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November Coalition At School Of Americas Vigil And Rally

By Fr. Tom Hereford, November Coalition volunteer

What, you don't know about The School of Americas (SOA)? Well, here's an online history:

"The School of the Americas (SOA), in 2001 renamed the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation," is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers, located at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Fr. Tom Hereford (right) with Kay Hill of "Centering Prayer",
a spiritual guidance group at FCC Coleman, FL

"Initially established in Panama in 1946, it was kicked out of that country in 1984 under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty. Former Panamanian President, Jorge Illueca, stated that the School of the Americas was the "biggest base for destabilization in Latin America." The SOA, frequently dubbed the "School of Assassins," has left a trail of blood and suffering in every country where its graduates have returned.

Over its 59 years, the SOA has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, "disappeared," massacred, and forced into refugee status by those trained at the School of Assassins." (Source:

Outside the gates of Ft. Benning, GA, home to the infamous School Of The Americas
(now called "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation")

Since the School was expelled from Panama and found a home in Columbus, GA, USA, public records confirm growing protests demanding it be closed. This year, November 17-19, 2006, 22,000 people gathered outside the gates of the SOA to hold a protest and memorial vigil for the thousands of victims of graduates of the School. It was a weekend filled with information, solidarity and prayer.

On Friday afternoon a workshop was held entitled "Prison Reform: Fixing the Criminal Justice System." Attorney Jessica Hoskins (my sister) and I led the workshop. Jess worked for 10 years as a Missouri Public Defender before going into private practice. I worked for 10 years as a Chaplain in Federal Prisons. Seventy-five to 100 people attended the workshop, many knowing little about injustice in the "justice" system. (See sidebar for drug war connection to SOA.)

We began with definitions, realizing that everyone in prison is there because of the way we as a society define "criminal" and the way we define "justice." A well-received definition of crime supported by many was: "(n) word meaning the act of breaking the rules or ordinances imposed by the rich white men in power." The majority present agreed that standard definitions of crime used by the system couldn't fully represent the needs and desires of minorities, women and the poor -- customarily not included in system process.

This approach was supported by statistical graphs (online and free for anyone to download and print at, personal stories ( and photos of some real people and their families who have suffered from the bias of the system, both federal and state.

The Public Defender system was established to help people below poverty lines (a single person with no dependents earning less than $9,570/year). I live in Missouri, where each PD is hired to handle 235 cases per year, but the actual caseload in 2004 was 339 cases per year per attorney. This means, in practice, that a case must be closed in less than six hours' work.

In Friday's workshop Jess revealed that, in Missouri, Public Defenders are first hired at $33,792/year, with a top earning potential of $52,452/year. A State Prosecutor starts at $40-55,000/year and can earn as much as $140,000/year. Because of high caseload and low salary, most PDs are new attorneys who may only spend a few years in the office before moving on, thereby creating a low level of experience available to many needy defendants. The Prosecutor's office is more attractive from a salary and caseload perspective, and more advantageous for someone wanting a political career.

To illustrate systemic problems, Jess told workshop participants the true story of two different people who were, from the court's perspective, in the same situation. Jim and Jason had each been stopped for vehicular speeding. Each had an outstanding warrant due to a bad check. Each was arrested and taken to jail, but that is where similarities end.

Jim is a person of means; Jason is poor. And so Jim has means to post bond and get out of jail within hours, but Jason cannot. Jim does post bond, gets out of jail and deals with the issues monetarily, ending up with no speeding record. He fixed the check, got placed on probation and his record was to be erased after successful completion of probationary period -- and he'll have no points on his driver's license because speeding was changed to noisy exhaust.

Meanwhile, Jason sits in jail. Unable to post bond, he waits to learn his court date. He does call a neighbor to get his kids and take care of them until he's out. But his court date is weeks away, and so Jason loses his job, gets behind on his rent, his utilities are cut off AND he is racking up a boarding bill at the jail (up to $34/day in Missouri).

Jason calls from jail about the speeding ticket and asks the court for an extension, which is granted, and a notice of the new court date is mailed to Jason's home. He doesn't get the notice, misses the second court date and another warrant is issued. Also, because Jason is unavailable to care for his children, the Division of Family Services (DFS) picks up his children from the neighbor caring for them and then places them in foster care. After arrest, his car was towed to an impound yard, where it begins accumulating daily fees.

When he at last faces the judge, Jason has racked up a $2700 boarding bill at the jail, been evicted from his apartment, lost his children and lost his job. The impounding bill now exceeds his car's value, and so he abandons it to the towing company. Unable to pay off the check immediately, Jason must plead guilty to a felony, and is sentenced to five years of probation. With no job, no car, and no place to live, Jason can't seem to live up to the rules of probation (which include having a job and a stable residence) and eventually ends up in prison.

For Jim, the situation was an embarrassing inconvenience. For Jason, it was a turning point in his life from which he may never recover. Throughout our country today, judges are each day dispensing justice in the same basic way: jail or not depends on whom you are if you're caught. To enliven the judiciary we think there must be increased options for Restorative or Rehabilitative Justice in a US criminal justice system currently stuck with models of Retributive Justice only.

