School is Out for the SOA

School is Out for the SOA

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Thousands of students, human rights defenders, and religious leaders held a large-scale rally at the gates of the School of the Americas (SOA), currently known as the  “school of coups,” during the third weekend of November (Nov. 16-18, 2012) at Fort Benning, Georgia. The protestors gathered outside of the infamous SOA, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), to demand the immediate closure of the ill-reputed institution. The SOA/WHINSEC has long been held in contempt by the international human rights community due to its heavy involvement in Cold War atrocities that have spurred much of the violence in Latin America over the decades. This three-day mobilization marked the 23rd anniversary of the 1989 SOA graduate-led massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her fifteen-year-old daughter at the “José Simeón Cañas” Central American University (UCA), in El Salvador. During the series of three-day demonstrations, participants had the chance to attend workshops, enjoy live music, and participate in strategy sessions. More importantly, activists were allowed to hear first hand the sordid tales of the victims of torture and other survivors of widespread human rights abuses by SOA’s trainees. The most shocking account was that of Martin Almada, a Paraguayan educator, whose wife died of a heart attack after being obligated to hear, via telephone, the cries of her husband while he was being tortured at the very same time.[1]

Source: Remunerations of the Soul

SOAs Failing Report Cards

During its 66 years of operation, the SOA/WHINSEC has trained over 64,000 military personnel from 18 Latin American countries in counter-insurgency techniques, including sniper skills, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation techniques. Of the soldiers trained by the SOA/WHINSEC, 11 have become some of the most brutal dictators in the Western Hemisphere – Guatemala’s Efraín Rios Montt, Argentina’s Leopoldo Galtieri, and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet being among the most notorious.[2]  By the time the Cold War had begun, this U.S. taxpayer-funded military school (which has a 2010 budget of $14 million USD) was given the task to “neutralize” the subversive forces throughout the hemisphere. These entities were presumably embodied by Catholic bishops and the popular church, labor leaders, feminists, left-wing activists, students, and others that sympathize with the cause of the disenfranchised. Anti-communism was the SOA/WHINSEC motto.[3]

Besides the 8 homicides at UCA in San Salvador, graduates of SOA/WHINSEC are responsible for many other human rights atrocities such as the 1981 El Mozote Massacre in El Salvador. A group known as SOA Watch, a human rights association that traces the crimes committed by SOA alumni and looks to shut down the SOA, has identified at least 767 deaths from the SOA-trained Atlacatl Battalion in El Mozote.[4] The 1988 St. Jean Bosco Church Massacre in Haiti, where at least 13 people were killed, is another example of the SOA alumni work. Unfortunately this trend has, as of yet, not come to an end: SOA graduates were also among the orchestrators of the 2009 coup in Honduras against the democratically elected former President Manuel Zelaya.[5]

Despite the fall of the Iron Curtain, SOA Watch has emphasized that people with similar profiles as past victims are still being persecuted under the presumption of “terrorism” or via the ruse of the “war on drugs.”[6]

As some SOA alumni, such as incumbent Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, are still holding key positions in a number of regional governments, it is no surprise that SOA/WHINSEC remains an influential institution throughout the Western Hemisphere, although its activities are restricted to more limited areas. Positively, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia have recently ceased sending their military and police corps to the SOA/WHINSEC. This action was first initiated by the Chávez administration in 2004, after two former trainees of the SOA/WHINSEC, Commander in Chief Efrain Vazquez and General Ramírez Poveda, helped to lead a failed coup against Chávez in April of 2002.

After the Pentagon finally admitted in 1996 that seven training manuals used at the SOA for nearly ten years advocated execution, torture, and blackmail, the record of the SOA attracted negative PR in the United States. Consequently in 1999, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 230-197 for an amendment that would have cut the funds for training officers at WHINSEC in half (from $4.5 to $2 million). However, a Senate committee narrowly defeated the measure. Then in 2000, the House voted once again to close the SOA, but the measure lost on a vote of 214 to 204.[7]

In the end, the SOA was shut down for a short period of time but was reopened in 2001 as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). Father Roy Bourgeois, the founder of SOA Watch, described the re-named military training institution as “different name, same place, and same instructors.” Regarding WHINSEC’s new curriculum, one that incorporates eight hours of human rights instructions, Father Bourgeois described the lame effectiveness of the program as, “taking a bottle of perfume and pouring it on a toxic dump –– it is still deadly.”[8]

The indecisiveness of the Congress regarding the operational status of the SOA/WHINSEC over the past years shows that governmental institutions remain unwilling to modify the current status quo. While the Pentagon refuses to release a full roster of SOA’s trainees, the Obama administration enacted a National Defense Authorization bill that includes a provision to make the names of SOA alumni public. However, any disclosure can be prevented if U.S. national interests happen to be at stake.

Former Georgia Senator Paul Coverdell accurately branded the Department of Defense proposal a “cosmetic” change that would ensure that the SOA/WHINSEC could continue its mission and operation, and subsequently announced his unconditional support of the SOA Watch for its efforts to shut down the inferno of the lethal “school of coups.”[9] As of now, 21 members of the U.S. Congress, led by Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern, have signed a letter to promote “The Latin America Military Training Review Act” that would set the path to suspend operations and investigate the history of WHINSEC.[10] (The McGovern Amendment, a bill designed to cut funding for SOA/WHINSEC, once again failed in the House of Representatives in 2007 by six votes.)[11]

If “The Latin America Military Training Review Act” is to be debated by the U.S. Congress, a bloc of like-minded conservative Republicans are likely to prevent this initiative from being signed into law. In the process, this group of lawmakers would end up discrediting the good will and information generated by the prodigious efforts of the now-incarcerated founder of SOA Watch, Father Roy Bourgeois, and international supporters such as Amnesty International. Over the past two decades, the SOA Watch has raised awareness of the dreadful human rights atrocities committed by SOA alumni. However, by launching the kind of massive political demonstration that took place this month in Georgia, and convincing a sufficient number of citizens and organizations to sign the petition being circulated in order to push their congressional representatives to co-sponsor the afore mentioned initiative, there is a realistic chance that SOA/WHINSEC’s classes will soon be deactivated in the near future.

Isabella Troconis, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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Sources:

[1] Hendrik Voss, “Saturday Events Included Massive Rally, Workshops, Concerts, and More”, http://www.soaw.org/news/news-alerts/4001-saturday-events-included-massive-rally-workshops-and-concerts

[2] Father Roy Bourgeois  and Azadeh Shahshahani, “ Time to Shut Down the School of Americas”,  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/father-roy-bourgeois/time-to-shut-down-the-sch_b_365488.html

[3] Al Jazeera, “The School of the Americas: Class over?”, http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestoryamericas/2012/09/201292081054585410.html

[4] Al Jazeera, “The School of the Americas: Class over?”, http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestoryamericas/2012/09/201292081054585410.html

[5] Bill Quigley, “The Case for Closing the School of the Americas”, http://www.soaw.org/about-the-soawhinsec/history

[6] Al Jazeera, “The School of the Americas: Class over?”, http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestoryamericas/2012/09/201292081054585410.html

[7]   SOA Watch, “What is SOA?”, http://www.soaw.org/about-the-soawhinsec/what-is-the-soawhinsec

[8]  “Tell Your Representative to Co-sponsor HR 3368”, http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/727/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=8892

[9] http://www.benning.army.mil/tenant/whinsec/quickFacts.html

[10] http://soaw.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=43