Ending US backed torture in Latin America

Lyn Gerry (redlyn@loop.com)
Sun, 17 Nov 1996 16:06:31 +0000


Sunday, November 17, 1996
Los Angeles, California, USA

THE OFFICE OF THE AMERICAS HONORS THREE ACTIVIST CLERICS
FOR SOLIDARITY WITH THE STRUGGLES OF THE PEOPLE OF EL SALVADOR,
GUATEMALA AND CUBA

by Lyn Gerry
____________________________________________________________

At its 13th birthday celebration last night in Los Angeles, the
Office of Americas (OOA) handed out its yearly awards recognizing
those whose work personifies "the mission of the Office of the
Americas." OOA, now in its 13th year, was founded to combat US
militarism in Latin America and support the people of those nations in
their struggles for justice.

The three honorees were Lucius Walker of Pastors for Peace for his
work against the US blockade of Cuba ; Diana Ortiz, an American nun
tortured for her human rights work in Guatemala and Roy Bourgeois, a
Maryknoll priest, for his attempts to close the School of Americas, a
US military training camp for assassins and torturers of Latin
American client dictatorships. Bourgeois was not able to attend in
person as he is serving his second term in US Federal prison for
civil disobedience at the School of Americas.

OOA founder and director Blase Bonpane said Bourgeois, "personifies
our conviction that the war system can be abolished." Bourgeois was
recognized by OOA for: ----his lifelong commitment to peace and social
justice ----founding the School of the Americas Watch ----following
the great Ghandian tradition of non-violent civil disobedience
in opposition to an unrestrained culture of militarism, and
----being a living example of moral leadership

A interview with Bourgeois, videotaped in the Federal penitentiary in
Atlanta Georgia on August 1, 1996, was scheduled but not shown due to
projection equipment which did not arrive. OOA made a transcript of
the interview available to attendees. What follows are excerpts from
that transcript. The interviewer was American actor/activist Martin
Sheen.

Bourgeois told Sheen he first began to question American foreign
policy during the Vietnam War. Bourgeois was an officer in the US
Navy. Following his discharge from the military Bourgeois became
ordained as priest in the Maryknoll order, and was sent to Bolivia.
He said the people living in the slums of La Paz, Bolivia, "taught me
about my country's foreign policy. They taught me about their fight
for justice, their fight for liberation from their oppression and
poverty. They taught me about my country's CIA and how they operate
and about our multinational corporations who go there looking for
cheap labor and those huge profits that can be made from the cheap
labor."

Bourgeois was arrested for his human rights organizing by the military
dictatorship of General Hugo Banzer, a graduate of the School of the
Americas, and subsequently expelled from Bolivia. Bourgeois continued
his work in the United States, realizing, "It's not their struggle
there and our struggle here. Its the same system, the socioeconomic
system at work, hurting people not healing them. It's a small group in
power in each country who lack the compassion to bring about a better
life."

Bourgeois returned to the US in 1980. Shortly afterward, Archbishop
Oscar Romero was gunned down in El Salvador, and, later that year four
Maryknoll Sisters were raped and killed by graduates of the School of
the Americas. Bourgeois went to El Salvador and found"...a small
country dominated by the rich. The oligarchy who confiscated more
land, wealth and power for themselves with the military on their side
to keep them in power." And, he said, Bourgeois saw that it was his
country which was giving guns to the soldiers who were doing the
killing. "We were supporting a socioeconomic system that was keeping
the rich [rich] and the poor [poor]. And I saw that as a sin." He said
he was charged by the people he met in El Salvador to "Go back and
tell your own people what's going on down here."

The School of the Americas was originally located in Panama during the
Noriega regime. It was moved to Fort Benning, a military installation
in Georgia in 1984. Bourgeois said opposition against the school
organized their first action in 1983 when they learned 525 Salvadoran
soldiers were being brought to Fort Benning for intensive training in
"the art of killing."

Bourgeois traveled to Fort Benning and began to hold informational
meetings whose attendance grew. The group began to hold fasts, marches
and vigils at the gates of Fort Benning each day. Their purpose was to
call attention to the presence of the Salvadoran soldiers being
trained with American taxpayer dollars. After 3 months of speaking
Bourgeois decided it was "time to leave the comfort of the pulpit" and
"do something more." He and two friends, decided to bring the words of
Oscar Romero directly to the Salvadoran soldiers inside the military
installation.

