When Orlando Letelier awoke on September 11, 1973, he was Minister of Defense in a democratic Chile. By nightfall, he was a prisoner and his country a dictatorship.
A red-haired, chain-smoking economist and diplomat who’d spent two years as Ambassador to the United States, Letelier occupied his current post for just thirteen days. It was a perilous time to assume office. Chile’s socialist president, Salvador Allende, faced mounting opposition from various powerful sectors: rightist political parties, conservative businessmen, striking truckers, foreign investors and, most menacingly of all, the military. In recent days, Allende had been troubled by an escalating series of terrorist activities, along with unscheduled military maneuvers in Valparaiso. He planned to hold a national referendum to consolidate support for his presidency.
But Allende, the mild-mannered doctor-turned-politician, refused entreaties to crack down on dissidents. True, he had used the military to confront the trucker’s strike, which he suspected was manufactured by American businessmen, but that concluded with little actual bloodshed. He trusted that Chile’s military brass shared his veneration for Chile’s constitution; after all, three years earlier they had thwarted a coup attempt (resulting the assassination of General Rene Schneider) on their own initiative. “The Unidad Popular cannot respond to terrorism with terrorism,” Allende told his wife, “because that would only produce chaos.”
Indeed, Allende’s leftist politics worked hand-in-glove with his respect for democratic processes…and, perhaps, a wary pragmatism born of decades toiling in Chilean politics. “We are not Cuba in 1959,” he told a French reporter shortly after his election in 1970. “The right has not been crushed here by a popular uprising…our only chance of success is to play to the end the game of legality – using all the weapons the Constitution gives us.” Such scruples irritated members of the Unidad Popular, especially radical leftists who preferred an all-out revolution to Allende’s gradual reforms; they also did little to assuage the fears of Chile’s upper class.
And in America, Richard Nixon determined to crush him. Warned by executives from International Telephone & Telegraph and Pepsi-Co. Chairman Don Kendall that Allende would destroy American investments in the country, particularly through his nationalization of Chile’s copper industry, Nixon worked first to block Allende’s election, then to undermine his government, through economic and electoral pressure (Track I) and covert action (Track II). The latter culminated in the October 1970 assassination of moderate General Rene Schneider, by gunmen armed with American-supplied weapons, in hopes of precipitating a military coup. Instead, Chileans reacted with horror and Allende consolidated his victory.
The Americans didn’t grasp that Chile, despite its often-contentious politics, had an enviably solid democratic history. Aside from a short-lived military junta in the 1930s, its democracy weathered the storms (and foreign interference) that entrapped so many of its neighbors in dictatorships. In 1970, nearly 90 percent of eligible voters participated in Chile’s presidential election. But Nixon couldn’t see a Latin American socialist as anything but a threat…not least one whose friendship with Fidel Castro aroused fears of a Communist Southern Cone. “Our main concern in Chile,” he told his National Security Council, “is the prospect that [Allende] can consolidate himself and the picture projected to the world will be his success.”
American officials responded to the challenge with jockish enthusiasm. Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms vowed to “make the economy scream” through sanctions, strikes and press propaganda (funneled through El Mercurio, a rabidly conservative Santiago newspaper). Defense Secretary Melvin Laird affirmed that “we have to do everything we can to hurt [Allende] and bring him down,” authorizing military intelligence to work with disgruntled Chilean rightists to sew chaos. Kissinger, brandishing his sociopath’s wit, summarized the prevailing attitude: “I don’t see why we have to let a country go Marxist just because its people are irresponsible.”
Letelier gave a press conference on defense policy on September 10th; he returned home to ominous news that troops in the countryside had left their barracks. A phone call with Allende provided him a small amount of comfort: the President announced his plans to sack disloyal generals and hold a national referendum for his policies. “If they don’t overthrow us this week, we’ll never fall,” Letelier tried to reassure Allende. “When Orlando told me that plans had been made for the national vote of confidence,” his wife Isabel recalled, “we both went to sleep happy.”
Yet her husband, who spent hours smoking and pacing around their home before falling asleep, wasn’t so secure. That night, Letelier dreamed that “I was dancing all by myself [as] generals and admirals watched me dance.” This reflected his fear that Chile’s armed forces weren’t as trustworthy as Allende hoped. He particularly distrusted Augusto Pinochet, recently appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Army after Allende loyalist Carlos Plats resigned. Letelier complained to Isabel that Pinochet’s unctuous manner “gave him the creeps,” calling him “the man in the barbershop who…doesn’t stop sweeping at your back until you’ve given him a tip.”
