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.

Davis, in fact, maintains that his client did very little while traveling with la Caravana de la Muerte, that he served essentially as an aide. “The Justice Department, of course, did not want to make a deal with a war criminal,” he adds. “The United States was satisfied [that Fernandez] had no involvement in the atrocities.”

But Chile doesn't want Fernandez returned just to answer to the nineteen disappearances in la caravana. Judge Guzman also has charged him with the kidnapping of David Silberman, who'd been the manager of one of Chile's state-owned copper mines under Salvador Allende. Imprisoned following the coup, Silberman was taken from jail September 4, 1974, by a squad of DINA officers that included Fernandez, supposedly for an “interrogation,” and was never seen again.

Fernandez is a wanted man in Argentina as well. Along with other former DINA agents, he faces charges there in connection with the September 30, 1974, car-bomb assassination in Buenos Aires of retired Chilean Gen. Carlos Prats and his wife, Sofia. (Prats had opposed the Pinochet coup, opted for exile, and was considered an opponent of the regime.) Just last year the operative who admitted to affixing the bomb to Letelier's car in Washington, D.C. -- the man who for years was Fernandez's partner in undercover operations -- admitted in a deposition with an Argentine judge that he also was in charge of the murder of Prats.

Fernandez's West Miami-Dade employer: Nondescript, just like his life in Miami
Steve Satterwhite
Fernandez's West Miami-Dade employer: Nondescript, just like his life in Miami
Chilean lawyer Carmen Hertz, widowed by the Caravan of Death, now represents victims' families in Santiago
AP/Wide World Photo
Chilean lawyer Carmen Hertz, widowed by the Caravan of Death, now represents victims' families in Santiago

A source close to the proceedings against Fernandez says Chile's extradition request has provoked an “argument” within the Justice Department and that the differences of opinion have slowed the process. “There are some people who would love to see him extradited,” says the source, who wishes not to be identified. “Others say that if he's sent back, we'll never get anybody to cooperate like that again. And others point to the Letelier bombing case still being open and say that if any indictment is ever brought against Pinochet here in the U.S., then Fernandez is an essential witness for that case.”

But Chile may not press for his return, suggests Carmen Hertz, a Chilean lawyer representing relatives of the victims in the Guzman proceedings. Hertz herself was widowed by la Caravana de la Muerte; her husband, lawyer and journalist Carlos Berger, was among 26 prisoners slain in the northern city of Calama, one of the caravan's stops. His murder propelled her into decades of activism, and eventually she became director of the Chilean Foreign Ministry's legal department. She resigned two years ago to protest her government's opposition to Pinochet's extradition from Britain to Spain. Now, she explains, Chile may not push hard for Fernandez's extradition either. “Unfortunately the political class would rather bury this matter of human-rights violations, would prefer that it be consigned to forgetting,” she notes.

She also says many retired officers consider Fernandez a stool pigeon: “Fernandez Larios is a person who would cause the army problems and cause problems with the army,” she comments. “It is not convenient for the government that he return.” In other words if Fernandez came to harm once back in Chile, the public might wonder what else the army was covering up. Or he might have information implicating retired officers, ones who still command allegiance, in crimes that have not yet been investigated. That could further strain an already tense military-civilian relationship.

Hertz says Fernandez has been identified as the soldier who swung the macelike weapon that killed the first victim of the caravan's stop in the city of Copiapo. “Fernandez Larios is a person of particular relevance in la caravana,” she continues. “According to testimony [taken by Guzman but not yet made public], he is one of the material authors, the executioners. And witnesses point to him as one of those who took part with the greatest viciousness. The term used was psychopathic.”

In late June Fernandez's name surfaced in Chile in dramatic fashion, again attached to the word psychopath. In a television interview, former army Cpl. Roberto Saldias said he had been a guard at Santiago's National Stadium in the days following the coup, when hundreds of people were executed there.

“There were midlevel officers who took justice into their own hands and who are now afraid to show their faces,” he alleged. Saldias declined to identify the officers during the interview, saying he would name them later in court testimony. But he made an exception in the case of a man he described as one of the principal executioners at the stadium. “Armando Fernandez Larios is a psychopath and the biggest murderer in Chile,” he declared. “In my regiment he took a soldier from my section and disfigured his face. He tortured him for a week because his name supposedly appeared on a list of members of the Communist Party at the Antofagasta Boys High School. To top it all off, the information was false.”

Isabel Morel de Letelier, the widow of Orlando, has her own theory of the bargain Fernandez struck with Washington. She believes it behooved U.S. authorities to inquire as little as possible about his activities in Chile. “Of course they didn't ask him [about what he'd done previously]. That's the point,” she said not long ago in a telephone interview from her home in Santiago. Morel had remained in the United States, where two of her four sons still live, until after the return of civil rule to her homeland. She currently is involved in work supporting human rights in Chile, where her son Juan Pablo is a member of the national legislature.

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