COLUMBUS, Ga. Thousands of demonstrators marched outside Fort Benning Sunday to protest a former Army school they blame for alleged human rights violations against Latin American civilians. About 40 people were taken into custody.
During the annual funeral march to the front gate of the post, protesters carried signs reading "Imperialist Assassins" and created a memorial to the alleged victims of graduates of the School of the Americas, which was a training center for Latin American soldiers. Some stuck crosses through the chain-link fence.
"I wanted to bear witness to these deeds by SOA graduates to take a stand against terrorism wherever it happens to be," said Ralph Armbruster, a social science teacher from Santa Barbara, Calif.
About 40 people were taken into custody after they slipped through an opening in a fence and onto base property. Fort Benning spokesman Rich McDowell said the were given letters barring them from the post for five years and released.
School of Americas Watch Protesters gather on the baseball field at Golden Park near the entrance to Fort Benning Saturday, Nov. 17, 2001, in Columbus, Ga., as they listen to speakers and musicians. About eight thousand demonstrators marched to protest the Army school they blame for alleged terrorist acts against the people of Latin America. (AP Photo/Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, G. Marc Benavidez)
"At least eight are second offenders," he said. "They could be prosecuted in federal court."
The crowd, estimated by police at 6,000 to 7,000, included senior citizens and veterans. The annual demonstration at the gates of Fort Benning commemorates the Nov. 16, 1989, killings in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, to which some of the school's graduates have been linked.
With the United States at war against terrorists and Americans riding a patriotic wave, organizers said it was more important than ever to protest the former school.
"We are fighting terrorism out there in other parts of the world, but here we are harboring and training terrorists," the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, who founded School of the Americas Watch in 1990, said Saturday.
Military officials strongly deny Bourgeois' claims.
"Criminals often go on to commit crimes in spite of the best efforts of the institutions they attend," said Brig. Gen. Paul Eaton. "People are focusing on the past. We are focusing on the future."
The Army closed its School of the Americas in December after a decade of protests.
A month later, SOA was replaced by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which is operated by the Department of Defense. The DOD says the institute's new mission is to focus on 21st century challenges, not the bloody Latin American insurgencies of the 1980s.
Twenty-six SOA Watch demonstrators were convicted of trespass for participating in last year's funeral procession representing those who died in Latin America.
School of the Americas Watch: http://www.soaw.org
© 2001 The Associated Press