It was 6 a.m. on Nov. 16, 1989, when a
gardener named Obdulio Ramos saw that six Jesuit priests and his wife
and daughter had been gunned down by soldiers in El Salvador.
these killings came the movement that 20 years later Columbus knows as
"SOA Watch." Eric LeCompte, one of the organizers of the annual protest
held here every November to mark the anniversary of the assassinations,
said 18 of the soldiers involved were graduates of the Fort Benning
school once called "the School of the Americas." It is now the Western
Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
Over the years the
protest had drawn thousands to gather at the Army post's Fort Benning
Road gate to sing and dance, demonstrate and mourn. And each Sunday,
the protest's last day, some always cross onto Fort Benning, to be
arrested for trespassing on federal property, typically facing three to
six months in jail.
The protest began with Father Roy
Bourgeois in 1990, but the birth of the movement is traced to that
morning 20 years ago in El Salvador.
LeCompte said he is unsure how many will attend this year's protest.
think because it's the 20th anniversary, a lot of people are coming for
the event," he said. The Jesuits have 46 high schools and 28
universities, and delegates from each are expected to attend, he said.
Tour and discussions
demonstration has a central aim: Close the institute. But were the
institute shut down today, the protests might still go on, as the
movement wants to change U.S. policy in Central and South America.
LeCompte and other organizers claim the United States supplies military
aid and training to the countries so an elite class that controls most
of the wealth can protect the status quo, not to defend themselves from
Those with the institute argue that they teach human
rights and democratic values, and for the ninth year they are inviting
demonstrators to come take a tour.
About 700 have asked to attend the institute's open house, officials say.
tours will take visitors to the Pratt Hall auditorium in Ridgway Hall
for a panel discussion on the institute, U.S. foreign policy, and
The panel's to include institute commandant Col.
Felix Santiago, the institute's chaplain, the director of its
"Democracy, Ethics and Human Rights" program, a U.S. State Department
official, an officer offering her expertise on both the U.S. Southern
Command and the Army, a human rights lawyer who once chaired the
institute's Board of Visitors, and a dean from the Army's Command and
General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
describes itself as "a Department of Defense Education and Training
Facility at Fort Benning, assigned to the Combined Arms Center, U.S.
Army Training and Doctrine Command. The institute offers 18 resident
courses and eight mobile-training-team-taught courses to the military,
law enforcement, and civilian personnel of the Organization of American
More than 1,300 students took courses there in the federal 2009 fiscal year.
SOA Watch schedule calls for demonstrators to gather at the Fort
Benning gate south of Victory Drive at 11 a.m. Saturday and 8:15 a.m.
Sunday. The last event Saturday is a Puppetistas pageant set for 4:15
p.m., and the concluding ceremony Sunday is at 2 p.m.
Girls - Emily Saliers and Amy Ray - are to perform Sunday morning. They
were to follow an address by Bourgeois, the SOA Watch founder, but
LeCompte said Bourgeois is in Louisiana caring for his ailing
Some Columbus residents have asked whether
the demonstration will affect the National Infantry Museum and Soldier
Center, which is between Benning Boulevard and South Lumpkin Road.
representative Cyndi Cerbin said the post's gate on Fort Benning Road
will close at 5 p.m. today. Fort Benning Road there becomes Benning
Boulevard, on which the museum has its main entrance, so that won't be
accessible, she said.
Museum traffic will be rerouted onto South
Lumpkin Road, where visitors can enter the complex from that side, she
said. The museum's hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. today and Saturday and 11
a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, she said.
One difference people will notice
during this year's SOA Watch gathering is that no "God Bless Fort
Benning" rally will be downtown. That event, which for years was held
to counter the protest and show appreciation for soldiers training on
post, was changed to "Boots on Broadway" and held this year in late
LeCompte said he would miss "God Bless Fort Benning"
because last year it included a free concert and free food, and he
feels people should get out and stand up for their beliefs.