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While 10,000 gathered in Columbus, Georgia, in November, outside the gates of Fort Benning to demand the closure of the Army’s School of the Americas — now officially renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation — people joined in solidarity protests across the United States and in Nicaragua.
Small demonstrations and vigils drawing between 15 and 50 participants took place on November 23 in New York, California, and Texas. In Managua, 300 marched to the U.S. Embassy.
Possibly the most significant of these, not because of its size but because of location, was the demonstration in San Antonio, Texas, at Lackland Air Force Base, which attracted 45 people from Austin, Houston, as far as El Paso, and of course San Antonio.
Lackland Air Force Base is home to the Inter-American Air Forces Academy, a relatively unknown, yet seemingly important, U.S. Air Force training program that serves foreign military and police from Latin America and the Caribbean.
The Inter-American Air Forces Academy and the School of Americas (IAAFA) share a similar past in that both were founded in Panama in the 1940s and both remained in that country until the 1980s.
A key difference between the two programs is that SOA graduates have been known to be involved in human rights abuses and political assassinations in Latin America, while a similar pattern of behavior has not been documented for IAAFA graduates.
Nevertheless, in the 1980s IAAFA graduates were pilots and mechanics in the Salvadoran Air Force during a time when thousands of civilians were killed in aerial bombing campaigns during that country’s civil war.
Today, as Colombia tops the list in the Western Hemisphere as a recipient of U.S. military aid, it’s no surprise that Colombians have participated in U.S. military training programs – both in Colombia and at U.S. military installations – more so than militaries from any other country in the region.
Yet it may be a surprise to some that among the U.S. military installations involved with training Colombians, Fort Benning’s SOA is not where most Colombians have enrolled.
In fact, according to State Department data, last year the Colombian military and police enrolled in more courses at Lackland AFB than at Fort Benning.
Despite a claim from Lackland AFB’s Public Affairs office that IAAFA training is just for jet mechanics and should be of little concern, that same State Department data shows that Colombians last year enrolled in training courses for Air Intelligence, Ground Defense Skills, Search and Rescue, Special Communications, and Special Reaction Team.
Lackland AFB’s Public Affairs office has been reluctant to divulge the exact number of Colombians or students from other Latin American countries benefiting from IAAFA training.
The fact that any Colombians at all are trained there is not lost on opponents to U.S. policy toward Colombia, which has become a focal point for SOA Watch and other organizations that closely monitor Latin America.
Val Liveoak, a Quaker and resident of San Antonio, has been to Colombia and works with Christian Peacemaker Teams. She spoke at the Lackland AFB demonstration and pointed out that aerial surveillance provided by the Colombian Air Force helps both regular and irregular ground forces locate their targets, which many times include civilians.
The demonstration at Lackland Air Force Base, with its focus on the Inter-American Air Forces Academy, is the first ever to occur. Wider knowledge of its existence and continued probing into its affairs, will provide an opening for those concerned about U.S. training of foreign militaries to expand their activities beyond the scope of Fort Benning, Georgia.