Opponents of Chilean Junta Slain in Washington by Bomb in his Auto

17 November 2005


Opponents of Chilean Junta Slain in Washington by Bomb in his Auto
David Binder
The New York Times, 22 September 1976

Orlando Letelier, who was foreign minister in the Chilean government of President Salvador Allende Gossens, was killed here today when a bomb exploded in his car as it sped along fashionable Embassy Row. A woman assistant to Mr. Letelier was killed and a third person was injured. Mr. Letelier was a leader of Chilean political exiles in this country who oppose the military junta that overthrew President Allende in 1973. The bombing was denounced by Senator James Abourezk, Democrat of South Dakota, who said it 'means that the tyranny' of the dictatorship in Chile has now been extended in part to the United States. Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts called it 'political terrorism.'

Incident Latest in a Series

The State Department spokesman, Frederick Z. Brown, said the department 'expresses its gravest concern about Dr. Orlando Letelier's death.'. The incident was the latest in a series of violent actions against Chilean political exiles since Oct. 3, 1974, when a bomb in Buenos Aires killed Gen. Carlos Prats Gonzalez, commander of the Chilean Army under President Allende. In October 1975, assailants in Rome gunned down Bernardo Leighton, vice president of Chile's Christian Democratic Party in Exile, and Mrs. Leighton, wounding both. Recently many of the 8,000 Chilean exiles in Argentina and the hundreds in Colombia have been subjected to severe harassment, including beatings, from right-wing elements. Some victims said they saw the hand of the Chilean secret police in the actions. A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation said it was the first act of violence in this country against a Chilean exile known to the agency. The blast this morning at Sheridan Circle drew shocked crowds immediately - including some of employes of five embassies in the vicinity. At least four members of the Executive Protective Service, which guards the capital's diplomatic missions, were witnesses to the explosion. These policemen rushed to the aid of Michael Moffitt, who had been thrown out of the moving Chevrolet sedan by the explosion. His wife, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, was fatally injured. Mr. Letelier was dead on arrival at George Washington University Hospital.

On American University Faculty

The three worked at the Transnational Institute, a division of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies. Mr. Letelier also taught at the American University in Washington. This evening Senators Kennedy and Abourezk, together with Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota, introduced a Senate resolution calling for 'thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the bombing.' Forty-eight House members sponsored a parallel resolution. Associates at the institute, among them Richard Barnet and Marcus Raskin, denounced the killing as a 'political assassination' at a hastily called news conference, then participated in a demonstration in front of the Chilean Embassy. The embassy is situated six blocks down Massachusetts Avenue from the scene of the blast. Before the demonstration, Ambassador Manuel Trucco of Chile issued a statement denouncing 'the deplorable deed' and saying that the Chilean Government 'repudiates the outrageous act of terrorism.'

Last Sept. 10, the Government of President Augusto Pinochet, the general who led the overthrow of President Allende, issued a decree depriving Mr. Letelier of his Chilean nationality. The decree followed an official accusation that Mr. Letelier had helped instigate a boycott of Chilean products by Dutch dockworkers and a campaign against $63 million Dutch mining investment in Chile. Mr. Letelier, who was 44 years old, had told acquaintances that he feared for his life immediately after release from nearly a year of imprisonment in the junta's prisons two years ago. During a brief stay in 1974 in Venezuela, he told a New York Times reporter, 'they're going to kill me', and then mentioned 'DINA', an acronym for the Spanish name for the secret police. His release from prison resulted in large part from intervention by Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. Mr. Letelier moved from Venezuela to the United States, where he had been Ambassador for the Allende Government from 1971 to May 1973. He lived furtively for a time in a friend's house in suburban Bethesda, receiving only trusted visitors. But as time wore on he began to move more openly among Washington's journalists, scholars and officials.

Family Lived in Bethesda

His wife, Isabel, and their four children came from Chile to join him a year ago and they moved into a Bethesda house. An Executive Protective Service captain at the scene said that the explosion had been caused 'by a time bomb', but declined to say what evidence of a timing device remained. The Letelier car was rounding the traffic circle when the bomb detonated at 9:35 a.m., mutilating the occupants and spraying glass and metal in a radius of 60 feet. The car then rammed into a small Volkswagen parked on the curb next to the Rumanian Embassy. 'There was no fire, only a little smoke,' said Donald Jones, a witness. 'One body was lying on the street under the car and another was on the grass. I didn't see the third, the police came so fast.' Traffic on Massacusetts Avenue was tied up for more than four hours because of a police cordon blocking off Sheridan Circle.

Agents Reported in US

An associate of Mr. Letelier at the New York headquarters of Popular Unity of Democratic Chile, the exile organization he headed, said the former foreign minister 'had been concerned about his security.' The associate, who asked not to be identified, said that United States authorities had informed Mr. Letelier last May that some DINA agents were thought to be circulating in this country. The associate also recalled that Mr. Letelier had made his 'last public speech' on Sept. 10 at a rally in the Felt Forum of Madison Square Garden, where he commented on his deprivation of citizenship. On that occasion he said: 'Today is a dramatic day in my life in which action of the Fascist generals against me makes me feel more Chilean than ever. I was born a Chilean, I am a Chilean and I will die a Chilean. They, the Fascists, were born traitors, live as traitors and will be remembered forever as Fascist traitors.'

Copyright 1976 The New York Times