WASHINGTON – Chile is to receive more U.S. declassified documents this week that could clarify the extent of Augusto Pinochet’s role in the 1976 murder of a key exiled adversary, a former foreign minister who was assassinated in the most notorious instance of state-sponsored terrorism ever carried out in Washington.
Orlando Letelier, who had served as foreign minister and ambassador to the United States under leftist President Salvador Allende’s 1970-1973 administration and at the time of his death was a key figure in the international opposition to Pinochet, was killed in a car-bomb blast on the morning of Sept. 21, 1976, in Sheridan Circle along with American aide Ronni Moffitt.
Francisco Letelier was 17 when he was informed at school of the death of his father and questioned – along with his mother and three siblings – by the FBI.
“They asked us ‘who could have killed your father?’ And we all said Augusto Pinochet,” he said in an interview this month with a small group of media outlets, including EFE.
Four decades later there is still no direct evidence that Pinochet personally ordered the assassination of Letelier, who was killed in the context of Plan Condor, a joint operation that South American military regimes of the 1970s carried out to eliminate their political opponents.
But a new batch of declassified U.S. documents, which Chile expects to receive this week in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of Letelier’s assassination and President Michelle Bachelet’s visit to Washington, may provide that link.
Pinochet, who died in 2006 at age 91, is not alive to be tried and convicted of the crime so these documents have become an important substitute in terms of providing the verdict of history on his 1973-1990 regime, Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive’s Chile Documentation Project, told EFE.
The United States last year provided Bachelet with dozens of documents on the Letelier assassination, including a secret memo sent in 1987 to then-President Ronald Reagan that showed the Central Intelligence Agency had concluded in a report that there was “convincing evidence” of Pinochet’s direct involvement.
Bachelet, the daughter of an air force general who died as a result of torture by his brothers-in-arms, was one of more than 27,000 people detained and tortured during the Pinochet regime.
The Chilean government now is expecting to receive that decades-old CIA intelligence review among the new batch of documents.
The assassination was a thorny issue for Washington, which explored numerous alternative hypotheses and was reluctant to accept that its ally, a military government the CIA had helped bring to power in a coup, had orchestrated the assassination of a political opponent on U.S. soil.
Letelier was termed a Soviet agent and the victim of a crime of passion. Investigators even explored the hypothesis that the Chilean left had carried out the murder to make him a martyr.
The FBI investigation lasted more than a decade and eventually found that the killing was carried out by Chile’s DINA secret police with the aid of anti-Castro Cuban exiles, several of whom served time in prison for the crime.
The Pinochet regime refused to extradite two masterminds of the assassination – DINA chief Manuel Contreras and his deputy, Pedro Espinoza – but both were eventually sentenced to lengthy prison terms in their homeland in 2005.
Contreras died last year behind bars.
Letelier’s son and Kornbluh also said the U.S. secretary of state at the time of the 1976 deadly car bomb – Henry Kissinger – bore responsibility for the crime.
Kissinger, now 93, could have contacted the U.S. ambassador to Chile after receiving reports about Plan Condor and pressured Pinochet to abandon the scheme, Kornbluh told EFE.
Had he done so, Letelier and Moffitt would likely be alive today, he added.