By Elliott Minor,
Columbus, Ga. Excited by the changes in Washington, organizers hope for a record 20,000 protesters at Fort Benning's heavily fortified main gate this weekend, continuing a 17-year effort to close a military school they blame for assassinations, torture and other human rights abuses in Latin America.
The protesters will be joined by opponents of the war in Iraq, including war veterans and relatives of those killed, said the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest who has been leading the demonstrations since 1990.
"It's not possible for people who are gathering in the name of peace not to also address Iraq," he said.
Bourgeois said the populist wave sweeping Latin America and the recent U.S. election, where Democrats won control of Congress for the first time since 1994, has energized the peace movement.
The demonstrations are timed to commemorate six Jesuit priests who were killed along with their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador on Nov. 19, 1989. Some of the killers had attended the Army's School of the Americas, which moved to Fort Benning from Panama in 1984. It was replaced in 2001 by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), under the Defense Department.
"We are gathering in the name of peace and to keep alive the memory of the thousands of victims," Bourgeois said.
Through the years, military officials have strongly denied that the school was responsible for any abuses.
"There's not a single example of anybody using what he learned at the School of the Americas to commit a crime," said institute spokesman Lee Rials. "While it is true that there are people who committed crimes after attending a course, no cause-
effect relationship has ever been found."
Human rights, ethics and democracy training are mandatory at the institute, he said.
For five years the institute has invited protesters to visit the school to see for themselves what courses are taught and how it is run.
Rials said at least 600 have signed up for a visit Saturday.
The protesters' demonstrations begin Friday and end Sunday, following the group's traditional funeral procession, where they carry coffins or white crosses to honor victims of alleged human rights abuses.
Some demonstrators usually cross into Fort Benning and get arrested for trespassing.
Joining the demonstration this year will be Living the Dream, a group dedicated to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a unified, nonviolent world. Members will end a weeklong pilgrimage from Selma, Ala., to the fort.
Also new this year will be a movement known as "1,000 Grandmothers," inspired by a song of the same name by singer-activist Holly Near.
Organizers hope to have 1,000 grandmothers who will knit "Booties for Peace" and wear white handkerchiefs in solidarity with the mothers and grandmothers who lost thousands of loved ones during the reign of a brutal military junta in Argentina.
Over the past year, the group SOA Watch has been working on two fronts to close the school: lobbying Congress to end its funding and visiting leaders of Latin American countries to stop the flow of students.
A House bill that would have halted the school's funding failed by 16 votes earlier this year. With 35 Republicans who had opposed the bill now out of office, Bourgeois is optimistic it will pass next year under the new Congress.
Meanwhile, Venezuela stopped sending students last year and Argentina and Uruguay did it this year. An SOA Watch delegation had met with leaders of those countries, but Bourgeois credits the pullout to the democratic transformation taking place in Latin America.
"The school is seen as a contradiction to democracy," he said.
Rials said the institute will have a banner year, with about 1,000 students trained at Fort Benning and another 231 trained by mobile teams in South America.
"We have an important role to play, mainly to maintain contact with our allies, not only in this hemisphere, but around the world," Rials said, noting that Latin American countries provide more than 6,000 soldiers to 14 of the United Nation's 16 peacekeeping missions.