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.

Armando Fernandez has led me to the edge of the shop, beyond the din, and is standing in a gaping doorway beside a ramp that leads into the building. He turned 51 last month but looks a good ten years younger, with not a single gray hair at his temples. The South Florida sun brings beads of perspiration to his pate. I notice his heavy beard is carelessly shaved; above the delicate chain and small religious medallion around his neck he has missed a few patches. He looks earnestly into my eyes, with no anger and only a hint of desperation.

Back in the noisy shop, I'd told Fernandez I had written last year's New Times cover story about him (“The Assassin Next Door,” November 18, 1999). The article detailed the civil suit, Chile's intention to put him on trial, and the fact that he'd dropped out of sight. (After the story ran, I discovered during a visit to the South Miami branch library that pictures of Fernandez -- identical to those that had accompanied the article -- had been excised from a major book on the Letelier assassination.) For just an instant his features froze and it seemed the interview would end before it began. My visit here must fill him with dread. Even so, he wants to be my friend.

Chilean lawyer Carmen Hertz, widowed by the Caravan of Death, now represents victims' families in Santiago
Chilean lawyer Carmen Hertz, widowed by the Caravan of Death, now represents victims' families in Santiago
Chilean lawyer Carmen Hertz, widowed by the Caravan of Death, now represents victims' families in Santiago
Chilean lawyer Carmen Hertz, widowed by the Caravan of Death, now represents victims' families in Santiago

“Douglas -- puedo llamarlo Douglas? -- I can assure you 100 percent I am not that person described as a killer,” he says. “I have never stained my hands with blood.”

He insists he cannot discuss the ongoing legal proceedings in Chile or Miami without the presence and assent of his lawyer. But he doesn't cut off the encounter, and when I press him on the charges against him and on Chile's extradition request, he responds with a flash of indignation.

“Look, I'm not saying I was a street sweeper [el barredor],” he explains. “But I was only a second lieutenant, and they want to blame me for the coup in Chile.”

Does he feel protected in the United States? Does the deal mean he can count on staying here free from criminal charges for the rest of his life? “The legal aspects,” he says, “only my lawyer can talk about them.”

Earlier this year a team of Justice Department and FBI officials spent several months in Chile gathering evidence that would allow the United States to convene a grand jury in Washington that could indict Pinochet for ordering Letelier's murder. Such an indictment would be purely symbolic, as no one can imagine the circumstances under which Chile would extradite the ailing old man here for trial. Indeed it has been the unwavering U.S. position, expressed during Spain's attempts to extradite Pinochet from Britain last year, that Chile is the nation with the right to try its former authorities for alleged atrocities.

The Chilean government cooperated with the U.S. investigators, granting them virtual power of subpoena to pose questions, through a Chilean lawyer, to some 40 former military officers. But while authorities in this country have enjoyed broad assistance in Santiago, a Chilean petition for U.S. cooperation -- the request for Fernandez Larios's extradition -- has languished in Washington for nearly ten months. Presented to the State Department in early January, the request remained there “under advisement” until late June, when it finally was sent to the Justice Department. Under normal circumstances Justice would pass it along to a federal judge, before whom the case would be argued and ultimately resolved. But no judge has yet to see Chile's request; the Justice Department has had it “under review” since June.

“It's a big package,” says Justice Department spokesman John Russell by way of explanation in a phone interview. “It's not an ordinary case.” I had spoken with Russell late last year, shortly before the Chilean request for Fernandez's extradition was submitted. He'd said then that such a petition from a country with which the United States has an extradition treaty -- as is the case with Chile -- is generally forwarded within a few weeks through the State Department, then Justice, and on to a judge who, if the alleged crime is grievous, issues an arrest warrant.

For purposes of comparison, here's the course followed by another recent extradition request: This past April Mexico asked for the extradition of former policeman Servando Granados, who had been arrested in Denver and was accused in his homeland of two murders in 1995. By June 20 Granados's extradition was approved, and on August 4 he was handed over to Mexican federal agents at Denver's international airport for transport back to Mexico.

But neither Fernandez Larios nor his lawyer appears worried. The reason may be that they know something almost no one else does. According to a Justice Department official, there exist “two versions” of the deal Fernandez struck with the U.S. government back in 1987. One of them remains secret and under court seal.

“I assume he will not be extradited,” says Fernandez's attorney, Steven Davis, of the Miami firm Thomson Muraro Razook & Hart. “I would be very surprised if an arrest warrant is issued.” According to Davis the promise made to his client in 1987, in exchange for testimony against his DINA bosses, was a blanket assurance that Fernandez will never be sent back to Chile. “And we would expect the U.S. to fulfill its commitment to him.”

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