On the 11th, a phone call woke Letelier at 6:30 am. He immediately recognized Allende’s voice on the other line. “The navy has revolted,” the President announced. “Six truckloads of navy troops are on the way to Santiago from Valparaiso. The Carabineros are the only units that respond. The other commanders in chief don’t answer the phone. Pinochet doesn’t answer. Find out what you can.”
Letelier spent the morning calling several military leaders, finding them either non-responsive or evasive. Steeling himself with coffee and aspirin, Letelier drove to the Defense Ministry, where the sentries refused him entry. “I give the orders here,” Letelier barked, summoning up his most authoritative tone. A young officer deflated him with a threat: “If you continue to insist on this point, we will be forced to execute you immediately.” The Defense Minister was then arrested by his own men, powerless to fight back as he country fell to tyranny.
The military quickly overran the capital, arresting dissidents and shooting those who resisted. The only serious resistance occurred at La Moneda, the presidential office where Allende and a handful of loyalists staged a desperate last stand. Rebel tanks and airstrikes quickly overwhelmed the President’s defenders; Allende, defiant to the last, ignored an offer to leave the country and vowed to resist. “I’ve been a man of the law all my life. Now I’m President of the Republic. You will have to remove me by force because I will not leave.” When the attackers finally entered La Moneda, they found that Allende had killed himself with an AK-47 gifted to him by Fidel Castro.
With Allende dead and his other officials arrested or driven into exile, the military assumed power. Initially, General Pinochet announced a revolving junta of military leaders, asserting that “I would not want to seem to be a usurper of power.” He belied these reasonable words by quickly securing his own position as “Supreme Chief of the Nation,” using his command of the army to cow his ostensible partners into subjugation. Thus South America’s strongest democracy transformed into one of its harshest dictatorships.
The United States rejoiced at Pinochet’s victory. Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Ryan, America’s intelligence coordinator in Valparaiso, reported that “Chile’s coup d’etat was close to perfect,” while State Department official Jack Kubisch cheered that “our policy on Allende worked very well.” While Nixon, Kissinger and others would publicly deny any involvement in the coup, Kissinger admitted privately that “we…created the conditions as great as possible.” Though Track II had been officially discontinued, CIA official Thomas Karamessines later testified that it “never really ended…we were told…to continue our efforts. Stay alert, and to do what we could to contribute to the eventual achievements and of the objectives and purposes of Track II.”
Even the death of two Americans – Charles Horman, a reporter investigating suspected American involvement in the coup, and Frank Teruggi, a student living in Santiago – didn’t change their minds. A CIA report characterized Pinochet as “quiet; mild-mannered; very businesslike. Very honest, hard working, dedicated”; the kind of austere, fatherly strongman anyone could admire. A few days after the coup, Ambassador Nathaniel Davis visited the General to promise military and financial aid to his regime. When Davis mentioned the missing Americans, Pinochet dismissed his concerns: “the Chilean government shares fully [your] concern for human rights,” he vowed, “and is doing its best to prevent violations and loss of life.”
Within days, Pinochet’s army arrested 13,500 suspected dissidents. Many were held in Santiago’s National Stadium, once a hub of Chile’s sports world and a frequent forum for political rallies, now the site of interrogations, beatings and murders. Among those interned was Victor Jara, a leftist folk singer who led the crowd in a raucous protest song. Several soldiers broke his guitar, then his hands to prevent him from playing; when Jara continued singing regardless, they beat him savagely as thousands of onlookers watched in horror. Jara was later found “with his hands and face extremely disfigured [and with] forty-four bullet holes” in a ditch near the stadium.
Even more naked violence erupted both in Santiago, where soldiers and police turned streets into free fire zones, and the provinces, where killings were more systemic. In October, General Sergio Arellano Stark traveled by helicopter through Chile’s northern provinces with five soldiers, arriving in cities to locate political opponents and other troublemakers. Whether their targets surrendered or tried to flee, the results were the same: Stark’s cohort rounded their victims up, brutally tortured them, then shot them and dumped the bodies into mass graves. At least sixty-eight people perished in this three-day “Caravan of Death,” an atrocity personally ordered by Pinochet.
