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Catholic activists urge South American nations not to send students to U.S. military school

Friday, August 25th 2006

Barbara J. Fraser, Catholic News Service

LIMA, Peru (CNS) ? Church activists campaigning to close the b>, formerly known as the School of the Americas, are now targeting the countries that send military students to the school.

A team from School of the Americas Watch, or SOA Watch, led by Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois, was visiting Ecuador, Peru and Chile in late August to raise public awareness and meet with human rights activists and government officials.

A similar swing through Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia in March and April resulted in pledges from governments to stop sending military officers for training or reduce the number.

The school, which opened in Panama in 1946 and moved to Fort Benning, Ga., in 1984, "has trained many soldiers who have been implicated in torture and death," Father Bourgeois said. "Many people we have met with (in Latin America) know the school very well."

Efforts to close the school have "a powerful faith dimension," he said. Many SOA Watch supporters in the United States are priests, religious and active laypeople. In some of the best-known cases involving graduates of the school, the murdered victims ? who in El Salvador included four U.S. churchwomen, Archbishop Oscar A. Romero and six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter ? have been church workers.

Military officers associated with a clandestine death squad linked to Peruvian government security forces during the 1980s and 1990s trained at the school, as did officers implicated in several massacres of civilians in rural areas.

The visit to Peru comes as human rights activists and relatives of people who were killed or disappeared during the conflict between government forces and the Shining Path guerrillas and Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement prepare to mark the third anniversary of the release of the report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated human rights violations during those decades.

Nevertheless, Father Bourgeois said, the reception has been cooler in Peru than in other countries he and his team have visited.

Because the history of violence is so recent, "Peru may be at a different moment," said Lisa Sullivan, Latin America coordinator for SOA Watch. The Andean nation "is strikingly different from other countries we've been in because the fear is so alive," she said.

A generation has passed since the "dirty wars" of the 1970s in Argentina and Uruguay, and in some cases people who were imprisoned for their political activity during those years now hold public office. Sullivan said that officials of those countries' defense ministries pledged not to send more military officers to study at the school.

Officials in Venezuela also pledged not to send more students to the school. In Bolivia, which has had one of the largest contingents of students at the school in recent years, officials said they would reduce the number of officers studying at Fort Benning, with the goal of eventually withdrawing altogether.

The SOA Watch group hoped for a positive response in late August in Chile, where President Michelle Bachelet was tortured after the military coup staged by Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1973.

Sullivan and Father Bourgeois expect a more uphill battle early next year, when they will visit Colombia ? which receives about $630 million in U.S. military aid and has the largest number of students at the school in Georgia ? and countries in Central America that have historically had a close military relationship with the United States.

The activists are optimistic that the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation will eventually close, although they say that U.S. training for Latin American security forces may continue in other places, such as the new International Law Enforcement Academy in El Salvador.

Nevertheless, the school remains the most visible symbol of U.S. military involvement in Latin America, and SOA Watch continues to use it to educate a new generation about the implication of its students in past atrocities.

"There's a lot of blood on our hands. That school has been involved in untold suffering and death," Father Bourgeois said. "I have no doubt it will be shut down, but as long as they keep it open, we keep bringing more people into our movement."

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