The Miami Herald
Sat, Nov. 12, 2005

Torture suspect trying to stay in U.S.

A Chilean torture suspect who lives in Miami-Dade County is reported to be seeking a special visa as protection against possible deportation.


The Bush administration, already confronting tough criticism at home and abroad for its treatment of detainees in the war on terror, now is facing the political ghost of former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier -- by way of a Miami area man linked to his death.

Armando Fernández Larios, implicated in the 1976 assassination of Letelier and the torture and slaying of dissidents in his homeland, is seeking a visa reserved for government informants to avoid deportation.

Now living in Kendall, the former Chilean military officer has been in the United States without proper immigration papers since arriving from Chile in 1987 to face charges related to the Letelier car-bombing in Washington, D.C.

His case has divided the Bush administration, pitting some immigration officials against the Justice Department at a sensitive time when White House policies on the war on terror -- particularly U.S. treatment of alleged foreign terrorists captured in other countries -- have come under fire.

It follows closely the case of Cuban exile militant Luis Posada Carriles, whose extradition is sought by Venezuela to face charges of masterminding the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner that killed 73 people. A U.S. immigration judge has ruled against deporting him to Venezuela, and the case remains an open sore in U.S.-Venezuela relations.

As some Chileans clamor to try former dictator Augusto Pinochet for crimes against humanity, the U.S. treatment of Fernández Larios, once one of Pinochet's trusted military men, will come under intense scrutiny.


Some immigration officials have wanted to detain Fernández Larios to face deportation proceedings, citing his lack of any immigration papers and a 1996 law that mandates deportation of foreigners convicted of aggravated felonies. But they have been prohibited from acting because high-ranking officials at the Justice Department want to keep the Chilean in reserve as a possible witness in any future prosecution of Pinochet or his associates.

The Justice Department in February permitted a Chilean judge to interrogate Fernández Larios and another defendant in the Letelier case -- Michael Townley -- in connection with the killing in Argentina of anti-Pinochet Gen. Carlos Prats.

Townley has admitted planting the car bomb that killed Prats in Buenos Aires in 1974 in an attack that was similar to the Letelier assassination two years later in Washington. Townley served time for the Letelier killing, but is now free and living somewhere in the United States. Fernández Larios has denied any role in the Prats case and at this point is not sought in Chile in either the Prats or Letelier matters.

The informant visa, known as an S visa, could lead to a green card and confer added protection to Fernández Larios against any possible future move to deport him, a federal law-enforcement official knowledgeable about the case said on condition his identity not be revealed. He added that immigration officials in favor of deporting Fernández Larios had recently renewed efforts to thwart the visa bid.

Fernández Larios' Miami attorney, Steven Davis, said his client is aware that a visa is in the works but has not heard if it has been approved. Davis said his client would not comment.

Under existing regulations, an S visa can only be filed by a federal or state law enforcement agency -- not by an individual. The federal law enforcement official familiar with the case said the Justice Department was involved in the application.

According to regulations, the assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's criminal division must certify that the visa is warranted and, if so, forwards the application to the Department of Homeland Security's U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

These steps can be taken if the secretary of state and the attorney general decide that the applicant possesses ''critical reliable information'' about a criminal or terrorist organization or operation.

The Justice Department, ICE and the State Department would not comment on the matter, citing ''privacy regulations.'' Paul Bresson, a Justice spokesman, said, ``We are not able to comment on specific ongoing cases.''


In 1987, Fernández Larios traveled to the United States under the protection of the Justice Department, which deemed him a key witness in its investigation into the Letelier assassination.

Fernández Larios pleaded guilty to acting as an accessory after the fact in the bombing, telling investigators he had traveled to Washington D.C. before the attack to case Letelier's office, home and car. Then he relayed the intelligence to Townley, an American who at the time worked for DINA, Pinochet's intelligence service. Townley later attached the bomb to Letelier's car. Fernández Larios served five months and moved to Kendall upon his release.

Ever since, Fernández Larios has been living without immigration status, Davis noted.


Ironically, Fernández Larios, 55, was born in Washington D.C., but he is not an American citizen because his father was a Chilean diplomat assigned to the U.S. capital and children of foreign diplomats born in the United States are not granted automatic citizenship.

When Fernández Larios came to the United States in 1987, he told a federal judge that Pinochet once told him not to cooperate with the U.S. investigation.

He did not know that the purpose of his mission was part of an assassination plot, Fernández Larios said.

Fernández Larios has also been implicated in the killings of several activists in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 1973, military coup that overthrew Marxist President Salvador Allende and brought Pinochet to power. Fernández Larios denied any role in those killings.

A federal jury found Fernández Larios liable in one of the slayings during a civil case in Miami federal court in 2003.

For now, Fernández Larios remains in Miami-Dade -- awaiting a visa and fighting deportation.