Opponents of the School of the Americas and Western Hemisphere Institute call for Investigation and Assessment Print
Opponents of the School of the Americas (SOA) at Fort Benning, Georgia, renamed today as the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation,"f continue to call for its closing. Charging that the "new" school cannot be significantly distinguished from the old "School of Assassins" it replaces, hundreds of people in Washington, DC, Columbus, Georgia and around the world are protesting the name change and calling for the school’s closure.

"It is like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’", says Maryknoll priest and SOA Watch Founder Fr. Roy Bourgeois, M.M. "The Army says its training of Latin America military has new clothes --a new name -- and it expects everyone to believe it. We do not. We know that the ‘new clothes’ are invisible, and the School has not changed."

The SOA and its successor share the same facility, purpose, mission and history. Like the SOA, the Institute trains soldiers in the combat, counter-insurgency, and counter-narcotics skills that have historically been used against civilian populations in Latin America. Renaming the training facility at Fort Benning but failing to establish meaningful change does nothing to rectify the systemic problems of this outdated and counter-democratic institution.

Unfortunately, human rights abuses by SOA graduates are not just a part of its history. They are part of the present. In January 2000, SOA graduate and former head of Guatemala's D-2 Intelligence Unit, Col. Lima Estrada was arrested for the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi. In February 2000, Human Rights Watch and the US State Department issued human rights reports citing SOA graduates for recent murders, kidnappings and ongoing collusion with paramilitary groups in Colombia.

According to Fr. Bourgeois, "The new Institute, like its predecessor, is primarily a combat training facility. The School’s 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 its 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."

Responding to tens of thousands of constituents all around the country, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 230 to197 to eliminate funding for the SOA in September 1999. The House-Senate reconciliation committee restored funding for the SOA by a one-vote margin. The Pentagon responded by pressuring Congress to make the cosmetic changes embodied in the new school. However these changes do not address critics’ objections to the school. There is still no provision for monitoring or tracking graduates once they leave the school. In fact, the only reporting requirement, an annual report on the "activities" of the school during the preceding year, is weaker than the limited follow-up on recent graduates mandated by Congress for the past several years. The requirement that Congressional members of the Board of Visitors (BOV), the Institute’s oversight body, come from the Armed Services Committees will effectively exclude many of the SOA's Congressional critics. Finally, until those responsible for training acknowledge the flaws in materials used in the past, including training manuals which advocated violating human rights, no real change can or will occur.

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 ‘strengthening democracy, deepening the rule of law, and honoring human rights’ in Latin America, then we should carefully consider the best ways to achieve these goals. Before we rename an old and inappropriate institution, and continue to spend tax dollars on the same ineffective programs, we should analyze our strengths and weaknesses, correct our errors, and impartially assess the SOA," said Bourgeois.

"The truth must come out!" declared Fr. Bourgeois. "Before we can have healing and reconciliation with those we have injured in Latin America, we must reveal the truth and admit our mistakes. SOA Watch is calling for a thorough, independent investigation of the SOA. Its history, its current goals and mission, its curriculum, and its effectiveness must all be evaluated."

"The Department of Defense should truthfully answer some difficult questions before it opens any school or institute," said Bourgeois. "I’d like to know why the SOA’s recent human rights courses have had difficulty attracting students, and how those few students who successfully completed the course have applied what they learned to their missions back home."

School of the Americas Watch is a grass-roots human rights organization that monitors activities of the School of the Americas and its graduates. It organizes an annual protest at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in which more than 10,000 people participate. Nearly fifty supporters of SOA Watch have served a combined total of roughly thirty years in federal prison for nonviolent civil disobedience on Ft. Benning. Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Charles Liteky is currently serving a one year sentence for trespass onto the base in 1999.