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Not Forgotten: Street Art to Remember the Victims of the School of the Americas

Víctor Jara was an internationally-acclaimed Chilean singer-songwriter, a theater director and activist. When General Augusto Pinochet took power on “the other 9/11” in 1973, his troops forced Jara and thousands of other political prisoners into Santiago’s Chile Stadium. After a group of soldiers recognized the artist, they tortured him in the arena basement, and then—before the crowd of detainees—cut off his fingers, mocking him as they demanded he perform something, perhaps a composition in the “New Song” genre he’d helped pioneer, and which Pinochet had banned. Witnesses recall that Jara sang “Venceremos”—“We Will Win”—before the guards dragged him away. He was shot 44 times.

Jara is one of the people School of the Americas Watch’s (SOAW) current poster campaign, developed with street artist César Maxit, commemorates. Others include El Salvador’s Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was celebrating Mass in a hospital chapel when assassins gunned him down in March 1980; Guatemalan Bishop Juan Gerardi, one of the main figures behind the crucial human rights report Guatemala: Nunca Más!, whose killers pummeled his face with a concrete slab, mutilating it beyond recognition; and Natalia Tuberquia Muñoz, who was only six in 2005 when massacred—along with three men, two women and another child—in the Colombian village of San José de Apartadó. What the musician, the bishops and the child have in common is that they are just four of the thousands of Latin Americans murdered by School of the Americas (SOA) graduates.

The SOA, located at Fort Benning, Georgia, is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers, 70,000 of whom have studied counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare there since the institution’s 1946 founding. Training manuals the school used for at least a decade recommended extortion, torture and execution as effective means of dealing with the state’s enemies. And the SOAW posters also feature eight of its alumni, including Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, who died last year in jail, incarceration his punishment for committing crimes against humanity, including disappearances, torture, and the killing of 15,000-30,000 dissidents; Guatemalan military dictator Ríos Montt, whom a Guatemalan court last year found guilty of genocide against his country’s Ixil Maya; and Honduran General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, a key official spearheading the country’s 2009 coup, which even the military lawyer—himself an SOA alum—charged with giving the affair a veneer of legitimacy admitted was “a crime.”

SOA complicity in the recent Honduran coup reveals the institution’s continuing relevance. Its 2001 name-change—it’s known now as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC)—was merely cosmetic, and “there are no substantive changes besides the name,” one of its former instructors testified shortly after the rebranding. The school’s consistent aim, in the past and today, has been to facilitate Latin American militaries’ wars of repression against their own people. Describing Washington’s support for dictators like Videla and Montt as stemming from its “anti-Communism,” or as related to the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, misses the point. The term “Communist,” for example, was always incredibly elastic, used to refer to illiterate peasant farmers, church officials, university instructors, women in areas considered guerrilla territory—the label could be affixed to whoever was slated for execution. “The army is not killing guerrillas, despite what is reported,” a U.S. mercenary in 1980s El Salvador explained. “It is murdering the civilians who side with them. By terrorizing civilians the army is crushing the rebellion without the need to directly confront the guerrillas. Attacking civilians is the game plan.” The SOAW posters remembering some of the victims—bishops, young girls, a musician—help capture this reality, still very much a part of Washington’s Latin America policy, as ongoing U.S. support for the repressive Mexican, Colombianand Hondurangovernments makes clear.

To help draw attention to the beneficiaries and victims of U.S. training and aid, nearly a dozen activists gathered on May 14 in Washington, D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, where they pasted up a mural composed, in part, of the SOAW posters. “Though the activists were peaceful in their actions,” SOAW reports, “D.C. police decided that political art was unacceptable in the district.  After the artwork was completed, four of the activists”—Dominique Diaddigo-Cash, Gail Taylor, Maria Luisa Rosal, and Nico Udu-gama—“were handcuffed, arrested and held for 6 hours before being charged with ‘defacing public or private property.’ The charge carries a maximum penalty of 6 months in prison and a $1,000 fine,” and those detained “will be arraigned in the D.C. Superior Court on June 5, 2014.”

But the police intervention in the Adams Morgan art action hasn’t had a deterrent effect: in the last few weeks, SOAW activists have taken posters to other District neighborhoods, as well as the streets of Los Angeles and the UC Riverside campus. “The best way to stand in solidarity with the targeted activists, and to push back against the criminalization of dissent,” SOAW reminds us, “is to keep up the resistance!”

This video, by Beth Geglia, shows footage of the May 14 action, as well as the subsequent arrest of four SOAW activists:

And go here for more information on the SOAW poster campaign. You’ll find the full series of downloadable posters on the website, as well as step-by-step wheat-pasting instructions.


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