Advocates for Justice in the Americas Look Forward with Hope
Columbus, GA - Thousands will gather this weekend, November 21-23, at the gates of Fort Benning, GA for what organizers hope may be the last mass protest to close the controversial School of the Americas, renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (SOA/WHINSEC). With 35 Representatives who voted to continue funding the SOA/WHINSEC losing their seats in Congress on November 4th, human rights advocates have their sights set on pressuring the new Congress to permanently shut down the school in 2009. The last vote to defund the SOA/WHINSEC, in 2007, lost by a margin of only six votes.
Every November, the annual 'Vigil to Close the SOA/WHINSEC' draws thousands of people to the gates of Ft. Benning, the army base which houses the facility. Organizers hope to make the most out of the changing political climate that was revealed during this year's elections. "We feel qualified optimism," said SOA Watch founder Fr. Roy Bourgeois. "The American people have rejected the Bush Administration's policies of aggression, war-mongering and torture. By closing this notorious school of assassins now, Obama and the new Congress can show the world that we genuinely honor human rights." Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, "disappeared," massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the SOA/WHINSEC.
On Sunday, President-elect Barack Obama repeated on 60 Minutes his promise to close Guantánamo and to ensure that U.S. forces not use torture. However, he has yet to offer a clear position on the SOA/WHINSEC, despite the school's long association with torture and human rights abuses. SOA Watch is circulating a petition to the president-elect, urging him to issue an executive order to close the SOA/WHINSEC. Five Latin American countries have already announced their withdrawal from the training facility, citing its history of human rights abuses. SOA Watch believes that closing the SOA/WHINSEC is a pivotal opportunity for the U.S. to improve its relationships in the Western Hemisphere, and to fulfill Obama's stated goal of "regain[ing] America's moral stature in the world."
The vigil will culminate on Sunday, November 23 with a funeral procession to the gates of Ft. Benning. Activists will enter the base in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience. The vigil commemorates the November 16, 1989 massacre in El Salvador of Julia Elba Ramos, her 14-year-old daughter Celina, and six Jesuit priests. They were brutally murdered by a Salvadoran army unit that was led by military officers trained at the SOA. Jon Sobrino, SJ, the Jesuit priest who survived the massacre, will attend this year's vigil.
The School of the Americas made headlines in 1996 when the Pentagon released training manuals used at the school that advocated torture, extortion and execution. The involvement of SOA/WHINSEC graduates in human rights abuses continues. This October, Colombian Army commander General Mario Montoya resigned in the wake of a scandal over army killings of civilians that a UN official called "systematic and widespread." General Montoya not only received training at the SOA, but also taught soldiers as an instructor there. He has been replaced by General Oscar Gonzalez, also an SOA/WHINSEC graduate.
After research revealed that the SOA/WHINSEC continues to train known human rights abusers, and that instructors have been involved in numerous crimes, the Pentagon reacted by classifying the names of all officers, soldiers, and instructors.
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