Autumn of the Autocrat

17 April 1998

Those who brought the suit against Pinochet, in and outside Chile, hope that the case might allow some measure of belated justice and ease the pain they continue to suffer as a result of the dictator's atrocities.

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

Chilean General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte went to great lengths to ensure a comfortable retirement after his 17 year rule as president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Before agreeing to democratic elections in 1990, he granted himself a list of perks, including an eight-year stint as head of the army, with access to the military budget (collected from copper revenues and independent of civilian government control): the fancy post-retirement title of senator-for-life. He also secured amnesty for military officers who committed the thousands of murders, disappearances and tortures during his reign. With this golden parachute in place, Pinochet had no reason to doubt that his retirement last March at age 82 would mean anything other than a chance to exchange his military boots for fur-lined slippers. He expected to enjoy his last days in peace and deferential honor.

Then, in July 1996, Pinochet's retirement plan hit its first serious snag. The Madrid-based Association of Progressive Spanish Prosecutors accused Pinochet and other Chilean junta leaders of international terrorism, genocide, and crimes against humanity (1). The families of the victims of his excesses also filed a civil suit against him. Spanish judge Manuel García Castellón, a member of the Conservative Judges Association, ruled that his court had jurisdiction in the case, since the accusations against the Chilean general dealt with crimes covered under international law (2).

The Spanish case alleges that agents of Pinochet's regime killed or attempted to kill individuals in the United States, Argentina, Italy, and other countries. In addition, they add, the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation has documented more than 3.000 murders and disappearances of Chileans and other nationals carried out on Chilean soil during the dictatorship (3). Patricio Aylwin, who was elected Chile's first post-military president in 1990, formed the commission to investigate and report on murders and tortures committed under the dictatorship. While it was hardly a secret that Pinochet's regime murdered its opponents at home, uncovering the acts done abroad by the DINA, Chile's intelligence and secret police agency, has made the aging dictator most vulnerable to prosecution.

How did the formerly Teflon-clad dictator begin to lose his protective coating? According to lawyers who filed the Spanish charges, Pinochet's mistake lay in his thinking that self-imposed amnesty would shield him from international human rights law, which forbids amnesty for perpetrators of crimes against humanity. Moreover, Pinochet's extraterritorial terrorism made him vulnerable to prosecution outside his own nation.

The general in his labyrinth

If the plaintiff's novel application of international human rights law to this panoply of crimes is successful, it will have far reaching implications of amnesty laws in other countries emerging from totalitarian rule (see Punishing Pinochet by Peter Weiss). Courts in Argentina and Italy are also investigating Pinochet's connections to Chilean government-inspired assassinations in Buenos Aires and Rome.

Pinochet's hit man

As the Spanish judge decides whether to indict Pinochet for ordering foreign assassinations, there is one man he would especially like to question: a US citizen now living under a false name granted by the federal witness protection program. A hit man for Pinochet's intelligence agency (DINA), Michael Vernon Townley saw himself as Chile's jackal. Murders, such as the ones he carried out for Pinochet's foreign assassination program are proving to be the dictator's Achilles heel.

In 1957, at age 14, Townley had moved to Chile, where Ford Motors had assigned his father. In 1970, he joined Patria y Libertad, a violent anti-Allende proto-fascist group. That same year, he fled to the US after he was accused of murdering a watchman when Patria y Libertad tried to seize a radio station. After the 1973 coup, the 30-year-old Townley returned to Chile and joined DINA as an electronics expert, bugging technician, and all around Mr. Fix-it. Within a year, he had developed a reputation as an oversead hit man.

Bombing in Washington

In mid-September 1976, following orders, he traveled to Washington via New York on a false US passport. There, he recruited members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement (CNM), a violent ultra-right anti-Castro fringe group, to help him build and detonate a bomb. That same month, he murdered Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt.

In 1978, under US pressure, Pinochet delivered up Townley to Washington as a kind of sacrifice, hoping that handing over one assassin would satisfy US interest and end the FBI's pursuit of the additional Chilean conspirators in the Letelier case.

While the distraught Townley sat in jail, FBI special agent Robert Scherrer cleverly assumed the role of father confessor. During a series of conversations during 1978-82, he told Scherrer eerie details about DINA's covert operations around the world: how he had used the anti-Castro Cubans to acquire C4 plastic explosive and other gadgets to make the bomb; how he had bought electrical tape and a metal baking pan at Sears to use to secure the bomb to the I-beam of Letelier's car.

