November 26, 2019, Columbus, Georgia – Thirty years ago, when members of the Salvadoran Army stormed the Universidad Centroamericana campus in El Salvador, they did more than gun down six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter. Their violent actions to stop the Jesuits from their advocacy for peace and justice for the people of El Salvador helped to bring a new justice advocacy movement to birth – and advanced the efforts of the slain Jesuits.
Six Adrian Dominican Sisters were among hundreds of activists who gathered at the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, November 15-17, 2019, to remember the Jesuits and the two women who were slain on November 16, 1989. Attending were Sister Kathleen Nolan, OP, Director of the Congregation’s Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, along with Sisters Joan Baustian, OP, Anele Heiges, OP, Barbara Kelley, OP, Virginia “Ginny” King, OP, and Mary Priniski, OP.
The 2019 Commemorative Gathering was organized by School of the Americas (SOA) Watch. The organization began in 1990 with the efforts of Father Roy Bourgeois and a small group of activists to call attention to the U.S. school that has trained military officers from Latin America. Nineteen members of the Salvadoran Army’s Atlacatl Battalion, which killed the eight people in 1989, were graduates of SOA, renamed in 2005 to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).
Because of the violence committed at the border and because of its connection to SOA/WHINSEC graduates, SOA Watch’s mobilizations were at the Nogales, Arizona, border with Mexico in 2016, 2017, and 2018. The mobilization returned to Fort Benning in 2019 specifically to commemorate the 30th anniversary El Salvadoran murders.
From left: An SOA Watch mobilization participant chooses a cross to carry during the funeral procession at the gates of Fort Benning. Participants place their crosses at the gate of Fort Benning at the conclusion of the procession.
During morning and afternoon panel discussions November 16, speakers noted the connections between the violence perpetrated by some of the more than 60,000 SOA/WHINSEC graduates in their countries in Latin America and increased militarization at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Dévora González, an SOA Watch staff member based in Arizona, noted that members of the U.S. Border Patrol have been trained at SOA/WHINSEC since 2015. “There is currently a big crisis happening in the borderlands, with thousands of people who have disappeared,” many of whom died in the Arizona desert while fleeing from their home countries to the United States, she said.
Catherine Gaffney, a volunteer for 10 years with the humanitarian organization No More Deaths, attributed many of the 7,000 to 8,000 migrant deaths in the Arizona desert to a U.S. policy of prevention through deterrence. “The idea was that deaths [of immigrants crossing the desert] would deter people from attempting to cross to the U.S.,” she said. “It’s impossible to bring the amount of water you need for a five-day trek. You can’t wear 10 gallons of water on your back.”
Catherine said that No More Deaths volunteers hike the Arizona desert area to leave gallon jugs of water, food, and blankets to help save the lives of immigrants journeying through the desert. Unfortunately, she said, Border Patrol guards have been caught slashing the water jugs to make the water unavailable to the immigrants. In addition, those who put out the water bottles are subject to arrest for “harboring” an immigrant.
Also on the panel were Araceli Rodriguez and Taide Zojo de Elena, the mother and grandmother, respectively, of José Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year-old boy who was at the border in Mexico when he was shot several times and killed by a U.S. Border Patrol agent. The agent moved from the United States into Mexico to fire the last two shots. Both women spoke of their seven-year struggle for justice and of the fact that the Border Patrol agent was never held accountable.
Taide described her grandson as a “16-year-old boy with visions for the future, with lots of goals – very good ones.” When the agent killed her grandson, she said, “he killed us. We are dead for all of our life with a huge hole in our hearts. … Children have the same value all over the world and they don’t deserve to die this way.”
On Sunday, the activists gathered on the road outside of the Fort Benning Gate for a program of speeches and music; a litany in English and Spanish of killings that have taken place in the Americas over the past years; and a funeral procession in which participants raised white wooden crosses and cried “Presenté!” as the names, countries, and ages of 350 people of thousands who have been violently killed by SOA graduates in Latin America and at the border.
Sister Anele Heiges, OP, was one of six people to volunteer for a special role in the procession: as a mourner, dressed in black garb and with white paint on her face, carrying a coffin to symbolize those who had died.
“I was feeling and carrying in my hands the practical response to an economic organization based on uncontrolled exploitation of nature for the maximization of profits and the accumulation of capital,” Sister Anele recalled. “I realized that I do have a God of mercy and compassion. I was one with the people in those coffins. I really bonded with them.”
Sister Anele said she also felt the injustice that surrounded the death of the people honored in the procession. “I was carrying in the coffin the tentacles and the results of the Doctrine of Discovery,” doctrines decreed in the 15th century by popes and still used as legal precedent. These doctrines “clearly gave the green light” to white Christians to conquer and exploit others who were not considered fully human, she added.
Sister Mary Priniski recalled her participation SOA Watch Mobilizations through the years, particularly one in the late 1990s when she and about 1,000 people “crossed the line” into Fort Benning and committed civil disobedience. Normally, she noted, people who crossed the line were arrested and taken to jail, but because of the large number that year, they were put on a bus, transported away from the base, and made to walk back. “You sometimes have to take a stand” in issues such as this and risk arrest, she said.
Sister Kathleen said she “was really moved by the film clip they showed of the Jesuits, retelling the story.” She was also struck by the fact that, during the funeral procession on Sunday, the names of people killed in 2019 were called out. “It’s been going on for so many years,” she said. “It’s really hard to accept the reality of what our country has done and continues to do around the world, but certainly in Latin America.”
Sister Joan said that even though the emphasis was on Latin America, the presentations “put you in mind of those other places in the world where the same type of oppression goes on. We sell those weapons to other countries. We have sold so much to Israel.”
In spite of the long history of violence, the Sisters also saw reason to be hopeful and to continue to be engaged in efforts to stop the bloodshed and the injustices.
“I think our presence at the border means a lot,” Sister Ginny said. “Whether it’s done through SOA Watch or by people sharing themselves” in voluntary service at houses of hospitality in Texas for immigrants released from detention. “I do believe it’s a great witness.”
Sister Joan added that the message was to do what you can. “It is enough,” she said. “If everybody does what they can, it is enough.”
Feature photo (top): Sister Virginia “Ginny” King, OP, holds a lit candle during a Pax Christi service commemorating the six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter who were slain 30 years ago in El Salvador.
Dominican Sisters and Associates gather on Saturday evening. They are, back row from left, Sisters Virginia King, OP, and Anele Heiges, OP (Adrian), Kathy Kamarack, OP (Sinsinawa), and Kathleen Nolan, OP (Adrian); Associates Cathy Crosby (Sinsinawa) and Mary Margaret Pharmer (Springfield); and Sister Regina McKillip, OP (Sinsinawa). Front, from left, are Sisters Georgiana Stubner, OP (Springfield), Joan Baustian, OP (Adrian), Patricia Stark, OP, and Marcelline Koch, OP (Springfield), Mary Priniski, OP (Adrian), Liz Sully, OP (Sinsinawa), and Barbara Kelley, OP (Adrian).