Our terrorist training camp

Father Roy Bourgeois’ long struggle to close the School of the Americas takes on a new dimension after 9-11

Father Roy Bourgeois greets those who will face arrest for crossing the line on a Fort Benning property during last year’s protest against the School of the Americas.

Father Roy Bourgeois greets those who will face arrest for crossing the line on a Fort Benning property during last year’s protest against the School of the Americas.

Photo courtesy of Ron Hahn

Roy Bourgeois sounded the alarm on terrorism decades before the first plane hit the World Trade Center. For years, he has traveled around the United States speaking out against the violence and fear inflicted on Latin American civilians by militant extremists supported and trained by foreign governments.

Never in his wildest dreams, however, did Bourgeois imagine Americans would rally against international terrorism the way they have since September 11. Unfortunately—according to the man affectionately known as “Father Roy” to his supporters—they are flocking to the wrong cause.

Apparently, the American-flag stickers and “United We Stand” banners that seem to darken all flat surfaces lately are distracting us. Distracting us from what? From the real war, according to Bourgeois, the war against war, the war against the “men with guns” who terrorize peaceful people.

Judging from the standing-room only crowd of over 160 people at a recent talk that Bourgeois gave in Sacramento, there are some people who see things his way. On a cool Wednesday night—not an American flag in sight—Father Roy detailed his ongoing struggle against terrorism.

Most in attendance were already sympathetic to his crusade. The remainder were those who could easily be convinced—even of concepts that, from a mainstream perspective, might be considered subversive, even treasonous.

Father Roy’s adulthood reads like a spy novel: Vietnam vet turned priest, novice missionary kicked out of Bolivia for defense of the poor, human rights defender who suffered the loss of friends including two American nuns living in El Salvador who were raped and murdered by government soldiers—only to discover later that his own country is implicated in the atrocities.

So began Roy Bourgeois’ decades-long battle against the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), a crusade that has taken him to cities across the United States, and in and out of federal prison for his “subversive” beliefs.

Operating on a U.S. Army base in Fort Benning, Georgia, the School of the Americas still trains soldiers from select Latin American countries in counter-insurgency techniques, combat tactics, and strategies of psychological warfare that teach attendees how to suppress those who rebel against their respective governments.

The school boasts courses such as “Psychological Operations,” “Military Intelligence,” “Combat Arms Officer,” and “Battle Staff Operations.” These days, many of its attendees come from Colombia, where the U.S. has become increasingly mired in that country’s civil war.

The School of the Americas (officially renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, echoing other cosmetic changes designed to deflect mounting public dissatisfaction with the school’s activities) has no dearth of notorious alumni to its credit. Manuel Noriega (Panama), Leopold Galtieri (Argentina), and Hugo Banzer Suarez (Bolivia) are just a few. Other graduates include the men responsible for the El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians in El Salvador, the torture and murder of a UN worker in Chile and the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, also in El Salvador.

But these gruesome facts have been around for years.

The difference is that now, Father Roy and his supporters are fighting not only the right-wing death squads of Latin America, they are negotiating a new brand of American patriotism as well.

In light of the flag-waving, ultra-patriotic rhetoric that dominates television, radio and print media these days, Bourgeois’ speaking tours have taken on a new significance after the September 11 tragedies. As U.S. planes continue to bomb Afghanistan and hawkish presidential advisers push the United States to “close in” on Saddam Hussein, this white-haired priest’s crusade enjoys a renewed relevance in our country—whether or not we acknowledge it, or agree with his view that SOA promotes terrorism.

Father Roy outside Fort Benning.

Courtesy Of Soa Watch

While President George Bush warns a fearful American public that “the terrorists’ directive commands them to kill … and make no distinction among military and civilians, including women and children,” Father Roy and other members of the School of the Americas Watch stalwartly point out that in 2000, former dictators and SOA graduates Efrain Rios Montt and Fernando Lucas Garcia were charged with the genocide and forced exile of thousands of Guatemalan women, children and men.

Likewise, anti-SOA activists remind us that while the federal government attempts to rout out everyone from Osama bin Laden to Chechen independence fighters and even foreign exchange students enrolled at North American universities, U.S. taxpayers continue to fund and operate the School of the Americas.

About two months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, over 10,000 people traveled to Georgia to protest the SOA. Ironically, a military official phoned the organizers prior to the annually scheduled protest, asking them not to come this year, “out of respect to the victims of the attacks.”

Father Roy and others, including a small contingent of Sacramentans who were at the protest and attended his Sacramento talk, gently but firmly explained that, in fact, their cause was more timely than ever. They proceeded as planned and 117 were arrested for committing non-violent actions of protest.

It must be somewhat strange, then, for Bourgeois, a man who has committed much of his adult life to stopping governmental abuse of power—including being incarcerated numerous times for his acts of civil disobedience in protesting the SOA—to hear a message he has been promoting for decades wind up in a speech to the very leaders he has been trying for years to convince.

In his “Special Address to Congress and the American People” following the September 11 attacks, President Bush made several statements that seem to take on another dimension when viewed through Bourgeois’ eyes and examined in relation to the School of the Americas.

Although the president’s remarks undoubtedly refer to al Qaeda, while Father Roy’s crusade has been against the U.S. government-sponsored School of the Americas, the similarities are interesting: “Its goal is remaking the world—and imposing its radical beliefs on people everywhere. … This group and its leader … are linked to many other organizations in different countries. … They are recruited from their own nations and neighborhoods and brought to camps … where they are trained in the tactics of terror. They are sent back to their homes or sent to hide in countries around the world to plot evil and destruction.”

Likewise, it is strange to hear the president explain a concept that Father Roy and others have been struggling to convince the U.S. government of for decades: “By aiding and abetting murder, the Taliban regime is committing murder.”

While the Bush administration looks for its next target in its war on terrorism, Father Roy continues to lobby government officials to stop funding, training and housing Latin American soldiers who consistently commit acts of violence and murder against civilians when they return to their home countries.

Although frustrated, Father Roy says he has not given up hope.

Considering the length of his struggle and the unyielding obstinacy of the U.S. government in continuing to operate the School of the Americas even in the face of intense international pressure, Father Roy remains remarkably positive. In Sacramento, after delivering countless similar talks to audiences across the nation, he noted, “People are very compassionate, I find. Often the compassion is dormant, though. Sometimes it is there but we need the knowledge, the information for it to surface.”

While he admits that his job was somewhat more challenging in the direct aftermath of September 11, he is far from doom and gloom. Although it was difficult for him to speak out immediately after the tragedies in New York and Washington, he did so anyway, and since then observes that “now many more [people] are coming to our talks throughout the country than before 9-11, questioning the U.S. role in the world.”

So, this spry Catholic priest with the lilting Southern drawl continues his crusade. The SOA Watch maintains its Web page and continues its protests. And both try not to get spun out of the public eye altogether, as the president’s war on terrorism tumbles on.

In one last, ironic parallel, President Bush unintentionally articulated Father Roy’s struggle well in his words to Congress on September 13, 2001: “They stand against us because we stand in their way. We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety; we have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions—by abandoning every value except the will to power—they follow in the path of fascism, and Nazism, and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way, to where it ends: in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”

Bourgeois’ hope is that when the American-flag stickers cease to block our national vision, we will begin to see SOA as the “terrorist training camp” that he’s known it to be for many years.