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Investigate the School of the Americas

  Atrocities in Central America

A Casual Relationship?

Making a Change


The School of the Americas (SOA), located in Fort Benning, Georgia, has been the focal point for debate since it moved there from Fort Gulick, Panama, in 1984. Although the school speaks of its human-rights education, critics charge that its course work includes counterinsurgency training. They note that some graduates have been linked with horrendous acts of oppression. In the House of Representatives and the Senate, bills seeking closure of the school are being voted on this year.

At press time, nearly one third of the House membership was in support of this legislation. Among the Church organizations that have joined them are the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Pax Christi USA, School of the Americas Watch, 10 Central American bishops and more than 100 U.S. bishops. Amnesty International USA will be studying and evaluating SOA in the next few months.

Meanwhile, SOA staff express their support for the institution’s mission to improve the military training of Latin American soldiers. They stand by the institution’s human-rights agenda. Regarding actions that critics claim were by SOA graduates, Major Father Donald Blickhan, garrison Catholic chaplain at Fort Benning, admits, “Unfortunately, there have been some human-rights tragedies in Latin America.” Yet he promotes the school’s continuation and dialogue with its critics.

Atrocities in Central America

Galveston-Houston Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza says it is for “the massacre of thousands in Central America by military forces” that he recently came out against the school. He joins Bishops Thomas Gumbleton (auxiliary, Detroit) and Kendrick Williams (Lexington, Kentucky). They ask for “Congress and members of the Executive Branch to immediately end” SOA funding and pass legislation to close its doors.

Bishop Fiorenza, who is also president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, says some Central American leaders have been trained at the school. “Bishops of Central America, and many of our missionary priests and nuns, trace the atrocities committed by these leaders to the training received in the School of the Americas.”

According to the Academy Award-nominated program School of Assassins, distributed by Maryknoll World Productions (800-227-8523), SOA graduates include Manuel Noriega, former Panamanian leader; three officers involved in the rape and murder of two Maryknoll sisters, a lay missionary and an Ursuline sister in El Salvador in December 1980; two officers linked with the assassination of El Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero in March 1980; and 19 officers implicated in the murders in San Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.

A Casual Relationship?

Links between those trained at the school and their later criminal actions have been confirmed, many by a comparison with names in a 1993 U.N. Truth Commission Report on El Salvador. Yet other factors are often at work in those students, says Col. Glenn Weidner, commandant of the school. For example, many come from one of the most conflictive regions of the world and have already received training in their home countries.

That doesn’t change the fact that U.S. taxpayer dollars were utilized to help train Latin American officers who committed human-rights abuses.

Public response to the school’s graduates and inappropriate material found in instructional manuals sparked 11 investigations. Inquiries included those conducted by the General Accounting Office, General Council and Inspector General of the Department of Defense, School of Americas Board of Visitors, U.S. Army Infantry Task Force and Professional Software Engineering, Inc. In each case, the Army school was cleared of wrongdoing. The reports, though, are not convincing enough for those who believe that the school’s courses do not place a priority on human rights.

Making a Change

To make a change in what he sees only as a “combat school,” Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois, School of the Americas Watch founder, says people must speak now. This priest has for years actively sought the school’s closing and served prison time for his protests.

SOA staff have offered to speak with those concerned about the curriculum. The desire to establish dialogue is strong, says Major General Carl Ernst, Fort Benning’s commanding general.

Ernst, a practicing Catholic, says his desire is for those considering acts of civil disobedience at Fort Benning to participate in a public forum instead. That way they “can hear both sides of the story, get to the truth and make up their own minds.”

The issue of what training takes place at SOA has not yet “received the full public debate it deserves,” Bishop Fiorenza concurs. He believes that “in the recent past SOA encouraged offensive tactics which were brutal and led to human-rights abuses.” Satisfying answers to how many SOA grads were involved in past atrocities as well as how today’s training differs from what was previously taught would help him believe that SOA is a school that “offers a valuable service in the training of democratic values to the military leaders of Latin America.”

A full, external investigation by a president-appointed commission must be conducted so that the U.S. public can judge if SOA is worthy of U.S. tax dollars and that its program is consistent with our nation’s ideals. —D.P.


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