TNI and the Pinochet precedent

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On 21 September 1976, Transnational Institute discovered the brutal cost of fighting for economic and social justice, when Chilean secret service agents set off a car bomb in Washington DC killing TNI's director, Orlando Letelier along with Ronni Moffitt, a fundraiser for the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). It has taken more than 30 years of struggle to bring some of those responsible to justice.

About tni and the pinochet precedent

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who shared primary responsibility, evaded imprisonment by his death, but the tireless fight to bring him to justice set down precedents that continue to have relevance for countless struggles against impunity worldwide.

The Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights awards are held to honour human rights defenders in the United States and Latin America.

“There has to be a place to remember.
There have to be occasions when I can say to you as I say to you tonight:
Once upon a time there was a country where three couples danced tango.
Once upon a time a man called Orlando Letelier was alive.
Once upon a time many people decided not to let him die.”

Ariel Dorfman, October 1993

An assassination in broad US daylight

TNI Fellow and close friend of Orlando Letelier, Saul Landau wrote this account of Letelier's assassination on 21 September 1976:

“At 8:45 Tuesday morning, a Latin woman walking in front of Letelier's residence noticed a late-model grey sedan parked near the Letelier driveway. Three occupants sat inside and one man stood by the car. She identified him as certainly a Latin, about 30, wearing a grey suit and tie. The four appeared to be enjoying an inside joke, she said.

At 8:55 the Moffitts arrived in the Letelier car, and pulled into Letelier's driveway. Engaged in conversation, they did not notice any other vehicles nearby. They also did not know that one of the men in the grey sedan car, Michael Townley, had taped a bomb to the bottom of Letelier’s car two days earlier.

At 9.15, Letelier, Ronni and Michael Moffitt left the house and began the drive from Bethesda to the District of Columbia. Letelier took the route he always drove River Road to 46th to Massachusetts Avenue. They talked about the day's business and the dreary weather. No one paid attention to a grey sedan trailing them at a safe distance.

As Letelier entered Sheridan Circle, a hand in the grey car depressed a button. Michael Moffitt heard the sound of water on a hot wire and then saw a white flash. Thrown clear of the explosion, Moffitt tried to free the unconscious Letelier from the wreckage on top of him. His legs had been snapped from his body and catapulted some 15 feet away. Ronni Moffitt stumbled away from the smouldering Chevrolet; she seemed to be OK, but in fact had suffered a severed artery and soon bled to death. Michael screamed out into the world, "The Chilean Fascists have done this.”

Uncovering those responsible

Amidst the devastating grief, IPS and the FBI's investigations soon pointed to the role of the Chilean dictatorship in Letelier's assassination.  Orlando Letelier was a former Minister for Foreign Affairs under the Salvador Allende government, which was brutally overthrown in a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet on 11 September 1973. Letelier was arrested, tortured and detained before being released as a result of diplomatic pressure. Exiled to Venezuela, Letelier soon moved to Washington D.C., started work at IPS, and started to build an international campaign to isolate the Pinochet regime.

According to Chilean sources, the actual plot for the murder of Letelier began during a debate within the Chilean junta in June 1976. They were increasingly fearful about Letelier's public attempts to isolate and denigrate the ruling junta.  They believed Letelier had been instrumental in blocking a $63-million Dutch investment. Letelier had testified before the United Nations and other world bodies about torture in Chile and had briefed members of Congress and State Department officials. He was highly respected at international banking and lending agencies (Letelier was an economist and a former official of the Inter-American Development Bank).

Letelier's defiance and his constant high profile criticisms of the regime is thought to have tipped the balance with Pinochet authorising his assassination. Learning of the regime's decision to withdraw his citizenship, Letelier made a defiant speech in Madison Square Garden: “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.” On August 28, 1976, Letelier had also published an influential article in The Nation, "Chile: Economic Freedoms Awful Toll," which connected the campaign of state terror to the Milton Friedman economic model.

