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

The Assassin Next Door, Part 2

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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.

Encouraged by the efforts of Judge Guzman and the Chilean Supreme Court, Morel said she wants the caravana case fully prosecuted. “I am on the side of the victims. The dead are not silent,” she vowed. “My friends are looking for justice, and I've always held out the hope that justice will be done.”

The haven provided by the United States for an accused killer, kidnapper, and torturer seems to jibe poorly with sentiments expressed by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during a visit to Chile this past August. She hailed the revocation of Pinochet's immunity and promised that Washington would declassify thousands of U.S. intelligence documents that might shed light on crimes committed in Chile in the 1970s.

“The decision that was taken by Chile's Supreme Court was clearly historic for the rule of law and for promotion and protection of human rights in Chile,” Albright said. “It has reaffirmed that it is possible for a country to have a stable democratic transition without sacrificing the principles of accountability and justice.”

The CIA is making good, if only in part, on Albright's declassification pledge. On September 20 it posted on its Website a report that, for the first time, acknowledges that the agency worked hand-in-hand in Chile with killers and coup-plotters. (The Website address is
) Perhaps the most sensational of the new revelations was the disclosure that Fernandez's erstwhile boss, then-chief of DINA Gen. Manuel Contreras, was a paid informant of the CIA at the very time he was carrying out terrorism on U.S. soil. Contreras, who is in a Chilean prison serving the final year of his seven-year sentence for the assassination of Letelier, received at least one payment from the agency, which admitted it had contacts with him even after the bombing in Washington.

Though it has made some admissions, the U.S. spy agency is holding back. Shortly after Albright returned from South America, CIA Dir. George J. Tenet drastically pared the number of documents expected to have figured in the new declassification batch. Albright had mentioned “thousands of documents,” but the agency has decided to cough up only 700, claiming that if declassification were more extensive, methods still in use by CIA officers in other parts of the world would be disclosed.

There was no mention of Armando Fernandez Larios in the just-released material. But there were a few lines bearing directly on la Caravana de la Muerte. “On 25 October [1973], the CIA reported that Gen. Sergio Arellano Stark had given instructions resulting in the summary execution of 21 political prisoners,” reads page twenty of the posted documents. Arellano Stark was the commanding officer of la caravana -- he is indicted in Chile -- and Lt. Armando Fernandez's official job on the mission was that of his bodyguard.

Since la caravana comprised only six officers sent from Santiago, the CIA was likely to have ascertained the names of every one of them shortly after the mission's completion. Some indication of Fernandez's immediate postcoup activities probably existed in U.S. intelligence files long before he showed up in Washington.

Fernandez wants to close our exchange in the auto-body shop with a deal. He has said during the ten-minute talk that indeed he would like to tell his story but that, unfortunately for me -- “because I know you have a job to do” -- it could only be at some unforeseeable point in the future, when all these damn legal matters are finally resolved. He asks for my card and, taking it, holds out his hand in an invitation to shake.

Hagamos un pacto de caballeros, he says. Let's make a gentlemen's pact. “Even though it be ten years from now, when I'm in a position to do so, you, Douglas, will be the one I call. And I will gladly answer any and all questions, maybe over a nice bottle of red wine.”

He grasps my hand firmly, drawing out the clasp, and looks steadily into my eyes, perhaps imagining that we agree.

As he loosens his grip I say, “Thanks, but I can't wait ten years.”

He smiles slightly, turns, and walks away.


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