School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) was founded by Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois in 1990 to protest the U.S. Army’s training of mainly Latin American military officers at the School of the Americas (SOA), which is located at the Fort Benning military base in Columbus, Georgia. (In 2000, Congress changed SOA’s official name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, though it is still more commonly known as SOA.) SOAW’s offices are located across the street from Fort Benning.
SOAW describes SOA as “a combat training school for Latin American soldiers” that “has left a trail of blood and suffering in every country where its graduates have returned.” For this reason, SOAW derisively refers to the institution as the “School of Assassins.” Says SOAW:
“[T]he SOA has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, ‘disappeared,’ massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins.”
In actuality, SOAW has been able to identify only a few dozen SOA graduates (fewer than 1 percent of the more than 60,000) who have been implicated in human rights abuses. Moreover, there is no evidence that their misdeeds were the result of any instruction they received at SOA. In fact, the school includes democracy promotion and human rights protection in its curricula.
According to SOAW, in September 1996 the Pentagon, “under intense public pressure,” was “forced to release training manuals that were used at the School of the Americas for years.” “These manuals,” says SOAW, “advocated torture, extortion, blackmail and the targeting of civilian populations…. The release of these manuals proved … that U.S. taxpayer money had been used for the teaching of torture and repression…. More than a thousand of these manuals were distributed for use in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru, and at the School of the Americas between 1987 and 1991.”
But in fact the manuals in question were old publications, left over from the 1960s, which had been available at SOA only briefly. In the roughly 1,100 pages that constituted the manuals, only about two dozen mostly ambiguous phrases were deemed offensive. One phrase suggested that a drunken insurgent is more likely to talk. Another mentioned the possibility of using hypnotism or a “truth serum” to obtain information from prisoners. Still another spoke about mailing threatening anonymous letters to insurgents. Threats to arrest relatives were also cited as a form of potential intimidation. The closest thing to an endorsement of torture was a phrase that referred vaguely to “information obtained involuntarily from insurgents who have been captured.” More typical in the manuals were warnings that an interrogator should not: “be rude or impolite … make fun of the interrogee … lose his temper … use profane language …[or] argue.” Bending over backwards to mollify critics like SOAW, the U.S. Army recalled the manuals in 1991.
Each November, SOAW holds a protest rally at Fort Benning to mark the anniversary of a 1989 incident in which some SOA graduates in El Salvador murdered six Jesuit priests as well as their housekeeper and her daughter. At this annual event, whose 2007 edition drew some 19,000 participants, demonstrators typically cut the gate locks and trespass onto Fort Benning. Among the notable figures who have participated in these November protests are Medea Benjamin (co-founder of Code Pink, Global Exchange, and Iraq Occupation Watch) and Kathy Kelly (Director of Voices in the Wilderness).
SOAW is a member organization of the United for Peace and Justice anti-war coalition.