(SOA Watch) On the Saturday Sept. 28th, disgraced Gen. Odlanier Mena shot himself in the head in a stairwell outside his home in Santiago, Chile. Convicted in 2007 and sentenced to six years for ordering the murder of Oscar Codoceo, Manuel Donoso, and Julio Valenzuela in 1973, a media firestorm over the conditions of his military prison, replete with nutritionist and tennis court, had forced conservative Pres. Piñera to approve his transfer to general population. Rather than face prison life, Gen. Mena made a choice he never offered the thousands whose torture he oversaw as head of the CNI (Chile’s secret police), years of suffering or a painless death. He chose the latter.
Such a sensational story rightly found traction in media outlets across the Hemisphere, but most, like the New York Times, failed to mention Mena’s training at the School of the Americas (SOA), a U.S. Army training facility for Latin American soldiers, as well the broader involvement of the Nixon Administration in fomenting the 1973 coup. That Gen. Mena was able to commit suicide on weekend leave to his comfortable home while technically a prisoner of the state is indication enough of Chile’s agonizing struggle for justice; that mainstream media outlets across the Hemisphere failed to link Mena to the policies of Kissinger and Nixon– policies that continue to the present even as the SOA has been rebranded WHINSEC (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation)– lays plain that Chilean generals are not the only ones who walk among us, blood on their hands, with impunity.
Pictured above, Mena at the white collar military prison, Cordillera.
The New York Times, of course, is not the only publication to focus on the drama of Mena’s death without probing the accomplices who trained, funded, and protected him along the way. The Times, like others, stuck to descriptions of his death, limited the scope of his crimes, and devoted one of eight paragraphs to a sympathy plea from Mena’s lawyer while offering no voice to the family members of his countless thousands of victims. In order to understand this carnal mess, we must expand the timeline beyond that offered by the Times, which in their article begins in 1973, when Gen. Mena had recently transferred from the “Caravan of Death” unit of the Chilean Army to commander of the Rancagua Regiment in Arica Province. Without forgetting his eventual conviction for the murders of the civilians he ordered that year, it’s necessary to turn back the clock three years to 1970, when Mena attended a 9 month Command and General Staff Officer Course at Ft. Benning, GA, home of the School of the Americas. In doing so, the precise type of officers produced at the SOA will come into focus, and allow us a contemporary, domestic point of reference for both the 9/11/73 coup that bore Gen. Pinochet’s dictatorship and the implementation of “Operations Other Than War (OOTW)” that Mena became familiar with at Ft. Benning.
The SOA/WHINSEC has a long and gruesome history. Originally opened in the Panama Canal Zone in 1946, it relocated to Georgia in 1984 after the Panamanians finally achieved sovereignty over their Canal. Notorious graduates include GuatemalanPres. Gen. Rios Montt (convicted this year, and subsequently released, of genocide), Argentine Pres. Gen. Roberto Viola (convicted in 1985 of murder, kidnapping, and torture) and Honduran Police Chief Juan Carlos “the Tiger” Bonilla (whose police force has murdered and repressed Hondurans so successfully since the 2009 coup that the U.S. State Department has rerouted military aide to his subordinates, an Orwellian maneuver necessitated by Congress’s disapproval of human rights abuses in Honduras). That is to say that the impact of SOA grads across the Hemisphere continues not only in the historical memories of Latin Americans and the nightmares of disgraced generals, but in the mundane standard operating procedures of lethal military bureaucracies from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego.
Chile alone has sent more than 5,200 soldiers to be trained at the SOA in counterinsurgency, sniper fire, and interrogation techniques. Gen. Mena, high enough in rank in 1970 to forgo those courses, instead enrolled in Command and General Staff Officer Course (O-3), reserved for majors and above. According to the 1996 U.S. Army Course Catalog from the SOA, the stated purpose of the course was to train Latin American officers to “be able to command battalions, brigades and equivalent-sized units in peace or war…” and “efficiently manage manpower, equipment, money and time.” Certainly, his U.S. Army instructors would have been pleased with how efficiently Mena ran the Center for National Intelligence from 1977-80, renamed, like the SOA, after its previous moniker, DINA, had become too toxic.
During a time when the Chilean state faced no credible external threats, of all the course objectives listed in the SOA catalog, it must have been the Operations Other Than War (OOTW) training that Gen. Mena drew upon most frequently. The seemingly vague description, “To develop awareness of U.S. OOTW doctrine and of specific Latin American problems in a (sic) OOTW environment,” tells all when we trace the trajectories of SOA stars like Mena to the craters where they are currently crashing and burning all across Latin America. Among the “specific Latin American problems” Mena developed an awareness of during his time at the SOA most surely was the ascendance of the political left, a process now more than a half century old that manifested itself in Chile by the election of the Popular Unity coalition’s Salvador Allende Gossens to the presidency on Sept. 4th, 1970, six months after Mena’s enrollment at Ft. Benning. We can only imagine what must have been discussed by Mena and his Chilean colleagues in the portion of their course devoted to the objective of “Officer Preparation”, designed to familiarize them “with basic organization and doctrinal concepts”, but the outcome was tattooed in red across Chile during the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship.
Beyond the glaring omission of Mena’s training at the SOA, the New York Times and other mainstream outlets also ignored the larger story of U.S. direct involvement in the ’73 coup and complicity in all that followed. That story has been told by truth seeking independent journalists many times (for a great account of the mainstream media’s whitewashing of Latin American state violence, see Keane Bhatt’s article from July 29). Suffice it to say that Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has for many years been unable to travel freely abroad for fear that foreign courts will hold him accountable for his crimes against humanity. While the Times tries to relegate Mena’s suicide to the realms of history and pulp, we must remember that crimes like Mena’s are ongoing, and that the SOA/WHINSEC continues to export anti-democratic human rights abusers around the Hemisphere. Who says we don’t produce anything here anymore?