A former Scottsdale school superintendent says he is willing to go to federal prison to raise awareness about a Georgia military training center he says equips Latin American soldiers to torture and kill people in their home countries.
Philip Gates, 70, says his own Christian witness work in the summer of 2005 in Colombia convinced him that what used to be called the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., is providing unintended expertise to Latin nations’ military to abuse native peoples seeking rights and change.
So on Nov. 19, in an act of civil disobedience, Gates deliberately went through a fence and trespassed onto the installation grounds. He was among 16 arrested and handcuffed. About 22,000 protesters had gathered at the base near Columbus, Ga., to call for the school to be permanently closed. Gates expects to plead guilty in January, go to federal prison and pay up to a $5,000 fine.
Since 1946, some 60,000 members of Latin American militaries have been trained at the school, which was shut down for a month in December 2000 and reopened with a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (www.infantry.army.mil/whinsec/).
An organization called School of the Americas Watch (www.soaw.org) contends “graduates have included some of the worst and most notorious human rights abusers in Latin American history and for much of the world” and that “graduates have led military coups and are responsible for massacres of hundreds of people.”
Gates, who was Scottsdale superintendent 1982-86, was an “accompanier” with the Presbyterian Church (USA) June to August 2005 in Colombia and accompanied native church workers to learn, observe and later report back to church and human rights organizations. “I met so many that live in fear of the authorities from day to day,” said Gates during a phone interview from Prescott, where he and his wife have lived since 2002.
“There are literally millions of people living in poverty in Colombia, many of whom I had the chance to become acquainted with, and that includes going hungry, that includes being sick and infirm and not being able to get treatment. That includes their children, many of whom are not getting an education.” Colombia has the largest numbers in training at the institute because of its Plan Colombia, a $7.5 billion drug war to ferret out cartels involved in the cocaine trade. Government security forces have been accused of tolerating right-wing paramilitary groups that abuse Colombians as part of enforcement and crackdown.
Gates called it “immoral and counterproductive” for the U.S. to operate an installation that turns out graduates who “eventually become involved in illegal, abusive treatment of their citizenry.” In recent years, the U.S. House of Representatives has debated and voted on several bills to close the school. They have lost by margins of only 10 and 15 votes each time. Gates, who demonstrated with others from the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, said the defeat in November of 34 Republicans who opposed the bill gives him hope that a new bill will be introduced and pass in the next Congress.
Yet the spokesman for the Georgia school, Lee Rials, a retired lieutenant colonel, said there is no evidence that military skills learned there are brutally turned onto local populations in countries after soldiers return from training.
“Where is the evidence?” he asked. “There is not a single case of anyone using the information he learned here to commit a crime.” While he said there may be “a small number that later commit crimes,” it cannot be shown that the American training center can be directly linked to it.
Plan Colombia trainees make up the biggest single enrollment at the institute, which had 986 people taking classes from 24 countries this year. “There is a misunderstanding of what is taught here and what we do here,” Rials said. “This is not some secret place, but it is open to the public any day of the week.” People who took part in the protest accepted invitations to board buses for a tour of the installation by the commander and other officials.
The 2001 legislation, authorizing changes and the new name, included a provision that each student receive at least eight hours of instruction in “human rights, the rule of law, due process, civilian control of the military, and the role of the military in a democratic society.” Critics call the changes “cosmetic.”
Protesters showed up Nov. 19 at other installations, including Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, where two priests from California and Nevada were arrested for trespassing in trying to enter the base to deliver a letter to the commander, Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast. Fast has been identified as the highest-ranking U.S. intelligence officer tied to the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Some 120 people protested Fort Huachuca’s training, which they say fosters torture.
Gates and others assert that the some of the most publicized killings in Latin America were carried out by soldiers and officers who went to the Georgia military center. Critics say some graduates have been implicated with killings in El Salvador, including the El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians in 1981, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 and the killing of four U.S. churchwomen in 1980.
“I met a woman in one of the displaced (Colombia) communities who told us about witnessing her husband shot and killed by rebels when he did not respond quickly enough to being told to take his family and leave his land,” Gates said.
In another town, an 80-year-old woman told him soldiers ordered everyone out of her jungle town, but not before raping and murdering her daughter.
And another woman told of children “chosen by lot, then hung by paramilitary forces as a way to motivate the community to leave their land immediately and never come back,” Gates said.
The former school chief, who has also done Christian witness work in Africa, said his Colombia experiences, independent stories heard and his own research about the training program in Georgia helped him to “connect the dots” of reported abuses and “well-publicized documentation of large numbers of SOA graduates being the instigators of some of these atrocities.”
He is to report Jan. 29 to federal court in Columbus to face formal charges.
“I have absolutely no regrets that I did it,” Gates said. “It is absolutely essential that people continue to do what they can to make this matter as much a public issue as possible.”