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Bishop evades truths about SOA grads

Perhaps, to give the benefit of the doubt to the good bishop, we should go back over the record. Perhaps something had been missed.

Perhaps there really is something so noble about the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., that everyone should “feel good about” the place, as does Bishop Frances X. Roque of the military archdiocese (see story).

Maybe the 142 U.S. bishops and the 40 Latin American prelates who have openly joined a spreading campaign to close the school do not, as Roque said, have the full picture.

Maybe. But it seems highly unlikely.

For it is impossible to scrub the record, to expunge the torture and killing at the hands of SOA-trained thugs, to eliminate from history the testimonies of graduates, all of which portray the SOA as a training center for this hemisphere’s worst human rights abusers.

More than 60,000 soldiers from Latin America and the Caribbean have passed through the school since its inception in 1946, when its stated purpose was to train officers in an attempt to promote stability throughout the region.

While the stated mission may have remained the same over the years, the actual purpose changed dramatically. The school’s graduates became agents of instability and violence.

So many of the school’s graduates led revolts -- in Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Argentina, -- that SOA acquired the nickname la escuela de golpas (“the school for coups”).

In the mid-1980s, a new nickname came into vogue -- School for Assassins -- a reference to the number of SOA alumni who were turning up as leaders of death squads in various Central American countries. In 1996, the Pentagon finally admitted that Army intelligence manuals used from 1982 to 1991 at SOA contained training in techniques that included execution, torture and beatings.

According to a 1993 United Nations report on El Salvador’s brutal civil war, two SOA graduates were among three officers cited for the assassination of San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero; three SOA graduates were among those accused of the rapes and murders of four U.S. churchwomen; 10 SOA graduates were cited as officers who led the massacre of 900 civilians at El Mozote; and 19 SOA graduates were involved in the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.

Those horrifying, high-profile events, of course, were strung together by the daily siege against Salvadoran civilians, Catholic priests and nuns and catechists for years. The everyday terror was directed and maintained by the same folks, inspired by the same logic and informed by the same instruction under the watchful eyes, in the case of El Salvador, of U.S. advisers.

The more recent truth commission report on Guatemala supplies the same grim story line -- SOA graduates in leading positions in brutal regimes whose tactics of torture and murder resulted in the death or disappearance of 200,000 Guatemalans, mostly Mayan Indians.

The U.N. report characterized the three-decades of civil war, particularly the final 20 years, as genocidal.

Evidence abounds elsewhere. In Peru, three high-ranking military officers convicted earlier this decade of murdering students and a professor were SOA grads. In Colombia, more than 100 officers who were SOA grads were cited for war crimes by an international human rights tribunal.

Maybe the good bishop has an inside line, some evidence known only to those insiders at the school, that would clear the record and quiet the anguished cries for justice of the hundreds of thousands across Latin America who know the SOA only as torture and death.

Maybe. But it seems highly unlikely. So far he has been able only to mouth the public relations gibberish of those whose careers depend on the school.

The evidence is overwhelming that the school produced not a few, but far too many, bad apples. It is not, as Roque suggests, a good place with a benign purpose. For too long it has been a place that instructs in abuse of human rights, in military tactics that run deeply contrary to what America’s purpose should be.

Roque’s views on SOA constitute a bizarre fantasy that, in isolation, is easily ignored. But a Catholic bishop carrying the flag for SOA is an invaluable ally, a major counterweight to the growing movement, based largely in the religious community, for closing the school. In that context, his fantasy becomes a scandal.

National Catholic Reporter, October 8, 1999