FBI investigations revealed that Michael Townley, a Chilean Secret Service (DINA) agent landed in Miami on September 13, 1976. He flew to New York and met with Armando Fernandez Larios, another DINA operative who briefed him on Letelier's habits, his car description, daily departure times, route to work, parking location, and probable work schedule at the Institute for Policy Studies. The following week, a group of Cuban exiles who had already been alerted that a contract was in the offing, joined the plot. Townley worked out the details of the Letelier assassination with the five Cuban terrorists. They supplied some of the ingredients for the bomb and departed for Washington where Townley made the bomb and the detonator.

Network of terror with US duplicity

Letelier and Moffitt were the most famous victims of Operation Condor, a covert program to murder political opponents that was carried out by a network of six South American secret police agencies - from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil. A Chilean government commission later ascertained that Pinochet's regime had assassinated at least 3,200 persons within Chile, tortured tens of thousands and forced hundreds of thousands into exile.

Furthermore, investigations showed that the US administration not only turned a blind eye to these abuses but also condoned them through their active political, diplomatic and economic support to the Pinochet regime. These came to light most clearly in the 1975 US Senate Church Report and other official documents which were declassified during the Clinton administration. CIA testimony proved the US government “sought in 1970 to foment a military coup in Chile; after 1970 it adopted a policy both overt and covert, of opposition to Allende; and it remained in intelligence contact with the Chilean military, including officers who were participating in coup plotting.”

Once Pinochet seized power, the US gave full support to his regime. At a meeting with Pinochet on 8 June 1976, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Pinochet that he would ignore the Chilean regime’s use of torture, disappearances and human rights abuses, telling Pinochet, "In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here." Kissinger added. "I think that the previous government was headed toward communism. We wish your government well". Kissinger dismissed American human rights campaigns against Chile's government as "domestic problems". He also assured Pinochet that he opposed sanctions such as those proposed by Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat representative of Massachusetts, which would ban arms sales to governments that were human rights violators. At the meeting, Pinochet raised his concerns about Letelier directly: "Letelier has access to the Congress. We know they are giving false information. We are worried about our image". Kissinger notably did not stress America's support for the rights of political opponents.

De-classified CIA documents show Kissinger knew of the existence of Operation Condor in March 1976, described at the time by the CIA in favourable terms as a "cooperative effort by the intelligence/security services of several South American countries to combat terrorism and subversion." Declassified documents show there were discussions in the US administration expressing concerns about Operation Condor. However internal delays and debates meant that no formal warnings were ever delivered to Pinochet by the US warning him against activating his assassination network.

In August, the US ambassador to Paraguay authorised visas to two Chilean Secret Service agents, Michael Townley and Armando Fernandez Larios who were travelling under false names and Paraguayan passports.

On Sept. 20, 1976, one day before the assassination, Assistant Secretary of State Harry Shlaudeman ordered his deputy, William Luers, to "simply instruct the Ambassadors to take no further action, noting that there have been no reports in some weeks indicating an intention to activate the Condor scheme."

18 hours later, the bomb that killed Letelier and Moffitt exploded. Despite what officials knew about Condor and the Paraguay scheme, a CIA source leaked to the media the absurd notion that leftists had killed Letelier to create a martyr. It took more than a year for the Justice Department to examine the Paraguay passport photos, which identified the two DINA assassins: Townley and Fernandez Larios.

Finding the killers

The first focus in the struggle to bring those responsible to justice was on the killers themselves. On 8 April 1978, Michael Vernon Townley, who coordinated the assassination, was arrested in Chile and handed over to US officials. Townley confessed that he had contracted five Cuban exiles and agreed to provide evidence against them in exchange for a reduced sentence and immunity from prosecution for other crimes. This meant he escaped conviction for the 1974 car bombing in Buenos Aires of exiled Chilean Chief of Staff, General Carlos Prats and his wife and the 1975 shooting of exiled Chilean politician Bernardo Leighton and his wife in Rome. His confession though was critical in exposing the role of Chilean secret police Chief Manuel Contreras and Brigadier General Pedro Espinoza in coordinating the assassination from Chile.

