In recent years, one of the largest civil society movements in the US has been the movement to close
the School of the Americas. Why? What is the connection between the school and the violence of today
in Latin America? Pablo Ruiz and Vera Leone explain that even if they succeed in closing the school,
there is plenty of work still ahead of them.
JESSE FREESTON, TRNN: In Part 1 we presented some of the history of the School of the Americas, a training center for Latin American soldiers and military leaders that is run by the US Pentagon out of Fort Benning, Georgia. But what has the school been up to in recent years? In December 2000 the Pentagon closed it down. But according to Vera Leone from School of the Americas Watch, an organization that seeks to monitor the school’s activities, the doors weren’t closed for very long.
VERA LEONE, SCHOOL OF THE AMERICAS WATCH: The School of the Americas, as it was named in 1946, closed in December 2000, and in January 2001, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation opened, which is a new name, but it’s the same institution. It’s the same professors, the same students, the same classes, the same facilities. And we’re seeing the same violence come out of this school, although since 2003 the Pentagon has classified the names of the graduates and the instructors of the school, so we are not able to track the human rights violations. But up until that point we were able to track and we were able to prove, yes, the soldiers are still committing human rights violations. These days, the most soldiers come from Colombia and Mexico, and also Chile. This is where you’ll find a lot of state repression and a lot of violence against their own people.
FREESTON: Currently it is the Colombian military that provides the school with most of its students. And in October of last year, Colombia was forced to fire 27 army officers, including four generals and three colonels, upon revelations that the military was murdering civilians and reporting them as dead rebels in order to reduce body counts. Eleven of the officers charged had been trained at the School of the Americas before the Pentagon began classifying names in 2003. One week later, the UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, concluded her fact-finding mission by announcing that the problem went deeper than a few bad officers.
Courtesy of CNN
NAVANETHEM PILLAY, UN HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: We are observing and keeping a record of the number of extrajudicial killings. And it does appear to be systematic and widespread, in my view.
FREESTON: The head of the army at that time, General Mario Montoya, had championed a policy whereby promotions were tied to body counts. He resigned four days after the UN announcement. General Montoya both studied and taught at the School of the Americas. While the Pentagon claims that the training of Colombian soldiers is part of the war on drugs, testimony from Joseph Blair, a former instructor at the School of the Americas, shows that far from waging a war on drugs during his time there, the school actually played an important role in the industry.
From “An Insider Speaks Out”
VOICE OF JOSEPH BLAIR, EX-INSTRUCTOR, SCHOOL OF THE AMERICAS: In the time I spent at the School of the Americas, it was common knowledge to army officers that it was the best place a Latin American officer could go to launder his drug money or launder any other money he misappropriated in his own country from illegal operations. I routinely took the Latin American army faculty members and their students to the two US banks on Fort Benning, where the School of the Americas is located. The Latin American military would routinely bring on average from $25,000 to $35,000 cash in their pockets. Clearly, the money was drug money.
FREESTON: Blair adds that the US military used the contact with foreign officers to push its own business.
BLAIR: The School of the Americas is set up to teach courses paid for by American foreign aid money connected with foreign military sales programs, military assistance programs where we in fact are in the business of selling military hardware to Latin America. And the United States continues to be the largest arms supplier in the world. It’s big business. All of Latin America is running around now with M16 rifles.
FREESTON: According to Pablo Ruiz, who came to Washington from his home in Santiago, Chile, to demand the school be shut down, Colombia isn’t the only country feeling the effects of the school’s doctrine.
PABLO RUIZ, SCHOOL OF THE AMERICAS WATCH (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Today in Chile, one of the groups that is most affected by state violence are the Mapuche people. Nevertheless, the response of the government isn’t to look for a way to give this original nation an option for resolving its demands; instead, the only way is repression. As we speak, there are more than a dozen Mapuche political prisoners in the south of Chile, and this is a scandal.
FREESTON: There has been consistent pressure from inside the US to close the School of the Americas, including an annual November protest in which thousands gather to read the names of those murdered or disappeared by the school’s graduates. And a select few cross onto the school’s property, whereupon they are detained and often handed lengthy prison sentences.
LEONE: I trespassed on Fort Benning during a protest in 2002, and in 2003 I spent six months in prison. And this was while I was a student organizer in North Carolina. And it was a very powerful experience to connect to the people who are targeted by state violence in the US, people who are in prison, incarcerated because of the war on drugs.
FREESTON: While many are optimistic that the school will be shut down, for members of the School of the Americas Watch, closing the school is just the beginning of their work.
LEONE: After we close the school, there’s a lot of work to do in having a truth commission for finding out all you can about the human rights abuses that came from this place and putting an end to impunity in places like Chile and Colombia and other places. There is another military training school, a police training school, in El Salvador called ILEA, the International Law Enforcement Academy. And once the SOA closes, this will be another way for the US to maintain its dominance over Latin America. And so that has to go also.
RUIZ: We hope to close the School of the Americas this year. If we succeed in doing so, we will celebrate, but we will continue working. We have ILEA in our sights. We know that the Chilean police are going to El Salvadaor to train. Not long ago, a photo appeared of the ILEA students, in a public square in San Salvador. Their faces were painted like they were soldiers. How is that possible? Are they police or are they soldiers? In other words, what is ILEA promoting? That the police act with the brutality of a soldier? This worries us. Right now, our focus is on the School of the Americas. We want to close it. We must close it. But in Latin America there are several US military bases. US soldiers are traveling to the countries themselves to teach. This is another thing that we have on our minds. In other words, the School of the Americas is a symbol, but after this we will continue to dig deeper so that, hopefully, the United States brings to an end all forms of military intervention in Latin America.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.