When I read that Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the 89-year-old former leader of Chile, had been placed under house arrest earlier this week and declared competent to stand trial for his many crimes, it was no abstract issue for me. This was a man, after all, who had a tremendous influence on my life, the man who robbed me of my father, who tore my family apart.
I met him first in the days before the military coup that put him in power. He was a guest for dinner at our home in Santiago, Chile. I was 14 years old. I can see him now in my father's study, the Andes visible in the windows behind him. I remember that he looked strangely disconcerted, amid the bookcases and leather-backed tomes. Perhaps he was already making plans for the future.
Only a few months later, on Sept. 11, 1973, Pinochet seized power in a coup that ousted the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. Allende died during the coup, and life was turned inside out for my family and for my father, Orlando Letelier, who had served as Allende's ambassador to the United States and later as foreign minister.
In the days that followed, we watched jets fly overhead, heard bombs hit, smelled the smoke. Tanks rolled through the streets.
From the start, Pinochet's government relied on arbitrary arrests and shadowy disappearances; during his 17 years in power, tens of thousands of people were detained and tortured, and thousands killed. We were put under house arrest; my father spent a year in concentration camps, enduring the tortures of Dawson Island, a wind-swept rock off Antarctica. My brothers and I grew accustomed to being followed by secret police agents on the way to school and elsewhere.
After my father's release, we left the country and moved to Washington. But that was not far enough for Pinochet. Because of my father's ongoing work to restore democracy in Chile, Pinochet was determined to stop him — undaunted by the distance or by the national borders that lay between Santiago and our home in suburban Maryland.
Before dawn one morning in mid-September 1976, when I was 17 years old, an American named Michael Townley, acting on orders from Pinochet's secret police, attached a plastic explosive to the underside of the Malibu Classic parked in our driveway just a few feet from my bedroom window.
Everyone in my family used the car. I had driven it to my senior prom. On Sept. 21, any one of us could have turned the key. As it happened, my father drove it into Washington with his colleagues, Ronni Karpen and Michael Moffitt, her husband.
At 9:30 a.m., the bomb shattered the peace of Embassy Row. It severed my father's legs; he bled to death in the charred wreck. Ronni drowned in her own blood on the sidewalk, a piece of metal lodged in her neck. Only Michael Moffitt survived. It was at that time the most brazen international terrorist act ever committed in the nation's capital.
The investigations began immediately, but proceeded at a terribly slow pace. Townley eventually turned state's evidence, gave a detailed confession and served three years and four months in prison. He confirmed that the order for the assassination had come from Santiago.
In 1985, Chile's Supreme Court found Manuel Contreras, the director of the Chilean secret police, guilty of ordering the assassination of my father. He served seven years and was released. Declassified documents show that Contreras received a "one-time payment of $5,000," through which the CIA hoped to gain leverage over him. To date, the CIA has not been directly connected to the murder, though many questions remain unanswered about the agency's role in Chilean politics.
Several other men conspired in the assassination but have continued to elude justice. One of these was Guillermo Novo, who was convicted in Washington of conspiracy in the killings and sentenced to 40 years but whose conviction was overturned on a technicality. He later went to prison in Panama for his role in a plot to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro, but in August, as the U.S. presidential election was approaching, Novo was released. With three other known terrorists, he boarded a plane to Miami, where he was admitted to the country by U.S. officials and welcomed by Florida's Cuban exile community.
And Pinochet? In August, 31 years after the coup, the Chilean Supreme Court made a historic decision to strip him of his immunity from prosecution.
Pinochet has been accused of participating in Operation Condor, an intelligence-sharing network used by six South American dictators of that era to eliminate dissidents. My father's murder was a Condor mission.
On Monday, Chilean judge Juan Guzman ordered Pinochet placed under house arrest and declared him fit to stand trial. "It is not a part of American history we are proud of," conceded Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in 2003 when asked to comment on the U.S. role in Chile in the 1970s.
Until the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism was, for many Americans, something they watched on television. Now there are many more people who, like me, have lost members of their families to terrorism. We continue to search for a long-awaited measure of justice. Our heroes emerge from courtrooms, from smoldering wreckage and fallen towers.
Justice in these cases must go beyond the incarceration of individuals. The true historical record should be made public and U.S. foreign policy must reflect the lessons learned.
I hope that a public trial of Augusto Pinochet will serve as an important step, and that it will lead to the re-energizing of the long-dormant Letelier case in the U.S. It is here in this country where the facts remain shrouded and where individuals involved in the tragic murders of my father and Ronni Karpen remain untouched.
Francisco Letelier is an artist based in Venice. His father was assassinated in Washington when he was 17 years old.
© 2004 LA Times