Some ten thousand people descended on the School of the Americas (now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) headquarters in Fort Benning, Georgia this weekend to protest the U.S. military program that trains Latin American soldiers in combat, counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics. Frequently dubbed the “School of the Assassins” critics say the school’s graduates are responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America.
Between 35 and 45 people were arrested for trespassing after crossing onto fort property. The Army blared patriotic songs such as “The Army Song” and “God Bless the U.S.A.” from loudspeakers 50 yards away from where protesters were speaking to the large crowd. Organizers at School of the Americas Watch are planning to sue, accusing the Army of a “psychological operation.”
We hear speeches from Adriana Bartow who lost 6 members of her family in 1981 when Guatemalan security forces raided her house. Jennifer Harbury, whose husband Guatemalan rebel leader, Efrain Bamaca Velazquez was murdered by troops trained at the School of the Americas. Carlos Mauricio who successfully sued two former Salvadoran generals for human rights abuses in a Florida court. And Roy Bourgeois a Catholic priest, who started SOA Watch and the campaign against the School of the Americas. [Includes transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: As we move from one protest to another from the FTAA protests in Miami to the school of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, we were in Fort Benning this weekend as well, some 10,000 people descended on what used to be called the school of the Americas to protest the U.S. military program that trains Latin American forces in combat counterinsurgency and counter narcotics, frequently dubbed the School of Assassins. Critics say the school’s graduates are responsible for some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin America. Many people came to the protests to speak about their own personal experience. We’ll hear some of those speeches now, starting with Adriana Bartow who is with the Where are the Children campaign.
ADRIANA BARTOW : September 11, the Guatemalan security forces came to my father’s home and kidnapped him, my stepmother, one of my sisters and my baby sister and my two young daughters, 10 and 9 years of age at the moment of their disappearance. Two months earlier, they have had killed one of my brothers. Ignorant of what had happened at my brother’s home a couple of hours earlier, I came to his house only to be interrogated by a large group of men while another group was washing the floors. Very deeply my heart, i guess I always knew that there was a very, very little chance that my children have survived. Last year, I finally knew that they are gone, that they were killed by people trained at this school, by people who had been taught to torture, to kill innocent people. They are train by these men! I didn’t know at the time that those who commanded the operation and those who carried out had literally been at this school. One of them is even a member of the hall of fame of the School of the Americas.
In Guatemala, since I was a child, I always knew that the United States and the Guatemalan military and government shared add very, very, very intimate relationship. It was through my involvement with the movement to close the school of the Americas that I finally learned how intimate that relationship has been. That macabre relationship has produced in Guatemala 150,000 people killed, over 50,000 more disappeared, 11% of them children. It destroyed the economy and it destroyed the social fabric, the elements that keep people together.
In a time and in a place where challenges in opposing the foreign policies of the United States is considered to be unpatriotic, I salute you, I thank you, I admire you for having the courage to come here and say no more! No more killings, no more tortures, no more disappearances, no more School of Americas! [applause] You are the true patriots of this country. [cheering] because patriotism is not being willing to kill in the name of your country. Patriotism is being willing to tell the truth and to say no to death and yes to life. [cheering] Earlier, my daughter and I were walking on this side when a U.S. veteran for peace told us why are these people here? We’re playing one of those patriotic songs. And I said we don’t know his name. He said they’re playing “Johnny Come Marching Home.” But they are not saying is that Johnny came home without arms and legs. I will never forget his words. Because this is a man that has seen death very closely. This is a man who knows war because he was there. And today I have learned a lesson that even though they have been part or taken a part in war, can respect and take care of life. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Adriana Bartow, where are the children campaign 1981 as she described her children taken and interestingly, as you heard in the background, the music. that was coming from the base, the military had set up loud speakers to drown out the protesters and School of the Americas watched the organization that sponsored this event, threatened to sue because they were saying the state is trying to drown out freedom of speech. as Adrianna talked about her daughters being disappeared in Guatemala, the military was playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” You are listening to Democracy Now!
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Harbury, the Harvard-trained lawyer, was one of those who spoke.
JENNIFER HARBURY: Hello. I would like to speak today on behalf of my husband, Efrain Bamaca Velazquez or Comandante El Berardo, of Guatemala. Unfortunately, he is not here today to speak for himself because a few years ago, he was captured alive, tortured for two years, held in a full body cast, and then either thrown out of a helicopter or dismembered by between eight and 12 graduates of the School of the Americas.
