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.

Fernandez deserted the Chilean armed forces in 1987 and made his way to Brazil, where he asked to be picked up by FBI agents and brought to the United States. He wanted to clear his name, he said -- not of the 1973 death-caravan murders but of long-standing criminal charges pending against him in another case: the September 21, 1976, car-bomb assassination in Washington, D.C., of Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean foreign minister branded by Pinochet as an enemy of the state.

Letelier had been organizing international opposition to Pinochet, and Fernandez was sent undercover to tail the former cabinet minister, who had sought asylum in the States with his wife and four sons. Over the course of several late-summer days, the DINA operative learned where Letelier lived and worked, what kind of car he drove, when he left home, and where he took his coffee breaks. At an airport meeting before flying back to Chile, Fernandez passed along the information to the bomber. A couple of weeks later, Letelier and his aide, Ronni Moffitt, a 25-year-old U.S. citizen, were killed when the car in which they were riding exploded. Moffitt's husband of five months, a passenger in the back seat, was wounded in the blast.

Upon Fernandez's return to Washington in 1987, he told a U.S. federal judge he had been “bothered” for years by his role in the crime. In lengthy depositions with the Justice Department, he provided information linking DINA's top commanders to the slayings. In exchange he pleaded guilty to being an accessory to murder, admitting only that he had provided crucial surveillance. He served just seven months in a U.S. federal prison. The plea bargain also allowed him to live and work in the United States (despite the lack of a green card), under what his Miami lawyer describes as INS “special status.” Most important, the lawyer adds, the deal included the explicit promise that Fernandez would never be sent back to Chile.

Armando Fernandez Larios circa 1987: Chile wants him, but the United States protects him
Hoy magazine
Armando Fernandez Larios circa 1987: Chile wants him, but the United States protects him
Orlando Letelier (left) was targeted by Fernandez in September 1976, with deadly results (above)
AP/Wide World Photo
Orlando Letelier (left) was targeted by Fernandez in September 1976, with deadly results (above)

But in a world of rapidly expanding international jurisprudence, in which the impunity once enjoyed by killers and torturers is being challenged in courtrooms and assailed across borders, the U.S. government's bargain with Fernandez may come back to haunt it. This past August both Italy and Mexico arrested former Argentine military officers accused in third countries of having committed torture and murder in the so-called dirty war of the 1970s. Yet while Washington chastises nations such as Libya and Iraq for harboring terrorists, the United States continues to provide refuge to several of them, including Armando Fernandez, accused abroad of politically motivated slaughter.

At least one major player in the Fernandez scenario, ex-FBI Special Agent Carter Cornick, thinks the former Chilean operative is a character undeserving of the cushy treatment he has been afforded to date. Cornick headed the investigation into the Letelier assassination until retiring in 1988. It was Cornick who flew to Brazil in 1987 to pick up Fernandez and accompany him back to the United States to face a federal judge.

Cornick, who spent weeks debriefing Fernandez, reminisced recently in a telephone interview from his home in Annandale, Virginia. “Fernandez Larios is a survivor,” he said. “He was your typical rat leaving a sinking ship.”

Fernandez had told the judge that his conscience was needling him and that he hoped to do his small part to help repair the honor of the Chilean armed forces. But Cornick remembered it differently. “He was concerned that he was perceived by his military colleagues as a traitor [for his desertion],” Cornick explained. “He was afraid of retribution and revenge. All this about his supposedly altruistic motivation is pure bullshit. He came up here to save his neck.”

In 1988 Fernandez moved to Miami and lived undisturbed for more than eleven years in his adopted city, a good place for a South American immigrant looking to blend in and make a fresh start. He bought a two-bedroom condominium in Kendall, a few blocks from Dadeland Mall, and worked for a time at a Coral Gables art gallery. Later he started a business called Fervic, the stated purpose of which was “consulting” and “import-export.” That venture folded, and a few years ago he found work at the auto-body shop.

One of the South American military intelligence officers who gave new meaning to the Spanish verb desaparecer, Fernandez himself disappeared in March 1999. He, however, vanished of his own free will. No one burst into his bedroom before dawn, tossed a hood over his head, and dragged him out to a waiting car.

Instead he pulled up stakes after he was served notice that he'd been sued in federal court in Miami by the family of Winston Cabello, a young Chilean economist and political prisoner he is alleged to have tortured and killed during la Caravana de la Muerte. (The suit, which is pending, was filed by Cabello's three siblings and his mother, and asks for compensatory and punitive damages. The relatives have said they hope a trial will augment the public record regarding atrocities committed under Pinochet.) Fernandez's neighbors say he vacated the condo shortly thereafter.

Then, six months later, Judge Juan Guzman, the investigating magistrate who also is handling the criminal complaints against General Pinochet, added Fernandez's name to a list of ten officers indicted in the caravana and charged him with the nineteen counts of kidnapping. (Because Cabello's corpse was recovered, his murder is not included in that indictment.) The Chilean Supreme Court rapidly approved the judge's request to initiate extradition proceedings against Fernandez.

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