On a bridge across from the U.S. embassy in Bogotá, Colombia, a rag-tag coalition of more than 10 religious and secular organizations took nonviolent direct action on Nov. 16, demanding that Colombia stop sending soldiers to receive training from the U.S. military. State agents, including members of the Colombian military, are implicated in the systematic assassinations of rural community leaders throughout Colombia. To highlight U.S. responsibility in the ongoing violence, activists hung crosses bearing the names of the 419 community leaders assassinated since January 2016 with images of Colombian military officers who committed human rights abuses and who were also trained by the United States.
A 2016 peace agreement led to the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a left-wing insurgency that had been fighting the Colombian government since 1954. Hopes were high that the demobilization of the FARC would lead to a “post-conflict” phase in Colombia. Despite the peace agreement, Colombia sent 565 soldiers to the School of the Americas in 2017, according to School of Americas Watch, or SOAW.
Founded in the 1940s, the School of the Americas is an initiative of the U.S. Department of Defense to train Latin American military officers. In 2001 it was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, due to pressure and congressional lobbying by SOAW. Nonetheless, SOAW still demands the institute be closed.
SOA/WHINSEC has become a symbol of U.S. imperialism in Latin America, as many graduates have been implicated in human rights violations and military coups, including the military junta that took power in Argentina in the 1970s and the coup attempt in Venezuela in 2002.
Since 1990, activists led by Rev. Roy Bourgois have been congregating once a year outside the SOA at Ft. Benning in Georgia and engaging in civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action. Their longstanding demand has been an end to U.S. economic, military and political intervention in Latin America and the closure of SOA/WHINSEC. They formed the School of the Americas Watch and are most known for their yearly demonstration in November, which now takes place at the U.S.-Mexico border.
With the move to the border, SOAW’s list of demands has expanded to include the demilitarization of and divestment from borders and an end to the racist systems of oppression that criminalize and kill migrants and refugees. To further bolster their movement, for the first time this year SOAW held parallel events in Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Chile.
Other organizations joined SOAW for the parallel event in Colombia. Witness for Peace, Fellowship of Reconciliation, Conscientious Objectors’ Collective Action, International Christian Service of Solidarity in Latin America, or SICSAL, and representatives of churches spent September and October meeting regularly to plan the event. They wrote the names of the victims on the crosses, painted the large banners demanding the state to stop sending soldiers, and created teams for the execution of the event.
“Closing the School of the Americas has been something that we have been supporting for many years,” said Sam Wherry, from Witness for Peace, an organization that focuses on changing U.S. policy in Latin America.
“The United States has a clear responsibility in the crimes of ‘false positives’ and in the assassination of social leaders here in Colombia,” said Abilio Peña, the secretary and member of the governing board of SICSAL, an international ecumenical Christian network dedicated to support impoverished communities in Latin America. They also work in Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Cuba, and Nicaragua and have a presence in some European countries.
The term “false positives” refers to marginalized youth who were kidnapped, murdered and dressed up as enemy soldiers killed in combat by the Colombian armed forces. Government policy during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe, from 2002-2010, prioritized body counts, so military officers who killed more people could expect praise or extra vacation days. Over 10,000 young men are thought to have been murdered during those years.
Various military officers trained at the School of the Americas later commanded brigades or battalions accused of carrying out false positives. One of the most high profile cases is General Mario Montoya, who was commander of the armed forces from 2006-2008 and is accused of presiding over 2,000 “false positives.” As a captain in 1983, he was a student at School of the Americas, and as a Lieutenant Coronel, was an instructor from 1993-1994.
Montoya has been charged in the Special Jurisdiction of Peace, or JEP, Colombia’s transitional justice system, not only of “false positives,” but also of forced disappearance and torture for an operation in Medellín in 2002 while commander of the 4th brigade. The JEP was created as part of the 2016 peace agreement, which was meant to bring the internal armed conflict to a close.
However, violence continues. As of May 2018, 61 percent of the agreement had been implemented, yet other leftist guerrillas, as well as right-wing paramilitaries, are moving into territory left by the FARC. Social leaders are being systemically assassinated, with the number of killings increasing significantly since the agreement was signed.
The election of President Ivan Duque this year also raises questions about the full implementation of the peace deal. He is a member of the right-wing Democratic Center party, which led the campaign against in the agreement in 2016. While he has said he will implement the peace deal, critics remain skeptical. Some believe he will “slow-walk to death” the agreement by underfunding the agrarian reform or crop substitution programs included in the deal.
The SOAW and the other organizations insist the United States shares responsibility for the ongoing violence. The Colombian military sends soldiers to be trained at the SOA while allegations of collusion between the Colombian military and paramilitary successor groups remain. Even Colombia’s chief inspector general has said, “state agents have been coopted by illegal criminal groups who are eliminating community leaders.”
On the bridge in Bogotá, people recited the names of the victims and said “present,” a ritual from the SOAW protests in front of Ft. Benning.
“We can’t build peace over the lives of the best men and women of our country,” Peña said into the microphone between names of the dead. “Christmas is coming. What’s going to happen with the families of the 419 assassinated leaders? What kind of Christmas are they going to have?”
The one thing the diverse group of organizations involved in the action has in common is their dedication to nonviolence. “We don’t think there is another way,” Peña said. “But it has to be convincing. It has to be in the streets. It has to be intelligent. We might even have to risk our own lives, but not the lives of other people.”