Three of the killers: Alvin Ross Díaz, Guillermo and Ignacio Novo Sampoll were tried in 1980. Guillermo Novo Sampoll and Ross Diaz were found guilty of conspiracy to assassinate, while Ignacio Novo Sampoll was convicted of aiding and abetting. All were released at a second trial two years later after they had successfully appealed based on “procedural errors.” Two other killers Jose Dionisio Suarez and Virgilio Paz Romero went into hiding but were finally arrested in 1990 and 1991 respectively. They served seven years each and were paroled.

Those heading up the operation in Chile, Contreras and Espinoza, escaped justice until 1995 – 19 years after the crime – before they were finally convicted in Chilean courts.

Targeting Pinochet

However the person who remained ultimately responsible for both Letelier, Moffitt and countless other Chileans deaths was Augusto Pinochet. Although a plebiscite had forced him to relinquish the Presidency in 1990, Pinochet had remained on as Commander-in-Chief of the Army until 1998, and from there moved directly into a non-elected lifetime seat in the Chilean Senate. Until 2001 when he was removed from that self-appointed post, this position afforded him special immunity from prosecution on top of the blanket amnesty decreed by his own junta in 1978.

However the documentation amassed by Chilean human rights groups during the 17-year dictatorship and the 1991 Rettig Report, a Chilean commission that examined human rights abuses, ultimately served as invaluable evidence in bringing legal cases against Pinochet. Evidence collected during FBI investigations as well as declassified CIA documents also suggested that Pinochet was certain to have known of the mission to assassinate Letelier. Two former FBI agents and a former Assistant U.S. Attorney insisted that it was “inconceivable” that the Letelier assassination was carried out without Pinochet’s authorization. This was confirmed by chief of secret police Contreras who, in an affidavit sent to the Chilean Supreme Court in December 1997, stated that no major DINA missions were undertaken without Pinochet’s authorization.

These investigations were backed up by a constant campaign by TNI and IPS, together with an international coalition of groups and individuals, to keep the story of Pinochet's terror and the demands for justice in the public eye. Letter writing campaigns, memorial services, and human rights awards organized by Orlando's widow Isabel Letelier complemented the documentation and advocacy work of Chilean human rights groups and other international solidarity efforts. Articles and op-eds in leading magazines and newspapers as well as books such as Assassination on Embassy Row by TNI Fellow Saul Landau and journalist John Dinges also helped keep the case alive.


The breakthrough in bringing Pinochet closer to justice came on October 16, 1998, when Pinochet was arrested in London on a Spanish court order. The news of his arrest caused shock and reverberations worldwide, but it was based on years of groundwork by Juan Garcés who coordinated the work of many lawyers and activists. In 1996, the Spanish Union of Public Prosecutors filed a case on behalf of Spanish victims of the Argentine Dirty War. Shortly thereafter, Garces added a criminal complaint against Pinochet and other military officers on behalf of thousands of Chileans who had suffered torture or who were seeking justice for their murdered or disappeared loved ones. Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón's willingness to issue the arrest warrant, when notified that Pinochet was in London and his commitment from that point forward, were also crucial to development of the case

The Spanish case against Pinochet also benefited from public efforts to generate the political will for prosecution. In 1997, at the urging of human rights advocates and lawyers, the European Parliament and the Spanish Chamber of Deputies both passed unanimous resolutions in support of the Spanish investigation into Pinochet's crimes. Actions such as these helped to legitimise the case in the eyes of the public and government officials.

Immediately after the arrest, public mobilization efforts sprung up around the world. The European, Spanish and French Parliaments continued to defend the Spanish court's attempt to extradite Pinochet. The Chilean 'Picket of London' staged daily demonstrations outside the British courts and Pinochet's temporary home in London, while Chilean victims' groups returned to the streets of Santiago to air their ongoing demand for justice.

