Forty years ago, agents of the Chilean dictatorship assassinated two colleagues at my organization, the Institute for Policy Studies, less than a mile from our office in downtown Washington, DC.
The murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt was a devastating blow to their families, friends, colleagues, and human rights supporters around the world. But over the decades, this brutal act has also led to important legal precedents— and some measures of justice.
Now comes news of another possible measure of justice. On May 17, Chile’s Supreme Court asked the U.S. government to extradite three former Chilean secret police agents. The request is in connection with the murder of United Nations diplomat Carmelo Soria in Chile in July 1976.
All three of these men were also involved in the Letelier-Moffitt assassination. And this current trial could help make up for the fact that none of them served lengthy sentences for a crime that, until 9/11, was the most notorious act of international terrorism in U.S. history.
Michael Townley, a hired American hitman for the Chilean secret police, pled guilty in 1978 to organizing the Letelier-Moffitt assassination. In the book Assassination on Embassy Row, John Dinges and Saul Landau explain how Townley crawled under Letelier’s car outside his suburban Washington home in the early morning hours of September 19, 1976 and attached a bomb with electrical tape.
Two days later, two right-wing Cubans detonated that bomb, killing the two IPS colleagues as they drove to work down Massachusetts Avenue. One of these Cubans was Virgilio Paz, also a target of the current extradition order.
The third man the Chileans are seeking to put on trial in the Soria case is former Chilean Army captain Armando Fernandez Larios, who also pled guilty for his role in murdering Letelier and Moffitt.
After testifying against other culprits, Townley was paroled after five years and then entered federal witness protection, as did Fernandez Larios after less than two years in jail. Paz spent a decade in U.S. prison before being set free in 2001.
The extradition request could lead to more prison time for this trio of Letelier-Moffitt assassins. And it is a reflection of the perseverance of many of the key lawyers who’ve been doggedly pursuing justice for Letelier and Moffitt and many other victims of the Pinochet dictatorship for four decades.
Spanish lawyer and former IPS associate Joan Garces has worked with Soria’s widow, Laura Gonzalez Vera, to pursue criminal cases against her husband’s killers in Spain and Chile for many years. Garces is the same lawyer who filed the Spanish case that led to the arrest of Pinochet in London in 1998. UK authorities eventually released the former dictator on humanitarian grounds and despite efforts to prosecute him in Chile, he died in 2006 without facing trial.
American lawyer Michael Tigar, who, along with Sam Buffone, represented the Letelier and Moffitt families in a successful and precedent-setting civil suit against the Chilean dictatorship, has worked in recent years to help lay the foundation for the Chilean court’s current extradition order.
Together with his wife, Jane Tigar, he founded a student clinic at the American University’s Washington College of Law that filed a lawsuit against Townley in connection with the Soria murder. This suit formed a sufficient factual basis for the Chilean court to begin formal proceedings in that country.
“The precedent of the Letelier-Moffitt case, and the ongoing struggle by IPS and others to keep these memories fresh, has once again yielded some results,” Michael Tigar told me in response to the news of the extradition order.
He cautions, however, that it is not at all certain whether the U.S. Department of Justice will comply with the order.
And yet this latest development is a clear reminder of the power of persistence. This year, IPS and others will mark the 40th anniversary of the Letelier-Moffitt assassinations with a series of events to honor these fallen colleagues while also recognizing the important legal achievements sparked by this tragedy —and the continuing work to champion human rights for all.