A Cleveland-based task force says a school that trains assassins is funded by U.S. tax dollars.
By PAUL WHEATLEY
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Juanita Sherba and Regina Reynolds are pleasant, middle-aged local women who could hardly be categorized as fervent protesters at first glance.
Yet Sherba, of Canfield, and Reynolds, of Struthers, traveled 14 hours by bus to Columbus, Ga., to join about 6,000 others from across the country in a Nov. 17 protest of a U.S.-funded school they believe tutors Latin Americans in the ways of terrorism -- a school that has graduated the likes of Manuel Noriega.
School's names: The institution, in operation for more than 50 years and once based in Panama, is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. But it has gone by other names. Until last year it was known as the School of the Americas.
The InterReligious Task Force on Central America, the Cleveland-based group that Reynolds and Sherba traveled with, said the Panamanians gave it the nickname "School of Assassins" and then kicked it out of their country.
The school's Web site shows course offerings where "students receive hands-on training in the use of computer simulations, and night operations and air movement capabilities with the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter."
There are also courses in civil military operations, intelligence and counterdrug operations.
Protesters believe graduates return to their Third World countries to combat unionization and, in turn, keep operating costs down for American big business.
The task force claims the school has graduated about 60,000 people and is funded by more than $18 million in U.S. taxes each year.
The school's Web site says it has a student body of about 700 to 900 people a year.
Its mission is to "provide professional education and training to military, law enforcement and civilians to support the democratic principles of the Western Hemisphere, build strong relationships among the participating nations, helping to ensure peace and stability throughout the hemisphere and promote democratic values, respect for human rights and knowledge and understanding of U.S. customs and traditions."
With the recent terrorist strikes, Reynolds said it's more important than ever to stop U.S. funding of dangerous groups.
"If I don't say anything about what my government is doing, [then] I'm saying it's OK," Reynolds, 49, said.
Ohio has close ties to the history of the school. In 1980, Cleveland natives Sister Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan were raped and murdered in El Salvador, and three of the five people found guilty of the crime were SOA graduates.
Protests: But the protests, which have taken place since 1990, have gained little interest from national news agencies. USA Today gave the event one paragraph of coverage Nov. 19 that said about 40 people were taken into custody after they crossed onto base property.
Reynolds said about 70 protesters were arrested and released this year. Last year, she said, 60 people received sentences of three to six months in federal prison.
People are arrested for crossing onto Fort Benning property for their second time. First-timers are generally rounded onto a bus and given warnings.
For protesters, it seems, crossing onto the property is like a rite of passage.
"I crossed four years ago," said Reynolds.
Sherba, 52, said she crossed last year with her 26-year-old son.
They said people generally cross bearing a cross with the names of those who have died in Latin American countries at the hands of SOA graduates. Names of the dead are also chanted.
"This year they put up a 10-foot fence to keep people out," said Reynolds, who said people crept under the fence or simply scaled it.
Now the women are focusing on the second rite of passage: crossing over for the second time and getting arrested.
"We talk about when we're going to cross again and go for broke," said Reynolds.
But Sherba hopes nobody will have to protest the school again.
"We will have shut the school down [by next year] so there will be no need to go to Columbus, Ga. -- since we're not supporting terrorism anymore," she said.
On May 10, several U.S. representatives introduced a bill to close the school. The bill, which has about 87 sponsors as of this month, is in committee.