Townley told Scherrer about his participation in manufacturing sarin in the basement of his Chilean home. (This variety of poison gas was used by Japanese terrorists used in 1995 in the Tokyo subway system.) He boasted that he had smuggled the toxin in a Chanel No. 5 perfume vial in his pocket aboard the LAN Chile flight to the US. He hoped to break into Letelier's house and spray his target's pillow. In the end, the tradecraft conscious Townley opted for the method he knew best: the remote-controlled car bomb (4).

Trail of blood

That was not the only crime to which Townley confessed. During one conversation, he led agent Scherrer to conclude that he had assassinated other DINA targets. Scherrer ascertained that Townley had traveled to Argentina to kill exiled former Chilean Chief of Staff Gen. Carlos Prats. In Buenos Aires, he recruited members of an extreme right wing group tied to the Argentine secret police, who then placed a bomb under Gen. Prat's car. He and his wife were blown nine stories high as they drove home one late September evening in 1974. By the time the Argentine thugs detonated the bomb, Townley was already on his way back to Chile - a routine that DINA followed in all its overseas hits.

In the fall of 1975, Townley toured Europe with assignments to hit Carlos Altamirano and Clodomiro Almeida, exiled leaders of Chile's Socialist Party ((5). Accompanied by his wife and Virgilio Paz, a pistolero from the CNM, Townley went to Europe to meet with fascist groups in several countries to coordinate future missions. One of his contacts, Stefano delle Chiaie, a leader of the Italian Fascist Youth organisation, agreed to assassinate Bernardo Leighton, a Chilean Christian Democratic leader exiled in Italy.

On October 6, 1975, Leighton and his wife strolled leisurely on a Rome street, their customary route home. A gunman stepped behind them and fired a 9mm bullet into each of their heads. Neither died, nor did they fully recover. The CNM claimed credit, telling a Miami newspaper details of the hit that only the assassins could have known. The hit bolstered CNM's reputation and Paz' credentials as a thug.

A month after the assassination attempt on Leighton, Pinochet attended Francisco Franco's funeral. Judge García Castellón now has evidence that while in Spain, the dictator met with Delle Chaie, the man who had shot Leighton.

House of the killers

While the assassination program carried out abroad against Letelier, Moffitt, Prats, Leighton, and others may be Pinochet's undoing, most of his crimes took place at home in Chile. Townley, in his cell in the US, also told Scherrer about DINA's domestic killings including the 1976 murder of Carmelo Soria, a Spanish economist and UN official in Chile.

DINA agents belonging to the elite Muchen Brigade had dragged Soria into Townley's large home in the outskirts of Santiago. In addition to his electronics lab and poison gas factory, Townley had a veritable torture chamber in his basement. There, the DINA elite began to beat Soria, preparatory to questioning him about his activities with Chile's underground Communist Party ((6). One overly enthusiastic torturer broke Soria's neck. A gardener saw the DINA agents drag the corpse to his car. They then poured liquor on the body and left the empty Pisco bottle on the car seat. After forging a ridiculous suicide note about Soria's despondency over his wife's supposed affair, they pushed his car into a canal, trying to make it look like he killed himself. Soria's body was found in the canal about a kilometer from his car (7).

The series of confessions bought Townley a plea bargain for a reduced sentence in the Letelier case. Appearing as the key witness in a series of trials in Washington in 1980 and 1981, he fingered five right-wing Cuban accomplices (8). Townley's testimony also sent shock waves through Chile when he testified that his orders to assassinate Letelier came from Chilean secret police chief Col. Manuel Contreras and his subordinate Lt. Col. Pedro Espinoza. Until 1995 Pinochet had protected Contreras and Espinoza, but under civilian government, the shield eroded and a Chilean judge sent both men to prison for their role in the Letelier assassination. In telling his tale from prison, Townley inadvertently illuminated a trail of evidence that may, nearly two decades later, lead Spanish prosecutors to the feet of Gen. Pinochet.

The Spanish judicial probe covers the period from September 11, 1973, when Pinochet led a military coup against the elected government of Socialist Salvador Allende, through 1990, when international pressure forced him to acquiesce to civilian control. According to Spanish sources close to the case, Judge García Castellón will soon have to issue an indictment or drop the investigation. If he indicts, he will demand that Pinochet appear in Spain to testify in his defense. Under a bilateral treaty, the Chilean government can refuse a Spanish extradition order only if it agrees to try the defendant on the same charges in his home country.

If indicted, Pinochet's best hope may be to become the Karadzic of the Andes, according to Joan Garcés, a Madrid lawyer representing families of the victims (9). Since the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague indicted the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic has remained free, albeit confined to his region of power, where NATO forces are reluctant to arrest him.

