Seven TCU students have received university funding to travel to Fort Benning, Ga. on Friday to protest a military training school that has been accused by its critics of providing unethical military training to Latin American military officers.Since 2001, different groups of TCU students have been going to Georgia every November to participate in the national protest of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, more commonly referred to by its former name, the School of the Americas.
Last year, more than 16,000 people attended the protest, 17 of who were arrested and charged with federal trespassing for climbing the 10-foot, barbed wire, chain-link fence surrounding the school’s perimeter, according to a January Associated Press article.
The TCU activist group Peace Action has organized the past three trips, and this year applied for funding and received $500 from the Student Government Association, which will pay for gas, a rental car and motel rooms for the seven students.
SGA Treasurer and Activities Funding Board Chairman Brian Andrew said this semester SGA was able to distribute about $30,000 to student groups around campus. The only requirement for a student group to receive this university money is that it be officially recognized by Campus Life. The amount of money given is up to the SGA, he said.
“The main purpose of going to this protest is to educate ourselves on issues surrounding injustice in Latin America so that we can bring our knowledge back to campus and educate others,” said Courtney Goode, vice president of Peace Action.
Rob Grebel, president of Peace Action, said the trip is not just for educational purposes, but is also an opportunity for students to take a stand against what he said is a symbol of irresponsible U.S. foreign policy.
“There has been a history of excessive U.S. involvement in the domestic politics of Latin America,” Grebel said. “The SOA trip is a chance for TCU students to take a stand against government policy that they have a problem with.”
The United States originally established the school in Panama in 1946 as the Latin American Ground School with the purpose of providing counter-insurgency training to military officers of governments that the U.S. supported, according to a Washington Post article.
Because of stipulations in the Panama Canal treaty, the school was relocated to the United States 22 years ago under its more commonly known name, the School of the Americas, according to the article.
In 2000, the school was forced to close its doors because of what its Web site refers to as concerned citizens wanting change. It reopened a year later changing its name from SOA to WHINSEC and offers new courses emphasizing human rights, according to the Washington Post.
Along with the name change from SOA to WHINSEC came a drastic change in curriculum and a strong emphasis on ethical conduct, according the school’s Web site.
In 2000, congress mandated that a “Board of Visitors,” comprising members of the U.S. Congress, representatives from the Department of Defense and members of religious and human rights groups, oversee the institute’s operations.
The school’s mission statement was also changed to include “promoting democratic values, respect for human rights and knowledge and understanding of United States’ customs and traditions,” according to its Web site. However, these changes, made in 2000, haven’t deterred the thousands of protestors from showing up at the school’s gates every November.
Though WHINSEC has changed its name and image and has made attempts to be a more responsible institute, it has still remained a place for protesting U.S. foreign policy, said Joao Da Silva, the communications coordinator for SOA Watch, which is an independent organization seeking to close WHINSEC, according to its Web site.
“Our main goal is for this school to be held accountable for all the things they’ve taught and for these people they’ve set loose upon Latin America,” Da Silva said. “They have been unwilling to admit that what they’ve done doesn’t represent the democratic values of the United States or the respect for universal human rights that the U.S. government should be advocating.”
SOA Watch, as well many other organizations and individuals, has accused SOA/WHINSEC of providing Latin American military personnel with training that has enabled them to commit human rights violations such as the torture and murder of their own people, according to soaw.org.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, SOA Watch obtained a list of the school’s 60,000 graduates that includes former Panama Gen. Manuel Noriega, who now resides in a Florida prison for international narcotics trafficking; former El Salvador military captain Roberto D’Aubuisson, who federal courts held liable for $10 million in damages for his role in the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero; and former Bolivia Gen. Hugo Banzer, who is reputed for being a violent dictator, according to a Washington Post article.
The most recent accusation of an SOA officer was in August when Uruguay’s Justice Department instructed INTERPOL, an international police organization, to arrest three former Uruguayan military officers, one of whom was an SOA graduate, for suspected involvement in a clandestine detention center, which operated in Buenos Aires during the 1970s, Da Silva said.
Representatives from WHINSEC were unable to be reached for comment.
Officials from the institute deny any wrongdoing and said respect of human rights is emphasized in the school’s curriculum, according to an article in the McClatchy-Tribune on Tuesday.