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SOA Watch Delegation to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador PDF Print E-mail
Article by Lisa Sullivan
Photos: Linda Panetta

Bertha focused her fierce determination to live on straining to reach the end of the rope which lay just beyond her bound fingertips. For several hours after her husband Tomás was dragged from their home in Honduras by five armed men, she willed herself to remain alive in order to bring life to her unborn son. Bound and gagged with rope and sheets and left to suffocate, her fingertips finally reached the end of the rope. Tearing the skin and veins of her wrists, she was able to untie herself, then went out into the night to search for her husband. He was one among hundreds who “disappeared” in Honduras during the bleak 1980’s. Twenty five years later, the scars still on her wrists, she still hasn’t found Tomás, but her love for him continues to propel her forward, day and night.

Bertha told me this story as we sat in the waiting room of the Defense Minister. “People wonder why I continue to speak out so strongly” she said. “It is because I am still locamente in love with Tomás, locamente in love with his project of life”. She placed strong emphasis on the word locamente, which means something like crazily, intensely, completely. The manner in which this woman speaks out for the disappeared was indeed all that. The honor which must be accorded their lives, she insisted, was a guarantee that this would never happen again. Nunca mas. And while the doors of the SOA remain open, while her country continues to send its troops to train there, this nunca mas is not possible.

For this reason Bertha had enthusiastically agreed to organize our visit to Honduras, one of three countries on this leg of visits to all the countries sending troops at the SOA, as part of the Latin America initiative of SOA Watch. Our small delegation had previously visited eight South American nations where we obtained the commitment of 5 of them to some form of withdrawal or reduction of troops. In Central America, we knew that the challenges would be greater. The blood spilled by graduates of the SOA could fill rivers there, and its memory is still fresh. Monseñor Romero, the four U.S. churchwomen, the Jesuit priests at the UCA, the massacre of el Mozote, just a few of the thousands of massacres carried out by hands or orders of SOA graduates.

Bertha’s passion was exhausting. Upon our arrival in Honduras after 16 hours on the road, she herded us into a taxi and onto a live tv show. Doors opened wherever she took us – to the Vice President, the President of the Supreme Court, the Defense Minister, Congress, press conferences, human rights organizations, television and radio shows. We raced through the streets of Tegucigalpa, slurping down coffee while she prepped us for our next visit. This was a woman on a mission fueled by love.

When love is the fuel, the mileage is remarkable. Our visits to Guatemala and El Salvador were also made possible by individuals committed to the disappeared. In the rooms where we talked about the campaign to close the SOA, entire walls were filled with their photos.

It was the faces that tugged at my heart more than numbers recited: a thousand, ten thousand, a hundred thousand. At the Foundation for Forensic Anthropology in Guatemala, experts meticulously worked to put together and identify the bones of massacre victims. They estimate they need another 15 years to finish the task.

For some, the memories of atrocities by SOA graduates are carried not in the memory of lost loved ones, but in their own bodies. Such is the case for Carlos Mauricio, one of the members of our small delegation. Upon arriving at the bus station at San Salvador, Carlos led us to an ordinary block filled with shops and offices, and said “this is where it all happened”. “It” was the moment when Carlos was abducted by several armed men while teaching at the local university in 1983, thrown in a van, and driven to the site of his detention. Brutally tortured for three weeks, Carlos was then miraculously released and later found safety in San Francisco.

(Photo - The police station where Carlos was held and tortured)

Years later, he bravely accepted an invitation by the Center of Justice and Accountability to bring to trial the men responsible for his torture, including the former Defense Minister José Guillermo Garcia, even though it meant he may never again walk the streets of San Salvador without looking over his shoulder. He and his two fellow Salvadoran defendants won the civil trial against the general, an SOA graduate who oversaw thousands of similar detentions, most with worse outcomes. While they never expect to receive any compensation for the victorious trial, the real victory lies in the satisfaction that justice had been served.

Sadly, it stands as a rare case of bringing justice to such crimes. Hundreds of cases of torture, disappearances, murder and massacre linked to SOA grads in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras go untouched.

(Photo - A family from the Quiche region visits the forensic office to try and identify the remains of loved ones. Before leaving they light candles and offer prayers for the deceased.)

The vast majority of perpetrators not only walk the streets freely, but many have found new wealth, thanks in part to their SOA training. Now retired from the armed forces, they are drawing a fortune by joining the biggest business boom in Central America – private security agencies.

What makes this business so lucrative? The sheer size of it. Crime and violence are the big issues in all three of these countries. As if to bring home the point, the problem was graphically illustrated for us. While walking the streets of Guatemala City, Linda was advising Roy on how he should tuck his possessions more discretely into his pockets as if staged to dramatically illustrate her point, suddenly a thief jumped out, reached into Roy’s pocket, grabbed its contents, and raced down the street. When we told the story an hour later to our host, he reported that his wife had just called to report that a thief stole her cell phone that morning.

(Photo - The teenager in the photograph to the left was murdered; she was shot in the head - execution style. Her case, along with thousands of others involving the murder of women - frequently called “Femicide” in Guatemala - has never been investigated by the police, despite the ongoing efforts of family members and friends.)

Later in the evening, we shared with friends over dinner. One of them had learned that a young friend’s murdered body had been discovered that day.

By some accounts, there are more deaths per month by crime than during the tragic and bloody years of civil war in these three countries.

