Columbus, Ga. “I call cocaine a weapon of mass destruction,” said Col. Gilberto Perez, Commandant of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), and “terrorists are everywhere.” The Cuban immigrant and career military officer was one of three speakers at a public information forum November 2 in Columbus, Georgia. Using a Power Point outline, he explained the chain of command and official mission of the notorious counter-insurgency training school, once officially known as the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA). WHINSEC’s training includes a Counter Narco-Terrorism Info Analyst Course and a Counterdrug Operations Course.
Col. Perez, who was appointed WHINSEC Commandant in 2004, opened his remarks stating, “The SOA no longer exists.” Despite documented human rights abuses, which include massacres and assassinations by SOA-trained soldiers, and ignoring the Pentagon admission of torture-training manuals used at the Army school, Perez staunchly asserted “There were no abuses. We have never taught torture. We have never taught overthrow of legitimate governments. There is no correction to be made.”
Countering the colonel, SOA Watch founder Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest and Viet Nam veteran, talked of his recent travels in Central America where he met with heads of state in various countries and with torture survivors from decades of US-funded repression. The people of Central America have not forgotten the long history of violence traced to SOA graduates, Bourgeois said. “They want the truth. â€¦ When the name change came the Pentagon said ‘we’re putting this behind us,’ â€¦ but there was no acknowledgment of wrongdoing. There can never be healing and reconciliation until the truth comes out.”
“I offer no apologies or acknowledgment of wrongdoing,” Perez responded. He invited the public to tour the school, but warned that political speech or “manifestations” were prohibited on base. Since 1990, more than 270 SOA Watch activists have collectively spent over 100 years in prison for a misdemeanor trespass conviction as a result of civil disobedience at Fort Benning.
“My question is a basic one,” Bourgeois asserted. “Where is the transparency?” He held up a document received in response to a recent Freedom of Information Request for names of WHINSEC graduates. All the names in the multiple-page report were blacked out. “Why doesn’t WHINSEC want to give us the names of those trained there?”
SOA Watch organizers, and the 20,000 persons expected to gather Nov. 18-20 at Fort Benning for the annual vigil, demand acknowledgment of and accountability for the Human rights abuses traced to SOA-trained soldiers and police throughout the Institute’s sixty-year history. “The school as it is set up is an obstacle to Democracy,” Bourgeois said, “an obstacle to human rights and to change in Central America. WHINSEC “helps to keep the militaries of these countries entrenched. The three panelists responded to questions from among more than 150 listeners. The Amnesty International report Unmatched Power, Unmet Principles: The Human Rights Dimensions of US Training of Foreign Military and Police Forces, documents the secrecy and lack of oversight around US foreign military and police training. The document also states that the SOA name change does not absolve the US government for past human rights violations perpetuated by the SOA.
Adding a broader perspective to issue of militarism, torture and accountability, Judy Collins Cumbee of Lanett, Alabama, vice-president of the Alabama New South Coalition, followed the priest and the military commandant to the podium. Cumbee is co-chair and organizer of Living the Dream-Co-creating the Beloved Community of Humankind. She is organizing a week of non-violent education and action for Nov. 11-19 from Selma, Ala. to Fort Benning, Columbus, Ga., including participation from military veterans and veterans of the Civil Rights and various other peace and social justice movements.
“Relying on violence and wars as ways of resolving problems is obsolete, ” Cumbee said, alluding to Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize speech. “On the morning before he was killed King told Dr. Bernard Lafayette and others, ‘We must internationalize, institutionalize nonviolence.'” Cumbee insisted, “We’ve got to teach it, from the time children are knee-high through elementary, high school and college years.” She quoted Dr. King’s warning: “It is no longer a question of violence or nonviolence; it is nonviolence or nonexistence.”
Emphasizing King’s insistence on the necessity of speaking out “‘on the great issues of our time,'” for which the Living the Dream march and mass meetings will be a vehicle, Cumbee concluded, “we have to stand together as people who learn to affirm the dignity of each other. Dr. King pled, ‘Human beings were meant for life not death. They were created for each other, not against each other. We must end the cycle of violence in America and around the world. Let us take down the barriers that separate people . . . our one goal, the beloved community of humankind.'”
The November 2, 2006, public information forum in Columbus, Georgia, was sponsored by the Student Political Awareness Association of Columbus State University in collaboration with the Peace and Justice Group of the Chattahoochee Valley Episcopal Ministry and the Muscogee County Clergy Association. The forum was the first time Father Bourgeois, Col. Perez and Judy Collins Cumbee have met.
Hanrahan is an Asheville, NC writer and author of Conscience & Consequence: A Prison Memoir. She can be reached at [email protected]