“THE MAN WHO WOULD Not Disappear” (9/22) presents a Mississippi Burning version of the events that led to the convictions of the Chilean intelligence officials responsible for the assassination of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt. The tale of good FBI agents working steadfastly behind the scenes with “relentless” justice- seekers at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) ignores the critical role played by Chileans living in Chile.
After the Chilean dictatorship refused to extradite DINA agents to stand trial in the United States, efforts in this country to prosecute the murderers ground to a halt. “People really gave up,” as attorney Sam Buffone states in your article. In Chile, Fabiola Letelier, a human rights attorney and sister of Orlando Letelier, did not give up. Immediately, she filed Case No. 192-78, known as the “passports case.” The Chilean military government put every kind of legal obstacle in her path. Four or five times between 1978 and 1991, the courts almost succeeded in closing the case. Ignoring death threats and lesser intimidations, Letelier continued to investigate, and filed new motions to keep the suit alive. She received no encouragement or support from IPS or the U.S. government.
The judicial proceedings instituted by Fabiola Letelier formed part of the popular human rights struggle that matured in Chile during the late ’70s. Letelier never allowed her brother’s case to be seen in isolation or to be reduced to diplomatic maneuvering that could be resolved behind closed doors by the U.S. and Chilean governments. Assisted by a small team of lawyers and human rights activists, Fabiola Letelier kept the case before the Chilean public and viable in the Chilean court system. When post-Pinochet legislation allowed the case to be moved from military to civilian courts, Letelier’s work ensured that an active case existed that could, in fact, be moved. It would have been legally impossible in 1991 to institute new proceedings charging Contreras and Espinoza with a murder committed a decade before. (Complicated legalisms come into play here. For a human rights case to be heard in the civilian courts, national sovereignty had to be involved. Letelier’s astute development of the passport case established sufficient basis on which to make the sovereignty argument.)
Representing herself, her sister, and her mother, Fabiola Letelier filed the first querella (lawsuit) in civilian court. After that, a lawyer representing Orlando Letelier’s widow and sons, and a third lawyer representing the Chilean government joined the case. The Chilean government never “moved aggressively,” as you state; the government moved lethargically and (sensibly) made use of the legal and investigative findings produced by Fabiola Letelier and her team.
In Chile, none of this is hidden history. Ask anyone, pro- or anti-Pinochet, to name the lead lawyer in the case. Read mainstream press reports from the day of Judge Bañados’ November 1993 verdict; they cite Fabiola Letelier as the crucial player in the case. And this past May 30 (not June, as in your article), when the press gathered to hear the final Supreme Court verdict, it was Fabiola Letelier they sought out for a statement.
To acknowledge the important work of Fabiola Letelier is not to deny the role of the U.S. government, the U.S.-based lawyers, and the many others who worked long and hard to bring Contreras and Espinoza to trial. But there would have been no case and no conviction without the dogged persistence of Fabiola Letelier. Courageous individuals should not be erased form the record merely because they operate far from the center of the new world order.
In victory tribute, the noted author Eduardo Galeano wrote (my translation), “The truly irrefutable proof that justice exists is in the fact that people like Fabiola exist, who struggle for and believe in justice. In these lands, in these times, it is those people who restore our faith.” We are all in debt to Fabiola Letelier for this one small step toward justice.