Columbus, GA - Over 16,000 people from across the Americas?including actors Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon?gathered this weekend outside the gates of Ft. Benning, Georgia in the most diverse demonstration yet of opposition to the School of the Americas (SOA), a combat-training school for Latin American soldiers. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, "disappeared," massacred, and forced into refuge by graduates of the SOA, renamed in 2001 the Western Hempishere Institute for Security Cooperation or WHINSEC.|
The gathering culminated today with a solemn "funeral" procession to the gates of Fort Benning led by actor Martin Sheen. As of 4 PM, at least 20 people had been arrested in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, many negotiating a 10-foot-high barbed-wire fence to enter the base. They took this action despite knowing they likely face 3-6 months in federal prison. Since protests against the SOA/WHINSEC began fourteen years ago, 170 people have served prison sentences of up to 2 years for civil disobedience.
"Prison will not deter us," said Elizabeth Nadeau, who was among those arrested today. "We will be here until we close the school and change the foreign policy that it represents." Nadeau, 27, is a student and member of the Steelworkers Union in Minneapolis, MN.
SOA/ WHINSEC graduates return to their countries to utilize their training domestically and are consistently cited for atrocities against their own people. New research introduced by SOA Watch earlier this year confirms that the school has continued to support known human rights abusers. Despite having been investigated by the United Nations for ordering the shooting of 16 indigenous peasants in El Salvador, a massacre recorded in the US State Department's Human Rights Record Country Reports, Col. Francisco del Cid Diaz returned to WHINSEC in 2003.
"Like many of its graduates, this school continues to operate with impunity," said Carlos Mauricio, torture survivor, plaintiff in a successful lawsuit against two Salvadoran Generals living in the US and a featured speaker this weekend. "Shutting down the SOA once and for all would send a strong human rights message to Latin America and the world."
Thousands of college students, labor unions, faith-based communities, torture survivors, immigrant organizations and numerous human rights groups gathered together to make this weekend's demonstration the largest and most diverse yet for SOA Watch, which has held a vigil at the gates of Fort Benning every November since 1990.