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Time can indeed bend, if you put your mind to it. Carefully slow down this moment.
The blue Chevelle sluices down Massachusetts Avenue on the morning of Sept. 21, 1976. In the world of memory, it spins around Sheridan Circle not at 35 or 40 mph, but in slow motion—gliding gently, at walking speed, toward the end. Stretch out every foot into a full breath, every last second of the last minute of the passengers’ last day into a lifetime.
Give the last moments that much extra time, and consider the scene: three people in a car, one of them an exiled diplomat from a remote country, the others a husband-and- wife team of political activists. The diplomat is driving. Just beneath him, attached to the car frame with black electrical tape, is a bomb—some TNT, a large blob of plastique explosive, detonating cord, and an electronic switch purchased at a local Radio Shack. The bomb is packaged in a shiny, new, 8- inch-square baking pan bought at the Sears on Wisconsin Avenue.
Lurking somewhere back in the traffic flow, trying to keep up with Letelier’s rapid driving, is a gray sedan driven by one of the crows, a dark servant of the right who has been sent to eliminate Letelier. Beside him, another crow clutches a flat metal device with two buttons, powered by an adaptor plugged into car’s cigarette lighter. Slow everything down even more, and consider the moment before it happened. The moment when all the different threads gathered together on Massachusetts Avenue—in from the corners of the globe and up from the secret caverns of Washington.
What followed that moment is a Washington story—of political activists, of intelligence agencies, of the left and right wings blowing apart over the issue of politics and coming together again over the issue of justice. It is a story of the many and often opposed layers of political life in Washington—one faction abetting crimes, another faction investigating them, the whole affair enmeshed in the institutions that comprise the Capitol: Congress, the White House, the federal courts, along with activists, journalists and lobbyists (the difference between the three frequently meaningless). In other words, the bomb sitting below exiled Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier as he drove to work that morning was not merely a bomb in Washington—it was a bomb of Washington, an expression of our city and how we do business. It was a return package from the little massacres that we Americans stir in other parts of the globe.
Oddly, despite all the hints, despite all the planning and carefully scripted roles for each side, nobody in this drama really knew what was coming when the Chevelle came down Massachusetts Avenue into Sheridan Circle and Orlando Letelier threw the wheel to the right and entered the final arc of his life.
Despite many threats, Letelier certainly didn’t know what was coming. But neither, really, did the assassins. They knew about the bomb, of course. They just didn’t know about the aftershocks.
It was a gray day,” Peter Kornbluh began, leaning into the microphone, “rainy, very similar to this one, September 21, 1976, when the car carrying Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt exploded across the street.”
With that, Kornbluh—a slight man with a goatee—pointed over the heads of the crowd toward the spot on Sheridan Circle where the bomb in the blue Chevelle entered history.
The misty drizzle that fell 19 years ago also fell on the Sunday morning of this week, wetting more than a hundred people gathered for a memorial service.
Flowers—giant zinnias and late-season sunflowers—were spread around the inside edge of the traffic circle. Most of the mourners were Americans, usually young and almost always from the left-wing tribe that says “neek-ah-rah-wah” instead of “Nicaragua,” and stretches out “chee-lay” as if it were a point of pride.
There were a few Chileans present, too; a couple of old men who didn’t speak to anyone, a chain-smoking priest, a woman whose son was burned to death by the Chilean army, and the ambassador, diplomatically boring in his every remark. A guitarist played a Chilean folk song but no one seemed to quite remember the words.
Kornbluh, master of this ceremony of remembrance for more than a decade, has seen the attendance rise and fall, the hope for justice come and go. It is almost an article of faith on the American left that their causes never win, that the bad guys—multinational corporations, Third World dictators, the CIA—hold all the cards.
“La lucha sigue, aqui y en Chile,” Kornbluh told the crowd in a fierce gringo accent: “The struggle continues, here and in Chile.”
But in fact, the struggle is almost over. And this time, for once, the lefties may have to settle for victory. The crime that occurred here—the assassination of an exiled politician and the “accidental” murder of his American friend—is approaching closure. The triggermen are rotting in jail in this country, and the intellectual authors of the bomb stand convicted in Chile, either in jail or facing that certainty.
It is a victory that could not have been predicted 19 long years ago, when Orlando Letelier died that morning.
Let me put that more frankly: Orlando Letelier bled to death, his body blackened by the explosion, some of his clothes blown off. His legs were completely severed, and his torso—gushing blood and twitching—fell through the hole in the bottom of the car left by the bomb. He died en route to the hospital. Newlyweds Michael and Ronni Moffitt—colleagues of Letelier at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS)—both stumbled from the wreck onto the sidewalk in front of the Romanian Embassy. Secret Service officers guarding that and other buildings—including the Chilean Embassy a hundred yards away—sprinted into the circle and offered first aid. Michael Moffitt was only singed by the bomb; his wife appeared at first to have survived the explosion, but in fact a shard of metal had penetrated her neck and opened the carotid artery. Blood welled from her mouth, and she died 20 minutes later.
It’s important to be frank here. The history of American involvement in Latin America is a trail of euphemism, of doublespeak that conceals and protects us from the full scope of our actions. Mercenaries are freedom fighters. Torture is interrogation. Dictators are patriots, and their regimes are authoritarian, never totalitarian. The murdered are merely “disappeared.” Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt died of this empty language.
Letelier was a charismatic diplomat and minister of defense for Salvador Allende Gossens, the first democratically elected Marxist in this hemisphere. The Chilean military overthrew Allende in 1973, and Letelier was first imprisoned, then exiled. In the blind grammar of politics, Allende and his colleagues were “communists” and therefore part of a vast global conspiracy. By the definitions of those times, the enemy of the “free” world was monolithic; it could appear in any country at any time, and therefore had be fought and destroyed in every corner of the world: Cuba, Vietnam, the Congo, Chile, even Sheridan Circle. The American government believed this. The right-wing generals in charge of Chile believed this, and they decided to act.
The plan, called Operation Condor, was directed by two men whose names are in the papers a lot in Chile these days: Gen. Manuel Contreras, head of the Chilean secret police, and his aide, Col. Pedro Espinoza. Espinoza assembled a motley band of assassins to execute a far-flung campaign to rub out the junta’s foes. They struck first in Rome and Buenos Aires, murdering prominent exiles there and then turning their attention to Letelier.
To hide the Chilean government’s role in Letelier’s murder, Espinoza employed foreign assassins. Their leader was Michael Vernon Townley, born in Iowa and living in Chile. Espinoza ordered Townley to kill Letelier: “Try to make it seem innocuous, but the important point is to get it done,” Espinoza advised Townley.
Townley in turn hired several men from a group called the Cuban National Front, one of the most militant in the broad constellation of right-wing Cuban exile groups based in Miami. Among the hires: triggermen Dionisio Suarez and Virgilio Paz, who trailed Letelier that day; Guillermo and Ignacio Novo, brothers who shuttled Townley around the East Coast; Alvin Ross, who helped assemble the bomb in a New York Avenue motel. None of these men killed Letelier for money. Townley considered himself a free-lance soldier in the war against global communism. The Cubans acted on the same motivation, enhanced by the offer of training facilities in Chile for their ongoing war against Castro.
These men—“the crows”—were not agents of the American government, but the nature of Operation Condor and the fact that they had entered the United States were known to some officials of the CIA—notably George Bush, then director of the agency. Bush received advance warning from his operatives that Operation Condor was coming to Washington, yet chose to look the other way.
When the explosion rocked Sheridan Circle, the American “intelligence community”—a euphemism for active and retired agents of the CIA, journalistic sympathizers, and would-be Rambos of the right—played a role in hiding the evidence, blaming the victims, and concocting disinformation. In the context of the Cold War, the crows believed that their sponsors, in America and elsewhere, would ensure they would never be held accountable for their elimination of Letelier.
The bomb all but blew Letelier into nothingness, but his murder did not fade among the enraged colleagues he left behind. In death, Letelier became the man who would not disappear, who would not join the ranks of the vanished and vanquished in Chile. His murder set in motion decades of twisting criminal and civil suits, an odyssey of unimaginable length and intricacy. Institute for Policy Studies investigators and family members preserved the crusade, and learned to work with the same FBI that had persecuted them for years. For two decades, they pleaded with and threatened Democratic and Republican administrations, set international legal precedents, agitated in Congress, and then waited patiently for the Cold War to end.
