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March 31, 1998

An Open Letter to Representative H.L. "Sonny" Callahan

Dear Congressman Callahan,

March 24, 1998, marked the eighteenth anniversary of the assassination of Oscar A. Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador and one of Central America's most outspoken advocates of human rights and democracy. In 1980, millions around the world were horrified when the Archbishop was gunned down while celebrating Mass in San Salvador's central cathedral. His murder was but one of many thousands of civilian deaths during that nation's civil war throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. According to the 1993 report of the United Nations Truth Commission, which investigated 22,000 reported human rights violations during the war, some 85 percent of these violations were the direct responsibility of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, and another ten percent were attributed to anticommunist death squads comprised of active and former military personnel.

Many of your constituents have some awareness of the oppressive human rights climate in much of Latin America, but few know that as taxpayers they have directly subsidized such abuses. The Truth Commission revealed that many of the human rights abuses recorded in El Salvador were perpetrated by military personnel who had trained at U.S. taxpayer expense at the U.S. Army School of the Americas. Now located in Fort Benning, Georgia, the School of the Americas has provided training to thousands of soldiers from Latin America over the last fifty years. Among its graduates have been officers who went on to overthrow elected governments and to become the dictators of Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, and Panama. Former SOA students include Roberto Viola, the Argentine general whose "dirty war" against domestic opponents resulted in more than 20,000 deaths and "disappearances" in the 1980s; Roberto D'Aubuisson, the Salvadoran death squad leader who ordered the assassination of Archbishop Romero; and Manuel Noriega, now imprisoned in the United States for drug trafficking. These are but a few notables among more than 500 lower-level officers and enlisted men who are known to have ordered atrocities against civilians throughout the hemisphere after training at the School. Notwithstanding the deplorable human rights record of many SOA graduates, the committee that you chair in the U.S. House of Representatives voted to recommend nearly $19 million in funding for the School over the coming year. Your committee approved this funding over the strenuous opposition of many religious, community, and human rights organizations in the U.S. and Latin America. Those who have gone on record opposing the SOA appropriation include all major Catholic religious orders in the United States, many individual clergy and congregations of other faiths, over one million signatories to petitions nationwide, and 210 of your congressional colleagues who voted last year to close the School. As we requested during our meeting with you on January 20, we once again ask that you heed this overwhelming public sentiment and join your congressional colleagues in ending taxpayer support for the School of the Americas. The stated goal of the SOA is to improve the professionalism and preparedness of Latin American military personnel, who are charged with the defense of their countries against foreign enemies. Yet the vast majority of the victims of military operations in Latin American countries have been citizens of those countries themselves, indicating that the armies of the region serve more as a tool of internal repression than a deterrent to foreign invasion. Historically, those most heavily targeted by military personnel in Latin America have been civilians working for increased democracy and social justice in their countries. For his part, Archbishop Romero was murdered the very day after he publicly urged soldiers to disobey superiors who ordered them to kill civilians. Sadly, most of the atrocities committed by SOA graduates have gone unmentioned in the U.S. media, since their victims were poor and little known compared to Archbishops and foreign religious workers. These unsung victims of SOA graduates include, for example, the nearly 1,000 men, women, and children massacred at El Mozote, El Salvador, in December, 1981 by that country's elite Atlacatl infantry battalion. The assault on El Mozote occurred just months after the entire battalion had returned from training in the United States. Ironically, at the time, the training of Salvadoran troops in the U.S. had been justified in terms of the "human rights" instruction that they supposedly received from U.S. military advisors. SOA officials have defended their institution by stressing that only a small percentage of School graduates goes on to conduct human rights violations. Further, they claim that military training in the U.S. by American advisors offers the best possible guarantee of professional conduct among Latin America's armies. Recently released government documents demonstrate the falsity of such claims. In 1996, under the Freedom of Information Act, the government was compelled to release training manuals used until 1991 at the SOA. The manuals extend over some 1,100 pages and contain detailed instructions for "neutralization" (assassination) of opponents, interrogation techniques (including those for use with children), infiltration and disruption of civilian social movements, surveillance, and recruitment of spies. There are few references to democracy, human rights, or the rule of law; indeed, the manuals equate any opposition -- whether lawful and civilian-based or insurgent -- with subversion. It is this attitude that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Latin American civilians since the School came into existence.

Past revelations of human rights abuses by SOA graduates have provoked what is now a tired cliché among defenders of the School. School officials have acknowledged past abuses when the evidence linking human rights violations to SOA graduates becomes undeniable, but they are quick to claim that training procedures have since been changed to emphasize respect for human rights. You made the same point during our meeting with you in your office, in which you stressed that School officials had personally reassured you of recent changes to their curriculum. We thank you for the time that you took to meet with us and to explain your position concerning the SOA. Frankly, though, we remain disappointed that you accord the testimony of SOA officials -- whose veracity in the past has been questionable at best -- greater credibility than the statements of School critics. Why do you accept at face value the assurances of those who approach your committee to seek continued funding for the School, while dismissing as hearsay the testimony of priests and nuns, trade unionists, and journalists who have had first-hand, often horrific experiences with SOA graduates "at work?"

We concede that no one other than a participant in the School of the Americas can say with certainty what now takes place in its training courses. It this context, it is noteworthy that U.S. Army Major Joseph Blair, who formerly trained Latin American officers at the SOA, has gone on record favoring the School's closure. Major Blair notes that the School's much-touted human rights curriculum exists solely on paper to assuage congressional critics, and that many SOA trainees routinely use their diplomatic travel status as an opportunity to launder drug money. Even if the School's claims to have reformed itself were true, there remain continuing reports of atrocities by SOA graduates upon their return to their units in Latin America. In 1997, mass killings of civilians by the Mexican army were reported in Chiapas, several of which implicate officers who had trained recently at the School. Well into the 1990s, reports from Colombia indicated that graduates of the SOA have forced peasant children at gunpoint to clear mines in front of military units. In 1994, three Peruvian officers who had recently returned from the School murdered eight students and a university professor, apparently for their political beliefs. Despite the testimony of School officials before your congressional committee, then, the reputation of the School of the Americas, and with it the American people, continues to be sullied by the actions of SOA graduates.

As Congress begins its 1998 session, we again urge you to reconsider your support for the School of the Americas. We ask you to do so in the name of more than five hundred of your constituents who have signed petitions objecting to the use of our tax money to fund an institution that has thwarted democracy and social justice throughout our hemisphere. We call on you to heed the words of the martyred Archbishop Romero, spoken on the night before his death, "In the name of God, in the name of our tormented people whose cries rise to heaven, I beg you stop the repression!" For the sake of the people of Latin America, and our nation's moral standing in the region, we ask you to co-sponsor and vote for HR 611, the bill to terminate funding for the U.S. Army School of the Americas. Respectfully,

Mark Moberg
Gregory Speltz
Norman Gale
3550 Country Ct. N.
Mobile, AL 36619
633-2135 (h)
460-6912 (w)

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL