School of the Americas: School of Assassins
Maryknoll World Productions (1995: 13 minutes)
Narrated by Susan Sarandon
Transcribed by Darrell G. Moen
Susan Sarandon: In the late
afternoon of December 4, 1980, an unmarked grave was
found in a field in El Salvador. When it was opened in
the presence of the U.S. ambassador, it revealed the
bodies of four women: Maryknoll Sisters Mara Clark and
Eda Ford, Ursaline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay
missionary Jean Donovan.
Of the five officers later found responsible for the
rape and murder of these women, three were graduates of
the United States Army School of the Americas. According
to the Pentagon, the mission of the school is to train
the armed forces of Latin America, promote military
professionalism, foster cooperation among multinational
military forces, and to expand the trainees' knowledge
of United States customs and traditions.
The School of the Americas originated in 1946 in
Panama. Now, it is located on the grounds of Fort
Benning, Georgia. The school teaches commando
operations, sniper training, how to fire an M-16, and
psychological warfare. Since no major declared war
between Latin American countries has occurred in decades
and the communist threat has vanished, why provide this
kind of training?
Representative Joseph Kennedy: If
you look at the course ranges that are offered to these
inividuals, they in fact are a dedicated way of teaching
military leaders in foreign nations how to subvert their
Susan Sarandon: Since it opened,
more than 55,000 military officials from 23 Latin
American and Carribean countries have trained at the
school. About 2,000 students a year. As facts have
emerged about the school and its graduates, it has drawn
the attention of a growing number of human rights
activists, such as Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois.
Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois: Just
down the road here is the School of the Americas. It's a
combat school. Most of the courses revolve around what
they call "counter-insurgency warfare." Who are the
"insurgents?" We have to ask that question. They are the
poor. They are the people in Latin America who call for
reform. They are the landless peasants who are hungry.
They are health care workers, human rights advocates,
labor organizers. They become the insurgents. They are
seen as "the enemy." They are those who become the
targets of those who learn their lessons at the School
of the Americas.
Susan Sarandon: What has been
learned about the lessons taught at the school? In the
1980s, the civil war in El Salvador became a focal point
for human rights activists throughout the world. Death
squads operated freely, often killing 50 people a night.
There were so many cases that on March 23, 1980,
Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador made a plea to
the military leaders of his country.
Archbishop Oscar Romero: I would
like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of
the army. In the name of God, in the name of the
suffering people whose laments rise to the heaven each
day more tumultuous, I ask you, I order you in the name
of God, stop the repression.
Susan Sarandon: While celebrating
mass the next day, Archbishop Romero was assassinated. A
number of years later, the National Security Archives in
Washington D.C. made an important discovery when they
obtained a copy of a declassified cable, Cape Dole.
Woman working at the National Security Archives: These
two cables are both from the American Embassy in El
One is from Dean Hinton, who was then Ambassador to
El Salvador in 1981. And it discusses a meeting during
which Roberto D'Aubuisson plans the murder of Archbishop
Romero. During the meeting, there is described a lottery
that the people who are attending the meeting hold to
see who would draw the "right" to kill Romero himself.
Susan Sarandon: D'Aubuisson was
trained at the School of the Americas. Also trained at
the school were two of the three officers directly
responsible for the assassination. December 11, 1981: El
Mazote, a small village in El Salvador...
Rufina Amaya (survivor of the El Mazote
massacre): First, they forced everyone out of
their houses and made us all lie face down in the
street, both men and women. There were soldiers on both
sides. Then, they moved away to see the women kneeling
down on the ground to pray. They killed all of them. Not
a single one of them survived, just me by the grace of
God. I hid under a tree. When I heard the screams of the
children, and I knew which ones were mine, they were
crying, "Mommy, they're killing us."
Susan Sarandon: Over 900 men, women,
and children were massacred. Virtually the entire
population of the village and the area surrounding El
Mazote. Out of 143 bodies identified in the laboratory,
131 were of children under the age of 12, including
three infants under the age of three months. Ten of the
12 officers cited as responsible for the El Mazote
massacre were graduates of the School of the Americas.
They were members of the Atlacatl Battalion, a part
of the El Salvador Army. November 16, 1989: San
Salvador. Six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her
15-year-old daughter were slaughtered. To get the facts
about this incident, a U.S. Congressional Investigation
began, led by Representative Joseph Mokely.
Representative Joseph Mokely: I went
down [to El Salvador]. I talked with the Embassy, talked
with the military, talked with the unionists. I had
meetings set up in very dingy places to talk with people
who didn't want to talk to me in public. And we gathered
enough information that we pushed the investigation to
the degree that it was concluded and the people who
perpetrated the crime were found guilty. The killing was
done by the Atlacatl Battalion which is the crack [best]
battalion in that country. And these are the people,
some of them had just returned from the United States,
where they were taught a course on "human rights"
amongst other things.
Susan Sarandon: Nineteen of the 26
officers implicated in the Jesuit murders were graduates
of the school, including Yushi Renee Mendoza, the
lieutenant in charge of the squad that killed the
Jesuits and the two women. He attended a commando course
a year before the massacre took place.
Representative Joseph Mokely: The
Truth Commission to the U.N. substantiated everything
that I had brought forward.
Susan Sarandon: The United Nations
Truth Commission Report released on March 15, 1993,
cited specific officers for committing atrocities during
the El Salvador civil war. At School of the Americas
Watch just outside Fort Benning, Georgia, Vicky Imerman
matched the names cited in the U.N. Report with names in
a United States Government document.
Vicky Imerman: What I did was I took
these officers, all the officers listed in the report
and I looked them up in list of graduates of the School
of the Americas which we received through the Freedom of
Information Act. What I found were 49 of the 60-some
officers listed were graduates of the School of the
Americas. These officers attended the school both before
and after they committed atrocities. Francisco Del Cid,
right here, was on the Commandant's List a couple of
years after he ordered the massacre of about 16
civilians and had their corpses burned.
Susan Sarandon: El Salvador is only
part of the school's story. In the entry area of one of
its main buildings are photographs of those the school
honors, its so-called Hall of Fame. At the top of the
list, Hugo Banzer, former dictator of Bolivia, a
graduate of the school. Some of the others similarly
honored are the former dictators of Honduras, Ecuador,
and Argentina. And generals from eight other Latin and
Caribbean nations, many cited by human rights groups for
involvement in human rights abuses in their own
Among other graduates, Manuel Noriega, former
president of Panama, currently in prison in the United
States. Four of the five ranking Honduran officers who
organized death squads in the 1980s as part of Battalion
316, are graduates. Half of the 250 Columbian officers
cited for human rights abuses attended the school. The
three highest ranking Peruvian officers convicted in
February 1994 of murdering nine university students and
a professor were all graduates. Also, the Peruvian army
commander who brought out tanks to obstruct initial
investigation of the murders.
During the dictatorship of the Somoza family [in
Nicaragua], over 4,000 National Guard troops graduated
from the school. Many of them later became known as the
"Contras," responsible for the deaths of thousands of
Nicaraguan peasants in the 1980s. The general in charge
of Argentina's so-called "Dirty War" was a school
graduate. During that internal conflict in the
late-1970s and early-1980s, an estimated 30,000 people
were tortured, disappeared, and murdered.
General Hector Gramajo of Guatemala was the featured
speaker at the school's graduation ceremonies in 1991.
Human rights groups claim he is the architect of
strategies that legalized military atrocities in
Guatemala resulting in the death of over 200,000 men,
women, and children.
Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois: As a
Catholic priest, as a U.S. citizen, I really feel a
responsibility to speak out against that because of this
[school]. This does not lead to healing, it leads to
death and suffering. In a way, this is a death machine.
And this, I want to say, is very close to home because
it's in our backyard. It's not out there in El Salvador.
This is not in South Africa. We're talking about a
school of assassins right here in our backyard being
supported and financed through our tax money. It's being
done in our names.
Susan Sarandon: $30 million of U.S.
taxpayer money was recently spent to renovate school
headquarters and these housing units for soldiers
attending the school.
Vicky Imerman: It's an outrage. It's
the use of our tax dollars, American tax dollars, for
what I think your average American feels is a distinctly
Susan Sarandon: On September 30,
1993, the School of the Americas was debated by Congress
for the first time in its history. It happened when an
amendment to the Defense Department budget was
introduced by Congressman Joseph Kennedy.
Congressman Joseph Kennedy: Mr.
Speaker, my amendment would reduce the Army operation
and maintenance account by $2.9 million, the amount
dedicated to running the Army School of the Americas at
Fort Benning, Georgia. The intent of this amendment is
to close the school.
Representative John Lewis: Why
should we continue to fund and condone military-inspired
murder? Why should we continue to train thugs to kill
their own people? Vote for peace. Vote for non-violence.
Vote for harmony. Vote for the Kennedy Amendment
Susan Sarandon: 174 voted in favor,
Congressman Joseph Kennedy: We're
only 30 or 40 votes short of winning. That means that if
people around the country hear about this and write
their congressman, we can win.This is an issue that we
can win on.
Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois: And
what's very important right now I feel is to let out
voices be heard. Bishop Romero said it best before he
was assassinated by someone who trained at the School of
the Americas. He said, "We who have a voice, we have to
speak for the voiceless." I realize that we here in this
country have a voice. We can speak without having to
worry about being dissappeared or tortured or being
picked by [by the police or military]. We can speak, and
I just hope that we can speak clearly and boldly on this
Susan Sarandon: In April 1994, a
group of human rights activists from around the country
began a 40-day fast on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
They were there to make their case for shutting down the
School of the Americas. The day before the fast ended,
Congressman Kennedy joined them in a press conference.
Congressman Joseph Kennedy: The
so-called Hall of Fame in Georgia is nothing more than a
Hall of Shame for the people of our country. We, as a
nation and as a people have a right and an obligation to
say what we believe in in terms of how our dollars are
going to be spent. What we are saying unequivocably is
that we do not want to be associated with the kinds of
individuals that are torturing, maiming, and killing
innnocent people throughout Latin America. That's what
this bill is all about and that's what your commitment
is all about, and we commit to working until this bill
Susan Sarandon: The next day,
Congressman Kennedy's second effort to shut the school
was defeated by a smaller margin than his first one. 175
voted for his amendment, 217 against.
Unidentified El Salvadoran woman:
I'm not very educated, but in my simple words I think
that the only thing the School of the Americas has
accomplished is the destruction of our countries in
Latin America. Don't give us any more of that military
aid. It would be better to help the poor who are in
Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois: We
need the voices of others, and we also need those
letters to congressional leaders. To let them know that
we will not allow them to use our money to run a school