As long as Army school remains open, abuse wounds won't heal Print
Wednesday, 20 June 2007 00:00
Congress is scheduled to vote this week on whether to defund the infamous U.S. Army institute once known as the School of the Americas.

"There is no reason we should continue to waste taxpayer money on this school. Some of the worst human rights abusers in the Western Hemisphere have been graduates," says Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., who authored the legislation.

As we circle the globe touting our moral authority in matters of democracy, freedom and human rights, it's time for this country to take a long, hard look at the abuses we've helped create in our own backyard.

The School of the Americas was created in 1946 in Panama as a training facility for Latin American military and police personnel. More than 60,000 officers received training there.

In 1984, the school moved to Fort Benning, Ga. Far from being a breeding ground for democracy in action, the school became a haven for despotic terrorism.

A United Nations Truth Commission found dozens of SOA graduates were linked to atrocities in Latin America, including the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, the massacre of 900 Salvadorans in El Mozote and death squad rampages all over Central America and South America.

Of course, the U.S. government cannot know this, because federal law prohibits the 150 Defense Department schools that teach foreign students to "track" them when they return home.

The SOA came under fire in 1996, when Army training manuals were found to sanction such strategies as torture, execution, false arrest, censorship and "neutralizing" of enemies.

Even the Pentagon had to admit that the techniques were "clearly objectionable and possibly illegal," according to a 1996 New York Times report.

In 2000, the facility changed its name. The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, as it's called now, added human rights to its curriculum and is dedicated to "promoting democratic values, respect for human rights, and knowledge and understanding of United States customs and traditions."

McGovern says that's little more than political blather.

"Changing the name of the school doesn't change its history," he said. "Shutting it down would go a long way toward restoring our reputation in this hemisphere and around the world."

Last month, Costa Rica joined Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela in announcing it would no longer send police trainees to the school.

The next step is for Congress to defund the school, which operates on a budget of about $6 million.

Hector Aristizabal, a Colombian now living in California, supports closure of the school. A victim of torture 25 years ago, Aristizabal has used theater to speak out against repressive regimes whose leaders often were trained at the SOA by the U.S. military.

As a 22-year-old living in Medellin, Aristizabal and his brother were held for 10 days and tortured for three of them. They were accused of being leftist guerrillas, even though neither was involved in political activity.

"There was psychological torture and mock executions, where the soldiers would pretend they were going to shoot you, but would shoot at the side of your head," Aristizabal recalls.

He said he was blindfolded, had electrodes placed on different parts of his body, including his testicles, and was hit "many, many times."

Aristizabal and his brother were released, he believes, because the country was in the midst of a presidential election. His brother was killed six years ago by a death squad.

Most members of his audience have never met someone who's been tortured. His goal, through theater, is to bring people face to face with the ugliness of war, civil rights abuses and persecution — whether perpetrated by foreign tyrants or their own government.

"People don't know what to do. They feel so overwhelmed at the thought that, 'My god, I have lived on a lie for years and years and years.' If we accept that, what can we do with the pain and the shame?"

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Last Updated on Thursday, 21 June 2007 11:13