Record 20,000 Expected at Annual Peaceful Protest at the School of the Americas/Whinsec Print
MARYKNOLL, N.Y. ? As the annual vigil at the former School of the Americas (SOA) approaches, efforts to close down the U.S. Army school are bearing fruit on several fronts.

The yearly event begins Friday, November 17 with a series of speeches, workshops, teach-ins and benefit concerts. A contingent of Maryknoll fathers and brothers, sisters and lay missioners will be among the tens of thousands expected to attend.

The date of the protest coincides with the anniversary of the 1989 murder in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter by graduates of the school.

On Sunday, there will be a solemn vigil and procession outside the gates of Fort Benning, Ga., home of the former SOA, now called Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). There will be simultaneous, peaceful protests in Ecuador, Peru, El Salvador, Paraguay, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile and Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

?A school without students must close,? says Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of the SOA Watch. Critics have referred to the school as a terrorist training camp on American soil.

Bourgeois, a Vietnam veteran, has helped convince the governments of Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay to stop sending soldiers for training and Bolivia has pledged to gradually withdraw all of its soldiers by the end of 2007.

On another front, 188 members of the House of Representatives support HR 1217, a bill to shut down WHINSEC. Bourgeois says all that is needed is another 16 supporters for the legislation to pass in the House.

The SOA/WHINSEC, a military training facility for Latin American military and police, made headlines in 1996 when the Pentagon released school training manuals which advocated torture, extortion and execution. Hundreds of documented human rights violations are connected to soldiers trained at the Fort Benning-based school.

Father Bourgeois says the on-going war in Iraq is connected to the continued operation of WHINSEC.

?Wherever I speak to college and church groups,? says Bourgeois, ?I must address the war in Iraq. We are talking about U.S. foreign policy rooted in violence, aggressiveness and exploitation of resources, and for the last few years we have been addressing these issues at our annual vigil.?

Twenty-eight people were arrested at last year?s protest at Fort Benning and convicted of trespassing on Army property. The last of those finished serving their sentences last month.

This year?s march is considered to be a pivotal one for several reasons, among them, the recent indictment of human rights abusers in Latin America and the denial of a Freedom of Information Act request for names of WHINSEC graduates. More than 60,000 people have been trained at the school over its 60-year history.

Father Bourgeois, with the help of some Maryknoll Lay Missioners is whittling away at WHINSEC?s client base by holding face-to-face meetings with Latin American lawmakers in what they call their ?Latin American Initiative.? They are planning to continue the project with upcoming visits to Columbia and Central American nations.

The SOA/WHINSEC is not needed because, says Bourgeois, ?it is an obstacle to sovereignty, an obstacle to democracy and an obstacle to the process toward which the people of Latin America are working.?

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