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Despite changes at Army school, opposition grows

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

It’s a confrontation the U.S. Army has fought hard to avoid: the upcoming November protest at its controversial School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga.

In an attempt last spring to sap the strength of the opposition to the school and maintain the school’s funding, Army Secretary Louis Caldera pledged to make reforms at the base, which has trained some of the bloodiest hands in Latin American militaries.

The reforms included modifying its curriculum and changing its name -- the third name change in the school’s 54-year history -- to the Defense Institute for Hemispheric Security Cooperation. While one Congressman called the reforms “perfume on a toxic dump,” lawmakers, under considerable Pentagon pressure, narrowly voted to fund the school for another year.

But far from silencing its critics, the Army’s tactics have galvanized the growing movement: Nearly every hotel within miles of the base has long been booked for the weekend of Nov. 18 and 19 when more than 13,000 peace activists are expected to descend on the school.

Part of the Army’s strategy is an attempt to bury the past and paint school opponents as naïve, misguided and misinformed. Caldera suggested they overlook recent history and allow the military to play a role in “advancing democracy” in Latin America.

“What we’re trying to avoid is a debate about the past,” he said.

His task would be much easier if the past didn’t keep erupting into the present, reminding the nation of the assassinations, massacres and coups linked to school graduates.

In the last two months alone, Peruvian, Chilean and Salvadoran alumni have exhumed memories that make a mockery of the school’s claim of being “a linchpin for democracy.”

In September, Peruvian graduate Vladimiro Montesinos, head of the dreaded National Intelligence Service, was shown on Peruvian television bribing an opposition Congressman two weeks before President Alberto Fujimori’s highly contested election last May. For years, Montesinos has maintained a cozy relationship with the U.S. military and the CIA despite reports that he created a death squad, silenced the press and political opponents, and was instrumental in Fujimori’s dissolving Congress in 1992.

Not long after the Peruvian broadcast, a Congressional investigation revealed that Chilean graduate Manuel Contreras, the former chief of Augusto Pinochet’s secret police, had close ties to the CIA before and after he masterminded the 1976 assassination of a former Chilean diplomat in Washington.

In October, Salvadoran graduate Gen. José Guillermo García was brought to trial in Florida in connection with the rapes and murders of four U.S. churchwomen by five National Guardsmen in 1980.

García, the former minister of defense, was tried with Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, the former director of the National Guard, under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows victims or their families to sue those who bear “command responsibility” for acts of their subordinates.

While the jury concluded the two generals, now living in retirement in Florida, were not responsible for the women’s murders, the pair face another suit filed by four Salvadoran exiles who were also kidnapped and tortured by troops under the generals’ command.

A U.N. Truth Commission Report on El Salvador concluded in 1993 that the two generals knew of the women’s murders and organized a cover-up. Other documents introduced at the trial showed that U.S. envoys believed García was in fact in a position to end abuses by Salvadoran officers.

Records show that García took a counterinsurgency course at SOA before participating in the overthrow of another SOA graduate in 1979. During his term as defense minister, Salvadoran soldiers assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero, slaughtered 300 campesinos at Rio Sumpul and more than 800 men, women and children at El Mozote.

While Vides Casanova is not a graduate, the school invited him to be a guest speaker in 1985 -- more than four years after the churchwomen were murdered and a year after a “CBS Evening News” report linked him to the cover-up.

Montesinos, Contreras, Garcia, and Vides Casanova are four fresh reasons Caldera would like people to ignore the past.

But the movement to close the school seems destined to grow.

“There’s just been no accountability, no justice. They simply downplay what these graduates have done,” says Fr. Roy Bourgeois, who has organized the SOA protests for the last 10 years.

“There’s been so much suffering and pain and death connected to this school and its graduates. Thousands of people continue to grieve for their loved ones. That has not ended. It’s not the past.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 17, 2000