COLUMBUS, Ga. - Excited by the changes in Washington, organizers hope for a record 20,000 protesters at Fort Benning's heavily fortified main gate this weekend, continuing a 17-year effort to close a military school they blame for assassinations, torture and other human rights abuses in Latin America.
The protesters will be joined by opponents of the war in Iraq, including war veterans and relatives of those killed, said the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest who has been leading the demonstrations since 1990.
"It's not possible for people who are gathering in the name of peace not to also address Iraq," he said.
The Rev. Bourgeois said the populist wave sweeping Latin America and the recent U.S. election have energized the peace movement.
The demonstrations are timed to commemorate six Jesuit priests who were killed with their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador on Nov. 19, 1989.
Some of the killers had attended the Army's School of the Americas, which moved to Fort Benning in 1984. It was replaced in 2001 by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, under the Defense Department.
"We are gathering in the name of peace and to keep alive the memory of the thousands of victims," the Rev. Bourgeois said.
Through the years, military officials have strongly denied that the school was responsible for any abuses.
"While it is true that there are people who committed crimes after attending a course, no cause-effect relationship has ever been found," institute spokesman Lee Rials said.
Human rights, ethics and democracy training are mandatory at the institute, he said.
The protesters' demonstrations begin today and end Sunday after the group's funeral procession, in which they carry coffins or white crosses to honor victims of alleged human rights abuses.
Joining the demonstration this year will be Living the Dream, a group dedicated to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of a unified, nonviolent world.
A House bill that would have halted school funding failed by 16 votes this year. With 35 Republicans who had opposed the bill out of office, the Rev. Bourgeois said he is optimistic it will pass next year.
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