By Andrea Bachmann, Witness for Peace Intern
This past weekend, as thousands of protesters came together in Georgia to call for the closure of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA)/WHINSEC, Colombians, too, were taking action at home. On Friday, Colombian and U.S. activists kicked things off with a march at the U.S. embassy in Bogotá. U.S. citizens delivered a letter urging Ambassador McKinley to advocate for the SOA/WHINSEC’s closure and to investigate all human rights violations carried out by the school’s Colombian graduates.
Carrying crosses to represent the thousands of Colombians murdered by order of these graduates, marchers solemnly recited each victim’s name as they walked. One of the loudest voices in the crowd was that of Mauricio Castillo, whose brother, Jaime Castillo, was murdered just two years ago in the extrajudicial killings scandal masterminded in large part by SOA/WHINSEC graduates. “We are here to remember,” said Mauricio, “and to demand justice and reparation for these crimes.”
At their final destination, the Colombian Ministry of Defense, demonstrators presented a second letter asking President Santos to stop sending students to the SOA/WHINSEC on account of the grave atrocities committed by its graduates in Colombia.
The action continued Saturday with a vigil remembering those killed in massacres under the direction of prominent SOA/WHINSEC graduates. After a brief conversation with partners in Georgia, participants reflected on the deaths and suffering that so many communities in Colombia have experienced, and prayed for protection against further violence.
The weekend’s events exposed the clear connection between Colombian SOA/WHINSEC graduates and the country’s abhorrent human rights record. Since 2002, Colombian armed forces reportedly committed more than 3,000 extrajudicial executions, involving more than 500 military units assisted and/or trained by the United States since 2000. Colombian SOA/WHINSEC graduates have been linked to a multitude of notable atrocities, including the 1997 massacre in Mapiripán, the 2005 massacre in the Peace Community San Jose de Apartadó, and widespread assassinations and displacement in Urabá. Furthermore, SOA/WHINSEC graduates have consistently been implicated in acts of unspeakable violence across Latin America, from civilian massacres, disappearances, and assassinations in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s to the 2009 coup of the democratically elected president of Honduras.
For Latin Americans and citizens of the United States alike, the School of the Americas remains a tragic symbol of suffering, widespread human rights violations and failed U.S. foreign policy. This weekend’s actions in Georgia, Colombia, and across the hemisphere, demonstrate growth and perseverance in a movement for a more dignified approach to our relationship with Latin America.
Click here to watch a video of the protest in Bogota.