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Son Honors His Father, Exposes Letelier Cover-up

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The Washington Post

With armed U.S. marshals standing watchfully outside, Armando Fernandez Larios, a former captain in the Chilean secret police, spoke in slow and compelling English about what drove him to flee to the United States, where he was wanted for a murder that he didn’t commit.

Much of it had to do with his father, Alfredo, a retired colonel in the Chilean air force who had always been very proud of his son. He died in 1977, mercifully too soon to be ashamed of the accusations that would blemish the family name when Armando was indicted in the United States a year later for the assassination of Orlando Letelier.

The elder Fernandez never had any use for DINA, the Chilean secret police.

“My father was a very serious man. A very, very serious man,” Fernandez recalled in an interview on Feb. 4, a few hours after he had stood before a lectern in U.S. District Court here and accused his superiors in DINA of orchestrating the 1976 Letelier car bombing on Washington’s Embassy Row.

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Meeting With Father

Ironically, it wasn’t many months before that act of terrorism that young Fernandez, then an army lieutenant who had been assigned to plainclothes work in DINA, found himself summoned into his 70-year-old father’s study.

“I know that my father loved me very much,” Fernandez said, remembering the scene as if it had just happened. “And when I was in the DINA, my father hate DINA. Hate DINA! But he loved so much that I was a military. Oh, he was very proud of me because I was a military.”

Fernandez walked jauntily into the study, not at all the army prototype. His hair was long. He was out of uniform. His father invited him to sit down. He flopped sideways into the chair. “What do you want?” he asked in clipped, impatient tones.

“My father say, ‘No, put the chair in front . . . because the thing I am going to say to you, I want to look into your eyes.’ And I say again, ‘All right, what do you want?’ ”

Col. Fernandez asked his son for his DINA badge, examined it with disdain and laid it down between them. “Armando,” he pleaded, “please go out of DINA. . . . Return to the army. You born like a military. You don’t born like an intelligence agent. You are a good military. You must go.”

Lt. Fernandez refused. The army had assigned him to DINA. He intended to stay there.

Fearful of Jail

His father tried again. Fernandez can never forget what he said.

“He talked to me like all fathers talk with their sons, and he say, ‘Look, Armando, I know you. And I know your loyalty for your superiors. And one day you are going to be in jail.

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“ ‘Not any of these superiors are going to protect you. And the only man that can protect you--I am going to be the only man that am going to protect you. But that day, I am going to be dead. You must go. Tomorrow.’ ”

Fernandez paid no attention. “ ‘My father don’t know nothing,’ ” he remembers telling himself.

On Saturday, Feb. 7, after secret negotiations that began with U.S. officials in Chile last year, Armando Fernandez, by now a reluctant Chilean army major kept on inactive duty since 1978 despite attempts to resign, landed at Andrews Air Force Base here under heavy guard. He was told he would be put in the federal witness-protection program, and he was assured, although he would be confined for a maximum of seven years, that he would “never be treated as a prisoner.”

Sources say he was assigned to a windowless room not much bigger than a closet. He had agreed to plead guilty to being an accessory after the fact and to disclose his role in a cover-up of the Letelier killing, a cover-up in which, he said, even the president of Chile, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, took part. But by that Tuesday, Fernandez, now 37, was beginning to have second thoughts, asking himself if he was really doing “the correct thing.”

The next morning, U.S. District Judge Barrington Parker added to the apprehensions, refusing to go along with the government’s promises and reserving the right to give the dark-haired Chilean as much as 10 years. For Fernandez, it was too late to turn back.

“When I was standing in front of the judge, I think, ‘This is a dream. I must wake up,’ ” Fernandez told a reporter at a heavily guarded meeting room in a suburban motel. “But it was not a dream. I was there. And now I am here. I feel very, very strong because I know that when the judge (after more than two hours of questions) accept my plea of the facts, I know that he was saying I not (involved) in the murder of Mr. Letelier.”

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Sent to Washington in 1976

The story Fernandez told began in 1976, when Lt. Col. Pedro Espinoza, the head of DINA operations, sent him to Washington under an assumed name to find out where Letelier, a former Chilean ambassador to the United States, lived and worked. Fernandez was to pass on the information to an American-born civilian employee of DINA, Michael V. Townley.

Twelve days later, as Fernandez was driving through Santiago to visit his father, seriously ill in a military hospital, a news bulletin flashed on the car radio. A bomb--installed by Townley, as it turned out--had blown up beneath Letelier’s car as it rounded Sheridan Circle, killing the outspoken critic of the Pinochet regime and an aide, Ronni Moffitt, sitting beside him in the front seat.

Fernandez had suspected “the worst” weeks earlier when he saw Espinoza giving Townley separate instructions, but he refused to think about it and decided instead to have a good time in the United States. When he was called home on Sept. 9, 1976, after finding out little more than Letelier’s home and office addresses, he says, “I think that my mission was closed. . . . I say this OK, I OK in this matter.” But as he listened to the news bulletin, he realized immediately, “I am in this case.”

Col. Fernandez died in July, 1977. His son never told him his dark secret. Armando’s name did not crop up publicly until the next year, after U.S. authorities came across a fake Paraguayan passport that had been issued to Fernandez in connection with the assignment. Called to account by Chilean authorities who had been asked to extradite him, he said he was told by a succession of generals, including Gen. Juan Manuel Contreras and even Pinochet, to “be a good soldier” and lie about the reason for his trip to the United States.

Obeyed Superiors

Fernandez did as his superiors told him, just as his father had predicted. At the same time, he says he resolved to himself to go to the United States one day and tell the truth. Finally, last year, he decided it was time for him to be “a man.”

After that, it took months of careful planning. Chilean military officers are not supposed to leave the country without special permission. One time a plane was called back to the ground because one of his brothers was aboard and authorities thought it might be him.

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Fernandez escaped last month, flying first to Brazil on a commercial flight, leaving family, friends and “all my things.” He told his girlfriend he was going on vacation to the south of Chile. The night before he left, to avoid suspicions, “I go to the same bar that I always went with my friends, and I sit at a table and say, ‘All right, let’s have drinks,’ and we talk and all of that.”

Fernandez said he has many reasons for his decision: to tell the truth, to send a message to the Chilean military not to expect blind obedience to illegal orders, but most of all to make amends to an old air force colonel who died in 1977.

“I take a chance to go to jail 10 years,” he said. “(But I) don’t care! Ten years, 20 years, a life! . . . Is more important that my name is not going to be in a case of murder. . . . I am going to clean my name and also the name of a person who died 10 years ago. That is my father. I think my father is going to be--now is--very happy.”

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