Pinochet’s wave of repression ultimately claimed over 3,000 lives. Thousands more, the so-called desaparecidos, vanished without any official accounting. Others suffered arrest, imprisonment and a variety of sadistically creative tortures, from “the Grill” (prisoners were tied naked to a metal bed spring, which was then electrified) to “the Submarine” (victims were submerged in vats of urine), alongside sexual abuse, mutilation with trucks, alongside beatings, mutilations and mock executions. “It was impossible for them to believe that what they were doing was wrong,” recalled Carlos Reyes-Manzo, a socialist leader imprisoned by the regime. “This is the kind of ideology where you’ve convinced the people it’s right to torture, right to kill, right to rape the women…whatever they did, that it was right.”
Orlando Letelier spent a year after the coup shuffling between prisons, from the national Air Force academy to frigid Dawson Island in the Pacific. There, Letelier remembered, “the cold wind blew seventy or eighty miles an hour, and the forced labor which began at seven and lasted till seven at night made it difficult for us.” Beatings, torture and mistreatment were commonplace; at night, he struggled to sleep as he heard guards executing prisoners outside. Eventually, he developed a macho stoicism towards his predicament, reasoning that “in some way it’s my historic responsibility, my responsibility as a man, to act correctly.”
Fortunately, Isabel Letelier wasn’t so passive. Along with Moy Toha and Irma Almeyda, wives of other Allende ministers, she arranged a audience with Pinochet which triggered a deranged lecture from the dictator. “He stood there in this room with three seated women and shouted at the top of his lungs,” Moy Toha recalled, raving that “we shall always continue to persecute this traitor, even if he is many feet under the earth.” Finally, Isabel enlisted the aid of Venezuelan politicians and her husband’s American friends; pressure mounted until Pinochet finally released him a year later. An officer warned Letelier upon his release that “General Pinochet will not and does not tolerate activities against his government…no matter where the violator lives.”
Letelier retired to the United States, befriending liberal politicians Frank Church, Ted Kennedy and Ed Koch, who pressured the American government (now headed by Gerald Ford) to cease arms shipments and military aide to Pinochet’s government. He persuaded Church to investigate American involvement in Chile during his Senate committee’s hearings on intelligence abuses; he convinced Kennedy to introduce an amendment designed to cut military aide to Chile. He gave speeches to the United Nations and others venues, insisting upon the illegitimacy of Pinochet’s regime, highlighting its tortures and remaining a living rebuke to the junta.
The Chilean soldier’s warning to Letelier proved prescient. For Pinochet wasn’t content merely with ridding Chile of enemies; instead, he envisioned a strike force designed to annihilate enemies everywhere. Thus was born Operation Condor, an alliance between the intelligence agencies of Chile, Argentina, Brazil and other right wing South American regimes to exterminate enemies. Given what he assumed was a go-ahead from Henry Kissinger – “In the United States…we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here,” the Secretary of State told Pinochet in their only face-to-face meeting – Pinochet and his allies embarked on an international terror campaign.
The main target was Revolutionary Coordinating Committee (JCR), formed in October 1972, attempted to forge an alliance between radical left groups in South America. Its goals were certainly lofty, adopting Che Guevara’s pledge to “develop a bloody and prolonged revolutionary war” in Latin America. Many of its participants were not only serious but seriously dangerous: the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) of Argentina, which waged a bloody war against that country’s ruling junta throughout the early ‘70s, and Uruguay’s Tupamaros, urban guerrillas whose bold kidnappings and assassinations (including the murder of American security contractor and torture expert Dan Mitrione) riveted the world’s attention.
The central instrument in this war was DINA, Pinochet’s savage secret police. Its commander, General Manuel Contreras, matched Pinochet for brutality and psychotic flare. Confronted by officials complaining about the imprisonment of a judge, Contreras retorted that “I am the law, and this is the judicial system,” drawing his pistol for emphasis. Though Pinochet feared his intelligence chief’s power, Contreras faithfully carried out a campaign to exterminate the Revolutionary Left Movement (MRI) within Chile. The MRI, a violent but isolated organization, occasionally detonated bombs in Santiago and other cities but never posed a serious threat to Pinochet’s government. Pinochet and Contreras both feared the diaspora of Chilean liberals and socialists far more than this feeble insurgency, and refocused their efforts accordingly.
