The following overview of the SOAW movement was written by Hendrik Voss for the book From Warriors to Resisters, third edition, published in January 2019.
The School of the Americas (SOA) is a U.S. military-training institute for Latin American security personnel located at Fort Benning, Georgia. Renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) in 2001, the school has trained assassins, death-squad leaders, and human-rights abusers for dirty work in Latin America since its founding in 1946.
Dubbed the “School of Assassins,” the SOA/WHINSEC has become synonymous with torture and military repression for millions around the world. Graduates have a long history of participating in and orchestrating killings, rapes, targeted violence, and the suppression of popular movements. Research continues to turn up SOA grad involvement in human-rights violations across the Americas.
Around 1,000 students per year receive training at the SOA/WHINSEC. Courses are taught in Spanish. The SOA/WHINSEC is paid for with U.S. taxpayer dollars, money for foreign military training that is authorized by Congress each year.
In 1996, the Pentagon, under intense public pressure, released training manuals used at the school for at least a decade that advocated torture, extortion, and execution. Despite this shocking admission—as well as hundreds of documented human-rights abuses connected to soldiers trained at the school over its long history—no independent investigation into the training facility has ever taken place.
Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, “disappeared,” massacred, or forced into refuge by those trained at the School of Assassins.
The purpose of the School of the Americas has always been to control the economic and political systems of Latin America by aiding and influencing Latin American militaries.
One former SOA instructor, U.S. Army Major Joseph Blair (Ret), explained: “The hope is that close personal contacts developed at Fort Benning will result in future U.S. potential to influence Latin American governments.” Unjust economic policies opposed by the majority of Latin Americans cannot be implemented and enforced by governments without strong military support. George Kennan, a central policymaker for the U.S. State Department, explained in 1948:
[W]e have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. . . . In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so . . . we should cease to talk about vague and . . . unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization.” (1)
The SOA is part of a tradition and system of white supremacy. The purpose of the school is to maintain U.S. hegemony over the Western Hemisphere, and it is also a tool to maintain white supremacy over the non-white populations of this hemisphere. Working for justice for the people of the Americas in a principled way means that we have to address white supremacy as one of the root causes of oppression.
From police killings of black and brown people inside the United States, to attacks on Muslim communities, to the U.S.-supported military coup in Honduras, we’ve seen that the school is not an aberration of U.S. policy, but a clear illustration of it.
Join SOA Watch in the Struggle for Justice and Self-Determination in the Americas
History is made by movements—mass movements of people who organize themselves to struggle collectively for a better world.
The SOA Watch (SOAW) movement is a nonviolent force to change oppressive U.S. policy as represented by institutions like the SOA/WHINSEC. SOAW is made up of people from many backgrounds who work towards a positive and fundamentally different alternative to a racist system of violence and domination.
SOA Watch has been tremendously successful. Over the past 28 years, the movement has grown and evolved from a handful of people who gathered at the gates of Fort Benning, to a hemisphere-wide movement. Thousands have been educated and mobilized to take a stand against empire and militarization. New activists—including many youth and students from multinational and working-class communities—are joining long-term SOAW members. This movement has happened because, as Arundhati Roy has written, “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way you’re accountable.” (2)
Nonviolent Direct Action (NVDA) is an essential part of SOAW’s overall strategic plan. We intentionally pair specific, powerful, well-publicized NVDAs with political action in an attempt to use the power of constituencies to create change. Since the beginning of the movement, 300 people have collectively served over 100 years in federal prisons and county jails, with another 50 people serving probation and house-arrest sentences. In addition to participating in nonviolent direct actions at Fort Benning, at the Pentagon, and at a U.S. immigration checkpoint in Arizona, SOAW activists have organized fasts, die-ins, banner drops, lock-downs, blockades, and prayer vigils.
The SOA Watch movement has learned that the infamous school is not just a building; it is not just a policy. The school is a mindset with roots as old as the colonization of the Americas. It is the belief that land, resources, and human rights are commodities that can be bought, stolen, and destroyed. The SOA mindset is evident in the cruel logic of Plan Colombia and Plan Mexico, in the drive to further militarize the U.S./Mexico border, and in over 700 U.S. military bases around the world.
The training at the School of the Americas (again, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) is among the root causes of migration that force people to flee their countries in Latin America. SOA/WHINSEC-trained soldiers are the military muscle that keeps in place a system guaranteeing profits for the elites—and exploitation for the poor. Many immigrants to the United States are victims of U.S.-sponsored military training and atrocities in Latin America.
In the fight to close the SOA/WHINSEC, SOA Watch continues to work towards a world that is free of suffering and violence. SOAW considers for-profit immigration detention centers, the militarization of the border, the “War on Drugs,” and the training of repressive forces at the SOA/WHINSEC as parts of the same racist system of violence and domination.
As a social-movement organization with roots on both sides of the border, SOA Watch has come to see that we too must be able to move. Following intensive movement-wide deliberations, and once again with the leadership of veterans within SOA Watch, the movement decided in 2016 to bring our annual mass mobilization from the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia, to the U.S./Mexico border.
(1): George F. Kennan, “Policy Planning Study 23: Review of Current Trends in U.S. Foreign Policy” (especially VII, Far East), February 24, 1948, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948, General; the United Nations, Vol. I, Part 2, Document 4, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1948v01p2/d4.
(2): Arundhati Roy, Power Politics (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2001), 7.
To read From Warriors to Resisters, click here.