Report Back: SOA Watch Delegation to El Salvador 2013 Print
Written by Lisa Sullivan   

If ever there were a more compelling tale to provoke a stampede to shut the doors of the School of the Americas, it would be the tale of tiny El Salvador. As 25 of us discovered on a recent SOA Watch delegation there, even former supporters admit: the time has come.

The legacy of that school is etched in blood on the hearts and minds of Salvadorans, and on the walls, parks and pastures of their cities and towns. A wall in central San Salvador with 35,000 names engraved, most of them murdered by orders by SOA graduates. A makeshift cross under the shade of a conacaste tree where four bodies of US churchwomen were dumped. A garden where rose bushes grow on the spots where six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered by the SOA- formed Atlacatl Battalion. A closet with the possessions left behind by MonseƱor Romero, assassinated on orders of an SOA graduate. There are no shoes: Romero was buried in the only pair he owned.

That is the image that clings to me the most. El Salvador was a nation of one pair of shoes. After dozens of people attending Romero's funeral were gunned down, the massive crowd scrambled for safety. The next day, many returned cautiously: they were looking for their one lost pair of shoes.

But, these one-pair-of -shoes-per-person were our sworn enemies. From the mid 1980's to early 1990's, we sent a million dollars a day to the Salvadoran military to wipe them out. We printed handbooks to show just how to torture them. We taught their fellow citizens how to shoot down those dared to raise their voices The blood of tiny El Salvador is on all of our hands.

This is why we began our delegation's first meeting, in El Salvador's Congress, with just one phrase: forgive us. As we filed into a hearing room with the Justice and Human Rights Commission, most of the congress members were busy on cell phones or laptops. Each of us stood to say our names, our professions, our town and then, one word: perdon. By the time the 9th or 10th person stood, there was utter silence. As we reached the last person, there were tears. Hearts broke open, real dialogue ensued, and at the end of the session, even those representing the rightwing parties agreed that this school must close.

Thanks to the hard work of the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS) and its director Leslie Shuld, who did a stellar job of setting up the delegation, all three candidates slated to run for president next February agreed to meet with us at length. GANA candidate, ex President Tony Saca charmingly side-skirted the issue via his US-embassy translator. ARENA's vice candidate went to great lengths to try to explain how his party is changing, without offering a position on the SOA. What else could he say, given that ARENA's found Roberto D'Abuisson ordered the murder of Romero.

Only Salvador Sanchez Ceren, candidate for the FMLN and current vice president was unhesitant and uncompromising in his support: closing the SOA is a just and moral cause. I share this vision with you.... as long as this school exists, hate and war .. will be the result. El Salvador must become sovereign and independent and make its own decisions. We can only hope that he will win and be firm in his commitment to sovereignty. His current boss, President Mauricio Funes allowed the US embassy to replace his entire FMLN Security ministry with handpicked SOA graduates.

El Salvador is a place where the Pentagon's two rote arguments for keeping the SOA open just don't hold water. Those arguments are: 1. It's a new place with a new name, and 2. All those messy problems were in the past.

The publicity department of WHINSEC seems to be doing a poor job, as even the High Command of the Salvadoran Armed Forces used the term Escuela de las Americas (Spanish for School of the Americas) to refer to the current school. During our hour long meeting, only one of the 12 commanders at our meeting table used the term WHINSEC. Some even visibly flinched when we showed them the list of graduates with each name methodically blacked out with magic marker by the US government. They had been told it was a source of pride to be an SOA graduate.

Above all, the Pentagon insists that the problems of the SOA lie in the past. El Salvador, however, the past is the present. In a country where tens of thousands of children were orphaned, where hundreds of thousands lost family members, where millions fled north, where millions more left without a mom or a dad, the present is a predictable outcome of such a past.

It is therefore not too surprising that more people have lost their lives at the hands of gang members and criminals in the decades following the war. When Lady Liberty refused to open her arms to those fleeing the US-funded civil war, survival was found in the only space providing welcome in US teeming cities: gangs. This made-in-the-USA problem became El Salvador's own, as daily planeloads of jailed gang members were shipped back to El Salvador, some not speaking even a word of Spanish. Should it be a surprise that the streets of San Salvador became such tough places? Valiant efforts by many, such as Fr. Antonio Rodriguez of the Mejicanos parish, have made significant inroads of incorporating this lost generation into the fabric of society. A truce between the two major gangs has halved the murder rate, but all agree that much needs to be done.

And should it be a surprise that the land itself of El Salvador was left open for pillage? When the blood of its youth was left spilling in the streets and the muscle of its work forces packed north to do the jobs no one else there wanted, all was left was the tiny land of El Salvador itself. Under the empty cornfields and deserted pastures the eyes of hawks saw gold. No matter that the water itself must be poisoned to eke it out, life itself is dispensable in El Salvador. Or, so thought the mining corporations before they faced opposition from community leaders such as Marcelo Rivera Moreno, who was kidnapped, tortured and murdered in 2009. Although the Salvadoran government currently has a moratorium on mining contracts, the Canadian Pacific Rim company has invoked a provision of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and is seeking $200 million in damages.

On our last day in El Salvador I was reminded how this fragile land continues to push open our hearts. At the sign of peace in the anniversary mass for Monsenor Romero, Salvadorans hugged us with sincerity. The final blessing from the altar was an invocation that we should all be Romero. Yo soy Romero! shouted the crowd. Then the final words solidaridad con Honduras! They suffer today what we did yesterday.

How unique I thought, how totally like El Salvador. To embrace strangers whose nation had caused them untold suffering, to assume forthright the task of building justice, to step beyond one's pain to help one who suffers even more. El Salvador breaks you open and spins you around, but then you land on your feet knowing which direction you should be heading.