After the bombing, somebody at IPS with a melodramatic bent began to refer to the various plotters, killers, and accomplices from Cuba, the U.S., and Chile as “the crows.” The reference came from an old Spanish proverb: If you educate a crow, he will pluck out your eyes. The name implied that the assassins trained by the CIA and unleashed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte would eventually prove to be the undoing of their masters. History would turn: There would be an accounting, a settling of scores. For 19 years, the notion that assassins sponsored by far-flung dictators could be brought to answer for their crimes seemed a flight of endless fancy. Now it is about to come true.
It was only by chance that Michael and Ronni Moffitt were in the car that morning. Their own car had broken down the night before, and Orlando Letelier, unaware that assassins had been following his blue Chevelle around Washington for 15 days, loaned it to the young couple. That morning, they came to Letelier’s house in Bethesda to return the car, and the Chilean took the wheel and drove them all toward the IPS offices near Dupont Circle.
The Moffitts were collateral victims, but nothing else was coincidence. Letelier was a marked man, a leader of the Chileans exiled from their own country by a military coup. Several of his fellow exiles had already been gunned down in Buenos Aires and Rome, and leftists still inside Chile were hounded from hiding place to hiding place. Those arrested often were never seen again, the records of their capture erased, just as the military hoped the people themselves would be forgotten, disappeared.
Letelier found a home, and some measure of security, by serving as head of the international studies program at IPS. None of Washington’s think tanks, which receive most of their money from American corporations and conservative foundations, were welcoming to a Socialist exile. But the worldview of IPS and the life experiences of Letelier were a good match. The institute was a gathering place for the intellectual vanguard, a focus of Vietnam War resistance, and an archive filled with documentation on U.S. meddling in other countries.
The pattern of U.S. adventurism in other sovereign nations is a matter of record by now, but most Americans have forgotten or never knew that Chile, an obscure corner on the Cold War chessboard, was the scene of many desperate power plays. The American government had been deeply involved in helping overthrow the elected government in Chile; Richard Nixon had green-lighted the coup; the CIA and American corporations with interests in Chile had funded the right-wing plotters (Henry Kissinger authorized $2.5 million in 1972 alone); the generals who took over engaged in mass terror, arresting, torturing, and killing their countrymen. At least 3,000 Chileans were murdered; tens of thousand more fled into exile. The junta then began Operation Condor, the campaign to kill the leaders of those exiles.
I cannot pretend to be neutral in these matters. I have been to Chile and heard the old men talk about how good Gen. Pinochet has been for the economy. When I travelled into the far south, plenty of people took a moment to point out that the road we were on was built by El General. The streets were clean. And yes, the trains ran on time.
But I also visited other places. I spent a day with graduate students who were excavating a mass grave, and I sat inside the hole and looked at the bones stacked around me. Each skull—every single one of them—had a small bullet hole in the back of the head. I ran my fingers through the black soil that had once been human flesh. I could not tell which of the skulls was a communist, and which merely socialist, and which other simply a case of mistaken identity. I could not tell whether the executioners were—in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s memorable conceit—totalitarian or merely authoritarian.
The bullets were not neutral, and so neither am I.
There was a domestic version of the same dirty war occurring at that time. There is a long tradition in this country of spying on our own dissenting voices, a practice brought to an art by the obsessive J. Edgar Hoover. From 1968 to 1972, the dirty tricks were collected in an FBI operation called COINTELPRO, essentially a system of snooping into the lives and phone conversations of prominent liberals, lefties, peaceniks, journalists, union leaders, and other types of commies.
The IPS, an outspoken critic of U.S. interventionism, was a fat target for the attentions of the FBI. Freedom of Information Act requests and public hearings like the Church Committee of the 1970s documented that agents went through the garbage in the alley behind IPS’s street, looking for IPS’s marching orders from the Kremlin. At other points, the FBI aimed directional microphones at IPS from nearby buildings, and sent a weird array of informants and provocateurs into the institute.
One of the FBI’s snitches, in a fit of conscience, confessed to IPS. Eventually, Freedom of Information Act requests and the Church Committee hearings established that 72 FBI informants had penetrated IPS at one time or another in the early ’70s. By the morning the bomb exploded a half-mile away at Sheridan Circle, IPS was already suing the FBI for harassment. The ground was not ripe, to say the least, for close cooperation. Yet if the IPS wanted to pursue anything resembling justice for Letelier, it was clear they were going to have to get in bed with the FBI.
