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Closing Down The School Of Assassins

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Editor's Note: Ann Arbor artist and activist, Phyllis Ponveñ, recently participated in a week-long f ast and vigil on the steps of the Capítol Building in Washington, D.C. Ponveñ, and others f rom all over the country, were protesting the operation of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA). Critics claim the SOA is responsible for systematically training Latin American army officers in some very undemocratic ways ofsoldiering including advancedcombatskills, interrogaron techniques and psychological warfare. Protesters also point out that many of the school's graduates have been involved in some of the most horrific human rights violations in Latin America in recent memory. In El Salvador alone, war crimes committed by SOA graduates include the assassination ofArchbishop Romero and the murder of four U.S. nuns (1980), the massacre of hundreds of civilians at El Mozote (1981), and the murder of six Jesuit priests and two women (1989). SOA graduates from Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, and Peru have also been linked to death squads, drug trafficking, coup attempts, tortures, assassinations, murders and massacres. The following article is an edited version of a Journal kept by Ponvert from March 24March 30. lSBSEEkt n a chilly Friday morning in nSriifi late March, I step out of the i subway at Union Station in I Washington, D.C. IVeleftwinI ter behind in Michigan; outI side here the daffodils are in Hul, i JU f flower and the trees are begini pF ningtobud out. Withmy camera and backpack, I could be Just another tourist here to enjoy the museums and cherry blossom time. But I'm here for another reason. I pull on my scarf and hat and cross the street. After several long blocks, 1 arrive at the east steps of the U.S. Capítol building. U's almost 1 0 am and I can see tourists and school groups beginning to line up for a tour of the Capítol. There's another group gathering on the steps, unfoldlng banners and putting down cushions. For the next seven days I wlll be part of this group. Over 200 people from across the nation wlll be here each day from 1 0 am to 6 pm to hold a liquid-only fast and vlgll. We come together to focus attentlon on a shameful but little-known U.S. military institution: the U.S. Army School of the Americas In Fort Benning, Georgia. With our fast and by educatlng both our govemment and the public, we want to close down the School of the Americas. Formed In Panama In 1 946 and moved to the U.S. in 1984, the school, more accurately named by critics as the "School of the Assassins," has been responsible for the death and suffering of countless people in Latin America. Each year, hundreds of soldiers from Latin America ' tinue to hone their combat skills at the SOA and return home to repress their own people. Their targets are the poor, teachers, trade unionists, farmers and human rights workers; those who dare to speak out against their repressive, military-con - trolled govemments. They are kidnapped, tortured, some are decapitated, and found by the road in plastic bags or in clandestine graves. Most are never found. This year, 1 ,800 Latín American soldiers wlll come to the U.S. Army School of the Americas. Thelr training and all thelr expenses (includlng trips to Dlsneyland) wlll be pald for wlth our tax dollars. The founder of School of the Americas Watch and Maryknoll priest, Father Roy Bourgeois, recently served 16 months in Jail for trespassing on the base and pourIng blood on photos of SOA graduates In the school's maln hall. An energetlc and upbeat activist, he has set up the School of the Americas Watch office just outside the maln entrance of Fort Bennlng. The office does research on and educates the U.S. public about SOA training and lts lmpllcations on the poor of Latin America. I flnd a spot for myself on the steps and take off my pack. I can see Roy talklng to people. He Is dressed In jeans and an Irish fisherman's sweater. "The school should be closed," he says, "flrst because of the horrible cost In human lives to the people of Latln America and the Caribbean and second, because we don't thlnk U.S. taxpayers should be fundlng this type of official terrorism." Tour groups begin to pass by us as they walk up the Capítol steps. We hand out literature and talk to those who are lnterested. We flnd most people don't know about the SOA and some don't believe us. But almost everybody knows about Jennifer Harbury because the papers and televisión are full of her story. She is the American woman who has been pressuring the U.S. and Guatemalan governments for three years to teil her what happened to her husband, a Guatemalan rebel commander. Twelve days into her third hunger strike, this time in front of the White House, she has just learned that her husband was murdered on the orders of an officer in the Guatemalan army. Representative Robert Toricelli, Democrat from New Jersey and member of the House Intelligence Committee, has also disclosed that Colonel Julio Alpirez, the responsible officer, was in the pay of the CIA. Alpirez is a gradúate of the SOA. The day grows warm, and people begin to take off jackets and hats. It feels good to be outside basking in the sun and the energy of our common cause. Fasters from a number of national religious and peace and justice organizations are here: Veterans for Peace representing vets from World War II, Korea, Viet Nam and the Persian Gulf War; The Presbyterian General Assembly representing a membership of almost 3 million; Witness for Peace: Pastors for Peace: the Maryknoll nity; Committee in Solldarlty wlth the People of El Salvador; National Organiza - tlon in Solidarity with Guatemala; the NicaraguaU.S. Friendship Office; Women's International League for Peace and Freedom: Women Against Military Madness: PaxChristi; the Jesuits; the