The School of the Americas began in 1946 in Panama as a facility to train Latin American soldiers to fight against Communism.
In 1984 the school left Panama under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty and relocated to Fort Benning, Ga., with an anti-drug and anti-terror objective.
In its 54-year existence, the SOA has trained and graduated 60,000 Latin American soldiers.
The current controversy surrounding the SOA concerns accusations of brutal treatment towards the Latin American people at the hands of SOA- trained soldiers.
The poor economic conditions of the area, extensive poverty, oppression, and exploitation of the people caused by developing free trade and cheaper labor sources for U.S corporations have encouraged protest for better conditions and human rights. Soldiers trained at the SOA are accused of returning to their countries and using their training against the protesters, student activists and religious leaders who work for change.
Some of the atrocities cited by Bourgeois included an SOA-trained Guatemalan colonel murdering a church bishop who, two days prior to his death, had published a report about the forced disappearances, massacres, and torture in the area.
Bourgeois also told of a U.S Congressional Task Force reporting that SOA-trained soldiers were responsible for the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their co-worker, and her teenage daughter in El Salvador in November 1989; a tragedy that gained international attention and sparked the founding of the SOA Watch.
The SOA Watch began in 1990 in a small apartment outside of the main gate of Ft. Benning with the goal of shutting down the SOA and changing U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. Headed by Bourgeois, the SOA Watch works to educate the public, lobby Congress and participate in nonviolent resistance to promote its cause.
Bourgeois, a Vietnam War veteran and Catholic priest, worked in Latin America for several years before being forced out and has seen firsthand the military brutality associated with U.S. foreign policy.
"The poor of the developing countries are becoming more educated and emboldened by their religious faith. They are saying Basta! [enough] and being silenced by the men with guns," Bourgeois said.
Part of the SOA Watchs nonviolent resistance campaign is an annual protest held every November, which started its first year with 10 protesters. This past November produced a record turnout of 10,000 protesters. Unlike previous years, the protesters last fall were met with a new chain-link and barbed-wire fence with several "No Trespassing" signs at the entrance to Ft. Benning. Eighty people were arrested, including two St. Olaf students.
One of the SOA Watchs victories came in December 2000 when Congress successfully passed a bill to close the SOA.
However, at the end of January 2001, the school was reopened under the new name Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) to signify that reforms had indeed taken place. The reforms, however, have been called "basically cosmetic" by the SOA Watch and have not changed the structure of the school, which still currently operates at the same training facility. There is currently another bill in Congress trying to close the WHINSEC. "Bush says we have to go after terrorist training camps and shut them down, why not start in our own backyard?" Bourgeois said.
Bourgeois was on campus as part of the SOA Awareness Week sponsored by the Peace and Justice group and also on behalf of the two St. Olaf students who were arrested last November.