Jess and I closed the workshop with Steps You Can Take -- a few ideas and examples accessible from relevant Internet websites:

o FIRST: educate yourself about prisons and who's in them:,,, and

o Educate others outside your friendly circle of common understanding: don't just "preach to the choir." Figure out how to talk with people who may not know or agree with you easily -- for example, members of an Elks or Moose Lodge, Women's Guild, Student Groups, Republican Women's Club, Church Groups, Chamber of Commerce.

o Volunteer with others already active:, ministry/meditation/teaching in prison, prisoner letter writing, diocesan criminal justice ministries

o Teach: about Pre-Release, Re-Entry, Probation/Parole. Drug Court volunteers are usually needed to each Literacy, Financial Management, GED, AA or NA, Stress Management, Toastmasters, Anger Management, Job Skills/Interviewing, Self-Esteem, Parenting, Car/Home Maintenance, or whatever's needed to help someone learn skill and stay out of trouble and jail.

o Lobby for Big Changes: learn how at (drug law reform), (end the death penalty), (bring back federal parole), (healing, not cycles of revenge and despair), (stop the use of super max and solitary confinement)

o Lobby for Small Changes: NO jail time for traffic offenses, NO jail time for simple drug possession (80% of drug arrests are simple possession), NO 3-Strikes laws (these are people's lives, not a ballgame)

o Restore Voting Rights: OR never take them away. Count urban prisoners as residing at their home or release address, not as residents of the rural area where many are imprisoned, current practice causing under-representation of the poor generally, and people of color in particular.

o PRAY: Add prisoners to the prayers of the faithful, to prayer chains and lists. Pause in thought or pray for prisoners in whatever spiritual and religious group to which you belong.

"Remember those in prison as if you were in prison with them" (Hebrews 13:3)

Drug Money Laundering At SOA

Major Joseph Blair retired from the U.S. Army in 1989 after 20 years of service, earning a Bronze Star for valor and five meritorious Service medals. Blair had been commissioned a lieutenant and dispatched to Vietnam. He was promoted to captain and assigned to general staff as assistant to then-Deputy Ambassador William F. Colby, the Saigon station chief and later CIA director (1954-75).

In 1986, he taught logistics to senior Latin American officers attending the Command and General Staff Course at the SOA, from which he received the highest possible ratings in performance reviews by his superiors until his retirement in 1989.

Blair has publicly criticized the SOA in newspaper articles and op/ed columns since 1993. In light of his impeccable credentials, service record and reputation, Blair's accusations, undergirded by willingness to accept responsibility for his own role, cannot be easily dismissed.

"Once it was transferred from Fort Gulick, Panama to Fort Benning, GA, the SOA became the best location in the U.S. for Latin American military officers to launder drug money and other funds obtained illegally in their Countries," charges Blair.

"Throughout the 1980s students attending the SOA routinely arrived with large quantities of U.S. cash which did not pass through any Latin American central banks. Every day of the week foreign soldiers, whose commanding officers earn about $1,000 a month, entered the U.S. with tens of thousands of dollars stuffed in their pockets, uniforms, duffel bags."

How does Blair know? "Hell, we helped them count the dough!"

The most egregious case, according to Blair, was the return of Peruvian Col. Vicente Campodonico in 1992, this time as an instructor. Records of his attendance in 1992 were destroyed. "He had been a student of mine, and he came back as a guest instructor. As his host I picked him up at the airport and brought him home. He began to stack bundles of cash on my kitchen table, and we counted over $200,000. Campodonico said he wanted to buy a restaurant.

"Students received their official paychecks by mail from their country's attaché in Washington. They often handed senior guest instructors (who acted as purchasing agents) large amounts of cash, along with shopping lists from their superiors. In social settings, they'd discuss how their fellow officers enjoyed spending their 'plata de droga,'" said Blair

"Of course narcotics were only one of many sources, including extortion, protection rackets, bribes and rake-offs from their own budgets. Occasionally, one would brag, 'hey, we take ten grand a pop for every plane that lands.'

"A big part of the attraction to studying or teaching at the SOA was the opportunity to shop. Visiting officers would get multiple-entry visas. If they were here five days, they'd spend four shopping. We would take them on shopping sprees and they'd plunk down cash for cars, stereos, electronic equipment, appliances, computers, cameras, clothing, toys, jewelry and guns."

Guns were a popular item, says Blair. "The SOA had its own gun dealer on staff -- a sergeant who got his federal license from the BATF and sold the students everything, including machine guns."

The death of Lt. Col. Julio Rivera, for Maj. Blair, raised particular concerns about the manipulation of SOA records and the role U.S. military may have played in aiding and abetting a flourishing drug trade. "Rivera had been in charge of logistics support for SOA students in the later 1980s," says Blair.

"A fellow retired officer called me in the spring of 1994 to say that Rivera had been caught dealing cocaine in El Salvador, where he was stationed as an advisor to the Salvadoran Army. When arrested, Rivera allegedly pulled the pin on a hand grenade and died in the conflagration."

"If true," Blair maintains, "the story raises the possibility that U.S. officers may have collaborated in narcotrafficking schemes with the very forces they were supposed to train in drug interdiction.

Source: edited for length from article by W. E. Gutman, Connecticut-based investigative journalist, online at

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