Pax Christi members will make third cross-country trip to fight U.S. Army program
By MYRA McGRIFF
This afternoon, dozens of Notre Dame and Saint Mary's students will pile into vans for a 780-mile ride down to Columbus, Ga.
When they arrive, they will join thousands of other protesters from across the country in a two-day prayer vigil to denounce the School of the Americas [SOA], a U. S. Army program at Fort Benning which has been accused of teaching Latin American officers the arts of torture and human rights abuse in the name of democracy.
This is the third year that students from the two schools have gone to the vigil. Twenty-four made the trip last year and nine the year before. Last year, 12,000 people participated in this peaceful demonstration; this weekend even more are expected.
"It's amazing, the diversity of people who are there," said Sheila McCarthy, a Pax Christi Notre Dame member who went last year. "You've got priests, nuns, punk high school kids, Catholic Workers, anarchists ... It's just an amazing variety of people who come out and say we should not pay our tax dollars to support this."
The SOA was founded in 1946 in Panama to spread democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere. In 1984 it was moved to Fort Benning, on the border of Alabama and Georgia. From its beginning, the school has taught Latin American soldiers about United States military techniques and discipline, and, as outlined on its website, the SOA provides — cost effecting training in democratic values and human rights.
But its critics are many. An organization called School of the Americas Watch was founded in 1990 to get the school shut down, decrying the fact that many of its 60,000 graduates have achieved international notoriety for human rights abuses.
One graduate is former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, now serving a 40-year sentence for drug trafficking. Roberto D'Aubisson, a Salvadoran who is widely believed to have ordered the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and three of the five Salvadoran military officers who killed three American nuns and a lay social worker in 1980 were also graduates of the school.
This is what motivates the students traveling there this weekend.
"In 1980 graduates of the SOA killed 800 people, destroying the El Mozote village in El Salvador," said Maureen Capillo, a member of PeaceMakers at Saint Mary's. "We do not want our tax dollars to fund this school."
The vigil itself is a two-day event. Saturday there is a rally outside the base gates, with speakers and concerts protesting the SOA. Sunday is the "Vigil for Nonviolent Civil Disobedience" in which protesters march onto the base itself in a "funeral procession."
The procession is led by marchers bearing eight coffins, one each for six priests and their housekeepers assassinated in 1989 by El Salvadoran officers, many of whom were SOA graduates.
Behind the coffins are thousands of mourners, each carrying a white cross in memory of a victim. Many of these people will cross into the base, and thus risk arrest for trespassing.
"We cross the line to demand justice for all the victims that have died at the hands of the School of the Americas," senior Sarah Greeman said.
Other students want the protest to bring awareness to government policy.
Many see the United States playing a large part in perpetuating the wars in countries like Columbia, El Salvador, and Mexico. Outside of training Latin soldiers, some students voice concern with the United States exporting weapons into the hands of these Latin soldiers.
"I think there needs to be a revaluation of the U.S. foreign weapons policy," Capillo said.
Another goal of the vigil is to shut down the SOA. On this front, protesters have come close to success.
In 1996, Pentagon officials admitted that the SOA had used manuals on the use of fear, torture and truth serum in its classes. Last year, voting down several previous attempts, the House of Representatives approved a measure to cut $2 million from the SOA's budget. But the money was later restored.
This year, for the first time, the Notre Dame students making the trip will be sponsored by the Center for Social Concerns, the Institute for International Peace Studies and the Institute for Latino Studies and Campus Ministry.
All News Stories for Friday, November 17, 2000