DINA’s principal instrument abroad was an American ne’er-do-well named Michael Vernon Townley. Born in Waterloo, Iowa, Townley spent his teen years living in Chile; at age eighteen he married a Chilean woman twelve years his senior, working various odd jobs in Santiago before relocating to Miami. Townley fell in with the Cuban exile community, which hardened his political convictions. In 1971, he returned to Chile and joined the Patria y Libertad fascist movement, engaging in street fights with leftists, assaulting government officials and murdering a man during a botched robbery. He laid low in America until Pinochet took power; soon afterwards he offered his services, first to the CIA (who turned him down) and then to DINA (who happily accepted).
Townley was one of those monumentally strange individuals, a gifted dilettante who seemed unable to settle on a field of expertise. He devoured technical manuals and volumes on science and engineering, which he eventually turned to bomb-making. He obsessively read Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, imagining himself as the novel’s ruthless assassin stalking Charles de Gaulle. He showed a gift for political networking, assembling a coterie of Chilean officials, Cuban exiles, Croatian Nazis and French and Italian fascists who became his partners in crime. Asked later about his motivations, he responded that “it was a patriotic request…and I did it.”
Townley’s team first moved into Argentina, where they murdered dissident Chilean General Carlos Prats with a car bomb (“This is how traitors die!” shouted one of his henchmen before the debris settled). Then he relocated to Europe, enlisting a far-right Italian paramilitary group to kill Bernardo Leighton, former leader of the Christian Democratic Party living in Rome. One of Townley’s gunmen shot Leighton and his wife; both survived, but the attack served its purpose of cowing their followers into silence. Now, Townley’s target became Orlando Letelier, one of the few figures with enough recognition, stature and connections to seriously challenge Pinochet’s rule.
It was in his June 1976 meeting with Kissinger that General Pinochet spelled out the rationale for murdering Letelier. “Letelier has access to the Congress. We know [he and other exiles] are giving false information,” the dictator said. Shortly afterwards, Townley was contacted by his superior at DINA, Colonel Pedro Espinoza, who informed the American that his next mission would be in Washington. “Elimination?” Townley asked. “Yes,” the Colonel affirmed. Along with Lieutenant Armando Fernandez and several Miami-based Cubans, Townley prepared himself with false passports from Paraguay, then moved to the United States.
American intelligence officials slowly realized the contours of Condor, a mission kept secret by their allies. Their reactions varied. Secretary Kissinger prepared a diplomatic cable, advising that “counter-terrorist activity of this type would further exacerbate public world criticism of the governments involved.” David Popper, the Ambassador to Chile, received whispers of an impending attack on American soil. He planned to confront Pinochet directly, but lost his nerve and went through an aide to Contreras instead. Contreras either never relayed Popper’s message or was ignored by his superiors; in any case, Townley’s operation advanced too far to abort.
Now ensconced in Washington, Townley and his henchmen spent months spying on Letelier and his family. He assembled a crude explosive made from an aluminum baking tin, C4 and a radio paging device purchased from Radio Shack. On September 20th, after Letelier and his wife returned home from a social outing, Townley taped his bomb under Letelier’s car. Within hours, he took a flight to Newark to meet his wife. He left his Cuban triggermen to detonate the actual bomb.
The next morning, September 21st, Letelier offered a ride to two young Americans, economist Michael Moffitt and his wife Ronni, who’d been married less than four months prior. The two had become close to the Leteliers, who in turn admired the Americans as young, passionate activists. Michael channeled his intelligence into his work for the Institute of Policy of Studies; Ronni, a professional fundraiser, enjoyed playing the flute and hosted crafts fairs in Washington. “I loved my wife deeply, admired and respected my employer, and was challenged and excited by my work,” Michael Moffitt recalled. “I felt I was on top of the world.”
As Letelier’s car drove into Sheridan Circle, the neighborhood of Embassy Row, Michael heard a sound “like a hot wire being placed in cold water.” Before he could react, he saw a flashing light behind him as the car exploded. “The car was picked up off the ground…I started to smell the most unbelievable stench that I have ever smelled in my life..and there was a lot of heat.” An eyewitness reported “an automobile actually coming down from the air,” passengers included. It crash landed on the lawn of the Romanian embassy, before dozens of horrified onlookers.
