Villanova students travel far in search for truth

Oscar Chicas

On March 24th 1980, members of the roving El Salvadoran Death Squads, not uncommon during that time in the developing Latin-American country, assassinated the well-known Archbishop of San Salvador, Msgr. Oscar Romero. He was gunned-down during Mass, while delivering a sermon. What you don’t hear about is that at least two of his four assassins received training from our very own U.S. Army. Their training was received at the School of the Americas (SOA), now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).

The weekend of November 19-21, nine students and one professor from Villanova’s College of Arts and Sciences endured a seventeen-hour bus trip to participate in the annual movement to close the SOA/WHINSEC. The complex is housed at Fort Benning, adjacent to the town of Columbia, near the Alabama border in western Georgia. They joined upwards of 20,000 people from all over the country and the world in protest against the controversial school, as well as violent warfare in general. In accordance with the antagonism toward violence, demonstrations were peaceful and leaders at the movement were diligent to encourage the use of passive yet creative resistance.

Proponents of the school insist it is necessary to provide for the safety of ordinary citizens in countries of the western hemisphere. According to the US Army website, the mission of the school is, “to educate and train military, police and civilians within the context of the democratic principles set forth in the Charter of the Organization of the American States.” The school has historically been a vital though little known part of our government’s foreign policy, especially as a bargaining chip in the distribution of foreign aid. Since its inception in 1946, approximately 60,000 military officers from various countries in North and South America have participated in training courses, taught in Spanish, and ranging in topics from counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, guerilla or psychological warfare, military intelligence, and interrogation tactics. Notable former students include dictators Manuel Noriega of Panama, Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru, and Guillermo Rodriguez of Ecuador.

“Regardless of whether the SOA/WHINSEC can be proven to teach torture tactics,” noted Amy Knop-Narbutis `08. “Its graduates demonstrate a shocking disregard for human life and dignity.”

On Sunday demonstrators took part in a mock-funeral procession, marching up and down the road leading to Fort Benning, all the while raising white crosses and chanting, “présénté,” to the mention of each name in a long litany of people allegedly murdered by former SOA/WHINSEC students. Upon arriving at the gates, crosses were perched upon them in a powerful manifestation of countless victims ordinarily rendered invisible. Alleged victims ranged in age from two days, to over ninety years of age, and in nationality from all over the world, especially Latin America. Gray skies contributed to the somber mood of the day.

According the Center for International Policy, the actual operating budget of WHINSEC is around ten million dollars, when both the school budget and the military salaries of instructors are factored in. Though it is only a small fraction of the military budget, which itself is hard to pin down, the fact remains that via WHINSEC, our country is spending money training Latin-American leaders to essentially wage warfare on their own respective countries, in the name of Democracy and Human Rights. Thousands of its graduates have been responsible for some of the worst humanitarian crises in the past fifty years, but the school has largely been untouched by mainstream media, and overlooked or perhaps even accepted by Congress.

“I think it’s shameful that our country, which in many ways, has set the standard for human rights, uses our resources to perpetuate torture and human rights violations,” said Jason Brown `06. “It’s even more shameful that the American people at large don’t know anything about the SOA/WHINSEC or what happens there.”

Other events included briefings, workshops, and a concert all hosted at the local convention center. One briefing brought the encouraging news that Hugo Chavez has ended Venezuelan involvement at the school, pulling out students who are Venezuelan citizens as well as any political or financial support. Throughout the week demonstrators had lined the road with kiosks and tables sponsored by various groups, many of them faith-based such as the Mary Knoll Sisters, Call to Action, Witness for Peace, in addition to the host group SOA Watch and numerous other grassroots organizations in favor of closing the school and against warfare in general. The success of the annual movement has had real results: political pressure from protesters in fact caused the SOA to shut down in 2000 – though only to be reopened in 2001 as WHINSEC.

“Walking through the road leading up to the gates,” remarked Caitlin Sheehy `06. “I observed different people from all over the country and the world and understood that they too were committed to ending the violence and torture perpetuated by the SOA.”

The Villanova delegation was fortunate to have caught a ride with students from nearby St. Joseph’s University – who themselves would meet up with other Jesuit groups from colleges and high schools across the country, in remembrance of such Jesuit victims as Romero, and six other Jesuit priests whose deaths inspired the annual movement. The Jesuit communities gathered in a large tent close to the convention center and hosted various events advocating peace, including a mass on Saturday evening attended by over 3,000 people, according to event organizers.

Diane Coffey `06, was uplifted by the weekend’s events. “The total of 32 hours on a bus were well worth it to join with others who traveled such long distances to rally around a common cause. I think SOA Watch did a fantastic job engaging so many different groups – students, religious, veterans, victims, and others, all while providing a compelling message about why the SOA/WHINSEC must close.”