'Do you think putting a 63-year-old grandmother in jail is going to make the streets safer?'
Rita Lucey is not a typical career criminal. At 63, "I've never even had a traffic ticket," she says. But this week Lucey reported to prison. Her crime? Trespassing.
Such crimes don't usually bring prison, but Lucey broke a more substantial -- though unwritten -- law. She criticized, obstinately, 50 years of U.S. policy toward Latin America. In 1996 she walked in protest onto the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. She returned to the base on Nov. 16, 1997, and was arrested again, with 600 others. And when Judge J. Robert Elliott asked her during the January trial whether she would keep trespassing, she said yes.
Elliott sentenced Lucey, of Orlando, and 24 others each to six months plus a $3,000 fine.
The School of the Americas was founded in 1946 to fight communism and promote ties between the U.S. and Latin American militaries. Originally based in Panama, it was moved to Georgia in 1983 as part of the Panama Canal Treaty. The school trains about 1,000 officers each year, feting them with trips to Disney World, then sending them home with an appreciation for American values.
The school has gotten a lot of press since 1990, when Maryknoll priest and Vietnam war vet Roy Bourgeois founded SOA Watch, researched the school and produced a video. He found among its 57,000 graduates some of South America's most vicious commanders, including Bolivia's Hugo Banzer, Panama's Manuel Noriega and Salvadoran death-squad founder Roberto D'Aubuisson.
In El Salvador, for example, SOA graduates played leading roles in the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero; the rape and murder of four American missionary women that same year; the 1981 massacre of the village of El Mozote; and the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter on Nov. 16, 1989. The anniversary of those last deaths became the focus of yearly demonstrations at Fort Benning, where protesters carry mock caskets filled with petitions to close the school.
Lucey first saw the video in 1993. She was so moved that she went to Central America for more research. In 1996 she called SOA spokesman Capt. Kevin McIver to hear his side. "He didn't convince," she says.
More and more are not convinced.
About 2,000 protested at the school last November, with 10 times more people arrested than in 1996. Congress has considered several bills to shut down SOA; in 1997, one lost by just seven votes. Among local representatives, Republican Bill McCollum abstained; Republican John Mica and Democrat Corrine Brown both voted to continue the school's funding.
In a letter to the House Appropriations Committee in support of this year's $20 million expense for the school, Defense Secretary William Cohen called it "an effective transmitter of our values to the military leadership of the region."
In 1996 an investigative team appointed by President Clinton said the school used manuals to teach torture. SOA officials denied it then, but later admitted that the manuals had been on the base -- accidentally. "They were inadvertently brought here and were part of an old officer training course," McIver said.
No SOA graduates have been tried or convicted of atrocities, and to date only Noriega, currently serving time in a South Florida jail, has been imprisoned. But activist Bourgeois has done more than a year in jail. Lucey says she's ready to serve her time as well.
"What I fear most about this is being so homesick for my husband of 46 years," she says. Dan Lucey, an Air Force veteran, frets about his wife's health.
She asks people to sign a petition requesting clemency for the protesters. She puts her assigned federal prisoner number -- 88120-020 -- on her correspondence. Before reporting to prison, she went to the drug store to purchase sundries for the trip and reflected on the state of justice: "Do you think putting a 63-year-old grandmother in jail is going to make the streets safer?"
For more information: SOA WATCH, (202) 234-3440 (www.soaw.org). For clemency petitions, contact Debra Hannula, 2515 41st Ave. E., No. 144, Seattle,WA, 98112.