Army School's New Name Won't Disguise Atrocities Print
The Department of Defense re-opened the United States Army School of the Americas (SOA) under the name "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation" at Fort Benning, Georgia on January 17, 2001. The new institute is no different from the SOA if replaces. It is a combat school. Infantrymen and women from Latin American come to learn to fight. By refusing to make any significant changes to the new school, the Department of Defense failed to address the real issue--the violence perpetrated against the people of Latin America by US-trained soldiers-- when it renamed the SOA.

The purported goals of "strengthening democracy, deepening the rule of law, and honoring human rights," have never been taken seriously, let alone achieved, by the SOA. In the past ten years, as the evidence against the school has mounted, leaders of the SOA have increasingly talked about freedom and democracy, but the record of it’s graduates belies their words. These same goals have been adopted by the new Institute, but there is no reason to believe that, with presumably the same curriculum and faculty as the SOA, the new school will be any different.

The starting point for this issue is the reality of Latin America, where the majority of people struggle for survival. They live in shacks lacking clean, running water or electricity. When their children become ill, there are no health clinics or hospitals to which to take them. When their children want to learn, there are no schools to which to send them. They see their children die before their time. Out of this reality comes the Latin American soldiers who learn combat skills at Ft. Benning – all paid for by the US taxpayers.

Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera has said that the SOA has nothing to apologize for. I disagree. Hundreds of graduates have been involved in thousands of deaths and disappearances. In El Salvador, SOA graduates assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero and raped and murdered four US churchwomen, two of whom were my friends. They shot and killed six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, and massacred more than 900 unarmed peasants in a small mountain town called El Mozote. Among the SOA's more than 60,000 graduates are dictators Manuel Noriega of Panama, Rios Montt of Guatemala, and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia

The Pentagon claims that human rights abuses by SOA graduates are in the past. Unfortunately, they are not. They are a grave and significant part of the present. Guatemalan human rights champion Bishop Juan Gerardi was murdered in 1998. SOA graduate and former head of Guatemala's D-2 Intelligence Unit, Col. Lima Estrada has been charged with his murder. In Colombia, kidnapping and killings of unarmed civilians have been attributed to SOA graduates by the United Nations and international human rights organizations. More than 19,000 people were killed or disappeared during Rios Montt’s eighteen month reign of terror in the early 1980’s. He is currently the president of the Guatemalan Congress.

Historically, the civil institutions in Latin America have been weak and the militaries strong. The militaries have often prohibited free and fair elections, opposed an independent judiciary, and violated the human rights of those whose opinions differ from theirs. If we in the United States are serious about teaching democracy and respecting human rights in Latin America, then we should send soldiers to civilian institutions, where they will learn that the military must be subordinate to civilians. We cannot teach democracy through the barrel of a gun.

It is not for those who killed, tortured and raped to say "Let’s move on." We do not see recent events as "closure". True closure will only happen when the truth is told, the wrong is acknowledged, and those responsible for the crimes are held accountable. Only then can healing begin. Let the healing begin by closing the new-named school.

Fr. Roy Bourgeois, is a Vietnam veteran and a Catholic priest. He lived and worked in Latin America as a Maryknoll Missioner, for many years. He is the founder and co-director of SOA Watch.