Minnesota AFL-CIO; and The Religious Task Force on Latin America. Manyother smaller faith and resistance groups with ties to Latin America are present, including eigh t fasters from the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice from my hometown Ann Arbor, Michigan who have driven all night to be here with us today. I am disappointed but not surprised that our fast receives no media coverage, although Jennifer's story and the CIA Guatemalan military connection are widely reported in The New York Times every day . Even they can't resist reporting the story thatTed Turnerwants todoamovieabout Jennifer's life, perhaps starring Madonna. The second aftemoon , Jennifer Harbury comes to the steps to be with us. It's late and the tourists are gone. I look up to see people around me standing up and applauding as she walks across the blacktop. Jennifer smiles at us, easy and familiar, as if we are all old friends. She's 43, but looks younger. Her eyes are enormous and I wonder if that's from the fast or all the things she has seen. "I've been thinking," she says, "ofone of the people I wrote about in my book Bridge of Courage - a man who lost many of his friends in the Resistance. I asked him, how can you stand it? How can you deal with this insane country? It's just too cruel. "He said, 'For all of us, we don't expect to survive. But we want it to be different for the next generation. It's gone on for 500 years and we all consider ourselves part of a human bridge. We just lie down across the chasm and let the next generation walk across our backs to the other side.' The next week he was killed by the death squad. They broke both his legs throwing him into a trunk." Jennifer's short brown hair brushes her face as she talks. I remember reading that she had gone to a government meeting yesterday wearing a borrowed dress and shoes. "My husband madeachoice. Hewanted to be part of that human bridge." She looks down and pauses. "It's what I loved him for and still do love him for. I feel like all of you share that sentiment. That's why you're here this week. It's only through this incredible teamwork that our government will change some of its destructive policies like the School of the Americas, and the CIA. I'm very grateful that we have the privilege of being the living half of that bridge." For the third straight year, Rep. Joseph Kennedy, Democrat from Massachusetts, is sponsoring a "Dear Colleague" letter to President Clinton, now circulating for co-signers in the House. The letter asks that the funding - $3millionayear - be terminated for SOA training. The amendment has been defeated the previous two years and there is little chance of it even coming to a vote on the floor with a Republican majority in Washington. One of our tasks is to drop off informaüon to each Representative, meet with a foreign policy aide, and encourage them to endorse Kennedy's letter. Thursday afternoon four of us go to the Longworth Building where each of us visits offices on two floors. It is always difficult for me to make these visits. Every detail of the architecture of the buildings and offices is design - ed to reinforce the vast power of the U.S. government But I continue to do this work because it would be harder for me not to. Most of the Representatives that I vlsit are in favor of contlnuing to fünd the SOA. I go into one office without reading the name on the door. When I mention the SOA, the receptionist stops me with a smile. She has heard the same story many times. This is Representative Sanford Bishop's office and hls district includes the SOA. Bishop has said, "We might as well abolish the University of Pennsylvania because Michael MiÜken graduated from there." He argües that the school has promoted democracy in Latin America. Later I visit the office of my Ann Arbor neighbor and Democratie Representative, Lynn Rivers. It is her first term in Washington and I am glad to see her familiar face. It is good news to hear that she supports cutting funding forSOAand has signed on to Kennedy's letter. On Friday we break our fast at noon with a closing ceremony. A woman from CONPAZ, a Mexlcan coalition of nongovernmental organizations in Chiapas speaks about the Zapatistas' struggle. She has brought a large and colorftil canvas painted by schoolchildren from Chiapas and we lay it on the steps in our midst. A Guatemalan man holds up a basket of freshly made tortillas wrapped in a rainbow-colored cloth. He explains that com is sacred to the Mayans: In their creation stories, the first people were created from com paste. He offers the basket to us. I break off a piece of a warm tortilla and pass the basket to the woman sitting next to me. We sit quietly, savoring these last few minutes, breaking our week-long fast together. We walk over to the lawn near the Capitel for a press conference led by Rep. Joseph Kennedy. The media is out in full force now. "Ifs time we break our links with tyranny and oppression throughout Latin America and change the way this school is operating," he says. "We have worked hard and long at closlng down the SOA. But wlth this Congress our ability to get this amendment passed is going to be difficult. Father Bourgeois and I , and other members of the human rights organizations, met last night with the Army in hopes that we might flnd a way to change the School of the Americas into a school of democracy that would teach peacekeeping to the military of these third world countries, as I've seen happen in Haiti - that they need to respect human rights and respect the chain of command. "Now I'm not convinced ," says Kennedy, "and I don't think Father Bourgeois is convinced that the military is serious about changing the way the school is opera ting. We will work wlth them in the next month or so. If it does not change, we will once again, regardless of the consequences, move forward with an amendment to shut the school down. "Father Bourgeois was in the military and