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
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.
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.
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
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.
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