Letelier died instantly, his legs severed below the knees. Michael staggered out of the car, his flesh scorched in the blast, to see Ronni lying on an embassy lawn, bleeding from wounds to her neck and chest. “Blood was just pouring out of his mouth,” he later recalled, as a diplomatic staffer tried to treat her (she’d lost too much blood, dying in hospital several hours later). Michael could only stagger about helplessly, screaming “Murderers! Fascists! Pinochet killed him!” Unbeknownst to him, Dionisio Suarez, the conspirator triggered the explosion, watched the scene from a gray sedan a few hundred feet away.
The assassination shocked Americans, with President Ford authorizing a massive investigation. The FBI quickly confirmed that “the Chilean government is directly involved in Letelier’s death,” while CIA Director George Bush (well aware of DINA and Operation Condor by this time) insisted that “the bomb was too crude to be the work of experts.” Chile’s government, predictably, denied their involvement, claiming the assassination was a leftist false flag intended to discredit their government and make Letelier into a martyr.
Finally, after Jimmy Carter became President, Pinochet finally relented. Hoping to avoid an open break with their benefactor, DINA turned over Townley in 1978, who described to shocked prosecutors the extent of Pinochet’s spy-hunting apparatus. He described General Contreras as “a capo of the anti-Marxist movement” and detailed DINA’s operations in South America and Europe. Based on his testimony, two of the Cubans involved, Guillermo Novo and Alvin Ross, were also convicted, along with Lieutenant Fernandez.
There were, in the short term, serious repercussions. Ed Koch sponsored a bill in Congress banning all aid to Chile (Koch, in turn, became the target of an abortive Condor assassination plot himself). Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter held firm on denying credit to Pinochet…though Ronald Reagan reversed their policy, embracing Pinochet as an essential Cold War ally. Chile’s economy became the plaything of Milton Friedman’s Chicago School of Economics, whose advisers created an “economic miracle” that resulted in lucrative foreign investment and massive wealth disparity. Carter Cornick, one of the FBI Agents investigating the case, lamented that “the interests of the U.S…were that Chile was a non-Communist country in Latin America and therefore no further punitive action against them was warranted.”
Realpolitik and libertarian economics provided no comfort to Isabel Letelier or Michael Moffit, who mourned their spouses’ passing at a public funeral. Letelier remained active with the Transnational Institute, never fully recovering from her husband’s death; she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and became isolated from her husband’s family. Letelier’s son Jose suffered deeply from “the lack of the father figure, and the feeling of being cheated out of a father.” Michael Moffitt sunk into alcoholism and depression; “to this day I am still plagued by the persistent memory of the horror and find that much of my life is occupied with efforts to avoid any situation which might rekindle the pain.” The two families, however, remained close and provided each other with comfort, reuniting in 2018 to dedicate a bust to Letelier in Washington.
Michael Townley, who defended his crime on the grounds that Letelier “was carrying on a battle against the government of Chile,” received a short prison term, then went into hiding under the Witness Protection Program. Operation Condor continued well into the 1980s, focusing most of its wrath on internal dissidents within its member countries, especially Argentina and Brazil; it’s estimated that Condor claimed up to 60,000 lives. Attempts to hold Henry Kissinger and other American officials accountable for their roles in abetting Condor have thus far failed.
Pinochet remained in power until 1990, when he lost a referendum and reluctantly stepped down. Chile began to prosecute those involved in DINA’s extralegal killings, a process still ongoing; Victor Jara’s killers were only convicted in July 2018. Pinochet himself, fending off prosecution from various courts in Chile, Spain and the United Kingdom before his death in 2006. Manuel Contreras was convicted by a Chilean judge, spending nine years in prison until dying in 2015. Their regime and its crimes cast a long shadow across three continents…showing that an American ally, encouraged and abetted by his benefactors, won’t hesitate from committing crimes against its benefactor’s soil and citizens.
Sources and Further Reading:
This article draws upon: Pamela Constable and Arturo Valenzuela, A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet (1991); John Dinges and Saul Landau, Assassination on Embassy Row (1980); John Dinges, The Condor Years: How Pinochet and His Allies Brought Terror to Three Continents (2004); and Peter Kornbluh, The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability (2003).