End to 'school of the assassins' urged Priest cites alumni of Army facility

October 08, 1993|By Frank P.L. Somerville | Frank P.L. Somerville,Staff Writer

A Roman Catholic priest who 12 years ago was feared killed in El Salvador while missing for 10 days was alive and well at Baltimore's Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation last night, pleading for an end to an Army school in Georgia.

The School of the Americas at Fort Benning, as it is called officially, is widely known in Latin America as "the school of the assassins," the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll missionary, told an audience of about 60 people.

He said that the little-known school, founded in Panama in 1946 and moved to Georgia in 1984, has cost the U.S. taxpayer countless millions of dollars, training 55,000 officers and enlisted men from many countries in South American and Central America.

Many infamous Latin America dictators, assassins and other military oppressors of the poor are among its "distinguished alumni," the priest said.

These alumni, he said, some of whose portraits have graced the walls of the school, include Manuel Noriega, the deposed leader of Panama, and the murderers of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, assassinated in 1980 while he celebrated Mass in a San Salvador hospital chapel.

Others killed by graduates of the school include six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter, who were shot during a rebel offensive in the El Salvador capital in November 1989, Father Bourgeois said.

Crimes for which the Army school must take at least partial responsibility, he said, include the massacre of about 1,000 men, women and children 11 years ago in the village of El Mozote in the northwestern department of Morazan.

One of the "most distinguished" alumni of the School of the Americas was Roberto d'Aubuisson, the founder of El Salvador's right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, who was widely believed to have ordered Archbishop Romero's assassination, Father Bourgeois said.

The priest's appearance was sponsored by several Baltimore peace and justice groups, including the American Friends Service Committee.

Father Bourgeois, now 54, was 42 when his disappearance in El Salvador received wide publicity in 1981 -- at a time when Catholic missionaries were targets of the Salvadoran death squads, many of them trained at the Fort Benning school. A mutilated body found four days later in San Salvador was thought to be his.

But after he showed up at the U.S. Embassy, it was learned that he had been protected by leftist guerrillas fighting to overthrow the ruling civilian-military junta backed by the Reagan administration.

"It hurts me deeply," Father Bourgeois said at the time, "to know that my country, the United States, is supplying military advisers and arms to a repressive dictatorship at war with its own people."

His call last night for the closing of the "school of the assassins" was an outgrowth of that realization, he said.

A combat Navy officer in Vietnam, he said he was inspired to join the Maryknoll order of Catholic priests and engage in a succession of demonstrations against the military, including the school at Fort Benning, by the good example of missionaries working with the victims of the Vietnam war.

Maryknoll priests, he told a questioner in his audience, "arrive as teachers" in far-flung areas of Latin America, Africa and Asia only to "realize that we are the students."

The only anger the missionary displayed last night was against Roman Catholic bishops who have written to him, saying they could not join the protest against the School of the Americas "because they can't get involved in politics."

The priest said he regularly writes back to the bishops, as he did while serving a recent 16-month prison sentence for trespassing and destruction of military property at Fort Benning.

"I ask the bishops why the death of innocent children is a political and not a moral issue," he said.

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