On Oct. 9, 200 activists marched along a dusty highway between Nogales and Tucson toward a Border Patrol checkpoint just north of Tubac, Arizona. At the front, activists prepared to risk arrest clutched painted crosses in their hands, each bearing the name of someone killed by US-trained assassins or the militarized US-Mexico border. The desert sun beat down on the activists’ linked arms as they sang:
I see, I see: No immigration police. No checkpoints. No fear. The world we want is right here.
Crossing into the checkpoint area, the activists braced for Border Patrol to approach and arrest them. To their surprise, officials let them through peacefully – unlike the many Latino, Latina and indigenous travelers profiled and stopped here.
The activists huddled together to consult on what to do. The contingent of 20 cross-bearers then formed a line beside one lane of slow-moving traffic, linked arms, and resumed singing, as the other activists supported from a distance. The word came quickly, passed along by one of the group’s volunteer lawyers: they could either move now, or they would be arrested on federal felony charges.
Close the School of the Americas!
The event that led those 20 activists to risk arrest on Oct. 9th was the 27th annual School of the Americas Watch vigil. A storied tradition on the American Left, the annual civil disobedince actions have resulted in activists collectively serving more than 100 years in prison.
Since 1990, the SOA Watch, an advocacy organization, has pushed for the closure of the School of the Americas, a combat training school first opened in Panama and today operating in Ft. Benning, Georgia. From 1946-2001, the school trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers and dictators in various counterinsurgency, intelligence-gathering and interrogation techniques.
Throughout the Cold war, the school trained anti-Leftist operatives who fomented coups and served to prop up dictators throughout Latin America. The school’s graduates later practiced methods of intimidation, assassination and torture.
The SOA Watch exposed those deeds by acquiring names of those trained at the school, matching them to corresponding news stories, and publishing profiles of the worst human rights offenders. The movement also published the school’s training manuals that instructed students in various torture techniques.
Over the years, the SOA Watch’s annual vigils at Ft. Benning grew into the tens of thousands, featuring dramatic direct actions. They eventually forced a political response–in 2000, Congress closed the School of the Americas before reopening it in 2001 under a different name (the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). The school also made minor changes to its curriculum.
The SOA Watch’s major victories include:
- Six Latin American countries (Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Nicaragua) have refused to send more soldiers to the SOA for training
- The Democratic Party included the school’s closure in its 2016 platform.
But the movement has also faced difficulties. Recently, it stumbled over an appellate court ruling that found that citizens do not have the right to know the names of students trained at the SOA. SOA Watch had already acquired the names from 1946-2003 through FOIA requests before the DOD suddenly began denying the requests in 2004. This anti-First Amendment ruling overturned a previous, favorable ruling from a North Carolina District Court. For now, this decision prevents the organization from adding to its database of SOA students who have become human rights abusers.
And despite including 8 hours of mandatory human rights instruction, the School of the Americas (as activists still call it) continues to operate essentially as it did before — as a School of Assassins.
Meanwhile, the movement has also had to grapple with transformations in the US imperial project as a whole. The state’s global security apparatus has decentralized, cloaking itself in the language of anti-terrorism rather than anti-communism. Accordingly, the SOA has become but one of many hubs in a global web of operational bases carrying out the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. Although the school continues to train hundreds of students annually from Latin America and elsewhere, its overall significance has arguably diminished. As JP Sottile put it in 2014:
The [SOA’s] pivots and rebranding efforts over the years reflect the efficacy and impact of the protests… But unlike any time over the last two and a half decades, this time [protesters in 2014] will be standing outside a mere outpost in a much larger network of US military influence that is growing wider with each passing day.
With those changes in mind, the SOA Watch movement decided to change course this year, relocating its annual vigil to the US-Mexico border near Nogales, AZ and Nogales, Sonora to highlight the human rights crisis there.
Border Militarization and Refugees
The consequence of repressive U.S. policy in Latin America has historically been waves of migration from the south to the United States. This pattern emerges predictably, whether the migrants are Mexicans fleeing the economic havoc wreaked by NAFTA or Hondurans fleeing the aftermath of a U.S.-sanctioned coup. In the latter case, SOA-graduates led the 2009 ouster of democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, giving rise to skyrocketing rates of violence and the accompanying wave of migration.
When Latin American migrants, most of whom could be called refugees, arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, they confront an increasingly militarized situation. That militarization kicked off in earnest in the 1990s, post-NAFTA, and since 9/11 has proceeded at breakneck speed: most of the existing border fence, which totals 651 miles, was constructed after 2006 and the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled since 2004. State governments, Texas in particular, have also dedicated their own law enforcement resources.
The first Border Patrol agent graduated from the School of the Americas program in 2015.
The cumulative impact of militarization can be measured in corpses. The death rate of border-crossers correlated to apprehensions has increased fivefold since 2006. As migrants shuffle along the border to avoid agents, walls, and checkpoints, they are funnelled into the most dangerous sections of the Sonoran desert where many perish. Most of those immigrants are Latin Americans, who try to cross undetected because, if apprehended, their chances of winning political asylum are vanishingly slim.
The swarm of agents at the border leaves bodies in other ways as well; since January 2010, at least 46 people have died as a direct result of encounters with Border Patrol — including several cases of individuals shot while on the Mexican side.
The SOA Watch moved its annual vigil to the border region to shine a light on the continuum of human rights abuses–a dark tunnel of death spanning the hemisphere, sanctioned by Uncle Sam and terminating in the deserts of Southern Arizona.
The SOA Watch 2016 Vigil
The 2016 SOA Watch vigil–billed as an encuentro assembling activists from all over the Americas fighting injustices—brought together around 1,000 participants from Oct. 7-10.
The first two days of the convergence featured a protest at Eloy Detention Center, a notorious private prison for immigrant detainees; a binational march led by Veterans for Peace; a series of educational workshops on topics such as migrant disappearance, mass incarceration and the Colombian peace process; and a vigil for José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, the 16-year old killed by Border Patrol in 2012 while walking home on the Mexican side of the border.
On the third and final day, around noon, activists began organizing rides to head to the Border Patrol checkpoint between Nogales and Tucson. Throughout the weekend, people had been organizing for a direct action there — a continuation of the SOAW’s long tradition of civil disobedience.
At the end of the dusty highway between Nogales and Tucson, 20 cross-bearing activists lined up arm-in-arm beside the checkpoint’s lanes of slow-moving traffic and sang, in defiance of Border Patrol commands. A stream of mostly Latino/a drivers drove past the line, flashing fists, peace signs and furtive waves.
The activists chanted:
Se ve (You can see it), Se siente (You can feel it), ¡La gente está presente! (The people are here).
Border Patrol agents repeatedly warned the protesters that if they did not leave immediately, they would be arrested. State police officers arrived, raising the question of whether federal or state charges would be pressed. In the end, however, officers made no move to arrest, and the 20 activists–ranging in age from their early 20s to their 70s–would end up holding the line for five hours, reaching hundreds of passing drivers and ignoring the Border Patrol’s attempts to negotiate.
Before leaving, the activists staged a final action: bearing their crosses toward the Border Patrol’s nearby office building, they held a die-in, blocking the entrance. Some ‘died,’ crosses in hand, representing the migrants lost in the militarized border zone, and others mourned the deaths in loud wails that drowned out the patrolmen’s complaints.
“This is what happens,” yelled one activist. “This is what these checkpoints cause every day.”
The activists then arose, the ‘dead’ come back to life, and left the checkpoint — their heads and voices lifted.
Hendrik Voss, national organizer for the SOA Watch, said the vigil will most likely return to the US-Mexico border next fall to build on this year’s efforts.