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School of the Americas
Cold War training camp remains focus of controversy
By Bruce Kennedy
CNN Interactive

(CNN) -- The intruder waited in his hiding place for just the right moment -- soon after his targets had gone to bed. He then put his plan into operation.

Earlier that day in 1983, Vietnam veteran and priest Roy Bourgeois had walked unchallenged into Fort Benning, Georgia, wearing surplus military fatigues. He had climbed up a tree near a barracks used by Salvadoran soldiers training with the U.S. Army, waited until "lights out," then unleashed his guerrilla protest.

Bourgeois turned on his electronic "boom box" that blared into the night air a recording of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero calling on his nation's soldiers to stop killing their countrymen. Romero was later killed while conducting Mass in San Salvador. Of the three men accused in Romero's assassination, two were graduates of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas (SOA).

Bourgeois served 18 months in a federal prison for his actions. But his protest paved the way for larger demonstrations against what some people call the "School of Assassins" -- but what SOA supporters say is an important tool in helping spread democratic values to Washington's allies in Central America and South America.

The end of World War II and the start of the Cold War ignited new concerns in the United States that Communists would attempt to infiltrate and subvert the country's southern neighbors. The U.S. Army started its School of the Americas in Panama in 1946. In 1984, under the terms of the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty, the school was moved to Fort Benning.

More than 63,000 Central and South American soldiers from 22 nations have trained at SOA since its inception. According to the school's Web site, instruction at SOA for its first several decades "focused on nation-building skills, then [was] altered in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy to provide instruction necessary to the nations in Latin America to thwart armed communist insurgencies."

Opponents of the school, who maintain their own "School of the Americas Watch" Web site, claim SOA graduates "have been responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America."

Some of the more notorious individuals who have trained at SOA include:

Former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, now serving an extended sentence in a U.S. prison on drug charges.

El Salvador's Roberto D'Aubuisson, who formed the death squads that killed Romero and thousands of others during the Salvadoran civil war.

Former Argentine President Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, accused of making thousands of people "disappear" during Argentina's "dirty war" of the 1970s.

SOA officials said that out of thousands of soldiers the school has trained, only about 300 have been accused of human rights violations.

Joe Leuer, a training specialist for course management who has worked at SOA since the early 1990s, said the connections that critics make between the school and the crimes allegedly committed by its graduates are tenuous at best.

D'Aubuisson, for example, "took a radio operator's course in the early 1970s. People want to connect the dots and allege the school which taught him how to operate radios efficiently also taught him how to create death squads," Leuer said.

The school insisted it was not responsible for the actions of individuals who ignored its training, which has always included instruction on the basic rules of warfare as set out in the Geneva Convention.

The SOA controversy intensified when a 1992 report declassified by the Pentagon in 1996 revealed the details of a manual used at SOA in the 1980s that advocated tactics such as beatings, false imprisonment, execution and bounty payments for enemy dead.

Following the report, the SOA curriculum was expanded to include instruction on international humanitarian law, human rights and ethical use of force.

"The school has never taught torture and never will," SOA commandant Col. Glenn R. Weidner told a November 1998 news conference. "We still do military training, but this is not the torture training that Father Bourgeois would have you believe."

According to SOA's Web site, the curriculum in the late 1990s focused "on supporting the primary foreign policy goals of the United States in the region -- consolidation of the effective democratic governance, respect for the rule of law, and economic development along free market principles."

Opponents were not appeased. They wanted the school shut down. Some protests were loud, such as the ones staged every November 16 for the past 10 years outside the gates of the school. They commemorate the killings in El Salvador on that date in 1989 of six Jesuit priests, deaths to which some of the graduates of the school have been linked. Notable among the protesters in recent years has been actor Martin Sheen, star of the TV drama, "The West Wing."

Other opposition took the form of efforts in Congress to cut the budget of the school. Finally, in October 2000, Congress voted to close the school in December and reopen it in January 2001 under a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Army officials hope that changing the school's name and making sure its curriculum stresses civilian control of the military and respect for human rights will blunt some of the criticism.

The new school will offer courses in such topics as anti-drug operations, disaster relief and peace support -- not just to military personnel but also to law enforcement officials and civilians.

Although the new law directs the school to comply with the "democratic principles" of the Organization of American States, opponents of the school have said the changes will only be cosmetic. They vow to continue protests.

"We see this as cosmetic," Bourgeois, a co-founder of School of the Americas Watch, said in November 2000. "It's like taking a bottle of poison and writing 'penicillin' on it."

A recent statement on the Web site of School of the Americas Watch calls on Americans to let Congress and new administration "know that we are not fooled by this attempt to dissociate the SOA from its brutal history and from the violence that graduates continue to perpetrate on our sisters and brothers in Latin America."

But the school's defenders such as training specialist Joe Leuer say the training it provided was important in post-Cold War Central and South America.

"By looking at where our graduates are working now," Leuer said, "on peacekeeping missions, de-mining missions, creating transparent [military] budgets, putting their military under civilian rule for the first time ... that's democratization. If you're trying to market a product that nobody wants, no one is going to buy it."

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