Priest educates about SOA's consequences
By MEGHANNE DOWNES
Four U.S. church women raped and murdered. Six Jesuit priests assassinated. Nine hundred civilians massacred. The events are linked because perpetrators of these crimes attended the U.S. government funded School of the Americas (SOA).
On Friday Father Roy Bourgeois visited Notre Dame and spoke to students about the history of the U.S. foreign policy with Latin America and its direct ties to the SOA.
SOA was established during the Cold War to teach Latin American soldiers so that the United States could secure Latin America as an ally. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the school has reshaped its focus to spreading the principles of democracy in Latin America, and annually it trains 1200 soldiers a year.
Four million dollars from the annual federal budget is used to operate this school.
Bourgeois took an opposing view and said that instead of establishing democracy, the United States has allowed for the people of Latin America to be oppressed by its military.
Colombia has the most SOA graduates in its military with at least 10,000. These graduates have been linked to countless assassinations, kidnappings, and paramilitary groups. Recently, a paramilitary group in Colombia was added to the U.S.'s terrorist watch list.
"How do you teach democracy through the barrel of a gun?" said Bourgeois.
In 1990, Bourgeois founded the SOA Watch in Fort Benning, Georgia to educate the U.S. public and congressional leaders about the residual consequences of U.S. training of Latin American soldiers. The group has now grown to have over 200 satellite offices across the nation.
The work of its members has brought this issue to national awareness. Several newspapers and news magazines have called for the school's closure.
An investigative report by the Washington Post uncovered that the school provided instructional manuals on torture to its participants. The school no longer provides such manuals.
The watch is focused on the political and economic state of Colombia as a result of the United States' foreign policy. Currently the U.S. authorizes 1.3 billion dollars towards dismantling the Colombian drug world. The elite, government, and military are seeing the benefits of this funding, while the working poor face dying agricultural crops due to the chemicals used to kill the cocoa leaves.
Traditionally those who speak out on behalf of the working poor's rights are met with strict opposition from the military and government and violence ensues.
Hundreds of national and liturgical organizations have passed resolutions supporting the efforts of the SOA Watch, including about half of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Most of the bishops who have not taken a stance on the issue state that they need to investigate the matter further, according to Bourgeois.
"I feel as though they [the bishops] do not have the courage to speak out and they need to step down," said Bourgeois.
The watch had been in the national spotlight earlier this year when twenty four of about the 3000 who walked passed the gate of Fort Benning at last year's non-violent protest were sent to prison and given sentences ranging from one month to a year.
These protestors are active within the watch from prison by writing letters and conducting several national news interviews.
Each spring, the group goes to Washington to lobby for the closure of the school and other related issues. Several congressional members who once opposed shutting down the SOA have now changed their minds due to the overflow of letters from their constituents. Two years ago the House voted to stop the funding for the SOA, but this bill was defeated in a Senate committee.
Last January, Congress voted to change the name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Operation, but Bourgeois commented that this was only a name change not an ideology change.
Currently, House Resolution 1810 calls for the closing of the school, but in light of the September 11attacks, Bourgeois commented that it is difficult to get the attention of the Congressional leaders.
The September 11 attacks have affected the SOA Watch's annual non-violent protest in November outside of the Army base in Fort Benning.
Bourgeois said that now more than ever the public has to work towards ending violence and terrorism. With this in mind, over 10,000 participants will come together at Fort Benning on November 16 – 18, including a delegation from Notre Dame.
The format of this year's protest will change slightly due to the heightened state of security at military bases. It will include teach-ins, masses, speakers, and vigils.
This year the non-violent protest will not be able to be held outside the gates of the fort, instead it will take place at Benning Park, and the solemn funeral procession remembering the victims of violence in Latin America will not be able to cross the gates of the army base.
"As people of faith, we are called to be healers and peacemakers. There is no clear-cut road to peace. It's made by walking. Now more than ever we must walk that road to peace," said Bourgeois.
Contact Meghanne Downes at
All News Stories for Monday, November 5, 2001