(Photo - This teenage boy was killed by a massive blow the right side of his head which crushed his skull.)

While the complexities of its causes are up for debate, many reasons mentioned include: the dissolving of communities by years of war, the loss of millennium-held traditions, the consequences of free trade agreements such as the increase in poverty paired with omni-present flashy material goods, the absence of migrant parents, the spread of gangs, brought back by returning migrants from large U.S. cities. One thing, however, is clear. At least three groups are benefiting or even profiting, from this spread of crime and violence: The police forces, former military officers (many of whom are SOA grads) and a new U.S. police training academy.

Concern was expressed that police are taking over where the military left off in targeting their citizens as “internal enemies.”

(Photos - Joint military / police patrols are common in El Salvador)

Young people in all three countries reported feeling fear just at the sight of the police. Peace accords led to a reduction of personnel in the armed forces, yet many former military have later shown up on the police force. In Guatemala, a police scandal was raging during our visit. The son of Roberto D’Abuisson, the infamous Salvadoran death-squad leader and SOA graduate, was killed while visiting Guatemala, along with two companions. Shortly afterwards, four police officers were charged with their murder, imprisoned, then were murdered themselves while in a high-security prison. Victims and perpetrators were all linked to drug trafficking.

However, private security forces now far outnumber these police forces, six times the size in Guatemala. Even the tiniest shop had at least one guard. Concerns were voiced that robberies and murders had sometimes been carried out by these forces, just to drum up requests for their lucrative security business. Gangs provide an easy scapegoat for the crime, but the profits go to other pockets.

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of our visit was the newly established International Law Enforcement Academy, or ILEA, plucked down by the U.S. government on Salvadoran soil, and sealed in a midnight congressional deal.

Throughout our travels in Latin America, we had heard fears that this new institution which might be a new SOA. We were able to make a three-hour visit to the academy, holding extensive conversations with U.S. and Salvadoran directors. Afterwards, we were left with many concerns. This institute, a joint effort by the State Department, Departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Treasury, is designed to train police from all over Latin America, although in their own words, they are open to the possibility of also training military in the future. Given the history of U.S. training of Latin American military (and its flagship, the SOA), it is hard to imagine that the aims of such a school would suddenly taken on a more noble goal, especially in light of our current foreign policies.

(Photos - Delegates, and a human rights advocate who accompanied us, stand in one of ILEA’s lecture rooms)

Among our concerns was the stated purpose of the academy. According to the State Department representative, a major goal was the creation of a more favorable climate of security for U.S. business investment. No one mentioned better security for Latin American citizens. Another major goal was interchange of information among police forces. It was hard not to conjure up memories of Plan Condor, just as fresh news was pouring over the wire services about the complex intertwining of the Southern Cone dictatorships. Another concern was the refusal of the directors to reveal the names of the graduates of the school. When we asked how we could monitor the human rights records without this information, there was in effect no answer. They did promise to send us number of students from each country, but as of ten days later, we have not received this information. While we cannot go on record as saying that ILEA is the new SOA, since it is still in its initial stages, we can clearly state that we are concerned that the objectives of the school and the lack of transparency.

(Photo - Torture survivor and now Congresswoman, Nidia Diaz (red pants),is one of the most highly regarded women leaders in the FMLN)

We left Central America concerned about this new school, but we felt tentatively hopeful about a possible diminishing role for the SOA. While we didn’t receive an out-and-out yes to our request to withdraw their troops, government officials did open their doors to listen. This certainly wouldn’t have happened even a few years ago. Our visit captured the attention of the media in ways we never imagined, and news came back to us from allies from Panama to Chile that they had read of our visit.

Clearly, our visit served to remind citizens that their countries were continuing to send troops to the SOA, a place of horrors in the minds of most Central Americans. Even the Guatemalan and Honduran Defense Ministers seemed surprised when we shared the current numbers we had for their students at the school. Either they are highly disorganized, are polished fibbers, or the SOA is inflating its figures. Whatever the case, word spread quickly that the SOA was alive and well and not buried with its old name, as many had thought.

(Photo - Meeting with the Guatemalan Defense Minister)

Many organizations committed to continue to pressure their governments to withdraw their troops from the SOA. Together we realized how important it is to join our efforts, north and south, to close this school of assassins, to monitor others so that they will not become that, to prevent new morphed versions from forming. We left Central America, a land of martyrs, inspired by the commitment of so many people who refuse for death to have the final word.

Our last day in Honduras, Bertha led us several hours outside the city, through dusty roads to the mountains leading towards Nicaragua and El Salvador. Here, the contras had pillaged the land and left behind a trail of blood. On a hillside looking over the mountains, thirsty for rain and its promise of new life, a memorial to the disappeared was being built. A tiny tree had been planted in memory of each victim. Bertha kneeled at the tree bearing Tomás’s name, plucking weeds, arranging rocks, speaking of him. This was not just any tree, but a majestic caoba tree she told us. Just as his life was not just any life, but one with one whose dream continues to propel this extraordinary woman forward to tirelessly promote justice. We walked slowly passed dozens of other trees, each with a name. Sponsors are invited to adopt a tree, to help the project. There is one condition however: that they take the time to remember. It is in fully remembering those whose lives were taken: Tomás, Oscar, Ita, Maura, Ignacio, Celina, and so many other, that we will find the courage to do all we can to close this school of assassins.


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