The refusal of the Bush administration to ban torture techniques, pictures of abuse at the hands U.S. personnel and reports about secret CIA detention facilities have catapulted the notorious School of the Americas back into the public spotlight. Thousands around the country are traveling to Columbus, Georgia for a November 19-20 demonstration calling for the closure of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA/ WHINSEC).
The SOA/ WHINSEC, a combat training facility for Latin American security personnel located at Fort Benning, Georgia, made headlines in 1996 when the Pentagon released training manuals used at the school that advocated torture, extortion and execution. Despite this shocking admission and hundreds of documented human rights abuses connected to soldiers trained at the school, no independent investigation into the training facility has ever taken place.
Graduates of the SOA/ WHINSEC, more than 60,000 over its 59-year history, continue to be implicated in human rights violations throughout Latin America. Critics argue that the school promotes military solutions to social and political problems.
“We will demonstrate both to remember the past and to demand accountability for the present,” said Carlos Mauricio, a Salvadoran torture survivor and human rights activist. “The first step towards respect for human rights is to close this school.”
Organizers of the event call this November’s event unique in light of an upcoming Congressional vote on the school. Earlier this year, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) introduced HR 1217 to suspend operations at WHINSEC and to investigate the development and use of the “torture manuals.” The bill currently has over 122 bipartisan co-sponsors.
The annual Vigil to close the SOA/ WHINSEC has grown from a dozen people in November of 1990 to more than 16,000 last year. This year’s gathering will culminate on Sunday, November 20 with a symbolic funeral procession to the gates of Ft. Benning. Many will negotiate a barbed-wire fence to enter the military base in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. Since protests against SOA/ WHINSEC began more than a decade ago, over 180 people have served federal prison sentences.
This weekend’s program will feature music and speakers from Latin and North America, including torture survivors and social movement leaders from Argentina and El Salvador; labor activists from Honduras and Peru; Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking; a member of the Colombian peace community San José de Apartadó, attacked by soldiers under the command of an SOA graduate earlier this year. A line-up of diverse musicians will offer Folk, Latin Ska, Hip-Hop, Andean music and more.