Special Agent Carter Cornick from the FBI’s Washington field office took charge of the case while the Chevelle was still smoking. Within a couple of hours of the blast, he dispatched a band of FBI agents to search the IPS offices.
The clash of cultures could not have been sharper: The IPS staff assumed the agents where using the bomb investigation as an excuse to learn the kind of information they had been trying to glean from the IPS’s garbage for years.
When the FBI arrived to search, Saul Landau, a documentary filmmaker and then as now a leading figure at IPS, grabbed a colleague and made a furious search through Letelier’s files for any documents that implicated the ongoing resistance movement in Chile. If such paperwork fell into FBI hands, Landau feared the names would soon be known to DINA, the notorious Chilean secret police.
The FBI’s Cornick erupts in laughter at the memory of that first contact between the bureau and the institute. “I had no idea!” he says of the historical antagonisms each side brought to the investigation. Now retired in suburban Virginia, he says he didn’t know what IPS was or that it had what he delicately calls a “long-standing relationship” with the FBI. Cornick had sent the agents to search for more bombs, he explains, not for Comintern marching orders.
“My one thought was to save lives,” he says. “I had no idea of the politics of what I had done.”
Like many at IPS, Landau immediately suspected that DINA was behind the attack, and he told Cornick so. But Cornick had never heard of the secret police: According to Landau, the agent thought that everyone was referring to “Deena,” a person who could have planted the bomb.
“He was saying, “Who is Deena? What is her last name?’ ” Landau recalls.
The two men are from polar opposites of the political spectrum. Landau refers to the FBI as a “proto-fascist” organization, and has made several overly flattering films about Fidel Castro, while Cornick is proud to have worked for Hoover. But they were forced to work together by circumstance, year after year, slowly turning from wariness to partnership and, today, even friendship.
“Gradually, there was this convergence,” recalls Sam Buffone, the attorney who has represented the Letelier and Moffitt families pro bono for the last 19 years. “Saul and the others began to be more trusting of the line-level FBI agents and understood that they really were doing a dedicated job of trying to investigate what happened here.”
The proto-fascist FBI turns out to have some good guys in the ranks, Landau concedes. The Hoover-trained Cornick was such an unlikely ally for IPS that his name spread through the progressive movement.
“Years and years later, I had a reputation of being the darling of the new left,” Cornick recalls with a bellowing guffaw. Slowly, the laugh dies out.
“All of it is funny 20 years later,” he says. “It wasn’t funny at the time.”
D.C. police officers at the scene of the explosion took Letelier’s briefcase from the wrecked car as evidence. In the months ahead, the documents of the case were selectively leaked to the Washington Star, apparently by a D.C. detective who viewed himself as some sort of free-lance CIA agent. A letter in the briefcase showed that Letelier was receiving a stipend from the political party he had served in Chile. Because the party had been banned in Chile, it had set up offices in Havana.
Suddenly, Orlando Letelier was a “Cuban agent” or even, as an obscure Georgia congressman repeatedly referred to him in the congressional record, a “KGB agent.”
Within a few weeks of the bomb, someone in the “intelligence community” told the Washington Star that the CIA was sure that DINA and the Chilean junta were not responsible for the killing. The claim was repeated days later in Newsweek, (“the Chilean secret police was not involved…”) then in the New York Times, then by right-wing glamour boy William F. Buckley.
(Let me digress for a moment: Buckley deserves some focus because he was of particular influence in spreading this disinformation: A one-time asset of the CIA himself, he loathed the Chilean and American leftists, and used his magazine, National Review, and his show, Firing Line, to attack them relentlessly. Buckley even formed a front organization called the American-Chilean Council to defend the strongmen of Santiago and spread claims about the assassination. His lobbying was so diligent, in fact, that the Justice Department sued the council as an unregistered foreign lobby for that government and won its case in 1979.)
The incredible claims spread: Letelier was killed not by the right, but by the left, by his own people, in an elaborate trick to make him a martyr and blame the right wing. Another bogus theory claimed that a jealous lover had blown up the car to get Ronni Moffitt. The IPS’s steadfast belief that Letel ier’s murder was a government-sponsored execution was dismissed as the rantings of lefty cranks.
