Austinites Warmly Received at "School of the Assassins"
By Joshua Fisher, Fri., Dec. 5, 1997
"Bring all the cameras you want," Captain McIver assured the Austinites before they made their way into the Pentagon-like halls of the military school. McIver, during a lucky phone call placed by this reporter before the trip, had agreed to give an impromptu tour of the SOA. A fascinating opportunity, given the fact that the school has always seemed to be a place of dark secrets and deadly intrigue; it's nicknamed the "School of the Assassins" by opponents because of its alleged ties to assassinations and other human rights abuses throughout Latin America. Yet McIver (even his name is somehow comforting), dressed in fatigues and bubbling with friendly sarcasm, turned the walk through the shadowy school into an afternoon field trip.
Before the tour began outside his office, McIver quickly took care of a phone call with a half-joking wisecrack: "Let me get back to you because I have a bunch of protesters in the hall." Most of the eight Austinites assembled outside the Captain's door were members of the Guatemala Action Network of Austin (GANA). But also traveling with the group was local filmmaker Lee Daniel, fresh from working on a film about alleged CIA complicity in drug trafficking. Daniel explained that he had come to Fort Benning to capture the historic demonstration on film, but was glad to get a chance to film inside the school itself. "The whole point in being here is to give the alternative media more ammo, more fodder as they investigate the School of the Americas," Daniel said. He added that he hoped to provide additional footage to be included in an updated version of School of the Assassins, an Academy Award nominee in 1995 for Best Documentary. That film linked various SOA graduates to numerous human rights abuses, including the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador where 900 civilians were murdered by Salvadoran death squads.
Just as McIver rejoined the Austin crew gathered outside his office, a clutch of military officers from Honduras shuffled by, turning to observe the civilians as they simultaneously eyeballed them. Exactly what were the officers learning here? U.S. taxpayers spend nearly $20 million dollars annually to train 900-2,000 Latin American soldiers each year. SOA opponents claim that graduates -- who have gotten the best military training that U.S. dollars can buy -- have returned to their home countries only to torture and kill civilians and clergy members who dared to speak in favor of democracy. Former Austin lawyer Jennifer Harbury (who was out of the country and sent her deep regrets that she could not attend the protest), blames the detention, torture, and murder of her Guatemalan husband on Guatemalan military officials, at least two of whom, she has said, were SOA graduates.
"Where do you guys want to go?" McIver asked affably, rubbing his hands together. Then, as if he already knew the answer, he turned on his heel and led the group into the school's publication storage, where stacks upon stacks of Spanish-language training manuals filled the room.
"Please don't shoplift anything," McIver joked. "All of these are available in a catalogue."
It was in this room that the skeptical guests pressed McIver on the now-infamous "torture" manuals, released to the press last year, and one of the driving forces behind the current national momentum to close the school. An investigation of the school was ordered after the Department of Defense released the contents of seven Spanish-language manuals used at the school, manuals that condoned torture, blackmail, and assassination. A recently released Inspector General's report criticized the SOA for inadequate oversight of the training manuals. In September, by a vote of 210-217, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly defeated an attempt to cut off SOA funding.
"All I can tell you is that the SOA did not write them," McIver said. "The U.S. Army Intelligence Center wrote those manuals, and they were used everywhere in the world where that training was conducted. They were inadvertently brought here, and when we discovered them, we pulled them from the shelves.
"Was it a cover-your-ass thing?" McIver asked rhetorically. "Maybe it was."
Next, McIver took the group inside the school's library. "Okay, here it is, here's what you all came to see," McIver said, pointing up to a wall filled with photographs of decorated Latin American military officers. "Take all the pictures you want, and make sure you get that first guy," he urged.
McIver was referring to Gen. Hugo Banzer Suarez, an SOA graduate. Among dozens of others on the SOA Hall of Fame, recently relocated from the main hall into the library, Gen. Banzer's photograph is representative of the type of graduates who have brought controversy to the tax-funded school. The former Bolivian dictator is just one of many soldiers who have received an education at the SOA and then used that training to become yet another in a long line of military dictators who've ruled parts of Latin America through fear and bloodshed.
Opponents of the school point to a long list of similar SOA graduates whose accomplishments after graduation have done little to further supposed "American" ideals. SOA grads, for instance, were alleged to be largely responsible for the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who urged his followers to be "voices for the voiceless," a common theme adopted in protests against the school.
McIver presented a different side to the story. Using videos and glossy magazines, he was well-prepared to defend the Army's position. McIver insisted that the school has reshaped its mission in the last five years, and that the human rights training currently offered at the school will prevent future problems. He added that the school is doing crucial, irreplaceable work for humanity in terms of bettering the relationships between Latin American and American militaries.
As the group from Austin continued its tour of the halls and classrooms of the SOA, more than 2,000 protestors from across the country continued to mass outside the main gates at Ft. Benning. Later that night, McIver accepted an invitation from the touring Austinites to meet at a pub for beers, and, as the almost surreal evening wore on with much revelry all around, the Captain even urged the crew to retire to his home, just a mile from the bar. Instead, the group from Austin returned to its hotel to rest up for the continuing protest the next morning.
The following day, on November 16 -- eight years since the murders of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador, alleged by many to have been committed by SOA-trained death squads -- 600 protesters were arrested for marching illegally onto the base to deliver 100,000 signatures of people who want the school closed. Eight Austin residents, some of whom had taken McIver's tour, were among those arrested. "There's a decent human side to McIver, but he's a soldier, and that is a mentality I can't relate to," said Rhodney Williams, an Austin schoolteacher who took the tour and was later arrested on the base. "The tour was invaluable in that we actually went in there, listened to his side of the story, and were open-minded about it. The government line was presented extremely well, and I found myself reconsidering my opinions.
"But in the final analysis," Williams said, "I established a greater distrust in the School of the Americas."
At the site of the demonstration, about a block from the mass of protesters, a familiar man stood on the sidewalk in a baseball cap and black glasses.
"McIver?" inquired Victor LaCour, Daniel's sound engineer.
The man laughed heartily and said, "I bet you guys didn't think I'd come out here, did you?"
For more info on the Guatemalan Action Network of Austin, call 474-5677.
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.