criminal while Bourgeois had been a missionary in Bolivia.

The three protesters went on trial in March 1991 as the city of Columbus, Ga., was preparing a homecoming for 4,000 Fort Benning troops returning from the Persian Gulf. The patriotic fervor was so intense that stores had run out of flags.

Predictably, Elliot blocked testimony about SOA and then handed them maximum sentences after the jury took all of 21 minutes to return guilty verdicts.

Vicky Imerman, a 31-year-old Army veteran who had met Bourgeois at the fast, volunteered to answer the phone and the mail while he was behind bars. But she ended up doing far more: researching SOA at the base library.

She found that the school's curriculum included commando operations, sniper training, psychological warfare, military intelligence and a counterinsurgency program based on low-intensity warfare, which espoused using "any means necessary" to maintain internal security and suppress domestic dissent.

She obtained a list of SOA graduates and then sought their names in human rights reports and newspaper clippings about Latin American atrocities. She found that the countries with the worst human rights records had the highest school enrollment -- and that its Hall of Famers, all approved by the State Department, included two former dictators and a general linked to drug smuggling.

In Fort Benning's newspaper, she found that the school had invited Guatemalan Gen. Hector Gramajo to speak to its graduating class in 1991, just six months after he was sued under the Torture Victim Protection Act by 11 Guatemalans and Ursuline Sr. Dianna Ortiz, an American missionary who had been raped and tortured by men under his command.

But the most fiery revelations that would ultimately spark a movement came with the release of the 1993 United Nations Truth Commission's report on the worst abuses of the Salvadoran war. Imerman found that 47 of the 66 officers cited for major atrocities were graduates, including:

  • The killers of Romero and the four U.S. churchwomen;
  • Nineteen of the 26 cited for the Jesuit assassinations;
  • The officer cited for the Rio Sumpul massacre of hundreds of peasants, many slashed and fed to dogs;
  • Ten of the 12 officers responsible for the El Mozote massacre, in which more than 900 peasants -- mostly children, women and elderly villagers -- were shot, hanged and decapitated, with babies thrown into the air and impaled on bayonets.

Congressional attention

Bourgeois and Imerman sent out a news release, but had to wait two months before getting any response. The first one to call was Newsweek reporter Doug Waller, who not only dug into their findings, but also linked more than 100 Colombian graduates to human rights abuses and found four senior Honduran graduates who had organized a death squad called Battalion 3-16.

The two-page spread catapulted the findings into the halls of Congress. Rep. Joseph Kennedy, D-Mass., promptly drafted legislation to eliminate the school's operating money, a measure ultimately defeated on a vote of 256 to 174.

Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., fiercely defended the school, saying its graduates included "10 presidents, 38 ministers of defense and state, 71 commanders of armed forces." It was an argument that went up in smoke months later when The Washington Post reported that not one of the 10 presidents were elected; all had come to power in coups or through other nondemocratic means.

The fledgling movement was given more fuel by U.S. Army Maj. Joseph Blair, a Bronze Star winner and graduate of a Jesuit college, who had taught logistics at the school. He publicly stated that in his three years at SOA, he had "never heard of such lofty goals as promoting freedom, democracy or human rights." Furthermore, he said, its human rights instruction was "a joke," a "bunch of bullshit."

Bourgeois' friendship with fellow Cajun activist St. Joseph Sr. Helen Prejean added more momentum. He had convinced his Maryknoll order to finance a short documentary on SOA, produced by filmmaker Robert Richter, and was looking for a narrator. Prejean -- whose book Dead Man Walking was being made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon -- asked the actress if she was interested. Sarandon was, and the documentary, "School of Assassins," won an Oscar nomination.

Meanwhile, school graduates continued to be linked to atrocities. In 1995, three grabbed headlines:

  • A Colombian graduate ordered his unit to dismember more than 100 peasants in what was called the Trujillo Chainsaw Massacres;
  • A Guatemalan graduate was implicated in the decapitation of an American innkeeper just months after graduating from SOA's "prestigious" Command and General Staff course;
  • Thirty-two Honduran graduates, all members of the Battalion 3-16 death squad, were cited for gross human rights abuses.

That same year, the Presbyterian (USA) General Assembly, representing 2.7 million, joined the call to shut the school, as did the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious, representing 78,000 Catholic nuns.

One of the nuns, 74-year-old Ursuline Sr. Claire O'Mara, crossed the line that November. Elliott sent her to prison along with Bourgeois, two World War II veterans, a psychologist, a lawyer, and a Jesuit priest. Rep. George Brown, D-Calif., called the court proceedings a "travesty of justice."