Yet the real evidence was almost too easy to find. Less than a month after the Sheridan Circle bomb, a Cuban airliner exploded over the Caribbean, killing 76 people. A Cuban exile named Orlando Bosch proudly took credit for the crime and was arrested in Venezuela, where he promptly told the local police that he knew exactly who had killed Letelier. The execution was carried out by his pals from a group called the Cuban National Movement, operating on behalf of their good friends the Chilean government. He even named names, spelling out a network that would turn out to be almost the entire nest of crows.
Bosch already had a thick FBI file. Among many items on his résumé were his stints training with the CIA in the Everglades, his attack with a homemade bazooka on a Polish freighter in Miami harbor, and his habit of carrying live bombs in the trunk of his car. But despite urgings from Landau to immediately investigate the Bosch allegations, the FBI wasted six months on various false trails. They investigated Chilean leftists for the crime; they interviewed an alleged mistress of Letelier about yet another “passion” scenario; in interviews of IPS staffers, one FBI agent pursued the theory that Letelier had been stealing money from the institute, implying that someone at IPS had actually done the deed.
The harassment and propaganda sometimes took petty turns. Friends and sympathizers of Letelier and Ronni Moffitt decided to erect a small memorial to them at the site of the bombing. In 1981, Peter Kornbluh, then an IPS researcher, secured a permit from the city (Mayor Marion Barry was then an IPS supporter) and commissioned a bronze medallion, about 18 inches across, that showed the victims in profile. The medallion was mounted on a unappealing concrete pedestal on the southwest side of the circle, at the spot where the destroyed car came to rest.
The attacks began even before the memorial was installed. The right-wing media watchdog group Accuracy in Media (AIM) got wind of the plan and denounced IPS for honoring “a socialist” and a “Cuban agent” right in the heart of the free world.
“AIM was an implacable attacker of Letelier and just did everything in their power to besmirch his reputation long after he was dead,” Kornbluh recalls.
Once the memorial was in place, the open harassment turned covert. Every year on the Sunday in September closest to the date of the bombing, IPS staff, assorted fellow travelers, and friends of the families would gather at Sheridan Circle to memorialize the dead.
The first year, they arrived at the memorial to find that someone had carefully poured red paint between the outlines of Letelier and Moffitt. They cleaned it off.
The next year, cued to the threat, Kornbluh checked several days early and found another dose of simulated blood on the memorial. He cleaned it off. When he returned for the Sunday ceremony, the anonymous provocateur had carefully applied another coat. After three years of this, Kornbluh reverted to covering the memorial in advance with a tarpaulin chained to the pedestal and only removing it the morning of the service.
Though the fake blood is still visible in the grooves of the word “PEACE” on the monument, the taunting attacks did no real damage. But like the AIM broadsides, the red herrings about left-wing bombers, and the jabberings of Buckley, it served its real purpose: to delay, deny, obscure, conceal, and confuse the trail that led to who was truly to blame.
As my father used to say, even a blind pig will find an acorn eventually. The FBI eventually discarded the “red” herrings spread by Buckley and other free-lance defenders of freedom. Six months after the bombing, two agents went to Venezuela and learned details of the Bosch allegations (details that IPS had been collecting and passing to the FBI all along). Bosch’s story pointed to the crows, and after several Cuban exiles were interviewed before a grand jury about their meeting with Michael Vernon Townley, the trail was too obvious to ignore. By the end of 1977, it led straight to Santiago.
In February 1978, Special Agent Cornick and a colleague flew to Chile to interview suspects, promoting the investigation into a formal diplomatic affair.
While sitting around Santiago, Cornick received a call from the U.S. Embassy, instructing him to go immediately—without packing any bags—to the airport. On the tarmac, a government car pulled up and disgorged Townley. Pinochet apparently believed that since Townley was an American and did not hold any formal rank in DINA, he could be blamed for everything. The general was sacrificing his cheapest asset, the one with built-in deniability.
Cornick took Townley back to the U.S. in handcuffs, where Townley promptly betrayed the dictator’s trust by spelling out exactly how he had received orders from his two DINA superiors, Gen. Contreras and Col. Espinoza, to target Letelier. He spelled out how he brought the explosives to the U.S. on a Chilean airliner and then assembled the bomb. He spelled out how he hired friends from the ultra-right Cuban exile community, friends who were experienced in terrorism. And he spelled out how those Cubans stalked Letelier around Washington, watching him go to work, then drove Townley to the diplomat’s Bethesda home late on a Sunday night, where he crawled under the car and attached the baking pan with black electrical tape.