But even if he stays at home, Pinochet may not escape unscathed. The Spanish judicial proceedings have caused a series of additional irritations for Pinochet. In September, the European Parliament passed a unanimous resolution in support of the investigation (10). In November, Chilean student leaders, including members of the ruling Christian Democratic Party, attempted to present Pinochet with the birthday gift of a one-way ticket to Spain. Their arrest by Chilean police did little to lessen the dictator's humiliation.

Then, in early January, Chile's lower house passed a non-binding resolution rejecting Pinochet's plan to assume the title of senator-for-life. The 56-26 vote sent a clear message about how the majority of Chile's elected deputies viewed their army commander (11).

Buoyed by this development, Chile's Communist Party filed a complaint with the Santiago Court of Appeals charging Pinochet with the same crimes outlined in the Spanish case. Although chances for winning this case are slim - since Pinochet granted himself and his fellow officers amnesty - the courts acceptance of jurisdiction accentuates the decline in the general's authority.

Another group of left-center legislators has announced that it intends to accuse Pinochet of making political comments, which active military officers cannot do under the Constitution (12). All these initiatives followed the opening of the Spanish judicial process.

Chronicle of a death retold

The United States entered the case in 1997 after the Spanish judge sent Letters Rogatory, asking the Justice Department for access to information regarding one of Pinochet's most famous foreign assassinations. As a result of a prolonged investigation of the 1976 murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt in Washington, DC, the US has reams of information about Chile's extraterritorial violence. Under a mutual legal assistance treaty, both nations are obliged to aid each other in judicial investigations. In January 1998, the Spanish judge spent a week in Washington, meeting with security officials and gathering testimony from witnesses living in the US.

The focus of the judge's US inquiry centers on Gen. Pinochet's complicity in a series of assassinations carried out in foreign countries. Judge García Castellón will attempt to uncover what information US intelligence agencies collected on Pinochet's internal killings as well.

The FBI determined that the Chilean DINA had ordered the killing of Letelier, a former ambassador to the US and defense minister under Allende, who had become a high-profile critic of the Pinochet regime. The remote-controlled bomb planted in his car also killed one of his colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies, 25 year-old Ronni Moffitt.

Until now, Pinochet has eluded US and Chilean justice, even though FBI special agents Robert Scherrer and Carter Cornick concluded that it would have been inconceivable that the Letelier assassination was ordered without the express authorization of the commander-in-chief. E. Lawrence Barcella, one of the prosecutors in the Letelier-Moffitt case, drew the same conclusion in testimony before the Spanish magistrate last summer (13).

In a December 1997 appeal to the Chilean Supreme Court for a reduced sentence, former DINA chief Col. Manuel Contreras, while denying his and DINA's role in the Letelier-Moffitt case, stated that As Maximum Authority of the DINA, on [Pinochet] could dispose of an order the missions to be carried out (14). Then two months later Chilean Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Helmut Frenz testified in the Spanish court that when the Catholic Bishop Fernando Ariztía and he met with Pinochet in 1974, the president justified the torture of Marxists and communists. Through other means, said Pinochet, they wouldn't confess. As to the accusation that a priest was tortured, Pinochet replied: He's no priest. He's a Marxist (15).

Hate in the time of Kissinger

In Spring 1976, Treasury Secretary William Simon and Secretary of State Kissinger made formal visits to Chile, symbolically blessing Pinochet's regime. By ordering a hit in Washington, DINA ended the cozy relationship that had begun with the 1973 coup. Less than two weeks after the September 4, 1970 election of President, Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to prevent the Socialist from being inaugurated. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger reported that on September 15, Nixon ordered CIA Director Richard Helms to initiate: a major effort to see what could be done to prevent Allende's accession to power. If there were one chance in ten of getting rid of Allende we should try it; if Helms needed 10 million he would approve it... Aid programs should be cut; [Chile's] economy should be squeezed until it screamed (16).

Helms own notes corroborated Kissinger story. If I ever carried the Marshall's baton out of the Oval Office, Helms later boasted to a Senate committee looking into the CIA's covert war against Chile, it was that day (17).

Under these guidelines, CIA operatives in Chile undertook a series of covert actions designed to stop Allende's November inauguration. CIA officers attempted to bribe Chilean legislators to vote against Allende's confirmation and provided $ 50.000 to Gen. Camilo Valenzuela to dole out to other generals to foment a military coup. Valenzuela failed because of the principled resistance of army chief Gen. Rene Schneider, without whose approval the ultra hierarchical Chilean officers would not move. The CIA station chief went to Valenzuela's house and pistol-whipped him until he returned most of the money. The irate CIA official then gave $ 50.000 to Patria y Libertad, a right-wing terrorist group, to assassinate Schneider. In broad daylight the group attacked his car and killed him, making it appear to be a failed kidnapping attempt (18).

