SANTIAGO, Chile - A retired Chilean air force interrogator who was indicted this week could help investigators solve the murder of a young American civilian 30 years ago during Chile's bloody U.S.-backed coup. U.S. officials - including CIA personnel - may be implicated.
Charles Horman, a 31-year-old political cartoonist and freelance reporter then living in Santiago, was killed shortly after Gen. Augusto Pinochet seized power on Sept. 11, 1973. Frantic efforts to find him by Horman's wife, Joyce, and father, Ed, were the basis for the 1982 Oscar-winning film "Missing," directed by Constantine Costa-Gavras.
For decades, Horman's death has remained a mystery, and there were murmurs that a CIA agent was present when the order was given to kill Horman. On Wednesday, Chilean Judge Jorge Zepeda indicted a man who reportedly made that allegation, Rafael Agustin Gonzalez Verdugo, 64. Zepeda alleged that Gonzalez has vital information about Horman's execution, and had perjured himself in earlier testimony in Chilean and U.S. courts.
In an interview Friday in Santiago, Sergio Corvalan, attorney for Joyce Horman, said he expected more indictments shortly. He said Gonzalez might be able to identify U.S. Embassy officials at the time of the coup who may have falsely denied knowing anything about Horman's death.
"Gonzalez had relations with them, from the beginning," Corvalan said.
U.S. State Department and CIA officials have long denied any knowledge of what happened to Horman. Some information declassified during the Clinton administration showed that the State Department and U.S. Embassy personnel in Santiago knew more about Horman's fate than they shared with the family. But no U.S. complicity in his death has been confirmed.
"The fact that we have an indictment now is real progress," Joyce Horman said in a telephone interview from New York. "There seems to be quite a bit of good new information to be followed up."
Peter Kornbluh, author of the recently published book "The Pinochet File," based largely on recently declassified U.S. government documents, devotes much of a chapter to Gonzalez, who retired from the armed forces two years ago. He cites reports that appeared in the Washington Post and on CBS News in June 1976 after Gonzalez, holed up in the Italian Embassy and seeking asylum, met with their reporters.
Gonzalez told the reporters he'd translated Charles Horman's English into Spanish for the Chilean army intelligence officials who were holding him. He also told them that an American, most likely a CIA agent, was present during Horman's interrogation and when the order was given to kill Horman, who'd been snatched from his home Sept. 17, six days into the coup.
Gonzalez told the reporters that Horman was executed because he knew too much about U.S. involvement in the coup, according to the book. Gonzalez said he'd also been a go-between for the U.S. and Chilean governments in March 1974, when Horman's corpse was returned.
A declassified 1976 State Department memo obtained by Kornbluh said of Gonzalez "his mental condition is open to question" but acknowledged Gonzalez had CIA ties and that "U.S. intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman's death."
"If Gonzalez, under legal pressure, spills the beans on who gave the orders and fired the shots, then we will have arrived at justice in the case of Charles Horman," Kornbluh said in a telephone interview Friday.
Joyce Horman expects to travel to Chile in January to meet with lawyers and plot legal strategy. She brought suit in her husband's case in 2000, one of hundreds of criminal complaints against the former dictator Pinochet.
"It was Gonzalez who said there was an American in the room when Charles was being questioned," she said. "It is certainly as close as we've been."
Chile's air force said Thursday that Gonzalez's alleged crimes occurred before he came to work for the air force in April 1975.
In the past three years, efforts to prosecute former dictators in Chile, Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America have begun to bear fruit. The efforts have been aided by the declassified documents, which spelled out how the Nixon and Ford administrations courted right-wing dictatorships as Cold War allies.
Hughes, a Knight Ridder special correspondent, reported from Santiago; Hall reported from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
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