Thousands will descend upon Fort Benning this weekend to demand the closure of the School of Americas/ WHINSEC. The vigil will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1989 SOA graduate-led Jesuit massacre in San Salvador, and the many other thousands of victims of SOA violence.
Over its 63 years, the SOA/WHINSEC has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counter-insurgency techniques, sniper skills, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. The military coup led by SOA graduates in Honduras on June 28, 2009, has once again exposed the destabilizing and deadly effects that the School of the Americas has had on Latin America.
The June 28th coup in Honduras against the democratically-elected President Zelaya was carried out by SOA graduates General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the head of the of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Honduran military, and General Luis Prince Suazo, the head of the Air Force. The leadership of SOA graduates in the coup follows a pattern of anti-democratic actions by graduates of the SOA (renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, WHINSEC). The Pentagon claim -- that the institute instills respect for democracy and civilian leadership while teaching combat skills to Latin American soldiers -- has once again been disproved by the actions of the institute's graduates.
Vásquez studied in the SOA at least twice: once in 1976 and again in 1984. The head of the Honduran Air Force, General Luis Javier Prince Suazo, studied in the School of the Americas in 1996. The Air Force has been a central protagonist in the Honduran coup and arranged to have President Zelaya flown into exile in Costa Rica.
Vásquez and Suazo are not the only SOA graduate linked to the current coup or employed by the de facto government. Others include: General Nelson Willy Mejía Mejía, Director of Immigration, who is also a former SOA instructor and has faced charges in connection with the notorious death squad, Battalion 3-16, for which he served as an intelligence officer; Col. Herberth Bayardo Inestroza Membreño, the Honduran army's top lawyer who has acknowledged that flying Zelaya into exile was a crime; Lt. Col. Ramiro Archaga Paz, the army's Director of Public Relations; and Col. Jorge Rodas Gamero, a two-time SOA graduate, who is the Minister of Security (a post he also held in Zelaya's government).
Four months of military rule have led to massive human rights violations, as documented by a fact-finding delegation led by the National Lawyers Guild and three other organizations in late August 2009. The mission received reports of deaths due to excessive and disproportionate use of force by the National Police, the military, and COBRA special forces against those who expressed opposition to the coup d'état, including the use of live bullets against protesters. These violations were often committed against the most historically vulnerable groups, including women, indigenous people, children, and Afro-Hondurans. The mission received reports of cruel and degrading treatment including sexual assault and rape against women exercising their right to expression and peaceful dissent against the coup, and of the abusive treatment of minors, including arrests, arbitrary detention, and forced military recruitment amongst the poor in both rural and urban areas.
Additionally, the delegation noted cases of persecution, attacks, and intimidation against journalists and independent media, including Radio Globo, Radio Progreso and television channels 11 and 36.
Meanwhile, President Zelaya is still taking refuge in the Brazilian Embassy and a U.S.-brokered deal [the Tegucigalpa/San Jose Accords] to reinstate him by November 5th - in preparation for the Nov. 29th elections - has unraveled, because the Micheletti coup regime has no intentions of fulfilling its end of the bargain. With the quashing of free media, mass tear-gassing, beating and arrest of protesters, and absence of political space for opposition candidates to campaign or express dissenting political opinion, conditions for free, fair, and open elections are non-existent.
The SOA is continuing to train Honduran officers despite claims by the Obama administration that it cut military ties to Honduras. The Foreign Operations Appropriations Act requires that U.S. military aid and training be suspended when a country undergoes a military coup. However, WHINSEC has confirmed that Honduran officers are still being trained at the school.
Despite promising comments from President Obama during his 2008 election campaign, the SOA/ WHINSEC is still in operation. Too many have died and continue to suffer at the hands of the graduates of this notorious institution. It is time for the School of Americas to be shut down.
Father Roy Bourgeois is the Founder of School of Americas Watch; Bourgeois took part in a fact-finding mission to Honduras after the coup. Azadeh Shahshahani is an attorney based in Atlanta and National Lawyers Guild International Committee Co-Chair and Southern Regional Vice President. Shahshahani submits this piece in her personal capacity and not as an ACLU staff member.