by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
June 2, 2001
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- On the first of June, they buried Congressman Joe Moakley in his beloved hometown of South Boston.
President Bush, Former President Clinton and a host of other heavy hitters attended the funeral for the Massachusetts Democrat, who died of leukemia on Memorial Day at the age of 74.
He was a protègé of the late and much beloved House Speaker Tip O'Neill and spent his long political career living up to O'Neill's famous aphorism - "all politics is local."
Moakley also had a keen sense of working for the underdog, whichled him to his most famous and longest lasting crusade -- seeking peace and justice for El Salvador.
El Salvador is a long way from the Irish Catholic enclave of South Boston. But the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter who were machine-gunned by a death squad on November 16, 1989, helped transform Moakley from a parochial politician to a peacemaker.
Moakley knew two of the murdered priests, so he was dispatched to El Salvador by then-House Speaker Tom Foley to investigate. Moakley learned that the Salvadoran military were behind the killings and that the soldiers had been trained and funded by the U.S. He and his aide, Jim McGovern (now a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts), personally tracked down the killers and confirmed that they had acted under orders from their superiors - who had ties to the U.S. military.
Moakley's work eventually led to the arrest of several members of the Salvadoran military. He also helped to cut off U.S. aid to the Salvadoran military, which led him to his next big crusade: closing down the place that trained the killers, the U.S. Army's School of the Americas (SOA).
The SOA has trained some of the most notorious thugs in the Southern Hemisphere. Political hoodlums including Panama's Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega, El Salvador's Roberto D'Aubuisson, Bolivia's Hugo Banzer-Suarez, Ecuador's Guillemo Rodriguez, Peru's Juan Velasco Alvarado, Argentina's Leopoldo Galtieri and Robero Viola and Haiti's Raoul Cedras.
Started in Panama in 1946, the SOA was moved to Fort Benning, Ga., in 1984 under terms set down by the Panama Canal Treaty. During its 55-year history, it has trained more than 60,000 soldiers from Latin America and the Caribbean. The school's stated goal is to train soldiers to be military professionals serving under democratic civilian leadership. The reality is that the soldiers have been trained to fight counterinsurgency wars back in their home countries to protect American interests without risking American lives.
Instead of fostering stability and democracy, the SOA became a finishing school for Latin America's worst dictators. It earned the derisive tag, "School of the Assassins," for the horrific atrocities that have been committed by its alumni.
In El Salvador alone, 47 officers who were trained at the SOA were cited for war crimes in 1993 by the United Nations Truth Commission Report on the Salvadoran Civil War. Some of those crimes included the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 and the massacres at the villages of El Junquillo and El Mozote in 1981 and San Sebastian in 1988.
SOA grads filled the government death squads in Honduras, Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. In the name of fighting communism (and protecting U.S. interests), they fought our proxy wars in Central America. Tens of thousands of civilians were slaughtered by these U.S.-trained soldiers.
The activities of the SOA alumni are well-known to human rights groups. But most Americans aren't aware of the torture and murder that has been done - and continues to be done - by soldiers whose training was funded with U.S. tax dollars.
On the day Joe Moakley was buried, I had a visit from Fr. Roy Bourgeois, the founder and co-director of SOA Watch, a group devoted to closing down the school. Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest who served as a missionary in Latin America for many years, worked with Moakley on legislation to close the SOA.
"Joe lived his life according to the words of Archbishop Romero: 'Let those who have a voice speak for the voiceless.' He really believed that," said Bourgeois.
Pressure has been building on the Pentagon to close the school. SOA Watch has held annual vigils and performed acts of civil disobedience at Fort Benning and Bourgeois said the crowds have gotten larger every year.
"It was so hard for years to get people to connect with the things that were happening in Central and South America," Bourgeois said. "Then came El Salvador and the murders of the church workers and the discovery that we trained their killers. Everything just kicked in after that."
Bowing to pressure, the Department of Defense renamed the SOA as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC). Bourgeois said the name has changed, but nothing else has changed at the school.
"Joe said this was like taking perfume and pouring it on a toxic waste dump," said Bourgeois. "They made some cosmetic changes, but it's still a combat school."
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Colombia, which has trained more than 10,000 of its soldiers at the SOA. Their army has the worst human rights record in the hemisphere. Not surprisingly, Gen. Mario Montoya Uribe - the military official in charge of Plan Colombia, the joint U.S.-Colombian anti-drug counterinsurgency campaign - is an SOA graduate who has been implicated in various incidents of paramilitary violence.
"Most of the SOA students are involved in Plan Colombia," said Bourgeois, who recently visited Colombia to see the drug war firsthand. "The whole thing looks like another Vietnam, another El Salvador. The government's been spraying the coca fields with herbicides that have also been killing the crops of indigenous peoples. Plants and animals have been killed and kids are getting sick. The farmers said that Plan Colombia is 'killing us and killing the earth' and that no one cares about them."
There currently is a bill in Congress, HR 1810, calling for the closure of the WHISC and the creation of a joint congressional task force to assess U.S. training of Latin American military personnel. Moakley was one of the sponsors and it is similar to a bill that sought to close the school last year that failed by a 214-204 margin.
"It would be a wonderful tribute to Joe if Congress succeeded in closing the school he worked so hard to close," said Bourgeois. "The age of the dictators is gone in Latin America, but the military is still entrenched and has the most power.
"Our government says it's teaching democracy, but we ask, 'How do you teach democracy with the barrel of a gun?'"
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books).