The US did make Chile's economy scream by conspiring with other nations to cut off Allende's credit and make Chile pay through the nose for loans. Meanwhile, the CIA instigated strikes and sabotage in strategic sectors of the economy. Finally, in the late summer of 1973, the conspirators succeeded in forcing Gen. Carlos Prats to resign as commander of the Chilean military. Pinochet ascended to the role, setting the stage for a military coup on September 11, 1973. The US lost no time in recognising Pinochet's military junta and rewarding its cooperation with restored credit and loans. But by 1979, when the extent of Pinochet's abuses embarrassed even the US, President Jimmy Carter began to distance himself from the dictator.

A pariah around the world, Pinochet hung onto presidential power for 17 years. Now, he scrambles to wield his remaining influence and salvage his retirement plan. In an interview last October, he indignantly described the Spanish case as absolutely unlawful. The only thing I have done in my life was serve my country... Why don't they investigate Fidel Castro? he snapped (19).

Last Fall, he dispatched his adjutant, Gen. Fernando Torres Silva, to Spain to try to persuade the judge to drop the case. Previously, the Chilean justice minister had taken the unusual step of flying to Spain, holding an airport press conference stating Chile's opposition to the proceedings, and then flying home. Presumably, the aged army chief also had a hand in Chile's threat in 1997 to cancel a $25 million contract to purchase Spanish transport aircraft (20).

A hundred years in solitary

The current move by Spain to bring Pinochet to justice has dramatised divisions among Chileans. On March 10, 1998, thousands cheered the aging dictator during a lavish ceremony marking his resignation as army commander. Pinochet wept for the cameras as fellow generals paid homage to his greatness. The next day, angry demonstrators protested as Pinochet took his seat in Chile's upper house as a senator-for-life. Several Christian Democrat and Socialist senators expressed outrage at Pinochet's presence by carrying photos of the disappeared, and signs asking: Where are they?

Aside from Pinochet's core of rightwing admirers, a sizeable sector of the ruling center-left coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists (including the foreign minister) fear that the Spanish proceedings could raise the wrath of the military and thus destabilise Chile's booming economy. Or, it might open the door to the unpleasant past, unleashing not only a legal storm, but vendettas as well. On the legal plane, cabinet ministers argue that Spain is interfering with Chile's peaceful, albeit not necessarily smooth, transition to democracy. The justice minister contended that this investigation lacked proper jurisdiction and, moreover, centers on the past. To maintain the miracle boom of the economy, government officials said, Chileans must focus on the future.

Those who brought the suit, in and outside Chile, hope that the case might allow some measure of belated justice and ease the pain they continue to suffer as a result of Pinochet's atrocities. Along with Spanish and Chilean plaintiffs, the family of Charles Horman has also joined the civil suit. Horman was a US filmmaker and writer whose arrest and execution in Chile in 1973 became the basis of the film Missing starring Jack Lemmon (21). Unlike the well-documented assassination of Orlando Letelier, thousands of less-famous murdered Chileans have been denied justice because of the blanket amnesty Pinochet granted to members of his repressive apparatus.

Thousand of miles and many years away, a Spanish judge hears testimony from victims and culprits. He will decide if sufficient compelling evidence exists to indict the unrepentant general. It is the first time that a court of law is scrutinising Pinochet's role in 17 years of bloody deeds.

Ironically, Washington holds evidence that might nail shut Pinochet's legal coffin. Washington's war on terrorism policy should have dictated avid cooperation in this case. As of mid-April, the US had not yet delivered relevant classified documents to Judge García Castellón. Perhaps the White House feared that an indictment of Pinochet might cause some military stirring, just as President Clinton landed in Chile for the April 18-19 economic Summit.

The Spanish judges indictment could be a prelude to Latin America's first Nuremberg trial, an assurance that future tyrants must think before committing atrocities. For the victims' families it would provide a small measure of justice to watch the infamous dictator head not to retirement, but to prison.


