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Frequently Asked Questions PDF Print E-mail

What is SOA Watch?

SOA Watch is an independent organization that seeks to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas, under whatever name it is called, through vigils and fasts, demonstrations and nonviolent protest, as well as media and legislative work. Founded by Maryknoll priest Fr. Roy Bourgeois in 1990, there are currently five full-time SOA Watch staff members. Fr. Roy runs an office in Columbus, Georgia, and the rest of the staff are based in Washington, DC.

What is the School of the Americas?

The School of the Americas (SOA) is a U.S. Army training school that trains soldiers and military personnel from Latin American countries in subjects like counter-insurgency, military intelligence and counter-narcotics operations. Under Department of Defense jurisdiction, this school is funded by U.S. taxpayer money, all of the training is conducted in Spanish, and most of the classes are taught by Latin American instructors. According to the SOA itself, more than 60,000 members of Latin American militaries have attended the SOA since its inception in 1946.

Wasn't the SOA closed?

The SOA was "closed" in December of 2000 and "reopened" on January 17, 2001 with a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). This was a result of a Department of Defense (DOD) proposal included in the Defense Authorization Bill for Fiscal Year 2001. The measure passed when the House of Representatives defeated by a narrow ten vote margin a bipartisan amendment to close the school and conduct a Congressional investigation. The name change was widely viewed as an attempt to distance the institution from its controversial history.

Is the new school different? Hasn't it been reformed to include human rights training?

A side by side comparison between the "old" school and the "new" school show that the changes are almost entirely cosmetic. In a media interview, Georgia Senator and SOA supporter the late Paul Coverdell characterized the Department of Defense proposal as "cosmetic" changes that would ensure that the SOA could continue its mission and operation. Critics of the SOA concur: the military training school is the continuation of the SOA under a new name. SOA/ WHINSEC officials have always claimed that the school didn't teach its students how to torture or how to circumvent the rule of law. After an embarrassing public release of the "torture training manuals" in 1996, the school instituted a public relations campaign to attempt to prove they made changes. Click here to read a comparison of the schools

What is the history of the SOA?

The School of the Americas was first established as the U.S. Army Caribbean Training Center in Panama in 1946 to help professionalize Latin American and Caribbean militaries. In 1963, under President John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress, the training center was renamed the School of the Americas. Along with the name change, the School changed to a Cold War focus. In 1984, the school was forced to move from Panama to Fort Benning, near Columbus, Georgia, under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaties.

Why should the SOA be closed?

SOA/ WHINSEC graduates have included some of the worst and most notorious human rights abusers in Latin American history, and for much of the world, the school, under any name, is synonymous with torture and impunity. SOA graduates have led military coups and are responsible for massacres of hundreds of people. Among the SOA's more than 60,000 alumni are notorious dictators Manuel Noriega and Omar Torrijos of Panama, Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola of Argentina, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador and Hugo Banzar Suarez of Bolivia. SOA graduates were responsible for the Uraba massacre in Colombia, the El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians in El Salvador, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the massacre of 14-year-old Celina Ramos, her mother Elba Ramos and six Jesuit priests in El Salvador and hundreds of other human rights abuses. Closing the school would send a strong human rights message to Latin America and the world.

Isn't it unfair to blame the SOA for the actions of a few "bad apples?"

You can find criminals of every ilk who graduated from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, but no one advocates closing those institutions because of the crimes of some of their graduates. If Harvard, Yale, or Princeton taught their students combat skills to be used against non-combatant civilians, we would justifiably call for their closure. The few "bad apples" argument is not very convincing, given the weight of the evidence about the involvement of SOA graduates in human rights abuses -- two of three officers cited in the assassination of Archbishop Romero; three of five officers cited in the rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen; ten of twelve cited for the El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians; over 100 of 246 cited for atrocities in Colombia. Furthermore, the full scope of atrocities committed by SOA graduates will likely never be known because members of Latin American militaries are generally above the law. It is rare that crimes by members of these militaries are investigated and rarer still when the names of those suspected are released.

But hasn't the SOA has made an important contribution to democratization of the region?

No. The SOA was founded as a combat school focused on counterinsurgency techniques. Rather than contributing to the development of democracy in the region, the SOA actually taught methods that undermined and destroyed democratic values. "The U.S. Army School of the Americas...is a school that has run more dictators than any other school in the history of the world," said Congressman Joseph Kennedy.38 In total, the School has produced at least eleven Latin American dictators.

What can I do to help close the SOA?

Contact your elected representatives and ask them to support HR 2567, Representative Jim McGovern's bill to suspend operations at and investigate the SOA/ WHINSEC. Ask your friends, family, and everybody you know and meet to do the same. Get involved or help to start a local SOA Watch group. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper and urge others to support closing the SOA. Organize a local educational event or action (click here for resources). Get involved in an SOA Watch Working Group. Mobilize a group to come to the Vigil and Nonviolent Action at Ft. Benning to Close the SOA/WHINSEC November 19-21, 2010! Financial support for SOA Watch is also appreciated. Donations may be sent to SOA Watch, PO Box 4566, Washington DC 20017. We also now accept online contributions. Please note that donations are not tax-deductible.

Do you have a email list or a newsletter so that I can keep informed of SOA Watch activities?

You can receive the free SOA Watch newsletter by sending us your mailing address. Contact us in our office at 202-234-3440 or email us at info(at)soaw.org.