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Protest demands 'Close the SOA'

By Beto Soto |
November 30, 2009
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Speakers denouncing Plan Colombia at the School of the Americas.
Thousands marched to close down the School of the Americas, November 21 and 22 in Ft. Benning, Georgia.

With chants of “The people, united, will never be defeated!” and “Close the SOA!” thousands marched here Nov. 21-22. Students, clergy and Latin America solidarity activists demand the immediate closing of School of the Americas (SOA), now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The SOA is a U.S. military school for torture, disappearances and assassinations.

For over 60 years, the SOA has trained more than 60,000 Latin American military officers, soldiers and policemen. The SOA is responsible for many human rights violations, including several genocides and military-led overthrows of democratically elected governments.

According to the independent human rights organization, School of the Americas Watch, the military graduates of this institute are responsible for thousands of deaths. This includes the infamous massacre of nearly 1000 peasant farmers, clergy and community members in El Mazote, El Salvador, on Dec. 11, 1981. Then in 1988, nine Colombian SOA graduates were implicated for a massacre in the village of Segovia. On that day 43 Colombian villagers, children and peasant farmers were killed by hand-grenades and rifle fire from three truckloads of paramilitary death squads aided and abetted by the Colombian military.

As the Colombia Action Network states, “Colombia sends more soldiers to the SOA than any other country in Latin America. Colombia also has the highest number of human rights abuses. The Pentagon directs the Colombian military and their training at SOA, and gives the nod to their death squads. Colombia’s former top general, Mario Montoya trained and instructed others at the SOA. Montoya, along with two other Colombian generals and 24 military officers were forced to resign in 2008 due to the ‘false positives’ scandal - they ‘hired’ unemployed men in the cities, shot them dead in rural areas and then dressed them in FARC uniforms to claim success against the revolutionaries. We say, ‘Close the SOA!’”

The SOA protest brought participants from all over America, including people from Alaska, Minnesota and many other states. Amongst them were students, clergy, veterans, farm-workers, steel workers and other types of workers. One student participant from the University of Florida, the president of UF Amnesty International, Emily Flynn, said that she had driven all the way to Georgia because, “I was really upset that my tax dollars are funding dictatorships in Latin America and a lot of people don’t know that this is happening. I just found out two years ago, and I wish we had more mainstream [media] attention.”

The week of action ended on Sunday, Nov. 22 with a river of thousands of people marching to the gates of this deadly training school. The protesters carried crosses with names of those murdered by graduates of this institute. Some of the crosses commemorated Maria Isabel Salinas, a victim from Argentina, the beloved Salvadorian Archbishop Oscar Romero as well the four U.S. churchwomen killed in El Salvador in 1980. The victims’ ages range from a baby girl of three to a 63-year-old man.

Four veteran human rights defenders, Nancy Gwin of Syracuse, New York, Ken Hayes of Austin, Texas, Father Louis Vitale of Oakland, California, and Michael Walli of Washington, D.C. crossed into Fort Benning to engage in civil disobedience.

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