FORT BENNING, Ga. - Several thousand people gathered outside the gates of this
military base on Sunday to protest a U.S. Army school whose graduates they claim
are responsible for human rights abuses in Latin America.
Carrying signs that said "Stop Training Terrorists" and "Protect Human Rights," activists of various ages and religious backgrounds took part in a peaceful demonstration calling for the closing of the facility formerly known as the School of the Americas.
Protesters carry crosses bearing the names of allleged victims of abuses in Latin
America, during a protest, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2002, in Columbus, Ga., near the Fort
Benning school that trains Latin American soldiers. They blame the school, the
Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, for the human rights abuses.
(AP Photo/Elliott Minor)
The facility has been constantly criticized by the School
of Americas Watch group, which has held yearly protests at Fort Benning since
1990. Local police said 8,000 attended, while protest organizers estimated a crowd
At least 96 people were detained by Fort Benning authorities when they crossed over the main gate and entered the base. The organization said about 100 people have served prison sentences for trespassing since its protests began.
Though U.S. defense officials formally closed the School of the Americas in 2000 and reopened it a year later under a new name, critics say the school is a tarnished symbol of violence.
The organization says the school's 60,000 graduates include dictators Manuel Noriega of Panama and Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina.
Though the protest has become an annual event in Columbus, Georgia, which is located about 110 miles southwest of Atlanta, organization founder Rev. Roy Bourgeois said a heightened U.S. focus on terrorism and talk about a possible U.S.-led war against Iraq gave his peace movement a new urgency.
"People are looking for hope," Bourgeois told Reuters. "Our president keeps saying we have to go after terrorist training camps and shut them down. We are here to say that a good place to start is right in our back yard."
Five Roman Catholic nuns march and carry crosses on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2002, during
a demonstration in Columbus, Ga., against a school at nearby Fort Benning that
trains Latin American soldiers. From right are, Dorothy Pagosa of St. Mary in
the Woods, Ind., 48; Rita Clare Gerardot, 76, of Chicago; Joann Quinker, of Oaklawn,
Ill.; Kathleen Long of Chicago; and Cathleen Jessick, of Chicago. All five risked
jail by by stepping Fort Benning property to protest. (AP Photo/Elliott Minor)
Bourgeois said graduates of the school have been directly linked to deaths of hundreds of thousands of Latin American civilians. Though the school is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, Bourgeois said the name change was purely cosmetic.
But George Bruno, international affairs adviser at the institute, said the new school focuses on causes such as antiterrorism and disaster relief, while its predecessor addressed outdated Cold War issues. He said the institute's 900 students include military and civilian personnel from 25 countries.
"This demonstration typifies the values we are trying to instill in the students that come to the institute-respect for civilian authority, for human rights and democracy," Bruno said.
Some at the protest were repeat visitors. Pat Carney, who lives in Los Angeles, said he has attended the protests for six years to remember his brother James, a Jesuit priest whom he says was killed by Honduran military personnel in 1983.
Carney said his brother was a peace activist who helped Honduran peasants
improve their lives. "We've been fighting for what he stood for ever since his
death," he said.
Copyright 2002 Reuters Ltd