Mary Trotochaud is a local potter who never participated in political activism until last November.
Today, her trial begins in a Columbus, Ga., courtroom where she and four others are expected to earn from one to five years of prison time. They are charged with willfully and maliciously damaging federal property.
Last fall, Ms. Trotochaud pressed stencils to the welcome sign at the gates of Georgia's Fort Benning, host to a controversial training school for Latin American soldiers. The message she helped paint: "Welcome to Fort Benning Home of the School of the Americas, School of Shame; School of the Americas Equals Torture."
That day, she joined a growing movement united by an unusual goal in this time of peace and prosperity: To close the School of the Americas.
This support, from the protesters especially, does not come without a cost. Of the 601 protesters who rallied at the Fort Benning gates in November, all those who entered the base's main thoroughfare were arrested, and 25 repeat offenders were sentenced to six months in prison.
The movement that began in 1990 with a single, outraged Maryknoll priest has expanded over the years to include thousands of protesters, the support of organizations such as Amnesty International and the United Church of Christ, and a bipartisan collection of US senators and congressmen.
"The reason we did this was because of the lack of knowledge around this issue," says Trotochaud. "Once I realized how hard it is for people to get information like this, I felt it was my responsibility to help get the word out."
What these protesters want the world to know is this: The School of the Americas, begun during the Kennedy administration in Panama and moved to Fort Benning in 1984, names among its graduates Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, Panama's former leader now in jail in the US for drug charges; Raoul Cedras, head of the Haitian coup that ousted elected leader Jean Bertrand Aristide; and 19 Salvadorans accused of murdering six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper. and her daughter in 1989.
In the protesters eyes, the school is responsible for feeding Latin American soldiers' dictatorial and tortuous tendencies. Shutting down the school, they say, is necessary to set Latin America on a more solid path to democracy and end its history of murdering innocent people.
The US military has long defended the school, saying it does not teach torture and in fact bolsters human rights.
But a serious chink in that defense emerged in 1996, when the Pentagon revealed that the School of the Americas had used manuals teaching soldiers to use fear, beatings, and truth serum to control informants.
The military says the manuals were a small part of their curriculum; a mistake that in no way reflects what went on in the classrooms. But the admission that the manuals existed seems to have fueled the movement against the school as no other revelation has.
Support had already been growing for either closing or cracking down on the school in Congress. Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts has been introducing legislation to close the school for several years, The news of the manuals sparked support for the bill. "Word leaked out about that, and that really created a momentum," says a Kennedy spokesman. Today, the bill has 132 cosponsors.
While lawmakers say the school is not likely to be shut down while the Republicans control Congress, leaders of the opposition to the school say they will continue to build on their groundswell. This fight, they say, is just beginning.
"This school has left a trail of suffering and death in Latin America," says the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, founder of the protest group School of the Americas Watch and a Vietnam veteran.
To members of the military and many lawmakers, however, these claims are outrageous misstatement of fact.
Yes, they say, some graduates have gone on to torture and murder in their countries. But can a school that spends anywhere from just a week to a year with its candidates be blamed for their behavior after they leave?
Supporters argue that the school has done exactly what it set out to do: reduce the influence of communism in Latin America. Additionally, they say, it has changed with the times. Once the cold war ended, the school altered its mission to push professionalism in Latin American militaries, and began teaching drug-fighting techniques.
Finally, they say, there is no way that the school could be teaching torture because it falls under the chain-of-command scrutiny that every unit of the US Army does.
"Do you think we think we train American soldiers to torture," asks retired Gen. Fred Woerner, former commander in chief of the US Southern Command, the branch of the Army that oversees the school. "Then under what line of logic, if we don't train our own, would we train others to do something which we absolutely don't do for our own?"
In the 1995 annual protest at the school to mark the murder of the Salvadoran Jesuits, just 13 marched onto school grounds and were arrested. But in 1996, after the Pentagon announcement was revealed, 60 walked onto school grounds and some 500 gathered outside the gates. Last year, in addition to the 601 that were arrested, close to 2,000 rallied outside the school, according to School of the Americas Watch tallies.
"We will speak from prison," says Father Bourgeois. "You cannot silence the truth. Sending us to prison will only pump new life into the movement. And when we get out of prison, we are coming back in greater numbers. Next November, we are calling on 1,000 first-time offenders going across that line."