The Washington Post
May 7, 1988, p. 17

U.S. Hope of Exposing Letelier's Killers Dims

Plotters of '76 Murder in D. C. Still Free

Bradley Graham, Washington Post Foreign Service


Frustrated at nearly every turn by Chilean authorities, the United States is running out of options in its latest drive to bring to justice the killers of Orlando Letelier, the Chilean diplomat assassinated along Washington's Embassy Row in 1976.

Chile's Supreme Court last month effectively blocked the United States from questioning a Chilean general who investigated the killing, deepening U.S. concerns that the masterminds of the assassination will never be prosecuted.

Although American officials say new moves are being considered, a key legal adviser to the United States says it has exhausted the main legal remedies.

U.S. officials say they have ruled out for now a political approach, such as economic sanctions.

Following the surrender to U.S. authorities last year of a former officer of the Chilean Army, who confirmed his involvement and implicated top-ranking secret police agents in the murder, the Reagan administration again made the Letelier case a top priority in bilateral relations with Chile. U.S. officials have demanded that Chile's former secret police chief and his deputy be brought to trial, preferably in the United States.

"The Chilean government said to us when we embarked that they would be helpful and cooperative," said a well-placed Washington official. "Instead, what they've done is take an utterly passive and utterly negative point of view."

While even many Chilean conservatives express shock at their government's behavior in the affair, political analysts here say the president, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, has less reason now to hand over his former right-hand men than when the scandal first broke. He managed to ride out that storm, then consolidated his hold. Lately, his relations with the United States have become so strained that he would appear to have little to lose by continued refusal to cooperate.

To counter the renewed U.S. pressure, Chilean officials have sought to cast aspersions on the Reagan administration's motives for reviving the case. An official who has dealt with the issue for years suggested that U.S. authorities are less interested in seeing justice done than in undermining Pinochet. He said it was no coincidence that Washington has pressed the matter just as Pinochet is attempting to extend his rule for another eight years through a presidential plebiscite later this year.

Letelier, an exiled opposition leader who had served as ambassador to Washington and Cabinet minister under leftist president Salvador Allende, was killed when a remote-controlled bomb blew up his car as he rounded Sheridan Circle on Sept. 21, 1976, three years after Pinochet had overthrown Allende in a coup. Also killed was Ronni Moffitt, an American who worked with Letelier at Washington's Institute for Policy Studies. Moffitt's husband, Michael, was injured.

Michael Townley, an American who worked for Chile's secret police, has confessed to planting the bomb and was convicted in the United States. He cooperated with U.S. officials after being expelled from Chile in 1978 under U.S. pressure.

Another former police agent, ex-Army major Armando Fernandez Larios, has confessed to gathering intelligence on Letelier in Washington for use by Townley and the right-wing Cuban exiles who carried out the assassination. When Fernandez surrendered last year, Pinochet labeled him as a "deserter."

Townley and Fernandez have said they received their orders from two men formerly at the top of Chile's secret police, then known as DINA: retired Army general Juan Manuel Contreras, DINA's chief for several years after the coup, and retired colonel Pedro Espinoza, onetime chief of operations for DINA. Both men have been indicted in the United States on conspiracy and murder charges.

Chile has refused to extradite or expel the former DINA bosses, saying Townley's and Fernandez's confessions were tainted by plea bargaining -- a legal practice common in the United States but not accepted by Chile's Supreme Court in this case. Meanwhile, a 10-year investigation by a Chilean military court has failed to produce enough evidence to place Contreras and Espinoza on trial.

In a series of diplomatic notes last year, the Reagan administration appealed to Chile's executive branch to take its own action to investigate and indict the perpetrators. The government declined, saying responsibility under Chilean law for investigating such matters rests solely with the courts.

The latest setback for the American effort came April 14, when Chile's Supreme Court refused to allow detailed U.S. questioning of a retired military judge, general Hector Orozco, who headed a 1978 Chilean probe into the case. Fernandez accused Orozco of taking part in an attempted cover-up of the affair.

The ruling appeared to close the door on apparently the last major legal gambit open to the United States in Chile. "In the legal field, the United States doesn't seem to have any other major moves left here," said a Chilean lawyer who has advised the U.S. government on the case.