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.

That goal would seem to be consistent with a U.S. foreign policy that has changed dramatically in the past two decades, one that now hails the return of civilian governments in Latin America and the resurgence of institutions of representative democracy, such as an independent and vigorous judiciary.

Just last month Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, in response to a British court clearing the way for Pinochet's extradition to Spain, stressed that the United States supports international efforts to achieve justice and "accountability."

That admirable policy could be put to the test, however, should the federal government deny Chile's request to extradite Fernandez. "The presence in the United States of human-rights violators from the Pinochet regime should not be tolerated," declares Shawn Roberts of the Center for Justice and Accountability.

The Fernandez defense team (from left): Steven W. Davis, Gregg H. Metzger, Isaac J. Mitrani, Timothy J. Norris
Steve Satterwhite
The Fernandez defense team (from left): Steven W. Davis, Gregg H. Metzger, Isaac J. Mitrani, Timothy J. Norris

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"For 25 years my family has waited for justice to prevail," adds Zita Cabello-Barrueto from her home in San Mateo, California. "This lawsuit against Armando Fernandez Larios is an opportunity not only for my family but also for the international community itself to seek justice."

E. Lawrence Barcella, the assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the Letelier-Moffitt case until 1986, believes Fernandez was trying to make amends by returning to the United States twelve years ago to answer the charges against him. "He didn't have to come," says Barcella, who is now in private practice in Washington, "but he was not pleased about his role. Remorse and guilt were eating away at him."

Regarding prospects for Fernandez's extradition, Barcella notes that Argentina, after it returned to civilian rule in 1983, requested Michael Townley's extradition from the United States to stand trial for the murder of General Prats and his wife. Extradition was denied.

Fernandez himself has nothing new to say about all this. Repeated requests for an interview (in writing to Fernandez, on the phone with the man who answers his numbers, and to his lawyer) were declined. But in a statement filed with federal Judge Joan Lenard this past May, in response to the civil suit, he rejected the Cabello family's allegations. "In January 1987, I resigned from the Chilean military and left Chile to come to the United States to face criminal charges against me," he wrote. "The United States government did not charge me with torture or murder (and I have never committed acts of torture or murder on anyone -- including the plaintiffs' decedent)."

He also wanted to make another thing clear regarding reports in various newspapers over the years and in the lawsuit itself that he entered the U.S. witness-protection program after serving his sentence: "I was never placed into 'custody of the federal government witness-protection program' as alleged.... Custody was offered to me because my actions on behalf of the United States placed me at substantial personal risk. I explicitly refused that offer to enter into that program."

Attorney Steven Davis argues that Fernandez in fact deserves a measure of credit and appreciation. "Just think about what he gave up," he says. "A pensioned position in his homeland, where his family was, to come at substantial personal risk to face jail time and poverty in a country with no family and friends, where he hardly spoke the language." Davis calls the torture and wrongful-death charges "outrageous" and conveys his client's all-encompassing denial of everything -- everything except for the fact that Fernandez did indeed form part of Gen. Sergio Arellano Stark's mission to northern Chile in October 1973. "He was only a 22-year-old second lieutenant," Davis says. "He had no involvement in what happened. He witnessed no executions, didn't participate in executions, and didn't see anyone ordered to be executed."

That pretty much covers what Fernandez (who was actually 24 years old at the time) did not do. But what did he do on the Caravan of Death? "For lack of a better term," Davis responds, "he was basically a gofer." (Maybe he was sent out for pisco?)

Davis further contends that the United States was satisfied Fernandez was not involved in atrocities in Chile. "The Justice Department, of course, did not want to make a deal with a war criminal," he says.

Central to Fernandez's defense in both the Letelier-Moffitt murders and the Caravan of Death case is the proposition that he is a man of conscience, concerned about having a "clean name." But if he was bothered by the hundreds of postcoup killings that were taking place around him, why did he not simply resign his commission and look for other work? What he did instead was to move voluntarily from the regular army into the intelligence force, the very front line of a very "dirty war," as South American officers called their campaign against leftists. Then he waited eleven years, during which he remained an officer in an egregiously repressive army, to come forward to confess his crime.


Zita Cabello-Barrueto would like to see Fernandez sent back to Chile to stand trial. "Judge Guzman must be allowed to go forward," she says, noting that Fernandez would then face the prospect of incarceration. "That would be much better." Even so, she would not bet on such an outcome: "I'm not very hopeful [about extradition]. I think Fernandez made a good deal for himself."

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