I wish that I could say that this happened long ago and that we, therefore, don’t have to worry about it anymore. But, in fact, it happened during the Clinton administration. I wish that I could say every school has its bad apples and maybe Colonel Alpirez, who personally presided over one of the torture sessions was just a bad apple but between the eight and 12 persons that participated directly in his torture and his eventual execution, most of them were also on C.I.A. payroll as paid informants.
This school is not just a training center; it is where we pick up our death squad partners for the C.I.A. This is where we link, this is where all roads cross on the way to Rome.
I’d like to speak briefly about precisely what did happen to my El Berardo, but only in the sense that his case is symbolic of so many other cases. His case, unfortunately, is not an extraordinary case. It is not a shocking case. Throughout Latin America, it was an everyday occurrence. So, while I speak about what happened to him, I’d like you just to be thinking of the hundreds of thousands, millions, of the same people who suffered the same terror, the same torture, the same miserable deaths and who have unmarked graves also across Latin America. Because when we speak for one, we have to speak for all of them.
El Berardo was a Mayan peasant of Guatemala. He grew up starving to death quite literally. He learned to read and write in the mountains where he fought for 17 years. Ironically, he was captured alive by the Guatemalan army in 1992, the year that marked the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus, something that was not considered cause for celebration by the indigenous population of Guatemala. He was captured, but the army was very careful to carry out an international hoax saying that, in fact, he had not been captured alive, but had killed himself in combat to avoid capture and he was buried in a certain grave marked XX in a nearby town of Retetulello.
In fact, what they have had done is dragged an 18-year-old out of a military base, a young soldier, also a Mayan peasant who had been forcibly recruited. They then placed him in an olive green uniform that matched the URNG forces uniform and tied him by his ankles so tightly with his own socks that it etched a weaving pattern in his skin and kicked him in the skin until his cheekbones collapsed, strangled him, leaving a two-centimeter strangulation around the throat, shot him, stabbed him, and smashed his skull. That is the person that was buried in the grave at Retetulello as we later found out.
Meanwhile, they told all of us that El Berardo had died in combat and was buried in that grave. And, when we asked for the description, we got an identical description of my husband and not the young soldier who was, in fact, dead.
El Berardo was then subjected to nearly two years of torture. We know that he was battered severely. We know that he was injected with drugs again and again. We know that one of the people responsible for his torture sessions was Colonel Julio Roberto Alperez who studied here at the School of the Americas twice, a known C.I.A. asset, a paid informant, who was responsible in 1990 for the murder of U.S. citizen Michael Devine who, according to the C.I.A.'s own files, excelled in the liquidation campaign against the indigenous peoples in the Mayan highlands in the early 1980's, a counterinsurgency campaign that has been labeled genocide by the United Nations Truth Commission. We know that the other persons responsible for his torture were within the intelligence death squad called the Commando, responsible for the liquidation of civilian dissidence as well as insurgents within Guatemala. In other words, another death squad where the leadership of that death squad checked in with Uncle Sam in a high-rise building down the street from the U.S. embassy two to three times a week.
But actual torture session, did someone survive to escape from Guatemala and tell us about, involved having my husband stripped, strapped down to a hospital bed with a doctor standing by to make sure he didn’t accidentally die during his torture session, blindfolded him, injected him with a toxic substance that caused him to swell grotesquely and apparently one arm and leg to hemorrhage because they were heavily bandaged and left him raving. We know that he survived that session. I just want to give that as one example of what use our tax dollars are put to by people who graduate from this school and then continue to work as partners with the United States government.
We know that he survived that session and was kept alive for quite a bit longer because C.I.A. files showed that people became very frustrated when they wouldn’t tell him the truth and because he was so intelligent he almost managed to escape several times, forcing him to be held until a full body cast.
The files also show there were nearly 300 other prisoners who were alive and under the same horrible conditions that he was under and being clandestinely detained. The C.I.A. knew about all of this within six days of my husband’s capture and relayed that information to the Department of State and the U.S. embassy. I wasn’t told. Congress wasn’t told. In fact, congress was told in writing, including members of the intelligence oversight board for two years that is was no information. During the two years of hunger strikes, campaigns, O.A.S. cases, etc., etc., all 300 of those prisoners were murdered. They were either stuffed down wells, thrown out of helicopters, or beaten to death and buried under the military base.
