Pinochet: Is a Terrorist Hiding in Chile's Senate?

17 မေလ 1998

The unresolved issue of Pinochet's involvement in the worst act of international terrorism in Washington in the past 50 years still hangs over US-Chilean relations.

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Los Angeles Times

TNI and the Pinochet precedent

When Bill Clinton addressed the Chilean legislature last month, he did not see the face of Augusto Pinochet. Nor did he mention the name of the recently retired army commander and former president-dictator of Chile. But the unresolved issue of Pinochet's involvement in the worst act of international terrorism in Washington in the past 50 years still hangs over US-Chilean relations.

Pinochet figures in problems Chile has with Spain, Italy and Argentina. In each of these countries, official investigations are underway that could link Pinochet directly to overseas assassinations and unsuccessful plots to silence his critics during his 17-year military reign.

An Argentine judge is investigating Pinochet on charges brought by the daughter of Gen. Carlos Prats, a former Chilean chief of staff, and his wife. The two were living as exiles in Buenos Aires in September 1974, when a car bomb blew them nine stories high. Argentine authorities arrested a former officer of DINA, the Chilean secret police, who has implicated other senior Chilean secret-police officials. An Italian court is probing Pinochet's responsibility in the September 1975 shooting, in Rome, of an exiled Chilean Christian Democrat legislator, Bernardo Leighton, and his wife. A gunman put bullets in the backs of their heads, but both survived. One month later, Pinochet met an Italian fascist leader in Madrid, who was subsequently charged with the shooting.

One piece of evidence caught the attention of the Italian magistrate: A Sept. 16, 1975, memo to Pinochet from Col. Manuel Contreras, chief of DINA, Chile's intelligence and secret-police agency. In it, Contreras requests for DINA an additional $600,000 for reasons that I consider indispensable, one of which is the neutralization of the [Chilean] government junta's principle adversaries abroad, especially in Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, the USA and Italy.

These countries were all hosts to DINA assassination attempts or to aborted DINA assassination plots. Spanish judges have studied this document, too. In July 1996, the Union of Progressive Spanish prosecutors and lawyers, representing the families of victims of Pinochet's reign of terror, accused Pinochet of international terrorism, genocide and crimes against humanity. In 1978, Pinochet granted an amnesty for himself and his military subordinates who, according to the 1997 official Chilean government record, killed more than 3,190 people and tortured thousands more. Later, Pinochet arranged to retire from the military as a senator-for-life, a status that, when combined with the amnesty, amounted to impunity from prosecution in Chile. Recently, a Chilean judge accepted the complaint of Gladys Marin, a Chilean communist, who has accused Pinochet of kidnapping her husband and other leaders, torturing them and making them disappear. But few hold out hope of an investigation, a prosecution and conviction in Chile.

Spanish Judge García Castellón certified Spanish jurisdiction in a similar case. More than a dozen Spanish citizens, including priests, fell victim to the excesses of Chile's military dictatorship. The judge also cast his investigative net for evidence to Washington, where DINA had struck on Sept. 21, 1976. On that day, Orlando Letelier, former Chilean chancellor under President Salvador Allende, and Ronni Karpen-Moffitt, a US citizen and colleague of his at the Institute for Policy Studies, were killed by a bomb planted under the seat of their car. FBI agents tracked the murders back to DINA's Contreras. A 1978 Washington grand jury indicted him and eight other named conspirators and several unindicted co-conspirators. Two former US prosecutors and two of the FBI agents who worked the Letelier-Moffitt case have declared they believe Pinochet was responsible for the murders.

The US government also learned some details about Chile's overseas terrorism from Michael Townley, a US citizen working for the Chilean secret police, who confessed to organising the Letelier assassination. In 1980, Townley told a US court that he had received orders from Contreras to assassinate Letelier. Townley flew to the United States under a false name, recruited a gang of anti-Castro Cubans to help him do the job, then made the bomb and detonator and placed the explosives under Letelier's car seat. Two Cuban exiles, who later pleaded guilty, detonated the bomb. After plea-bargaining for a reduced sentence and testifying against his fellow conspirators, Townley gradually disclosed to the FBI other information about DINA. After the September 1973 Pinochet-led coup that overthrew the Allende government, Townley had ingratiated himself to DINA by demonstrating his electronic expertise. He also showed an aptitude for more exotic tasks and, by 1974, he had received an assignment to kill abroad. Townley, according to bureau agents, began to think of himself as DINA's jackal, referring to the 1960s French killer who almost assassinated President Charles DeGaulle. FBI Special Agent Robert Scherrer slowly developed a father-confessor relationship with Townley, who told him how he and other elite Chilean agents organised the killing of Gen. Prats. The FBI learned of Operation Condor, an agreement among six Latin American secret police agencies to spy on their enemies abroad and even eliminate them. In the Prats case, for example, Townley recruited Argentine agents to detonate the bomb he had built. Scherrer also extracted from Townley details about the Leighton hit in Rome, in which an Italian fascist leader pulled the trigger and a Cuban exile group in Miami took the public credit. In 1997, the Italian court condemned (in absentia) Contreras and Townley for attempted murder of the Leightons in Rome.

Townley's stories have been reinforced by other evidence to the point that the Letelier case may be reopened. All nine conspirators listed in the 1978 indictment have been tried. The unindicted co-conspirators could include Pinochet himself. Yet, prosecutors lacked direct evidence that would warrant an indictment of the former Chilean president.

Then, last December 23, Contreras, now serving a seven-year sentence in Chile for his role in the Letelier-Moffitt murders, declared that he was following Pinochet's orders in every action that he undertook. Since his statement was offered as part of an effort to get his sentence reduced, it's self-serving. But it appears to corroborate the conclusions of the US officials involved in the case.

Pinochet has escaped prosecution in Chile because of the amnesty he granted himself and his cronies. But there is one exception: US pressure could compel his prosecution in the Letelier-Moffitt case in Chile. But there is little likelihood justice will be done there unless it is pursued here in the United States. Although he failed to confront Pinochet while visiting Chile, Clinton still can ask Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to reopen the Letelier-Moffitt investigation into Pinochet's role as its alleged author. Such a request would signal a formal end of official impunity under which Pinochet has hidden for more than two decades. It would send a message to state terrorists everywhere.

Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times