Thousands gather at Fort Benning's main gate this weekend to call for the closing of a military school they blame for human rights abuses in Latin America.

Carlos Mauricio, a torture survivor from El Salvador, will be among the thousands who gather at Fort Benning’s main gate this weekend to call for the closing of a military school they blame for human rights abuses in Latin America.

”I was blindfolded. I was badly, badly beaten,” he said. “I was tortured for nine days. I was forced to listen to the screaming of all the people being given electroshock and women being raped.”

Mauricio, a high school science teacher, traveled by minivan from his home in San Francisco to join the annual protest organized by School of the Americas Watch, a group that has waged a 15-year campaign to close Fort Benning’s School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

The demonstrations are held each November to mark the Nov. 16, 1989, slayings of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter in El Salvador. A congressional task force found that some of the soldiers responsible for the massacre had been trained at the School of Americas, which moved to Fort Benning from Panama in 1984.

Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest, founded the group in 1990 in an attempt to come to grips with the violence he had witnessed as a Naval officer in Vietnam and especially as a priest working with the poor in Bolivia in the 1980s.

”What I and others hope to accomplish is that our efforts will somehow help relieve the suffering of other people,” Bourgeois said. “We’re here trying to love and support people of other countries who are victims of the training at this school we’re trying to shut down and our country’s foreign policy.”

With polls showing waning support for the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq and reports of US soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bourgeois said the growing anti-war sentiment and outrage over the abuses may boost the crowd beyond the 16,000 who attended last year.

”Torture is a hot issue now,” he said. “It has been a common part of our foreign policy. When I was in Vietnam, it was common knowledge that torture was used. When I was in Bolivia … a lot of political prisoners that I and others visited in these prisons were being tortured. This was coming from … the Bolivian military that we supported and that dictatorship.”

Citing the so-called torture manuals discovered in the 1990s, Bourgeois said torture was part of the School of Americas’ curriculum. US military officials, however, deny that the books were ever an official part of the training or that the school ever advocated human rights abuses.

”There is not one example of any person taking a course at the school … who later used that information to commit crimes,” said Lee Rials, a spokesman for the institute.

The activities begin on Friday, with classes and discussions, and they continue Saturday and Sunday with speeches at Fort Benning’s main gate. On Sunday, members of SOA Watch smear themselves with fake blood and carry coffins and crosses as they march in a solemn funeral procession to honor alleged victims of SOA graduates.

Despite two tall fences, one topped with coils of razor wire, 15 protesters were arrested last year for trespassing on government property. Eleven were sentenced to 3 or 4 month prison terms, three received lesser sentences and one had the charges dropped.

A third fence was being erected Thursday, according to SOA Watch.

Residents of Columbus, a west Georgia city of about 186,000, are strong supporters of the military. Many are military retirees or civilian workers at Fort Benning.

They’ll show their support for the Army on Saturday at a God Bless Fort Benning celebration that attracted 13,000 to 14,000 last year. It’ll feature entertainers, helicopter rides and many other attractions.

”It’s a thank you for the soldiers and their families,” said Eve Tidwell, who kicked off the event four years ago with her husband, Jack, a retired Army doctor. “We’re not against anybody saying what they say, but we are for our side.”

SOA Watch has carried its campaign to close the school to Latin America and to the halls of Congress.

A bill introduced this year by US Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., calls for the closing of the school, an evaluation of the training and an investigation to determine who created the torture manuals, how the manuals were used and how they might have influenced students.

Bolstered by Venezula’s decision this year to withdraw its soldiers from the school, following a meeting between representatives of SOA Watch and the Venezulan government, the group plans to appeal to other South American leaders next year, Bourgeois said.

Mauricio, the El Salvadorian torture survivor, said he still suffers from bouts of depression and has flashbacks when he sees someone wearing a blindfold. He was kept blindfolded for nine days after being kidnapped from his university classroom.

”My message is going to be that people must realize clearly that torture is forbidden,” he said. “The Salvadorian soldiers trained at the School of the Americas are still responsible for many abuses in Latin America. Therefore, I believe the school should be closed.”