Like I say, when we speak for one, please remember all of them from Chile northward to our borders, including the people right now that we need to be worrying about in the Middle East. Thank you very much. [cheering]
AMY GOODMAN: Jennifer Harbury, lawyer and human rights activist. Her husband, Efrain Bamaca Velazquez, was murdered by Salvadorian troops trained at the School of the Americas. Jennifer is a member of the Torture Abolition and Survivor’s Support Coalition, speaking this weekend at the mass protest at the School of the Americas where some 30 to 40 people were arrested.
Carlos Mauricio also spoke. He successfully sued two former Salvadorian generals for human rights abuses in a Florida court. He is a member of the Stop Immunity Project.
CARLOS MARICIO: I’m glad that I came. In 1983, I was captured by the Salvadorian army. In two weeks, I was horrible tortured, badly, badly beaten, and starved. The torturers, most probably, they got training in this School of Americas although I never saw their faces because I was blindfolded and handcuffed. But what I knew is that the top officers in the army, Colonel Cass Nova and colonel Garcia, they both have links to the School of Americas. So, when we found them living in Florida, we made a case against them [cheering] and we, three Salvadorians who survived the torture, Gonzales, Majosa and myself, we made a case against them and we accused them of being responsible for what happened to us.
Everybody knows that the Salvadorian soldiers trained in the United States, came back to San Salvador and carried out the worst of the worst atrocities in El Salvador. In Mosote, For example, after they killed 900 villagers there, and the average age of the children killed is 4 years old, after the soldier left, they wrote a message there in Mosote. It said “hell’s angels were here.”
Because we knew that Colonel Garcia and Colonel Cass Nova were responsible, we made a case against them. And in Florida, in West Palm Beach a year ago, a jury found them guilty. [cheering] And now — now they are paying $54 millions of dollars. The guys who never blink an eye to kill, now they cannot sleep because we are taking their money. Believe me, when I was in the court, I was not alone. When I accused them. When I said to them, you are responsible for what happened to me, I felt the voices of the names of the people in those crosses that you are carrying right now. Their voices, I felt them in my back. Those names on those crosses, they also support me. When I finger them and tell them, you are responsible, you are guilty, you are murderers, I felt those names behind me [applause] because our case is a land mark case. Now several cases have also been filled against military, against Salvadorian military here in the United States.
But also in other places of the world. A Chilean family broke a case against the Chilean military accusing him of being responsible for the killing of their brother, Juisto Cavello, in 1973. Again, a jury in Florida, not only find him responsible for the killing of Cavello, but also found this Chilean military guilty of crimes against humanity. [applause] When I came to the United States, I was given shelter by the people of the United States and support. Now I know that the people here, the young people here is going to support us in the fight against impunity. If we fight impunity, we are going to fight torture.
AMY GOODMAN: Carlos Mauricio successfully sued two Salvadorian generals in a Florida court where they’re living. He is a member of the Stop Immunity Project.
The founder of the School of the Americas Watch, who lives right outside the gate for many years, is Father Roy Bourgeois. Father Roy Bourgeois has been jailed numerous times. One of his first protests was taking a tape records on the base, put it in the trees where Salvadorian soldiers were being trained at what was then called the School of the Americas and he played the last speech of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, the last speech where he called on Salvadorian soldiers to put down their arms. Father Roy Bourgeois was sentenced to 18 months for broadcasting that speech. We’ll turn now to Father Roy Bourgeois addressing the thousands of the protests of the School of the Americas yesterday.
FATHER ROY BOURGEOIS: For all of us gathered here, this is a very sacred day. It is a sacred day because in a very special way, we’re remembering the thousands of our sisters and brothers of Latin America who have been killed by graduates of this school just down the road. We are here to speak for them. years ago, when our movement was beginning, we realized the importance of it being rooted in nonviolence. Early on, we drew on the experience and the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi, of Martin Luther King, of Rosa Parks, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez and others. Their way was going to be our way, the way of nonviolence. Yes, anger is a part of this struggle for peace and justice. How can we not be angry at the suffering and the death caused by graduates of this school?
AMY GOODMAN: Father Roy Bourgeois, the leader of the protests, calling for the closure of the School of the Americas. And that does it for today’s program.