Before Bourgeois headed to prison in the summer of 1996, he reported that he had met a human rights leader in Paraguay who said he and his wife had been tortured by security forces using SOA manuals. United Methodist minister Carol Richardson, who volunteered to run the SOA Watch office in his absence, got a certified letter from the school's commandant expressing outrage at Bourgeois' claim.

But his outrage was short-lived. The Pentagon, fearful that Kennedy or Bourgeois had obtained a copy of the manual, admitted the school had used manuals that advocated torture and execution from 1982 to 1991. The manuals had been used not only at the school, but had been spread throughout Latin America by U.S. Army mobile training teams.

The Army was already doing damage control, dismantling the school's Hall of Fame and removing a sword from public view that had been given the school by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. But the admission about the manuals made the school a public relations nightmare, with major newspapers calling for its closure.

Movement energized

The next demonstration, in November 1997, drew five times the number of the previous year. More than 600 people crossed the line and risked arrest -- 10 times the number of the year before.

Elliott reacted by not only handing down maximum prison terms, but hiking the fines to $3,000. Instead of crippling the resistance, he only further energized the movement. People compared him to Bull Connor, the racist Birmingham, Ala., public safety commissioner who'd turned high-powered fire hoses on young African-Americans, thereby stiffening the resolve of the civil rights movement.

The SOA Watch movement was growing exponentially, in part due to new revelations, the most shocking being that an SOA graduate played a part in the assassination of Guatemalan Bishop Juan José Gerardi. The bishop was slain April 26, 1998, two days after he released a human rights report implicating the military in 90 percent of the atrocities in the country's civil war.

SOA Watch's growth was also due to significant participation by faith-based communities and Veterans for Peace. The growth was so rapid, the number of volunteers so great, that Richardson convinced Bourgeois to form an advisory group to expand the leadership. Richardson, a former national grassroots organizer for Witness for Peace, had already opened a second SOA Watch office in Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress and network with other human rights groups.

Soon, local SOA Watch chapters sprouted up across the country. The 1998 November demonstration tripled the numbers of the year before, drawing thousands of students, teachers, Latin Americans, Native Americans, Grandmothers for Peace, war veterans, the Indigo Girls, Buddhist monks, Nagasaki residents, and members of the NAACP, whose leadership joined the call for the school's abolishment, along with members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the AFL-CIO.

Furthermore, 130 Catholic bishops signed a petition to close the school, and Columbus tourism officials helped with the activists' accommodations, with Delta Air Lines giving group ticket discounts.

Actor Martin Sheen joined those crossing the line during the memorial funeral procession in which the names of the SOA victims were chanted and the crowd responded, "Presente."

The number of people who crossed the line that year risking arrest was 2,319 -- four times the number of the previous year, making it one of the largest acts of civil disobedience since the Vietnam War.

In the summer of 1999, Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., who'd spearheaded the congressional investigation into the Jesuit massacre, introduced a measure to cut the school's funding. In a stunning upset, the Republican-controlled House dealt the school its first legislative defeat in its 53-year history. Some 58 Republicans voted with Moakley, who argued: "We can't say the United States stands for human rights when we are training terrorists right in our own country."

A joint House-Senate conference committee restored the school's funding, but only by one vote, and SOA supporters in Congress were telling Army Secretary Louis Caldera they were tired of being cast as cheerleaders for a school of assassins. Caldera himself was getting testy, saying, "I don't want to go through another fiscal year with this torture."

In the summer of 2000, the Clinton administration's top guns -- Defense Secretary William Cohen and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- were sent to help Caldera sell Congress a plan to close SOA and reopen it under the name "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation."

There were to be modifications to the curriculum, a few more human rights courses -- changes that Moakley dismissed as "perfume on a toxic dump."

The legislation passed, and that November, some 3,500 people crossed the line, but only two dozen were singled out for prosecution, including two siblings, both Franciscan nuns: Srs. Dorothy Hennessey, 88, and Gwen Hennessey, 68.

In one of his last acts before retiring, Elliott sent both nuns to prison for six months, the maximum under the law.

Tense moments

No sooner did the new school open in 2001 than it became apparent, as Moakley had predicted, that it was even less transparent and accountable than its predecessor. The Pentagon had swept the school under the Department of Defense, which refused to release the names of its graduates and instructors.

After 9/11, the city of Columbus tried to prohibit SOA Watch from having its annual vigil at the entrance, but that move was blocked by federal Magistrate Judge Mallon Faircloth on First Amendment grounds.

The school promptly erected an 8-foot-high security fence, topped with barbed wire, along its entrance to stop any procession onto the base.