In the US, NGOs and human rights activists convinced nearly 40 US Representatives to join them in sending a stream of letters asking for Administration officials to support the Spanish case, reopen the Letelier-Moffitt investigation in the US, and declassify documents on human rights abuses in Chile. As a result, Clinton officials re-activated the Letelier-Moffitt investigation, sending a team to Chile in early 2000 for court proceedings involving 42 potential witnesses subpoenaed on behalf of the U.S. government. The Washington Post reported that “Federal investigators have uncovered evidence that some of them believe is sufficient to indict General Augusto Pinochet for conspiracy to commit murder in the 1976 car bombing.”

While British courts stripped Pinochet of his “sovereign immunity” and ruled that Spain could extradite him for torture, Pinochet escaped extradition when British Home Secretary Jack Straw intervened and released him after 16 months detention based on probable feigned mental illness by the Chilean dictator.

Pinochet Precedent

Although his release was a grave disappointment, the so-called Pinochet Precedent – that no dictator is above international law - had then been set. In Chile, Pinochet's arrest revitalised the public movement for justice and catalysed political and legal changes in Chile, allowing for historic proceedings against human rights violators in the Chilean courts. It succeeded in putting the history of the dictatorship on the front pages of the Chilean newspapers, re-opening public debate on the issue and permanently altering Pinochet's carefully constructed public image.

Eugenio Ahumada, who worked to document human rights abuses at Chilean Vicariate of Solidarity during the dictatorship, saw the changes firsthand: “The Pinochet case created an opening in Chile. It led the Right to finally start talking about what happened. It also led the Armed Forces to admit publicly for the first time that they did participate in abuses.”

Shortly after Pinochet's return to Chile, the Chilean Supreme Court stripped the dictator of his parliamentary immunity for prosecution. A few months later, Chilean Judge Juan Guzmán indicted him and placed him under house arrest. Pinochet, once seemingly invincible, was now reduced to making highly publicized visits to the hospital for every twinge and toothache in an attempt to win sympathy from the public, politicians and judges. A bench of the Santiago Appeals Court eventually acquiesced, deciding that the general was mentally and physically unfit to stand trial.

Revelations in 2005 that Pinochet had laundered millions of dollars put the final nail in the myth of the incorruptible strongman that Pinochet wanted to leave for posterity.  Riggs Bank failed to freeze a reported $8 million that the General had on deposit with the bank, agreed in February 2005 to give $8 million to a foundation in Spain that will distribute it to victims of the Pinochet regime or their families.

On 10 December 2006 Pinochet died of a heart attack. The refusal of then incumbent President Michelle Bachelet to attend his funeral – she was elected a few months earlier (whose father had been tortured and killed by Pinochet's regime and whose mother had worked at IPS) – was perhaps a final testament to the rejection of Pinochet and the beginnings of a new political era in Chile.


In the aftermath of Pinochet's arrest in London, it was clear that the international landscape had forever changed for leaders responsible for human rights abuses. Previously leaders like Pinochet travelled untroubled to shop in Harrods in London or to sail on yachts off the coast of Spain. Now no dictator or even democratically-elected leader responsible for human rights crimes can travel internationally without fearing that they could be indicted.

In the wake of Pinochet’s London arrest, President Suharto of Indonesia reportedly declined to seek medical care in Germany as he was sought by Portuguese activists for murders committed during 1975 invasion of East Timor. Laurent Kabila of Congo sent an advance team to Belgium to get a written assurance that he would not be arrested upon arrival.

Stacie Jones, who coordinated TNI and IPS's project, Pinochet Watch, reflects: “As we look back at the past two and a half decades, we see the convergence of history, convictions, and hard work that has brought the world much closer to the justice sought in the name of Orlando Letelier, Ronni Moffitt, and thousands of other victims of Pinochet.

“Personal commitments to see justice done for family and friends have grown into an international movement against impunity, which is now a wolf at the door of repressive regimes everywhere. The name that once symbolized dictatorship and state-sponsored terror now also strikes fear in the hearts of aspiring strongmen, aware that they too could one day be 'Pinocheted' for their crimes.”

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