Four people were arrested for trespassing on the US Army’s Fort Benning base in Columbus, Georgia, on Nov. 22 as thousands marched through pouring rain in an annual protest against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly the US Army School of the Americas (SOA). The school trains Latin American soldiers; SOA Watch, which sponsors the protests, says SOA graduates are among the region’s most notorious human rights violators. Organizers didn’t give a crowd estimate this year, but Columbus police said there were 4,732 protesters at 10 am, down from 7,497 at the same time in 2008. The largest demonstration to date was in 2006, when SOA Watch reported 22,000 participants; 286 activists have served up to two years in prison for civil disobedience at the base since the protests began in 1990.
This year marked the 20th anniversary of the Nov. 16, 1989 murder of six Jesuits, along with their housekeeper and her teenage daughter, at the University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador. SOA graduates have been held responsible for the murders; activists started the Fort Benning protests a year later to highlight the connection. This year’s participants included Colombian human rights defenders and Bertha Oliva, coordinator of the Committee of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees in Honduras (COFADEH). According to SOA Watch, two of the leaders of the June 28 coup d’état in Honduras, Armed Forces head Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez and Air Force head Gen. Luis Prince Suazo, received training at the SOA.
At this year’s protest, John Meyer of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) announced that his organization was nominating SOA Watch and its founder, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, for the Nobel peace prize; the AFSC was one of two Quaker organizations that won the prize in 1947 for their humanitarian work. (SOA Watch press release, Nov. 22; EFE, Nov. 22; Ledger-Enquirer, Columbus, Nov. 22)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 24
See our last posts on the WHINSEC/SOA and the struggle in Central America.