Over the weekend, while much of the country was preoccupied with the scandal-plagued state of electoral politics, hundreds of activists gathered at the U.S.-Mexico border for a demonstration of multilateral unity. Headed by the organization School of the Americas Watch, or SOA Watch, this convergence brought attention to the human rights dimension of immigration and foreign policy, taking aim at U.S. practices that contribute to displacement and violence in Latin America and beyond.
In keeping with SOA Watch’s 26-year legacy, activists called for a close of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas, a U.S. Army program that trains Latin American law enforcement and soldiers in the “Profession of Arms.” The program, based in Fort Benning, Georgia, was initially established in Panama in 1946, and in the 1960s was tasked explicitly with an “anti-communist” agenda. Since its founding, the SOA/WHINSEC has graduated over 64,000 trainees, including many military and political leaders accused of brutalizing their constituents and crushing political dissent.
Graduates of the school have been responsible for much of the instability prompting migration in the region, says SOA Watch, which connects the military program to a larger system of “violence and domination.” In addition, organizers called for the dismantling of “deportation quotas, mandatory detention, for-profit immigration detention centers, the militarization of the border, [and] the War on Drugs” in the context of comprehensive immigration reform.
SOA Watch began in 1990 as a small cluster of dissenters under the leadership of Father Roy Bourgeois, and has since grown into an international movement, with bases in the United States, Chile and Venezuela. Last November, marking the 25th year of the organization’s efforts, SOA Watch leadership announced its plans to step up its activism by “moving to the border” for its 2016 gathering. The group set its sights on Nogales, a city that straddles Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.
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The four-day gathering comprised a broad-spectrum program that brought together labor, faith-based and political organizations on issues from police violence to gender justice to climate change. Artists and musicians also staged performances, including a cross-border concert and vigil on Saturday night. On the second day of the convention, 200 activists launched a nonviolent march to the U.S. Border Patrol Interior Checkpoint at Highway I-19 in Arizona to draw attention to the over 3,000 migrants who have died during their attempts to cross the desert towards the U.S. border. At the checkpoint, 20 participants linked arms and remained there for five hours, chanting and singing in English and Spanish as they called for more humane border policies.
These events coincided with the second presidential debate, during which Trump bragged about his (alleged) endorsement from ICE, warned of the “hundreds of thousands” of migrants pouring into the United States and pledged tougher borders. Hendrik Voss, national organizer for SOA Watch, in an interview with “Rising Up,” pointed out that Hillary Clinton has also been historically hawkish on issues related to Latin America, such as her tacit support of a 2009 coup in Honduras. Yet this year, the SOA Watch counted a measure of success when the Democratic Party officially adopted the closure of SOA/WHINSEC as part of its platform. “We are not naive,” Voss said. “We don’t have any illusions … but we are going to use this, and we are going to hold elected officials accountable to what this platform calls for. It’s a sign that even within the mainstream of the Democratic Party calls are getting louder against military solutions.”
Many participants of the convergence remained in Arizona on Monday to observe Indigenous People’s Day at the Global Justice Center in Tuscon. Meanwhile, indigenous activists in Latin America mounted their own demonstrations in honor of the event, including a march by the Mapuche indigenous community in Chile, which ended in clashes with the police.