Twelve Saint Mary's College students traveled to Fort Benning in Georgia to protest the Bush administration"s war on terror and to demand the closure of a military training school long associated with repression in Latin America.
The students, led by Politics Professor Ronald Ahnen and Campus Minister Bob Mallon, joined more than 20,000 other human rights activists at the demonstration on Nov. 17-19 at the former School of the Americas. It was the largest turnout in the 17-year history of the event, which marks the anniversary of the 1989 killings of six Jesuit priests, a woman and her 14-year-old daughter in El Salvador at the hands of SOA graduates.
The School of the Americas, which opened 60 years ago, promotes U.S. military influence in Latin America through the training of its security personnel. Critics say that the soldiers it trains are used by right-wing governments to brutalize students, religious workers, union organizers and activists. In response to the criticism, the Defense Department renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 1996.
The SMC group began preparing for the trip in early October, meeting weekly to explore the history of the SOA and its impact on Latin America from a faith perspective. It was the fourth consecutive year that the college has been involved in the event.
Once in Georgia, Mallon said the students participated in a series of speakers and workshops sponsored by Jesuit institutions, toured the facility and took part in a somber vigil where thousands of names of victims killed of SOA personnel were read aloud.
"The vigil was a passionate resistance against what the institution stands for, and a respectful remembrance of those who have fallen prey to their corrupt doings," said Saint Mary's senior and politics major Jaime Zepeda, who also attended the event in 2005. "For me it was an intense experience that prioritized what is important for me. The greater good always is of the utmost importance."
Junior Heidi Soto, a politics major who also participated in last year's protest, said it hit her on a more emotional basis this time. "This year I was taking Latin American Politics where repression and thousands of atrocities were definitely a huge impact in almost all the countries we studied," she said. "That class extremely enhanced my understanding of howâ€¦vital it was to protest against the SOA."
The SMC students will share their experiences at the SOA in a campus presentation in late March to coincide with the anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero by SOA trained soldiers in El Salvador in 1980.
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