More than 200 local and state police turned out on the city side of the base entrance, with 180 MPs on the other side.

There were tense moments, but in the end protesters turned the fence into a memorial wall, covering it with crosses, flowers, signs, ribbons. Attorney Bill Quigley, a longtime legal counsel for the movement, described the fence as "a rallying point for those deeply disturbed by the government's attempt to use the tragic events of 9/11 to try to silence dissent."

The next year, the city required activists to be searched with metal detectors. A federal appeals court eventually struck the practice down as violating the First and Fourth Amendments.

In 2003, the city tried to curb the turnout by requiring gatherings of more than 10,000 to carry liability insurance of $1 million. That year, an Army sound system blared John Philip Sousa's marching music to disrupt speeches and performances at the vigil. The same year Catholic Worker Kathy Kelly, known for her humanitarian work in Iraq, was kneed in the back and subjected to an aggressive body search before being hogtied.

The battle over release of the names of the school's graduates came to a head three years after the school reopened. In 2004, the Defense Department released the full list of names of graduates and instructors back to 2001. It didn't take long for SOA Watch to find the school had enrolled at least five well-known human rights abusers. One -- Salvadoran Col. Francisco del Cid Diaz, a 2003 graduate -- was cited by the 1993 U.N. Truth Commission for commanding a unit that dragged people from their homes and shot them at point-blank range.

Since those revelations, the Defense Department has refused to release any more names, despite the fact that Congress, through the efforts of Congressmen Jim McGovern, D-Mass., and John Lewis, D-Ga., amended the Defense Appropriations Bill to require their release.

Attorney Kent Spriggs sued on behalf of SOA Watch and human rights activists, and federal District Judge Phyllis Hamilton ruled in April 2013 that the Pentagon has no grounds for not releasing the names. The government quickly appealed her ruling.

Under surveillance

As it turned out, the same government that was keeping secret all information about the foreign military officers it was training was also secretly spying on the peace group that was seeking the information the government was keeping secret.

Classified documents obtained in 2006 through the Freedom of Information Act showed that the FBI's counterterrorism unit had SOA Watch under surveillance. There was no indication the spying was going to stop, despite the fact that the FBI's own reports concluded that SOA Watch leaders advocated nonviolence and that its protests have been peaceful "for the most part over the past 15 years."

Bourgeois said it was a scandal that the government was squandering money to spy on a peace group, rather than investigating a military school that used torture manuals that advocated assassination. It was "a clear attempt to stifle political opposition, to instill fear," he said.

If so, it hasn't seemed to work. Hendrik Voss, SOA Watch's longtime national organizer, said its members have collectively served 101.5 years in prison, paid $223,150 in fines and done more than 6,900 community service hours.

Its efforts were honored in 2009 when Bourgeois and SOA Watch were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by the American Friends Service Committee, itself a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

Voss said the honor was in "recognition of the work of the people all across the Americas that are struggling and resisting militarization."

While it continues its long battle to shut down the school, the group has scored major coups in getting several Latin American countries to withdraw or stop sending its officers to the school.

Lisa Sullivan, the group's outgoing Latin American liaison, successfully arranged meetings with SOA Watch leaders and the presidents, vice presidents and defense ministers of more than a dozen countries. Five have ended their connection to the school: Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

Pablo Ruiz Espinoza, SOA Watch's Latin America coordinator in Chile who spent years trying to bring military officers in the Pinochet regime to trial, is currently working to get Chile to be the sixth country to withdraw from the school.

As he looks back over a quarter of a century, Bourgeois is proud of those who have made SOA Watch what it is: not just a watchdog of a "school responsible for so much suffering and death," but a training ground for young activists in the ways of nonviolent resistance. "You might call it Peacemaking 101."

"We're also about hope," he said. "Many come here alone and angry about issues. Then they come together, meet kindred spirits. It happens across generations, across cultures. Some fall in love. They get connected and make connections."

Those who get involved with the SOA issue also get a flashlight into the dark side of U.S. foreign policy, he said. When the Pentagon talked about using the "Salvadoran Option" in Iraq, people in the movement knew exactly what they were talking about -- organizing and equipping death squads.

It's only natural, he said, that over time the movement has broadened its focus and addressed such issues as drones, the spiraling military budget, immigration, equality and poverty.

Whatever the issues, Bourgeois said, people are speaking out, following Romero's plea "that those who have a voice must speak for those who don't."

[Linda Cooper and James Hodge are the authors of Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas.]

A version of this story appeared in the Nov 21-Dec 5, 2014 print issue under the headline: SOA Watch keeps speaking out.

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