The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), formerly School of the Americas (SOA), is a US Army facility at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, USA. It is a training facility operated in the Spanish language especially for Latin American military personnel. Around 60,000 people, roughly 1,000 per year, have taken courses. The SOA was renamed to WHISC in January 2001 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
The institute's remit is "to provide professional education and training" while "promoting democratic values, respect for human rights, and knowledge and understanding of United States customs and traditions".
WHISC's $10 million budget is funded by the Army and by tuition fees, usually paid through the International Military Education and Training (IMET) grants, the International Narcotics Control (INC) assistance programs, or through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program.
The SOA was established in Panama in 1946 as the Latin American Training Center - Ground Division. It was renamed the US Army School of the Americas in 1963. It relocated to Fort Benning in 1984 following the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty.
The SOA has been attacked for training members of governments guilty of serious human rights abuses and advocating techniques that violate accepted standards. Graduates of the SOA include men such as Hugo Banzer Suárez, Leopoldo Galtieri, Manuel Noriega, Efraín Ríos Montt, Vladimiro Montesinos, Guillermo Rodríguez, Omar Torrijos, Roberto Viola and Juan Velasco Alvarado. For this reason, the school's acronym is occasionally reparsed by its detractors as "School of Assassins".
There is usually a demonstration at the gates of the SOA/WHISC in late November. The date for the annual demonstration commemorates the first Latin American massacre linked to the SOA, through its graduates. On November 16, 1989, six Salvadoran Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her teenage daughter were murdered at the University of Central America (UCA). Of the 27 soldiers cited for that massacre by a 1993 UN Truth Commission, 19 were SOA graduates. This was the first of many documented linkages between the School's graduates and atrocities.
Inspired by the call of slain Archbishop Óscar Romero that "we who have a voice must speak for the voiceless", Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois and a small group of supporters formed SOA Watch in 1990. They began to research the SOA, educate the public, lobby Congress, and practice creative, nonviolent resistance at Ft. Benning.
The November anniversary of the UCA massacre continues to be an important focus for the growing grassroots movement to close the SOA/WHISC. Indeed, the original band of ten resisters who gathered at the main gate of Ft. Benning in 1990 to commemorate the first anniversary of the UCA massacre has grown in recent Novembers to a teeming resistance community of 10,000. People come from all over the country and even the world to honor victims of the SOA – as well as their survivors – with music, words, puppets and theatre.
Traditionally the legal vigil and memorial service concludes with a mock funeral procession, using the Presente litany, onto Ft. Benning, with all who choose to march onto the post technically at risk for arrest. Subsequent to 9/11 and the erecting of a security fence at the main gate of Ft. Benning in 2001, protesters who wish to take their mourning onto the post need to go over, under, or around that fence, as opposed to the simple marching of the past. Over the years, hundreds and even thousands have chosen to risk arrest for criminal trespassing.
At the 2002 protest, the city of Columbus began requiring all attending the event to submit to a metal detector search at the designated entrance. After a lengthy legal battle, however, in October of 2004 the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the forced search was unconstitutional.