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.

Fernandez, whose nom de guerre was el aguila (the eagle), detonated no bomb and was in Chile the moment Letelier and Ronni Moffitt were killed. But for years he had worked hand-in-hand with Townley. Such deep and enduring complicity would appear to render absurd Fernandez's claim to federal authorities that he was ignorant of DINA's objectives in stalking Pinochet opponents abroad. When el aguila was following Orlando Letelier around Washington in the late summer of 1976, he must have known he was setting up the man for slaughter.

The light slap Fernandez received for this unprecedented act of terror in the heart of the nation's capital remains a subject of debate and speculation. Judge Barrington Parker, who accepted Fernandez's guilty plea in February 1987, rejected the part of the bargain that would have limited jail time to seven years, demanding a free hand to impose the full ten years allowed by law. But he ended up sentencing Fernandez to seven years, with the possibility of release in as little as 27 months. Just five months later, the judge responded favorably to a motion brought by Fernandez's attorneys and ordered him freed. Judge Parker even thanked him for his help in making a case against DINA commanders and praised him for coming forward. (Parker has since died.)


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
For gruesome "wet jobs" Pinochet turned to Michael Townley, an American citizen
Raul Montoya/Hoy magazine
For gruesome "wet jobs" Pinochet turned to Michael Townley, an American citizen

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Upon his release Fernandez headed for Miami. In late 1988 he bought his Kendall condominium. A year after that he set up a consulting and import-export business called Fervic Corp. The company is listed in the telephone book, but the person who answers calls to its number -- the same Chilean-accented man who answers calls to Fernandez's home number -- says only that the firm is no longer in business and hangs up when asked about its purpose and past.

It's understandable that a man with Fernandez's history might be leery of people asking questions about his activities, for not all things fade away in a mere quarter-century. Ghosts don't die, and the wives and husbands and siblings and children of ghosts don't forget. Often they don't forgive.

This past March a process server went to the Kendall condominium at dawn and found Fernandez at home. The sleepyheaded former intelligence agent was handed papers informing him he was being sued in Miami federal court because 25 years earlier he is alleged to have taken part in the torture and murder of a young Chilean political prisoner and father of two girls, a leftist economist who, while bound in the back of an army truck, was repeatedly stabbed then thrown along with twelve others into a mass grave where they lay mute, encased in salty desert soil until they were exhumed in 1990, virtually mummified, to accuse their tormentors and executioners.

U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lenard now has before her case No. 99-528, in which four members of Winston Cabello's family -- three siblings and his mother -- allege that Armando Fernandez Larios inflicted upon their brother and son torture, cruel and inhuman punishment, and wrongful death. They are seeking compensatory and punitive damages of an unspecified amount.

Cabello's killing is part of a sensational case in Chile known as la Caravana de la Muerte (the Caravan of Death). It is called a caravan because a delegation of army officers spent several days in October 1973, a month after the Pinochet coup, traveling from jail to jail in the northern Chilean cities of Cauquenes, Copiapo, Calama, La Serena, and Antofagasta to carry out the summary executions of 72 political prisoners. Winston Cabello was one of thirteen slain in Copiapo. No one questions that simple fact at the heart of the case.

On the night of October 16, Cabello and twelve others (mostly leftist functionaries, union officials, and professors) were taken from their cells by army officers working from a list. Two were shot and killed at the garrison. The other eleven, their hands bound behind their backs, were marched past the dead men and loaded into a truck.

A few miles outside town, the truck stopped and the prisoners were ordered to get out. Several did and were shot to death on the moonlit roadside. Others, including Winston Cabello, refused to disembark. So members of the death squad climbed into the truck and slashed and stabbed the uncooperative prisoners with their corvos, crescent-shaped knives that are part of Chilean military tradition, carried in a sheath on a soldier's belt.

The Cabello family's lawsuit alleges that most members of the death squad were drunk, that they had been drinking pisco that evening, and that members of the delegation from Santiago, of which Fernandez has acknowledged he was a part, invited one of the officers from the Copiapo garrison to come with them for una fiesta. According to the lawsuit, "the officer understood that he was being invited to participate in the torture and execution of the thirteen political prisoners selected that evening."

The army delegation sent by Pinochet to the north that October was headed by Gen. Sergio Arellano Stark. He, along with four other members of the team, is currently under house arrest in Santiago awaiting trial by Judge Juan Guzman on charges of kidnapping in the Caravan of Death case. That Arellano and other former military officers have been brought before a civilian judge and indicted on atrocity charges is something that would have been inconceivable even one year ago.

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