(IPS) Representatives of School of the Americas Watch visited El Salvador to ask the incoming government of the leftwing FMLN, which will take office in June, to stop sending military officers to the U.S. army academy, which has long been accused of teaching torture techniques.
El Salvador has a special significance for School of the Americas (SOA) Watch, because the movement was founded in 1990 by Maryknoll priest Roy Bourgeois (a former naval officer and Vietnam veteran) in response to atrocities committed during this country’s 1980-1992 civil war.
Bourgeois became an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America after four U.S. churchwomen – two of whom were friends of his – were raped and killed by Salvadoran soldiers in December 1980. The November 1989 murders of six prominent Jesuit priests, along with their housekeeper and her teenage daughter, then became a catalyst for the emergence of SOA Watch.
SOA Watch has offices outside of Fort Benning, Georgia – where the SOA, renamed the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation" (WHINSEC) in 2001, is located – and in Washington, D.C.
"The light of our movement was switched on in El Salvador, where the killings of the priests helped open our eyes to the way the U.S. army was using our taxes," Lisa Sullivan, SOA Watch’s Latin America coordinator, told IPS.
"Our money was used to train members of the Salvadoran military in how to kill peasants, priests and nuns," said Sullivan.
The 12-year war between government forces and the leftist FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) guerrillas left 80,000 people dead or disappeared, mainly at the hands of the armed forces and far-right death squads.
The FMLN, which became a political party in 1993, won the presidential elections in March.
The SOA was founded in Panama in 1946 as a U.S. army training school for Latin American military personnel.
It trained Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, before and during the years of the U.S. "national security doctrine." Many SOA graduates ended up involved in human rights violations throughout the hemisphere, in Mexico, Central America and South America.
In 1984, then president of Panama Jorge Illueca kicked the SOA out of his country, and it was moved to the army base at Fort Benning, Georgia.
In response to the controversy and protests by human rights activists, the SOA was officially "closed" in December 2000. But it reopened a month later as WHINSEC – in the same installations, with the same staff carrying out the same work.
The United Nations Truth Commission in El Salvador found that 19 of the 26 Salvadoran soldiers and officers implicated in the murders of the Jesuit priests were SOA alumni.
The 64,000 Latin American soldiers who have trained at the SOA also included three of the five Salvadoran troops who raped and killed the three U.S. nuns and a Catholic lay worker in 1980 and two of the three cited in the March 1980 assassination of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot by a sniper while conducting mass.
A total of 48 of the 69 Salvadoran officers cited by the U.N. Truth Commission for human rights violations had been trained at the SOA.
The list of SOA graduates also includes: former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (1983-1989); Leopoldo Galtieri and Roberto Viola, former members of the military juntas that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983; and other dictators like Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-1975) of Peru, Guillermo Rodríguez (1972-1976) of Ecuador, and Hugo Banzer (1971-1978) of Bolivia.
Since SOA Watch protests against the school began, nearly 200 activists have served a combined 81 years in prison for acts of civil disobedience, like attempting to enter the grounds of Fort Benning.
One of them is Jesuit priest Joseph Mulligan, who was arrested in November 2003 for trespassing and spent February to April 2004 in a prison in Georgia.
Mulligan told IPS that he took part in the SOA Watch protest vigils held every November outside of Fort Benning to commemorate the murders of the Jesuit priests because as a U.S. citizen he feels responsible for what his government does in Latin America.
The largest number of protesters drawn to the annual vigil was 22,000, in 2006. Six SOA Watch protesters are currently in prison for civil disobedience, serving sentences ranging from two to six months.
"We want to send the army and U.S. society the message that we are opposed to the continued training of soldiers who go on to violate human rights," Mulligan said.
SOA Watch activist Pablo Ruiz, from Chile, called for the construction of "a new concept of the armed forces," and protested that the president of his country, socialist Michelle Bachelet, has not yet removed Chilean soldiers from the school in Fort Benning "because the power of the military is still very strong."
According to SOA Watch figures, civil war-torn Colombia sends more troops to SOA/WHINSEC than any other country: 323 in 2007, followed by Chile (195), Peru (134), Nicaragua (78), the Dominican Republic (65), Ecuador (62), Panama (50), Honduras (44), El Salvador (37), Guatemala (35), Costa Rica (22), Paraguay (15), Mexico (13), Jamaica (10), Belize and Brazil (four) and Canada (two).
The SOA Watch activists say they have visited 16 Latin American countries since 2008, meeting with local officials to urge them to withdraw all troops from SOA/WHINSEC.
Their efforts have borne fruit in several cases. Chile only sent 45 troops in 2008, and Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Venezuela have ceased to send troops altogether.
Sullivan said that when President-elect Mauricio Funes of the FMLN takes office in June, there is a possibility that El Salvador will follow suit.
Mary Anne Perrone, another SOA Watch activist, said that when Vice President-elect Salvador Sánchez Cerén met with the group’s representatives, he admitted that he was unfamiliar with WHINSEC, but that he would take the information provided by the activists very seriously.
El Salvador had plans to increase the number of troops sent this year to SOA/WHINSEC to 58.
A source close to Sánchez Cerén confirmed to IPS that he met with the SOA Watch representatives, but did not discuss the results of the meeting.
"It’s disturbing; governments are often not fully informed that troops from their countries are undergoing training at WHINSEC, because since 2005 the school no longer reveals the names of its students, since most of them are attending on the basis of a personal invitation," said Sullivan.
"We believe it is important to strengthen the concept of sovereignty in Latin America," the SOA Watch Latin America coordinator added.