The FBI began investigating the Cuban and Chilean operatives in earnest. In August of that year—23 months after the blast—the U.S. government handed down indictments against eight people. All of the indicted were Chilean military officers or ultra-right Cuban exiles from Florida.
Notably absent from the list: Townley, the American crow. Townley had struck a deal: In exchange for his testimony, he remained an “unindicted conspirator.” He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and received a 10-year sentence, minus time already served. The Cuban crows did less well, and several of them received life terms.
The convictions were all thrown out on appeal, because they were based in part on testimony of a jailhouse snitch and that testimony was later ruled inadmissible.
A second trial was held. Townley was again sentenced to 10 years, but with time off for good behavior he walked after only five. The man who actually assembled the bomb, recruited the hit team, and planned the attack is now enrolled in the Federal Witness Protection Program because he threw in his co-conspirators.
Three of the Cubans convicted in the first trial walked away on the appeal. Two of them, the Novo brothers, are today prominent members of the anti-Castro movement in Miami.
Two other Cubans were still missing: Virgilio Paz and Dionisio Suarez were the men who waited in the parking lot of the Roy Rogers on River Road that morning, watched for the Chevelle, followed it down Massachusetts Avenue, and threw the two switches. They had never been found. Likewise, the Chilean military men behind the plot were indicted but otherwise untouched, safe in the bosom of their junta.
The investigation and criminal prosecution had produced virtually nothing.
“A travesty,” Buffone says.
Back in 1978, a week after the original criminal indictments, Buffone filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the Chilean government and the individuals named in the criminal suit. As a matter of law, the families of Letelier and the Moffitts were seeking damages for the “wrongful death” of their loved ones. But on a practical level, the civil suit had a very different purpose—it was simply a form of leverage, a tool that allowed the lawyers to make discovery motions and subpoena documents that would aid the criminal case. But now the criminal case was gone.
“All of a sudden,” Buffone says, “the civil case became much more important. This was now the vehicle to place responsibility where it belonged, on the highest level of the Chilean government. So we resurrected that case.”
Their problem with the civil case was basic—you can’t sue another government. This long-standing tradition in the law—codified as the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA)—recognizes that laws are constructed by countries, not between them. What jurisdiction could the U.S. expect to have over another nation, another legal system? What means of enforcement over a sovereign power?
Buffone set out to show just why common sense and the FSIA didn’t apply in this case. The updated, 1976 version of the law contained a tiny window of opportunity—while most acts of foreign governments remained protected, the loophole excluded “tortious” matters, i.e. matters of extreme negligence. The law team argued that the Sheridan Circle murders were by definition tortious actions.
The Chilean government was forced into a bizarre series of camouflaged legal responses. First, it simply refused to appear in American court to defend itself (in fact, none of the defendants appeared). Then Santiago sent a series of diplomatic notes to the U.S. State Department, which in turn passed them on to the court. This allowed the Chileans to maintain they were not appearing in court, even though the “notes” took the form of legal briefs arguing that first, U.S. courts had no jurisdiction, and second, we didn’t kill nobody.
A bad strategy. Judge Joyce Hens Green, recognizing the Chilean government’s responsibility, let the suit proceed, and the Chileans were not there to defend themselves. Buffone and his then-partner Michael Tigar outlined in court the elaborate plot to kill Letelier, showing how it flowed directly from high officials in Santiago acting in their official capacities—Gen. Contreras to Col. Espinoza to DINA agent Townley to the Cuban triggermen.
All the defendants were found culpable and liable for damages. In late 1980, Judge Green awarded the plaintiffs $5.6 million plus attorney fees.
Legally, the lawyers for IPS and the families had accomplished a great deal. They used a tiny exception in the FSIA to establish jurisdiction. They argued their case and won their judgment. They set a legal precedent through six years of breathtaking legal maneuvers. But as a practical matter, Letelier’s death was unavenged.
The junta in Chile seemed stronger than ever. Interest in the case here was flagging. In the Reagan ’80s, there were plenty of contemporary crimes in Central America to steal the world’s focus.
