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Protesters of Torture?and Vice Versa


‘Dirty wars’ have dirty little secrets: the Honduras-Baghdad connection

It was a stunning reversal of the general stifling of dissent in the U.S., and it no doubt will be lost in the pre-election mania. But finally a blow for freedom: A federal appellate court in the South just struck down the government’s scheme to force protesters through metal detectors during next month’s annual rally against the U.S. military’s torture-and-terror training school at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Abu Ghraib, our newest torture center, is still fresh in our minds. But the place formerly known as the School of the Americas, though it still functions, is an ugly part of our more distant history, and echoes of that past keep reverberating: The Bush regime’s ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte, has a claim to infamy connected with this U.S. training academy for terrorists. I’ll get back to Negroponte in a minute, but first, the federal court’s surprising October 15 ruling.

A three-judge panel of the conservative 11th Circuit struck down the government’s attempt to use 9/11 as an excuse to deny people their Constitutional rights.

Since 9/11, the government has been searching protesters at what used to be known as the School of the Americas. Considering that the annual rally has grown to 15,000 people, that technique slows things to a crawl and takes the heart out of the protesters—remember the government-managed protests at Republican Square Garden only six weeks ago?

The court’s three-judge panel said the searches “eviscerate the Fourth Amendment” and added,

In the absence of some reason to believe that international terrorists would target or infiltrate this protest, there is no basis for using Sept. 11 as an excuse for searching the protesters.

See the actual ruling against the officials of Columbus, Georgia, here. The key part is that the appellate judges found that the city’s “search policy violated both the First and Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution. The plaintiffs are entitled to a permanent injunction against its implementation.”

This important story hasn’t gotten much attention; an Associated Press dispatch ran deep inside this morning’s Washington Post.

But maybe this ruling signifies part of a backlash against the use of the “war on terror” to abuse our liberties—like the Patriot Act and John Ashcroft‘s sweep of Muslims off our streets. In this particular case, Judge Gerald Tjoflat, on behalf of the panel, wrote:

We cannot simply suspend or restrict civil liberties until the War on Terror is over, because the War on Terror is unlikely ever to be truly over. September 11, 2001, already a day of immeasurable tragedy, cannot be the day liberty perished in this country.

Roy Bourgeois, the priest who started the annual protests at Fort Benning, Georgia, and who runs the excellent School of the Americas Watch, was quoted as saying,

I felt that they were using 9/11 as an excuse, along with the Patriot Act, to interfere with our First Amendment rights. They are using this to get around what the Constitution is really rooted in.

This year’s protest by the priest and his posse, an annual call to shut down this “School of Assassins,” is scheduled for November 19-21.

Before you go, here’s some reading material. Start with
this story about Bourgeois by Kateri Wozny in The Pulse of the Twin Cities, in which she writes:

“President Bush says, ‘We have to go after these terrorist training camps, wherever they are and shut them down,'” Bourgeois said. “We [protesters] say: A good place to start is in our backyard, here at this school.”

As the S.O.A. Watch movement grew, major media outlets began to take interest …. In 1996, The Washington Post reported that the S.O.A was teaching torture to Latin American soldiers, a scandal that caused some U.S. Congress members to introduce bills calling for closing the school. In response, the Pentagon changed the name of the school to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

As for the school itself, a valuable resource about its “security cooperation” is this August 2000 backgrounder from the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service, re-posted by the Federation of American Scientists. As alumni newsletters go, this is one of the most macabre. Here’s a sample:

Observers point out that School alumni include: 48 out of 69 Salvadoran military members cited in the U.N. Truth Commission’s report on El Salvador for involvement in human rights violations (including 19 of 27 military members implicated in the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests), and more than 100 Colombian military officers alleged to be responsible for human rights violations by a 1992 report issued by several human rights organizations. School graduates have also included several Peruvian military officers linked to the July 1992 killings of nine students and a professor from La Cantuta University, and included several Honduran officers linked to a clandestine military force known as Battalion 316, responsible for disappearances in the early 1980s.

Yes, where are these School of the Americas alums now? Not everyone connected with Battalion 316 has disappeared. One of them is John Negroponte. Just this past April, Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service dug into the memory hole to retrieve some nightmares in “Congress Ignores ‘Dirty War’ Past of New Iraq Envoy”. Here’s an excerpt:

Negroponte was sent by the incoming administration of then President Ronald Reagan (1981-89) to Tegucigalpa in early 1981 to transform Honduras into a military and intelligence base directed against Nicaragua and the left-wing insurgents in neighboring El Salvador—a mission he largely accomplished in the four years he spent running what at that time was Washington’s biggest embassy in the Americas.

Sound familiar? Now Negroponte has succeeded Jerry Bremer as Iraq’s pasha, and the Bush regime is building a huge embassy complex in Baghdad that serves not only as our locus of power in the oil-rich Middle East but also as a handy outpost to protect our business interests in oil-rich Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. Here’s a little more history from the frontal Lobe:

[Negroponte] and the station chief of the Central Intelligence Agency, Donald Winter, formed a close alliance with General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, the army’s ambitious and murderous commander who admired—and implemented—the “dirty war” tactics that he had learned from the Argentine military in the late 1970s.

Gee, is it possible that history keeps repeating itself? As long as we let exactly the same schnooks run the government, what do you expect? “Until Negroponte’s arrival,” Lobe wrote, “Honduras was a sleepy, relatively untroubled backwater in the region whose military, unlike those of its neighbors, was seen as relatively progressive, if corrupt, and loathe to resort to actual violence against dissidents.” Lobe continued:

But with the support of the CIA and the Argentines, Alvarez moved to change that radically, according to declassified documents as well as detailed and award-winning reporting by the Baltimore Sun in the mid-1990s.

A special intelligence unit of the Honduran Armed Forces, called Battalion 316, was put together by Alvarez and supplied and trained by the CIA and the Argentines. It was a death squad that kidnapped and tortured hundreds of real or suspected “subversives,” “disappeared” at least 180 of them—including U.S. missionaries—during Negroponte’s tenure. Such activities were previously unknown in Honduras.

At the same time, Negroponte, who was often referred to as “proconsul” by the Honduran media, oversaw the expansion of two major military bases used by U.S. forces and Nicaraguan contras, and, after the U.S. Congress put strict limits on the training of Salvadoran soldiers in-country, he “persuaded” the government to build a Regional Military Training Center on Honduran territory, despite the fact that Honduras and El Salvador were traditional enemies who had fought a bloody war less than 15 years before.

Throughout this period, Negroponte steadfastly defended Alvarez, at one point calling him “a model professional,” and repeatedly denied anything was amiss on the human rights front in Honduras despite rising concern in Congress about reports of disappearances and killings by death squads.

The promoters of Swift boat swill want to talk about war? Let’s talk about war. To bring yourself up to date on American foreign policy and its homeland roots, a good place to start is this little refresher course in American history from Howard Zinn‘s 2002 book Terrorism and War, in which Zinn reacts to George W. Bush‘s statement after 9/11 that “America is a peaceful nation.” As Zinn notes:

They want us to act as if we were born yesterday. They want us to forget the history of our government. Because if you forget history, if you were born yesterday, then you’ll believe anything.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 17, 2004

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