Fort Benning

Arrests made in 1989 massacre that sparked annual protest at Fort Benning

Ben Wright

More than 26 years after the 1989 massacre at the University of Central America, a North Carolina judge has cleared the way to extradite a retired colonel and arrest warrants have been issued for former military officers in El Salvador.

  The Nov. 16, 1989, deaths of 16-year-old Celina Ramos, her mother, Elba Ramos, and six Jesuit priests led to the School of the Americas Watch’s annual protest at the Fort Benning gate to close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the former School of the Americas. For years, the group has claimed that soldiers linked to the slayings were trained at Fort Benning.

  Hendrik Voss, national organizer for SOA Watch, said Tuesday that people are now being held accountable.

    “It is a big step,” Voss said of actions in the United States and abroad. “We are celebrating the arrest of the Salvadoran soldiers and the extradition of the person from the United States.”

   The School of the Americas operated at Fort Benning from 1984 to December 2000 when it closed. Since it reopened under its new name in January 2001, the institute has provided professional education and training to eligible military, law enforcement and civilian personnel from the Western Hemisphere nations.

   A judge on Friday ordered retired Salvadoran Col. Inocente Montano to be extradited to face charges in Spain. A day later, El Salvador’s national police announced the arrest of four ex-soldiers accused in the massacre. The former military officers were identified as Col. Guillermo Benavides Moreno, Sgt. Tomas Castillo, Sgt. Antonio Vargas and Cpl. Angel Perez Vasquez.

   Using names already obtained through the Freedom of Information Act on graduates trained at the school, Voss said Montano, 73, was trained by the U.S. Military at the School of the Americas in 1970 in the Panama Canal Zone. Vargas and Vasquez were in Small Unit Training and Management at the School of the Americas in 1988 and 1987 respectively at Fort Benning.

 The former soldiers’ names were matched from a list of graduates with those accused of human rights abuses. Twenty-six officers were cited by the United Nations Truth Commission in the execution-style massacre.

 “There were 20 names for the 1989 massacre, 19 were trained at the school,” Voss said. “At this point, we still have all names from the Freedom of Information Act. We saw names in Small Unit Operation before being involved in the massacre.”

 SOA Watch held its 25th vigil at the Fort Benning gate in November with about 2,000 protesters. It ended with the group announcing that it is leaving Columbus and moving to the border of the United States and Mexico.

 Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, was unavailable for comment on actions in court and from the national police.

 Voss quoted the slain civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in seeking justice for victims of the massacre.

 “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” he said. “That is what we are seeing here.”