They had obtained a tape of the last sermon given by Romero before his
assassination, which contained a special plea to the military to lay
down their arms.

Bourgeois and his two comrades bought military uniforms and disguised
as officers gained entry to the Fort Benning compound one night. They
carried with them a powerful tape player and the tape of Romero's
words in Spanish. They penetrated high security area and climbed a
tall pine tree near the barracks where the Salvadorans were housed.
When the last lights went out, they turned on the tape and the voice
of Romero boomed into the barracks. The soldiers recognized the voice
of the murdered archbishop and ran out of the barracks, looking
fearfully into the night sky. Then the military police, armed with
guns and dogs, located the activists and threatened to shoot them
down. When the activists came down, the were "worked over" and
questioned. The FBI was brought in to question them. They were
arrested and ultimately sentenced to 18 months in prison for criminal
trespassing and impersonating an officer.

Bourgeois said of his imprisonment," That was the first time, It was
hard. I find it very difficult. Prison is not a pleasant place."
During that first prison term he was thrown into the "hole" for a
month for disobeying an order. He refused to clean the warden's
office and said, "No, I couldn't do it, I will only work to help my
fellow inmates."

Bourgeois described his first week in solitary confinement in the 6 X
8 foot cell as "hell." In the second, week he began to meditate on
the reason for his being there- to keep faith with the poor and his
conscience. He thought," We want to be effective. We want to stop that
training but we're not that powerful. We've got to be realistic. And
we're going to keep trying." He said this caused him to "feel free"
in the tiny cell. He asked the warden to let him serve out his 18
month sentence there.

The warden replied, "No, you're out of here. This is supposed to be
punishment."

Although he has been imprisoned 8 times to date, Bourgeois has "no
regrets" He said that "not everyone is called to civil disobedience. I
have come to see it as something important in my own life, it's one of
the ways we can work for peace....you can't silence the truth. I feel
it is in prison that we can speak, and speak effectively. You know
thirteen of us are in prison around the country."

Other imprisoned activists include Sister Claire O'Mara, a 74-year old
nun, Jo Anne Lingel, a mother of eight and Bill Corrigan, a 75 year
old World War II veteran incarcerated at the same facility where
Bourgeois is serving his current sentence.

After his release from his first incarceration in the early 1980's.
Bourgeois resumed his work. Eventually he and other peace activists
rented an apartment in Fort Benning where they formally set up
research into the School of the Americas as well as conducting fasts
and demonstrations.

In 1993, the United Truth Commission Report on El Salvador was made
public.

The UN reported cited most well-known massacres in El Salvador's civil
war, including the infamous El Mozote massacre of more than 2000
unarmed women, men and children. Bourgeois' organization had obtained
the names of all personnel trained by the School of the Americas
through the Freedom of information Act----and discovered 73 percent of
the officers involved in the massacres detailed in the UN report were
School of Americas graduates.

Bourgeois commented to Sheen,"..right next to us is the maximum
security penitentiary. There are over 600 prisoners there...They have
been given life without parole....There are many Latin American
soldiers.....[who] have massacred people, they have tortured, they
have raped, they have dismembered people and they have given
themselves amnesty, total amnesty!....we don't have one soldier in
prison today for any of the killing documented in the human rights
report."

More than 75,000 thousand people were killed by the Salvadoran
military.

Bourgeois and his 12 companions received there current prison
sentences for an action they conducted on November 16, 1995 where
the entered the premises of Fort Benning and conducted a reenactment
of the murder of 6 six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her
daughter. The group was arrested and charged with criminal trespass.
Bourgeois, as it was his second offense before that judge received the
maximum sentence of six months.

[Blase Bonpane told me this was the same judge who had exonerated Lt.
William Calley for the My Lai massacre during the Viet Nam War.]

The other members of the group received sentences of two months which
was, when they had served one day, "more time than the 26 officers who
did the killing of the Jesuits...because they declared amnesty for
themselves." Bourgeois has cited a similar situation in Peru, and
predicted the same would occur in Guatemala, where the brutality of
the military is "worse than the Salvadoran military."