1. Genocide is not restricted to the elimination of an entire group of persons on the basis of their ethnic or racial origin. The legal definition of genocide found in Article 2 of the Genocide Convention includes the partial destruction of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group of persons. The lawsuit by Joan Garcés against Pinochet charges him with genocide for willfully exterminating the opposition's national leadership of Chile - the latter being the particular social group in question. It is also a well settled principle of international law that the elimination of a group on the basis of its political opinions is a crime against humanity.
2. For a detailed legal account of the case, see: Joan Garcés, 'Pinochet ante la Audiencia Nacional y el Derecho Penal Internacional', Jueces para la Democracia, Madrid, March 1997.
3. Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993). According to the 1997 Chilean Government Association of Reparation and Reconciliation report, 3.197 people were killed during Pinochet's rule and, of those, 1.102 'disappeared' after being taken into custody by security agents. Miami Herald, March 11, 1998, p.1.
4. Scherrer suspected that Townley had made the bomb that killed Rolando Masferrer in Miami on Oct. 31, 1975. Like the Prats and Letelier bombs, the device that killed Masferrer was stowed under the driver's seat and detonated by remote control. Scherrer's hypothesis was that Townley did this favor for the CNM, expecting that they would then owe him one in return - which he collected when he received the Letelier assignment. The CNM had wanted the gangster Masferrer eliminated since he stood in their way, both in the rackets and for taking action against Castro. Some FBI agents suspected that Jorge Mas Canosa had hired the CNM to do the Masferrer job.
5. In early 1976, Townley physically bumped into Altamirano at the Madrid airport, but never got the opportunity for a clean kill. The CIA got wind of this plot to murder exiled Chileans in western Europe and notified the Spanish and French governments. In addition, Townley had orders to bomb the meeting room in Mexico where Chilean exile leaders were meeting in 1974. CNM member Virgilio Paz accompanied Townley on the Mexico mission, along with Townley's wife Mariana Ines Callejas, who also worked for DINA.
6. E. Martin de Pozuelo, 'El caso de los desaparecidos llega a EE.UU.', La Vanguardia (Barcelona), Jan. 11, 1998.
7. Report of the Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation, p.595.
8. Guillermo Novo, Alvin Ross, José Dionisio Suarez and Virgilio Paz were all charged with conspiracy to assassinate a foreign diplomat, plus a host of other charges. In the 1980 trial, a Washington jury convicted Guillermo Novo and Alvin Ross of conspiracy to murder Letelier. They received life sentences and Ignacio Novo got ten years for aiding and abetting. An appeals court reversed the decision, citing prosecutorial error, and in a subsequent trial a jury acquitted Ross. Guillermo Novo was also acquitted of conspiracy but found guilty of perjury before a grand jury. The judge freed him on the grounds that he had already served more than a year in prison. Virgilio Paz and Dionisio Suarez became fugitives and were subsequently captured in 1991 and 1990 respectively. Each pled guilty to conspiracy to assassinate and received 12 year sentences.
Garcés served as Allende's political adviser at the time of the 1973 coup. He has written about Chilean politics under the Allende government and about the coup itself.
10. European Parliament, 'Joint Motion for a Resolution', Sept. 17, 1997.
11. 'Chilean Lawmakers Oppose Post for Pinochet', Washington Post, Jan. 9, 1998.
12. AP, 'Chilean Leftists Sue Pinochet', The New York Times, Jan. 13, 1998.
13. Berna G. Harbour, 'La Policia Secreta de Pinochet Planeo Eliminar en Madrid un Lider Chileno', El Pais (Madrid), July 12, 1997.
14. Ramon Lobo, 'El responsible del asesinato de Letelier dice que sólo cumplió órdenes de Pinochet', El Pais (Madrid), Feb. 24, 1998.
15. 'Obispo declaró ayer ante la justicia española y habló con La Nacion', La Nacion (Santiago), Feb. 10, 1998.
16. Dinges, John and Saul Landau, Assassination on Embassy Row (New York, Pantheon Books, 1980), pp. 188-96, 230-53. The CIA did throw obstacles in the FBI's investigative past and tried to cover up certain aspects of the murder trail. In late June 1976, the CIA director of Clandestine Operations for Latin America received word from the US ambassador in Paraguay of what looked like a plan to attempt an assassination in Washington, DC. The CIA notified neither the FBI, nor the probable target of the hit, Letelier. In addition, the CIA sent the FBI on numerous false trails, providing the Bureau with thousands of suspects in the case, all of whom were leftists, on the theory that the left killed Letelier to create a martyr.
17. Covert Action in Chile, 1963-1973, based on hearings before the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, held in 1975 under the chairmanship of Sen. Frank Church.
18. Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (New York, Summit Books, 1983), pp. 277-96. Additional information from Saul Landau's background interview with a former CIA official.
19. María Eugenia Oyarzun, 'Entrevista a Pinochet', Diario La Tercera, Santiago, Oct. 30, 1997.
20. Financial Times (London), Nov. 19, 1997.
21. Report of the Chilean National Commission..., op.cit., p. 180.

Copyright 1998 Covert Action Quarterly