“At that point,” Buffone recalls, “people really gave up. The civil suit was gone.”
Sam Buffone’s 12th-floor office window at the firm of Ropes & Gray faces the J. Edgar Hoover building. When he takes a break, Buffone can swivel around and watch special agents eating their government-issue lunches on a roof garden invisible from the street.
Buffone makes an interesting contrast to Landau, his longtime partner in the case. Landau speaks like a pessimist, sure that nothing has changed, that America is still an unregenerate bully in Latin America, convinced that the case “never ends” and that the FBI is a proto-fascist organization.
By contrast, Buffone seems apolitical. Looking down on the FBI building, he speaks respectfully of many of the forces that his friends at IPS loathe. Buffone says that not only did the FBI do its best, but that a crucial development in the case came when conservative Republicans threw their weight behind the Letelier and Moffitt families in the diplomatic effort that replaced the disappointing civil and criminal suits.
The Republicans were motivated in part by the spreading threat posed by those bent on bringing Letelier’s killers to justice. Having failed to collect their $5.6-million judgment, Buffone and friendlies at the American Bar Association decided to work to rewrite the laws that stood between clients and justice. They wrote an amendment to the FSIA, and collected congressional sponsors like Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
(Allow me to digress for another moment. Harkin deserves his own chapter in this story. While Buckley and other guardians of empire were defending the murderers of Santiago and barking about “constructive engagement” with the “free market” government, Harkin got on a plane to Chile and, protected only by his prominence, wandered around the city, pounding on the doors of reputed torture houses, screaming at the military men inside that they would one day face judgment for their crimes.)
Predictably, the Reagan and Bush State Departments had never been enthusiastic about the civil suit against Chile. Buffone’s letters to then-Secretary of State George Shultz were not even answered, and the only official meeting up to this point had been “pure insult,” Buffone says. He, Michael Moffitt, and Letelier’s wife, Isabel, were shunted into a small room used for making photocopies, where they met with the most junior person in the office for the southern region of Latin America.
Once the Sheridan Circle murders began to attract political allies, however, the State Department took an interest. Fearing that the FSIA amendment Buffone had cooked up would open a Pandora’s box of international legal tangles, the department’s top lawyer, Abe Sofaer, called and “offered a truce,” Buffone remembers. Sofaer implied—nobody says this stuff directly—that he would throw the department’s diplomatic weight behind the cause if the amendment was put on a back burner.
Sofaer became “a crusader” on the case, Buffone says respectfully. The State Department began to pressure the Chilean government diplomatically to pay up; Sofaer even did some creative legal work of his own, dusting off a 1914 treaty written by William Jennings Bryan that allowed for special “arbitrol courts” to settle disputes between Chile and the United States. Meanwhile, Buffone met secretly with members of the Chilean opposition in a borrowed room at the Organization of American States (OAS) office here in Washington. The opposition representatives implied—nobody says this stuff directly, either—that if elected to office in Chile, they would cooperate, albeit on their own terms.
At the same time, this left-wing cause célèbre received a major jolt of unexpected support from arch-Republican Bob Dole. Buffone describes Dole’s support for the Letelier and Moffitt families as a matter of conscience. Saul Landau makes the more cynical—and probably more accurate—point that American conservatives only cared about the Embassy Row bomb because it was on Embassy Row. The same Cuban exile organizations whose members blew up Letelier had been blowing people up in Miami for years: There were more than 600 terrorist incidents in Miami in 1976 alone. Apparently, a bomb took on more explosive dimensions when it went off inside the Beltway.
The dictator Pinochet was facing increasing rebellion from his own population, exposés in the Chilean press about the many disappeared, and now pressure from his once-strong allies in the U.S. to reform. Convinced that the people of Chile supported him, Pinochet tried to staunch the criticism by staging a “yes or no” referendum on his own continued rule. To his amazement, the voters abandoned him.
After an open election in 1989, the Chilean opposition came into power and, true to their whispered words at the OAS, agreed to put the remaining killers on trial and negotiate a payment to the families.
In all the hoopla over politics, the CIA, the FBI, and political changes in Chile, a few loose ends in this country remained. Paz and Suarez, the actual triggermen at Sheridan Circle, had never been caught. In 1992, Buffone received a call from the television show America’s Most Wanted.
