National Agenda : Murder Trial Marks a Change in How Chile Does Business : Case of Orlando Letelier shows new respect for human rights under civilian rule.


The trial of Gen. Manuel Contreras for the assassination of Orlando Letelier is nearing its end--more than 16 years after the bomb slaying in Washington.

That, in itself, is a sign of how things have changed in Chile since the return of civilian rule in 1990.

Under military rule, the Letelier case posed little if any threat to Contreras, former chief of the regime’s feared political police. But under civilian President Patricio Aylwin, Contreras is one of many military and police figures facing charges--and possible conviction--for killings and disappearances in the 1970s and 1980s.


There still are many obstacles to prosecution. But more progress on human rights cases is being made in Chile than in any other South American country where security forces under past military dictatorships were accused in the disappearance and killing of leftist opponents.

Amnesties, pardons and agreements between civilian and military authorities create formidable barriers to prosecution in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Although five members of former military juntas in Argentina were convicted and imprisoned for human rights abuses, President Carlos Saul Menem pardoned them in 1991.

In Chile, Aylwin’s government has refused to back down in the face of military grumbling as human rights lawyers and some judges have doggedly pursued human rights cases. The most famous and emblematic case is that of Letelier, a well-known Socialist exile who was killed by a bomb on Washington’s Embassy Row in 1976.

Fabiola Letelier, sister of Orlando and the family’s lawyer in the trial, said she sees a growing determination by some judges to pursue long-stalled investigations of human rights violations.

“There are heaps of accusations and legal actions in the courts,” said Fabiola Letelier, 62. “It all comes out in the press. That is a big step forward. We know the truth. But up to now we have not obtained justice.”

Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, left many legal mechanisms in place aimed at avoiding full-scale prosecution of military government officials. One major obstacle is an amnesty covering most political homicides committed between 1973 and 1978, when the amnesty was decreed. The Letelier case is specifically excluded from amnesty by the decree.


Some Chileans fear that convictions of military officers in the Letelier case and others could trigger a tough reaction by the army, which is still headed by Pinochet. In the past, the general has issued veiled but unmistakable warnings against meddling with his men.

Retired Col. Christian Labbe, who served as a key aide to Pinochet and still maintains close contacts with active military commanders, said such warnings are against political persecution of the past regime’s officials, and are not meant to interfere with the legitimate workings of the justice system.

“We think that whatever is done with due process is all right,” Labbe said in an interview. “I don’t think there will be any serious reaction as long as things are maintained within due process.”

Hiram Villagas, a lawyer with the Committee for the Defense of the People’s Rights, said convictions are needed in human rights cases to show that the abuse of power will not be tolerated in Chile.

“If a society does not police its policemen, it runs the risk of falling under their power,” he said.

In the Chilean judicial system, an investigating judge gathers preliminary testimony and evidence before issuing formal charges and starting trial proceedings, which consist mostly of interrogations in closed chambers. Here are some of the main cases currently being investigated or tried:

* Tucapel Jimenez. As leader of Chile’s biggest government employees union, Jimenez was a well-known and influential opponent of the military government. A plainclothes squad, believed to belong to the regime’s political police, abducted and killed him in 1982. Maj. Carlos Herrera, a retired army officer and former political police agent, is being extradited from Argentina to answer charges in the case. Herrera is expected to provide evidence against other ex-agents who participated in the killing, prosecution lawyers say.

* Los Degollados. The bodies of three Communists, one a high official in the then-clandestine party, were found in 1985 on the outskirts of Santiago with their throats slit-- degollados. Sixteen members of the uniformed national police have been indicted for the slayings. A key witness in the case is Miguel Estay, nicknamed “Fanta,” a former Communist who became an informant and police agent and has confessed to participating in the killings. After he was discovered hiding out in Paraguay, Fanta returned to Chile last year and turned himself in.

* The Moneda 30. In September, 1973, when the armed forces overthrew Socialist President Salvador Allende and he committed suicide in the besieged Moneda Palace, 30 of Allende’s aides, advisers and bodyguards were arrested in the presidential headquarters. They are still missing. After the armed forces left power in 1990, the official Commission for Truth and Reconciliation gathered evidence indicating that the Moneda 30 had been taken to the Tacna Regiment, an army barracks in Santiago, and then possibly to the army’s Camp Peldehue outside Santiago. Human rights lawyer Nelson Caucoto has taken the case to court, and Judge Alejandro Solis has begun citing military men to testify in the judicial investigation.

