A group that for 25 years protested a Department of Defense facility in Georgia that provides military training to Latin American governments made its debut in Nogales last weekend with an array of political actions and activities on both sides of the border.
On Saturday morning, an estimated 1,000 people walked down Grand Avenue from the Quality Hotel Americana to West International Street, waving banners and chanting slogans as part of SOA Watch’s first “Encuentro at the Border.” And while SOA Watch was born out of a desire to close a specific military facility, the weekend’s activities had a more general focus on U.S. policy in Latin America, the militarization of the border and compassion for migrants and refugees.
Participants in Saturday’s march chanted “El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido” (“The people, united, will never be divided”) and carried signs reading “Walls cost lives,” “No deportation,” and “Obama, protect refugees of failed U.S. policies.”
A number of other progressive political causes were also represented by people holding posters supporting fair wages, Black Lives Matter and the environment.
One of the more conspicuous participating organizations was Veterans for Peace, whose members led Saturday’s march and waved white flags emblazoned with a peace dove. Religious groups joined in as well, including the United Church of Christ, whose members joined in prayer in front of a section of border fence that had been covered with crosses.
And while the event attracted a number of SOA Watch veterans and longtime activists, there were younger faces in the crowd as well, including 17-year-old Emma Serbiak of Phoenix.
“I feel strongly about fighting for justice for the immigrants and the people that are stuck in Mexico and people that are trying to get to their families,” she said. “I’m hoping to raise awareness and help them.”
Kaela Berg, 43, came from Minneapolis, Minn., where she works as director of the Minnesota Fair Trade Coalition. Her work involves policy advocacy and education about how free trade agreements cause migration and violence in southern nations, she said, so she saw the gathering as “the perfect opportunity to come down and learn about the border conflict.”
SOA Watch, founded by Maryknoll priest Fr. Roy Bourgeois, first began protesting the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Columbus, Ga., now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, in 1990. Founded in 1946, by the 1960s the SOA had become a “counterinsurgency” training center for Latin American dictatorships friendly to the United States, with a number of its graduates accused of human rights violations.
Speaking from a makeshift stage on the U.S. side of the border fence Saturday, Bourgeois said that while the School of the Americas has been somewhat obscure in the United States, in Latin America it is “well known as a school of assassins, as a school of torture, as a school for dictators.”
Making the connection between the protests in Georgia and the border-focused gathering in Nogales, he said:
“We came to realize in our movement, if we were in the shoes of so many of our sisters and brothers in Latin America, we would be doing what they are doing. If we stay with our children we die. The poverty, the violence becomes unbearable. And so they are doing what we would do: they are fleeing from their homes to live.
“We have seen that close connection between the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga., and why millions of migrant sisters and brothers are being forced to leave their homes,” he said. “And for that reason we are here to express our love and solidarity.”
A hopeful sign
Dorothy Chao, a retired nurse from Tucson who volunteers with the humanitarian organization No More Deaths by providing first aid and free phone calls to migrants in Mexico, said it was “hopeful” to see so many people from around the country coming to Nogales to learn about the border.
“I think that if most people in this country really understood what’s going on here, the policy would change,” she said. “But I think people just have no clue and they just listen to political slogans and don’t see a human face to it at all.”
Chao also credited the Nogales-based Kino Border Initiative, as well as No More Deaths and the Samaritans, for regularly bringing groups to the area to learn about border realities.
Rosemary Hallinan, another retiree from Tucson, said she’s a long-time anti-war activist who participated in SOA Watch protests in Georgia for 10 years, as well as similar demonstrations at Fort Huachuca near Sierra Vista. She saw a natural connection between the protests at military installations and this weekend’s “Encuentro at the Border.”
“This a group of very, very concerned people that have been involved in justice issues ever since the Sanctuary Movement in the 80s,” she said in reference to a an effort to aid people fleeing conflict in Central America.
“Today, I don’t think people can pass up, no matter how ill-informed they are, that border issues are a real problem, whether it be Mexico-U.S., Mexico-Guatemala, Syria-European countries,” Hallinan said. “I think we all have to understand that we’re all migrants from other places and that we’ve got to learn to live together and to care for the people that are fleeing huge, huge problems of persecution.”
The “Encuentro at the Border” continued through Monday, with a vigil planned for 7 p.m. to commemorate the four-year anniversary of the fatal shooting of 16-year-old José Antonio Elena Rodríguez by Border Patrol Agent Lonnie Swartz at the border fence on West International Street. Other events during the weekend included speeches, musical performances, workshops and a protest Sunday at the Border Patrol’s checkpoint on Interstate 19.
As of Monday morning, the Nogales Police Department had not responded to any issues related to the gathering in Nogales, other than pedestrian and vehicle management, said spokesman Sgt. Robert Fierros.