Bourgeois: School of the Americas trains criminals
"Those who have a voice should speak for the voiceless; and I hope that we will speak clearly and boldly," said Father Roy Bour-geois, a human rights activist and leader of the School of Americas Watch.
The well-attended presentation in the Hesburgh Library Auditorium last night was part of a larger effort to educate people about social justice and human rights violations, specifically those of the United States government through the School of the Americas (SOA).
SOA is a U.S. government program run at Fort Benning, Ga., which claims to educate young men from poor Latin American countries about democracy. However, as Bourgeois said, "Soldiers come to learn to be commandos, to practice psychological warfare, and counter-insurgency tactics."
Many SOA graduates have become dictators, drug-runners, or agents of dictatorial governments upon leaving the school, said Bourgeois.
According to Bourgeois, graduates of SOA have had a hand in nearly all human rights violations in Latin America in the recent past. These reports included the assassination of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador, the murder of four religious women, two of whom were friends of Bourgeois, the killing of six Jesuit priests, their maid and her daughter in San Salvador and the mass homicide of a Mayan community in Latin America.
Placing emphasis on the need to follow higher laws of "conscience, love and the law of God," Bourgeois encouraged the attendees to help make others aware of the atrocities and injustice of SOA. Following these laws of conscience, however, have landed him in jail for several stints, totaling up to four years served. He said he sees this as a necessary evil, but he said, "I was angry to go to prison for acts of nonviolence, while killers get amnesty."
Perhaps the most intriguing crime for which he was sentenced was his first charge of criminal trespassing and impersonating an officer. Bourgeois and several fellow activists dressed as officers and entered Fort Benning, carrying a loud stereo. In the tape player was a cassette of Archbishop Romero's last speech, given the day before he died, which called for a stop to the killing in El Salvador and beseeched the commandos working for the dictators and drug runners of the country to follow the higher command of God, rather than the commands of their superiors.
The group was saluted as it entered and the members proceeded to climb a tree outside the base and played the speech, which angered the officers at the base and resulted in their quick removal and arrest.
His most recent stint in prison, another trespassing charge, occurred after he "crossed the line" at the annual protest at Fort Benning two years ago. The protest, which will see its 10th anniversary this year, is a gathering of people outside the walls of the base who demand the closing of the school. Among the activities is a march onto the base by protesters as an act of civil disobedience.
Line-crossers are sometimes arrested and jailed for six months. Last year 2,319 people crossed, overwhelming the base personnel and forcing a mass release of all the protesters. Bourgeois hopes to lead 5000 people across at this year's protest on Nov. 21.
A faction from the Notre Dame community, led by Pax Christi, plans to attend this year's protest.
Also highlighted in his lecture was the story of his work as a missionary in Bolivia, where he first learned of the U.S. government's injustice and its bolstering of dictatorial regimes in Latin America. He talked of his work with the poor communities in La Paz, Bolivia and the "cruel theology" used to oppress them.
"The poor were taught to accept suffering as God's will, and to wait until the next life for redemption. It was a theology that made the rich richer and kept the poor and oppressed, willing to accept the will of the small, elite group ruling the country," said Bourgeois.
But, according to Bourgeois, the poor eventually learned that they were victims of "irresponsible stewardship of God's creation" rather than victims of an angry God's will.
His work in La Paz inspired him to look at the actions of the U.S. government in Latin America to find the cause of some of the tyranny and suffering. He found SOA to be a midwife of some of this oppression.
Bourgeois has spent the greater part of the last ten years working to spread the word about SOA.
"We knew if people understood what this issue was really about, people would respond," he said.
He and other members of SOA Watch organize protests, write letters to Congress, distribute newsletters and rally others to join their cause. SOA Watch has seen recent success, as Bourgeois was quick to point out that a bill has passed the U.S. House to cut some of the funding for the program. The group also the support of many other organizations, including the 13 million union members of the AFL-CIO.
Encouraging all at the lecture to attend the protest in November, Bourgeois called the protest "A celebration of hope and joy," and an opportunity "to gather to speak for the silenced."
All News Stories for Wednesday, September 8, 1999