I believe that all of life is much like a ballet. Special moments and special people move in and out of life giving it movement and grace. Lights and shadows are made to take center stage as the dance goes on. One of those special moments in my life was a four-year missionary stay in Chiapas, Mexico. Without a doubt, those years formed a strong basis for my convictions regarding the School of the Americas.
Although my Mexican venture served as a foundation, the experience of traveling to Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, in August 1996 was the spark plug that engendered the energy to become interested in this particular issue. On that particular day, 400 nuns from across the United States came to the entrance of the army military base to conduct a prayer service, asking for the close of the SOA and pledging to continue to bring the institution and its program to light. It was during this time of prayer, and upon seeing the conviction of all those gathered there, that I decided it was important to also become involved.
From that moment, I began climbing the ladder of Martin Luther King Jr.'s four steps of civil disobedience: collection of the facts to see if injustice exists, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. For the next several months, I tried to learn all I could about the SOA; its antithesis, the School of the Americas Watch; and the situation in Latin American countries.
I learned that the SOA was established in Panama in 1946 as the Latin American Training Center--Ground Division. It was quickly dubbed the "School of the Assassins" and was removed from Panama in 1984 to comply with the terms of the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty and relocated to Fort Benning. The curriculum includes thirty-three courses. Students are nominated by their own nations. And tuition is funded, at least in part, by U.S. taxpayers.
Over its fifty-plus years, the SOA has trained over 60,000 soldiers, police, and government personnel, mostly from Latin America. According to its website, the mission of the school is "to provide doctrinally sound, relevant military training and education to the nations of Latin America; promote democratic values and respect for human rights; and to foster cooperation among the multinational military forces." In 1961 President John F. Kennedy altered the original mission so that the SOA was "to provide instruction necessary to the nations in Latin America to thwart armed Communist insurgencies." In 1989, "when the guerrilla thrust subsided due to the collapse of the former Soviet Union," the curriculum shifted to focus on supporting the primary foreign-policy goals of the United States in the region.
SOA Watch took a different view of what the school was truly about. Founded by activist Father Roy Bourgeois in 1990, SOA Watch has been leading the struggle to close the school. His first up-front and personal involvement with the military began as a naval officer in Vietnam. He later became even more intimately involved in U.S. foreign policy as a Maryknoll missionary to Bolivia. It was his work there with political prisoners and their families that eventually led to his arrest and expulsion under threat of death in 1977.
Bourgeois first focused on the SOA in 1989 after the murder of six Jesuit priests and two female co-workers in El Salvador. A United Nations commission later found that nineteen of the twenty-six people participating in the attack were SOA graduates. Three Salvadoran graduates were also convicted in the 1980 rape and murder of four American churchwomen: three nuns and a laywoman. Graduates have been tied to human rights abuses in Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and other Caribbean countries.
SOA Watch and other proponents of closing the SOA continued to express fear and belief that the army-run school was training students in torture. This allegation was repeatedly denied by school personnel. SOA Watch claimed that the school trained its students in "low-intensity" counterinsurgency techniques. …