“I thought, “Oh no, this is the last thing I want to be associated with,’ ” Buffone says. Since the FBI had been unable to find the men for some 14 years, Buffone figured he was wasting his time. But he put the producers onto Landau. Landau was also skeptical. “Everyone laughed at me for talking to them,” he says.
Laugh away. The show aired on a Friday night. The two Cubans were arrested in Florida on Saturday afternoon. They are now serving 12-year sentences, the only conspirators still in jail in this country.
When the Chilean military junta disappeared, it tried to take 3,000 people with it. Specifically, it tried to take the disappeared, those anonymous skeletons lurking in mass graves outside small mining towns in the north or washed up on river banks in the south.
As a condition of his departure, Gen. Pinochet demanded and received a blanket amnesty for all human rights violations committed by the military during his rule. The repression—at least 3,000 “disappeared,” many times that number tortured, tens of thousands forced into exile—was swept under a rug.
With one exception: The general amnesty specifically excluded the case of Letelier, the man who would not disappear.
After settling the civil claims by cutting a check for a never-disclosed amount to Letelier’s wife, Isabel, and the Moffitt families, the civilian government in Chile moved aggressively to build a criminal case against Gen. Contreras, head of DINA, and his assistant, Col. Espinoza, the one who asked for an “innocuous” assassination.
Townley was flown to Chile to give evidence against his former bosses, then whisked back inside the Witness Protection Program. In 1993, Contreras and Espinoza were convicted of conspiring to assassinate Letelier and sentenced to seven and six years in jail, respectively. The verdict was greeted in that country with jubilation from the families of thousands of victims of DINA, who viewed the decision as a symbolic conviction of the entire era. But the officers appealed their sentences to the Chilean Supreme Court. Pinochet protested the trial of his lackeys, comparing it to the Nuremburg trials (a comparison the general should avoid at all costs).
Finally, in June of this year, a crowd gathered outside the Supreme Court building in Santiago to hear the Supreme Court’s decision. Isabel Letelier was there, and she described in a phone call to Landau how the crowd celebrated when it was announced that the decision had been upheld and Contreras and Espinoza would indeed have to go to jail.
Espinoza submitted to the verdict, and entered prison. But Contreras, chief of the crows, the man directly responsible for the arrest, murder, and torture of thousands of his countrymen, refused. Directly aided by Pinochet, Contreras took refuge in a naval hospital, claiming that high blood pressure and possible cancer prevented him from obeying the court. In early August, just a few weeks before the 19th anniversary of the explosion, Pinochet told the president of Chile that he wanted a pardon for Contreras—or else. “Don’t make us do it,” he warned the president, in an elliptical reference to another coup.
At publication time, Contreras had not yet surrendered.
In Chile, the result is a constitutional crisis, a contest between a fragile democracy and a brutal military. In this country, Tom Harkin and other politicians have urged President Clinton to cancel ongoing trade negotiation with Chile until Contreras submits to civilian authority.
“You can’t decide that he’s not going to go to jail because he doesn’t want to,” Buffone says. “That’s not the way this ends. The whole point of the anti-terrorism message is, you never get away.”
You never get away.
Perhaps the greatest mistake the killers made was not understanding how time bends, how the world of 1976 becomes the world of 1995, and the deeds of one era ricochet into the next.
They never believed they would have to face someone else’s justice. The game-players in the CIA never thought the Cold War contest would close. At times, the different members of their alliance—left-wing agitators and Republican politicians, Marxist exiles and FBI enforcers—could hardly believe they were working together. And there were times when the families and advocates thought they would never see the end of one world and the beginning of another. But in death, Letelier had managed to discredit the junta he spent his life opposing.
In his bed in the naval hospital, Contreras must feel the eyes of his nation upon him.
And in Santiago, where the smog settles among the sharp hills, the old commandante is worried as well. Until now, Pinochet has avoided direct implication in the assassination at Sheridan Circle. Everyone assumes he knew, but only one man, Contreras, can prove it. Perhaps Contreras will talk his way out of a jail sentence by revealing just what he knows about that.
Pinochet is backpedaling before the onset of history, trying to escape an unforeseen bend in time and accountability. He is the unindicted co-conspirator in all that has happened, the last figure not yet drawn into the present. He is an anachronism, and would probably like to stay that way.
He is the last one who believes that he will.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck and Darrow Montgomery.