On September 10, 1976, Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet revoked the citizenship of Orlando Letelier, who had served as Chile’s ambassador to the United States and as a cabinet minister in the government of Dr. Salvador Allende before the 1973 coup. That night, Letelier filled the seats at Madison Square Garden for an anti-Pinochet rally, telling the crowd: “I was born a Chilean, I am a Chilean, and I will die a Chilean. They were born traitors, they live as traitors, and they will be known forever as fascist traitors.”
Eleven days later, on September 21, 1976, agents of Pinochet assassinated Letelier as he drove to work at the Institute for Policy Studies with his colleague Ronni Karpen Moffitt, a 25-year-old American development associate. The car bombing on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC, was a devastating blow to their families, their friends, their colleagues, and to the global crusade for human rights. But over these past 45 years, there have been measures of justice.
ASSASSINS FACE JUSTICE
Between 1978 and 1991, U.S. authorities prosecuted seven people in connection with the crime. Michael Townley, a U.S. citizen working for the Chilean secret police, pled guilty in 1978 to organizing the assassination, and received a reduced sentence in exchange for testimony against five Cuban exiles involved in the bombing. A Chilean Army captain also pled guilty for his role. Saul Landau led an independent IPS investigation into the crime to keep up the pressure for justice. After the 1979 trial he teamed up with Washington Post journalist John Dinges to write the book, “Assassination on Embassy Row,” still considered the definitive account of the murder investigations.
FALL OF THE GENERALS
In 1995, 19 years after the Letelier-Moffitt murders, former Chilean Secret Police Chief Manuel Contreras and Brig. Gen. Pedro Espinoza were sent to prison in Chile for their roles in the crime.
FIRST “WRONGFUL DEATH” SUIT AGAINST A FOREIGN NATION
In 1978, U.S. lawyers Michael Tigar and Sam Buffone filed a civil suit on behalf of family members of Letelier and Moffitt against the assassins and the Republic of Chile. It was the first wrongful-death suit filed in the United States against a foreign nation. After the 1990 transition to democracy, the Chilean government settled the suit.
PINOCHET ARRESTED IN SPAIN
On October 16, 1998, London police arrested Pinochet on an order from the Spanish courts. The Spanish case had been filed by lawyer Juan Garcés, on behalf of victims. While a British magistrate ruled that Spain could extradite Pinochet for torture, in March 2000, the British Home Secretary released the former dictator on humanitarian grounds.
U.S. SECRET DOCUMENTS RELEASED
In 1999, the Clinton Administration responded to pressure from the National Security Archive and other human rights groups by declassifying more than 16,000 secret government documents related to Chile and the relationship between the U.S. government and the Pinochet dictatorship. The declassified documents helped clarify the history of U.S. intervention in Chile and have served as evidence in legal cases against human rights violators.
U.S. INVESTIGATION OF PINOCHET RE-OPENED
In March 2000, a team of U.S. law enforcement officials traveled to Chile for court proceedings involving 42 potential witnesses subpoenaed by Chile’s Supreme Court 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 a draft indictment of Pinochet was reportedly prepared by Clinton administration officials, no action was taken. Documents released in 2016 revealed that the CIA had concluded as early as 1978 that Pinochet ordered the assassination and obstructed the U.S. investigation. The information was kept secret for decades despite Reagan administration analysis indicating its publication might have greatly hastened Pinochet’s removal or departure from power.
PINOCHET AND OTHER MILITARY OFFICERS INDICTED IN CHILE
Within 72 hours of Pinochet’s return to Chile from London in March 2000, Chilean Judge Juan Guzman moved to strip his immunity from prosecution, initiating a series of prosecutions that continue today. Twice—in 2000 and again in 2004—Guzman succeeded in indicting Pinochet. In both cases superior courts declared Pinochet mentally unfit for trial. Since Pinochet’s London arrest, over 300 other Chilean military officers have faced legal proceedings for human rights violations. Armando Fernandez Larios, who admitted his role in the Letelier-Moffitt assassination to U.S. authorities, was also held liable by a U.S. jury for crimes against humanity.
CIVIL SUIT AGAINST MICHAEL TOWNLEY
In 2002, a human rights litigation clinic founded by Michael Tigar at American University brought a suit against Letelier-Moffitt assassin Michael Townley for his role in aiding and abetting the torture and assassination of Carmelo Soria and won a default judgment of $7.2 million. This clinic still continues its work to enforce the judgment against Townley, who is in the U.S. federal witness protection program.
PINOCHET EXPOSED AS A THIEF
In February 2005, Riggs Bank agreed to settle a case brought by lawyers Juan Garcés and Sam Buffone by paying $9 million to victims of Pinochet for the bank’s role in concealing and spiriting Pinochet’s money out of Great Britain in 1999. In November 2005, Pinochet was arrested and placed under house arrest for charges related to tax evasion, passport forgery and other crimes associated with his possession of hundreds of illegal bank accounts, many of them in the United States. In August 2006, the Chilean Supreme Court stripped Pinochet’s immunity from prosecution, opening the way for additional charges related to these multi-million dollar accounts. Pinochet died on December 10, 2006. At that time, about 300 criminal charges were still pending against him in Chile for numerous human rights violations, tax evasion, and embezzlement.
LETELIER-MOFFITT KILLERS FACE MORE MURDER CHARGES
In 2012, the Appeals Court in Santiago revoked a judge’s order to close the Moffitt case, arguing that the investigation should be reopened because those behind the attack were Chilean citizens. Previous Chilean prosecutions related to the bombing had focused on Letelier’s death. In 2016, a Chilean court indicted three former agents of Pinochet’s regime for Moffitt’s murder: retired Chilean army officers Pedro Espinoza Bravo and Armando Fernandez Larios and American Michael Townley. In May 2016, Chile’s Supreme Court asked the U.S. government to extradite Townley, Fernandez Larios, and Cuban American assassin Virgilio Paz in connection with another case involving the murder of United Nations diplomat Carmelo Soria in Chile in 1976.
SPANISH COURT INVESTIGATES BANCO DE CHILE FOR MONEY LAUNDERING
In July 2021, the National Court of Spain reopened an investigation into whether a bank, Banco de Chile, helped General Pinochet and his associates launder millions of dollars overseas. Plaintiffs in the case, representing more than 20,000 victims of the dictatorship, are represented by Juan Garcés, a former IPS visiting fellow and a 1999 Letelier-Moffitt Award recipient.
These milestones stand as a testament to the power of persistence. As Martin Luther King once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
– Sarah Anderson, Institute for Policy Studies, updated August 2021.