The Assassin Next Door

Chile's infamous undercover operative Armando Fernandez Larios has lived a quiet life in Miami. But his past is about to catch up with him.

What kind of man is he?

"Nothing more than 'Buenos días' or 'Buenas tardes,'" she remarked. "He never spoke with anyone in the building. Once a few years ago, he left the water running and it leaked into my house and I had to deal with him about that, and he was perfectly correcto."

Do the neighbors know of his past?

Ronni Moffitt, newlywed American citizen, also died in the assassination
Courtesy Bob Connan
Ronni Moffitt, newlywed American citizen, also died in the assassination
Miami resident Orlando Fernandez Larios set up Letelier and Moffitt for slaughter
Hoy magazine
Miami resident Orlando Fernandez Larios set up Letelier and Moffitt for slaughter

"Someone circulated a newspaper article a few months ago," she recounted, "and that is how we learned something of him."

And how did that make her feel?

"I'm not afraid," she said. "He was always polite."

In the few available, dated photographs of Fernandez, he appears a bit overweight, somewhere between pudgy and hefty. Youthful looks earned him the description "baby-faced" in the Seventies and Eighties, a time when he was occasionally mentioned in the Washington Post or Santiago's El Mercurio.

Fernandez moved to Miami in early 1988, after spending seven months in a federal detention center, punishment for his part in the assassination of Letelier and the "incidental" murder of Ronni Moffitt. Such brief incarceration might suggest his role was inconsequential, but in fact he has admitted to much more: He provided the crucial surveillance that allowed the killers to find their prey.

In August 1976 he had come undercover to Washington using an official Chilean passport in the name of Armando Faundez Lyon. For several days he tailed Letelier, pinpointing his residence (where he lived with his wife, Isabel, and three of their four sons) and his place of work. He identified the car he drove and detailed the exile's routines.

During a meeting at New York's JFK airport on September 9, the day he headed back to Chile, Fernandez passed along this information to his partner, Michael Townley, DINA's top assassin. Townley built the bomb, and on the night of September 19 secured it to the underside of Letelier's car. Then he gave Virgilio Paz the device to detonate it.

In January 1987, after nearly eleven more years of intelligence and military service in Chile, Fernandez returned to the United States -- this time to face long-standing criminal charges in the Letelier case. In lengthy depositions he provided information implicating the head of DINA and his chief of operations in Letelier's assassination, and he worked out a deal with the Justice Department to plead guilty as an accessory to murder.

Why Fernandez abandoned the Chilean army (he called it a "resignation" while Chilean authorities termed it "desertion") only he knows for certain, though he did assert to U.S. District Court Judge Barrington Parker that he'd come back in order "to clear my name." But he also said he believed himself to be "a marked man" in Chile, and feared reprisals from his erstwhile intelligence-service comrades and bosses.

The deal Fernandez struck with the Justice Department has allowed him to live and work in the United States despite his lack of an INS green card. According to his lawyer, the agreement also protects him from being sent back to Chile to face criminal charges there.

As a cabinet member in the toppled administration of Chilean president Salvador Allende, Orlando Letelier, 44 years old at the time of his death, was considered by Gen. Augusto Pinochet to be an enemy of the state. The dictator and his intelligence chief, Gen. Manuel Contreras, decided that several prominent exiles capable of promoting a unified expatriate opposition must be killed.

According to Argentine investigators, Michael Townley, using a car bomb of his own design and manufacture nearly identical to the one employed in Washington, had murdered retired Gen. Carlos Prats and his wife Sofia in Buenos Aires on September 30, 1974. Prats had been Pinochet's predecessor as commander of the Chilean army and was known as a constitutionalist opposed to the overthrow of Allende's democratically elected civilian government. When he made it clear in the months prior to September 1973 that he would not participate in a revolt, he was hounded from his post by mutinous subordinates, including Pinochet, who then led the rebellion. The coup d'état, assisted by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and in which Allende died, ushered in a reign of terror in which an estimated 3000 political opponents were murdered.

As early as the Prats assassination, Armando Fernandez Larios was paired with Townley in undercover operations in Chile and abroad. Prats's family, which has been pursuing the case of the slain general and his wife for a decade through the lethargic Argentine judicial system, accuses Fernandez of complicity in the murder and wants him questioned by an Argentine judge.

Townley, a U.S. citizen, was expelled from Chile by executive decree in 1978, delivered in handcuffs to Justice Department officials at the Santiago airport. This offering-up of a scapegoat came only after Washington threatened to break diplomatic relations with Chile over lack of cooperation in the Letelier case.

Townley felt betrayed, which led him to make his own deal with the Justice Department in exchange for testimony against his DINA superiors and the Cuban exiles who assisted in the plot. He served 40 months in jail and is now in the federal witness-protection program living who knows where (Duluth? Tucson?) under who knows what guise (television repairman? school bus driver?). He is a veritable retired jackal, a U.S. citizen who moved with his family (his father was a Ford Motor Co. executive) to Chile at the age of fourteen and blossomed into a gone-native neofascist, an apprentice and eventually expert assassin entrusted with the most sensitive "wet jobs" of exterminating the regime's opponents abroad.

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