The School, Bourgeois went on to say, is not only costly in human
lives and suffering, but in US taxpayer dollars "at a time when we are
cutting budgets to our schools for our children, this school of the
Americas is getting millions of dollars from taxpayers."

Courses taught at the school include: Commando Operations, Sniper
Training, Psychological Warfare and Interrogation Techniques. "It is
about the poor in their places, it's about keeping the rich [rich].'

Bourgeois says they have been able to get away with it because "we
simply haven't known." The Pentagon has made it clear it will fight to
keep the school open in spite of growing public opposition and there
is still much work to be done.

OTHER HONOREES

Lucius Walker, a Baptist Minster and founder of Pastors for Peace was
present to receive his award. OOA founder Blase Bonpane called Walker
a personification of "the relentless persistence for non-violent
change in Latin America" who has brought the methodologies of Dr.
Martin Luther King to an international level."

Lucius Walker was arrested by US authorities in January of 1996 when
his Pastors for Peace delegation attempted to take computers to Cuba
for use in hospitals there. When the computers were seized, he and
four others engaged in a 94-day fast until the computers were
released.

!7 people were arrested in the attempt to bring the 400 used IBM 286
!computers
to Cuba. Walker estimated the US government spent $2 million trying to
prevent the delivery. Walker said he had not seen so many police at
one place in all his 35 years of non-violent resistance.

In his acceptance speech, Walker called the US policy toward Cuba
"genocidal, criminal, immoral and illegal." He explained that
although Pastors for Peace could have applied to the US government for
a license to deliver humanitarian aid, Pastors for Peace "refused to
ask the government for a license to deliver aid to our brothers and
sisters in Cuba" and to thus "condone the authority of the US
government to conduct the blockade."

Walker believes "the world needs the example of Cuba." He cited Cuba's
efforts to improve the lives of its people. Over 35 years, he said,
infant mortality has has dropped from 60 per 1000 births to less than
10 per 1000. Life expectancy of the average Cuban has risen from 55
years in 1955 to 75 years in 1991. At the time of the Cuban
revolution, he said, Cuba had 3000 doctors. It now has 51,000. While
Cuba exports doctors to other nations, "we're exporting soldiers,
businessmen and CIA agents."

Diana Ortiz, an American Ursullite nun was abducted at gunpoint from a
churchyard in Antigua, Guatemala in 1989. She was taken to a
clandestine prison where she was interrogated, tortured and gang
raped by three members of the Guatemalan security forces under the
command of a US operative, "Alejandro." When they learned she was a US
citizen, they halted her torture and told her they would take her to
the US Embassy. She ordered to remain silent about her experiences,
or, videotapes of her torture would be released to the public. She
escaped from the vehicle being used to take her to the embassy. The US
Ambassador, Thomas Stroock, instead of investigating the atrocity
which he knew was routine practice, accused Ortiz of "misdeeds."

Ortiz has been attempting to have the documents identifying
"Alejandro" and exposing US backed torture in Guatemala made public.
She conducted a 5-week vigil in front of the White House, during which
time 123 people were arrested for civil disobedience in support of her
action. 103 members of the US Congress have signed a letter supporting
full agency-wide declassification of the files on Guatemala.

Last night, Diana Ortiz spoke of the psychological effects of her
torture, that every November as its anniversary occurs, she
re-experiences it. She also said, despite a promise by Hilary Clinton
to help her obtain the documents, what she has received thus far has
been "shellacked with horseshit." In others words, redacted, useless
or already in the public domain.

Ortiz has asked for public support, " Not for myself, but for the
people of Guatemala...targeted for disappearance, torture and murder
because they are working for truth and justice in a society
characterized by inequality and oppression."

In his closing address to the gathering, OOA director Blase Bonpane
said," In spite of any "electoral victories" here at home or in
Nicaragua, the Office of the Americas will continue to work for peace
by working for justice. The Zapatistas have not selected state power
as their objective. On the contrary, they demand honest government
pursuing the common good and social justice....we commit ourselves to
the continuation and magnification of these efforts."

The Office of the Americas can be reached at:
8124 West 3rd Street, Suite 210
Los Angeles, CA 90048
(213) 852-9808