* The Parral 21. Twenty-one men, mostly members of farm workers unions, disappeared in or near the Chilean town of Parral, south of Santiago, in 1973 and 1974. Relatives and other witnesses say the missing were abducted by security forces. Some evidence indicates that the Parral 21 were transferred from jail to a large estate owned by Colonia Dignidad, a secretive community of German immigrant families near Parral. Criminal Court Judge Lientur Escobar formally charged a retired police colonel and two retired army colonels in the case. But last Thursday,in a major setback for prosecuting attorneys, a Supreme Court panel transferred the case to a military court and dismissed charges against two of the colonels.

* Parrot Matias. Alvaro Vallejos, popularly known as “ El Loro (The Parrot) Matias,” was a philosophy student and a member of the Revolutionary Left Movement, a radical Marxist organization that fought the military government. He was detained in 1974. Witnesses have testified to seeing him in two interrogation centers of the political police in Santiago and later at Colonia Dignidad, the German community near Parral. Like the Parral 21, he has not been seen since. Judge Escobar, who is trying the Parrot Matias case, has formally charged retired Col. Gomez Segovia, the former political police chief in Parral, with the abduction of Vallejos. The judge also has charged Osvaldo Romo, a notorious former agent of the secret police. Romo was discovered in Brazil and brought to Chile last year to face charges in several cases of missing or slain people.

* Carmelo Soria. Spaniard Carmelo Soria, a member of that country’s Communist Party, worked for a U.N. agency based in Santiago and reportedly served as a liaison between Spanish and Chilean Communists. He was detained July 14, 1975, and died the same day of a broken neck. Michael Townley, an American expatriate then associated with Chile’s political police, has said military officers brought Soria to Townley’s Santiago house where they beat and tortured the Spaniard. (Townley served a U.S. sentence for the assassination of Orlando Letelier and is now living with an assumed identity under the Justice Department’s witness protection program.) Judge Violeta Guzman has interrogated half a dozen army colonels and lieutenant colonels as suspects in the Soria case, and her investigation continues.

* Gen. Prats. Army Gen. Carlos Prats was President Allende’s minister of defense and did not participate in the 1973 coup, led by army commander Pinochet. Afterward, Prats went into exile in Argentina. He and his wife were killed by a bomb there in 1974. Townley, the American expatriate, has admitted being in Argentina at the time with high officers of the Chilean army who he says carried out the plot. A judicial investigation is under way in Argentina, and Prats’ daughter, Sofia, plans to file a complaint that would open one in Chile this month. * Orlando Letelier. A Socialist, Letelier had been Allende’s foreign minister, defense minister and ambassador to Washington. In 1976, he was an exile in Washington, organizing international opposition to Pinochet’s government. On Sept. 21, 1976, a bomb exploded in Letelier’s car as he drove to work with his assistant, Ronni Moffitt. Both were killed.

Six years later, a U.S. federal court convicted Townley and a Cuban exile collaborator of the crime. The Chilean Supreme Court had rejected an American request for the extradition of Gen. Contreras and Brig. Gen. Pedro Espinoza, his former chief of operations in the political police, but the U.S. federal court convicted the two officers in absentia for ordering the Letelier crime.

After Chile returned to civilian government in 1990, Supreme Court Justice Adolfo Banados began investigating the Letelier case, which had been stalled in a military court. Last October, Banados finished the investigative stage of the proceedings and began the trial of Contreras and Espinoza. Open hearings with oral testimony began Feb. 20. Espinoza testified last week, and Contreras appeared Monday; both are free on bond. Justice Banados could issue his verdict as early as mid-month.

Contreras and his lawyer have previously said that Townley was working for the CIA when he planted a bomb in Letelier’s car. The CIA has denied that Townley worked for the agency, and that denial was repeated by former President George Bush in written testimony sent to Banados, according to lawyers who have seen court documents. Bush was director of the CIA in 1976. Numerous other witnesses have testified that Townley worked for the Chilean political police, then known as the National Directorate of Intelligence, or DINA.

Humberto Neumann, Contreras’ lawyer, contends that Townley’s CIA mission was to infiltrate DINA, then carry out actions calculated to embarrass or destabilize the military government.

Fabiola Letelier says Neumann has no proof for blaming Letelier’s assassination on the CIA. “The process yields an irrefutable truth, that he was killed by DINA,” said Fabiola Letelier.

She has asked that Contreras be given a life sentence, but she said 10 years is more likely. And even that could be reduced on appeal, she worried.

“If Justice Banados gives that, what will the Supreme Court do? Is it going to reduce it? By how much? You know, there is a series of things in play there, very complicated.”