Will the "School of the Assassins" be closed?
This weekend, thousands of priests, nuns, and other activists will descend on Fort Benning, Georgia, to demonstrate against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC).
The annual demonstrations against the U.S. training center have become one of the largest expressions of anti-war sentiment in the country, but will it succeed in changing U.S. policy?
The institute, formerly known as the School of the Americas, was launched in Panama in 1946 as a base to train military officers in Latin America. It was kicked out of Panama in the mid-1980s and moved to Fort Benning, where it has since been targeted by hundreds of faith and human rights groups for its unsavory role in supporting dictators and death squads.
As the activist group SOA Watch, sponsor of the annual protests, states:
Over its 59 years, the SOA has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, "disappeared," massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins.
Many of the atrocities linked to SOA/WHISC graduates occurred in the bloody 1980s, but some incidents are more recent. For example:
On February 21-22, 2005, eight members of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community in Urabá, Colombia were brutally massacred. Witnesses identified the killers as members of the Colombian military's 17th Brigade, commanded by an SOA graduate.
This year, SOA Watch anticipates "over 20,000" people will descend on Columbus, Georgia for"teach-ins, workshops, rallies and marches," including over 1,000 grandmothers -- a special mobilization this year.
Will it have any impact? Activists came surprisingly close to closing SOA in the late 1990s, as bad publicity about the actions of SOA's alumni spread. A Congressional House vote on closing SOA narrowly missed, and -- in a sign that the Pentagon was concerned about the negative press -- the center's name was changed to WHISC in 2001, although there was little evidence of a change in policy. The protests didn't let up after 9/11, although the new political climate took closing WHISC off the Congressional agenda.
With many Latin American countries shifting to the left -- the latest being Nicaragua -- debates about the U.S. role in the region will likely only intensify. The thousands coming to Fort Benning this weekend wonder: Will a new Congress, bolstered by a public frustrated with the direction of U.S. foreign policy, return scrutiny to WHISC/SOA and the U.S. role in human rights violations abroad?
Chris Kromm is executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and publisher of the Institute's online magazine, Facing South.