The Assassin Next Door, Part 2

Chile demands that former secret police agent Armando Fernandez Larios face justice for his role in the murderous Caravan of Death. But he seems to be safe in Miami -- thanks to the U.S. government.

Read “The Assassin Next Door, Part 1”

The man who has just finished eating a plain yogurt at his black metal desk is so steadfastly intent on obliterating his past that when someone with those years in mind leans toward him and asks in a low voice, “Excuse me, are you Señor Fernandez?” he looks down and denies he is himself.

“No, señor,” he replies.

Gen. Augusto Pinochet could soon stand trial for crimes committed during his ruthless and bloody reign
Gen. Augusto Pinochet could soon stand trial for crimes committed during his ruthless and bloody reign
Gen. Augusto Pinochet could soon stand trial for crimes committed during his ruthless and bloody reign
AP/Wide World Photo
Gen. Augusto Pinochet could soon stand trial for crimes committed during his ruthless and bloody reign

I return to a standard-issue chrome-and-vinyl chair against the wall. Maybe this isn't the man I've been looking for, who dropped out of sight eighteen months ago. The man I wrote about last year. Here in the cramped office of a Northwest Miami-Dade auto-body shop, the face looks much different from that of Capt. Armando Fernandez, photographed in the 1970s when he was known as el aguila (the eagle) and was an officer in the National Intelligence Directorate, or DINA, the notorious Chilean secret police force. Nor does this man resemble the person in news clippings from 1987, when then-Major Fernandez pleaded guilty as an accessory to one of the most heinous acts of international terrorism ever committed in the United States.

After all, the operative in the photographs has a thick head of glossy black hair. He wears no glasses, and his face is full and unlined. This man is lean-faced and bald except for the black half-helmet that wraps around his head. Round, steel-rimmed spectacles perched on an aquiline nose give him the air of an accountant or a librarian.

But his composure is ebbing. Gaze fixed at a spot below his desk, he shifts nervously in his chair and then begins to rise. I notice his fists are clenched. Refusing to look at me, he stands and walks stiffly from the room. I follow him out into the cavernous shop, amid the thump of rubber hammers and the clank and rev and the waft of paint fumes. He finally stops and turns around with a look of resignation.

He stands there, his legs and arms thin and his hips narrow, a build that accentuates the paunch stretching a black-and-white-striped polo shirt over the waist of his black jeans. I approach and introduce myself. It's clear the jig is up. Yes, he acknowledges, he is former Maj. Armando Fernandez Larios, fugitive from Chilean justice and guest of the U.S. government.

Another man charged with crimes in Chile, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, returned home this past March after spending seventeen months under house arrest in Britain. The general, who led a bloody coup on September 11, 1973, that overthrew the socialist government of Salvador Allende, and whose security forces killed some 3000 suspected leftists during the seventeen-year dictatorship that followed, will soon undergo his first round of questioning by an investigating magistrate. Judge Juan Guzman wants to ask Pinochet about his alleged responsibility for the kidnapping of nineteen people shortly after the coup, victims who joined the ranks of los desaparecidos (the disappeared), men and women from all walks of life who were summarily executed, often after being tortured, and whose bodies were disposed of in ways intended to preclude discovery.

A month after seizing power, Pinochet sent a squad of six army officers on a helicopter swing from Santiago through four cities in northern Chile. Working from a list, Pinochet's team and officers from local garrisons took 72 political prisoners from their cells and killed them. Most were shot. Some were stabbed or slashed to death. At least one had his skull crushed with a heavy weapon, a sort of mace described by a Chilean human-rights lawyer as “like a gaucho's boleadora only of steel.” The squad's weeklong mission came to be called la Caravana de la Muerte, or the Caravan of Death. (The nineteen charges of kidnapping stem from a decision last year by Chile's Supreme Court, which ruled that los desaparecidos whose bodies were never found would be considered victims of unresolved abductions, crimes not covered under a 1978 general amnesty law.)

Armando Fernandez, assistant manager of Auto Sport International, northwest of Miami International Airport, has acknowledged he was a member of the caravan's death squad but denies complicity in the 72 murders. Nonetheless he is wanted for trial in Chile on those same nineteen counts of kidnapping pending against Pinochet.

Early this year British doctors deemed the ailing 84-year-old Pinochet unfit to stand trial in Spain, which had sought his extradition to prosecute him on charges of murder and torture of Spanish citizens in Chile. Once free of that threat, the autocrat returned home, trusting that his status in Chile as a senator-for-life -- which he'd arranged for himself before relinquishing power in 1990 and which included parliamentary immunity from prosecution -- would shield him from further legal action.

But in a watershed ruling this past August 8, the Chilean Supreme Court stripped Pinochet of that immunity, making him liable to prosecution on what now amount to more than 170 criminal complaints. The only remaining impediment to Pinochet's trial is a psychological examination to determine his fitness.

In the 1980s Armando Fernandez also took steps with an eye toward someday avoiding trial on atrocities charges. So far his plan, into which the U.S. government entered willingly as a provider of refuge, is working better than that of the former dictator.

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