understands the very positive role the military plays in the United States which is very different than the role the military has played in Latln America." Jennifer Harbury begins to speak. Her voice is strained from so much talking. Td like to talk a little bit about the case of my husband, Efraim Bamaca Velasquez," she begins, "if only because it's a microcosm of the SOA's problem and the CIA and the State Department' s problem that's been going on for a very long time. I think that all these problems are very interrelated. "My husband disappeared in combat in 1992. The Guatemalan army told us that he'd been killed In combat and that his body was buried in a nearby town. For a long time I assumed that was correct, but at the end of 1992, a young prisoner named Santiago Capero López escaped from a military base. "He sald, Your husband is not dead. He is not in the grave. He's in that military base being tortured.' He described seeing my husband being chained to a bed without a blanket for 20 days. He saw him being tortured. He was strapped down to a medical table with an unidentified gas tank next to the bed. He was swollen up roughly two to three times normal size from head to toe. One arm was complete ly bandaged from wrist to shoulder. One leg was completely bandaged hip to ankle, as if they'd ruptured. I don't know what they'd done to him. He was ravlng. They had a doctor standing by: they wanted to break him, not klU him. "And bending over the table?" She pauses. "Colonel Julio Alpirez, a gradúate of the School of the Americas. Tums out he was also on the CIA payroll. Hed been on the CIA payroll a long time. He had already ordered the assassination of Michael Devine, a U.S. Citizen, in 1990. There was an investigation, but it was called off by the CIA. Alpirez was then given a fairly large lump sum of money. Shortly thereafter, he apparently ordered the execution of my husband. "We have a real amazing series of interrelatlonships here. Those names, those seven or eight names of high-level military officials became public in February 1 993 when Santiago went to Europe - to Geneva- and testlfied to the UN High Commission on Refugees. "Last week when the news broke: what a surprise! Colonel Alpirez ordered the execution of my husband. All I can say is, I guess the State Department didn't investígate very carefully the last three years, did they? So what are we seeing? We're seeing total complicity acrosss our govemment branches, with no accountability. We have a school that is turning out a disproportionate number of people who torture and assassinate and who, coincidentally , are on the CIA payroll? It's against the laws of physics to say it's coincidental. It doesn't happen that way. "Why is It" she asks, "that lm reading in this moming's newspaper that military ald was supposed tobe cut off afterMichael Devlne's assassinatlon which was ordered and carried out by someone on a CIA contract? And that we then tumed around and sent the Guatemalan army an enormous amount of money? "I find all these things sadly not surprising at all. And 1 would like to say that we're not even seeing the tip of the iceberg here. If you look at me and multiply my situation by 300,000 you might get an idea of how many Guatemalans have gone through far worse than this and not anyone has had the decency to teil their relatives what happened to them. I spent every night for more than two years now going to bed with the last image I have of my husband: him strapped to a medica] table, pumped up with some kind of toxic gas until his arm and leg ruptured. I've lived with that every day of my life thinking he was alive and still undergoing this, while the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala watched me go on a 32-day hunger strike risking coma and assassination, among other things. And then again 12 days here on the front lawn of the White House. It wasonlywhen Congressman TbriceUicame forth with the truth that I was at least released from that image." Suddenly her voice grows stronger. The rest of Guatemala is not released. The rest of Salvador is not released. The rest of Chile and Argentina are not released. "I'd like to ask that all files be declassifled, and I'd like ongoing and serious Senate and Congressional hearings on this and related issues regarding the CIA and the State Department in Central America. I'd like to know how it is our taxpayer money is being spent against our will. I don't thlnk that it's done with our consent. It isn't done with my consent, that's for sure." Jennifer steps back from the microphone. She looks exhausted. Afterwards we walk a few blocks to a church where homemade soup has been prepared for us. The smell brings back the memory of elementary school lunches. I eat slowly, realizing I'm tired. Roy makes it clean No matter what the military says it will do to make changes. School of Americas Watch will continue its work to close down the SOA. "Will we close it down?" he asks. "Yes!" we respond. "Will it be hard?" Tes!" "Can we do it?" he challenges us. Tes!" we shout. People are exchanging addresses, remembering last minute things to say. Suddenly, it's over. I wander over to the Mali and realize that I can eat solid food. I head to the cafetería in the Air and Space Museum and buy yogurt and a bagel. I find a table near the wlndow where I can look at the Capitol. The anemoon light shifts and changes as clouds move across the sky. My taste buds are on high alert, but the bagel is not fresh and it tastes dried out. I piek up my camera and backpack and head for the subway. For more Information, contact: SOA Watch, P.O. Box 3330, Columbus GA. 31903; (706) 682-5369 (phonefax). Write to any Senator or Representative using the following addresses: Representative U.S. House of Representatives Washington. D.C. 20515 Senator U.S. Senate Washington, D.C. 20510 Cali the Capitol Switchboard at: 202-224-3121


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