Codename: Chilbom

On a fall morning in 1976, a bomb exploded in the middle of Washington. The shock waves were felt for the next 30 years.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 59


Zach Dorfman is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council, where he was previously senior editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the Council’s quarterly journal. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles TimesNational Interest, The Los Angeles Review of BooksThe AwlDissent, and American Interest.

Editor: Joel Lovell
Designer: Tim Moore
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Muna Mire

Published in July 2016. Design updated in 2021.

Shortly after 9:30 on the morning of September 21, 1976, a light blue Chevy Chevelle carrying three passengers moved along Washington, D.C.’s Embassy Row, merging into the flow of commuter traffic around Sheridan Circle. The man in the driver’s seat was Orlando Letelier, an economist and fellow at a left-leaning think tank, the Institute of Policy Studies. In the passenger’s seat beside him was 25-year-old Ronni Moffitt, a fundraiser at IPS, and behind her was her husband of four months, Michael Moffitt, also 25, a researcher working with Letelier on issues related to the future of Letelier’s native Chile.

It was a small miracle that Letelier was there in Washington that morning, working at IPS, commuting from the house he shared in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife and four sons. Six years earlier, he had been a close confidante to Salvador Allende, the democratic socialist elected president of Chile in September 1970. For two years, Letelier served as Allende’s ambassador to the United States. In May 1973, he became foreign minister, and three months later, as right-wing resistance to Allende was intensifying, he was appointed defense minister, in charge of a military establishment openly hostile to the president.

On September 11, 1973, that hostility erupted into a deadly coup led by military leader General Augusto Pinochet. Allende’s three years in office had been marked by intense social instability, fomented in part by the United States, which since 1962 had been covertly financing newspapers, political parties, and, eventually, neo-fascist paramilitary groups as part of its covert war against leftist political movements in Latin America. That morning tanks surrounded Moneda Palace, the seat of Chile’s presidency. Just before noon, the Chilean air force began strafing the building. A firefight ensued between military forces and pro-Allende snipers positioned around the palace. Rather than be taken prisoner or forced into exile, Allende, holed up in La Moneda, took his own life.

Over the next few months, more than 1,200 people—leftist politicians and government officials, union leaders, activists, and students—were summarily executed. Many were arrested, brought to detention centers, and then murdered, their bodies flung across Santiago thoroughfares and dumped along urban riverbanks. On the morning of the coup, Letelier rushed to the Defense Ministry to try to restore order. In an interview published posthumously in Playboy in 1977, Letelier said that the moment he entered the ministry, he “felt a gun in my back” and was quickly “surrounded by ten or twelve men,” all pointing their weapons at him. He was taken into military custody. That night, from his holding room, Letelier watched nearly two dozen executions in the palace courtyard. At 5 a.m., he heard a commotion outside his room. “Now it’s the turn of the minister,” one soldier said. About 30 minutes later, a group of armed men entered his room, one carrying a blindfold. Letelier knew immediately what was coming. While he was being led to the courtyard, however, an argument ensued between two officers over who was in charge. Letelier remembered one of his captors saying, “You’re lucky. They won’t give it to you, you bastard.”

Instead he was flown with other prominent political prisoners to a detention center on Dawson Island, a frigid, forlorn place in the Strait of Magellan, closer to the tip of Antarctica than to Santiago. Letelier was beaten, threatened with execution, and forced to perform hard labor in subzero conditions. He remembered Dawson as “an inaccessible, frozen hell.”

After three months there, Letelier, malnourished and greatly weakened, weighed only 125 pounds. Another six months went by before he was transferred to a less punitive facility north of Santiago. A year after the coup, he was suddenly released from military custody and sent to Venezuela, where the powerful governor of Caracas had been lobbying for his release. He rejoined his family there and was offered the research position at IPS, which was hostile to the junta and critical of U.S. intervention in Latin America.

When the bomb went off in Sheridan Circle, Orlando Letelier’s Chevelle was lifted entirely off the ground, flames roaring from its windows. An explosive consisting primarily of C-4 had been attached to the car’s I-beam, directly beneath the driver’s seat. The flaming vehicle crashed into a Volkswagen in front of the Romanian embassy.

Michael Moffitt regained consciousness in the back seat, overcome by heat and the stench of burning hair and flesh. His shoes were blown off his feet; at first he had no feeling below the waist. Gasping for air, Moffitt pulled himself through a shattered window and saw his wife standing with her back to him. He moved to the driver’s side to check on Letelier.

Moffitt found Letelier facing backward and wedged between the steering wheel and the driver’s seat. The bottom of the car had been blown out, and Letelier had been rotated 180 degrees, folded over like a piece of origami. When Moffitt tried to lift Letelier out of the car, he saw that his body was completely severed at the torso. Letelier would die within minutes.

Because Ronni’s back was turned to him, Moffitt hadn’t seen that his wife was clutching her throat as she stumbled away from the car. Nor did he realize that her face was badly burned and that a piece of shrapnel the size of a thumbnail had pierced her carotid artery. He looked away from Letelier, who Moffitt realized was hopeless, and watched his wife fall to the ground, blood gushing from her mouth.

Within minutes of the explosion, Sheridan Circle was swarming with hundreds of law enforcement personnel from several agencies—local D.C. police; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the FBI; the Secret Service; and the Executive Protection Services (responsible for safeguarding members of the foreign service) were all present. When FBI special agent L. Carter Cornick Jr. had arrived, about ten minutes after the bombing, his first thought upon surveying the crime scene was that it was a “nightmare.” Cornick didn’t know if the FBI had jurisdiction, but he began to work as if it did. He saw the remains of a man being loaded into an ambulance; a woman lying on the side of the road, an emergency worker attempting to revive her, to no avail; and a crazed man, covered in burns, “deafened and incoherent,” screaming about an organization called DINA.

It was still morning rush hour, and cars were backed up for miles. When another official tried to reopen part of the circle to vehicles, Cornick ordered them to cease immediately. “I said, ‘No! I don’t care what you do with traffic,’” he recalled. “‘The crime scene is here once.’” To make matters worse, rain had begun to fall, washing away particulate matter that Cornick knew would be crucial to the investigation. (Human detritus was eventually recovered from the roofs of nearby embassies, some 40 feet off the ground.)

As the FBI’s explosives unit fanned out across the area, Cornick learned that the bureau had been given jurisdiction over the case and that he would be running the show.

I met with Cornick last summer at his home in suburban Virginia. At 75, dressed in khakis and a crisp blue dress shirt, he’s still trim and youthful looking, an easygoing, natural-born raconteur.

A former marine, Cornick worked counterterrorism for the FBI for over twenty years. In the early 1970s, he helped solve armed robbery cases in Puerto Rico, then later investigated the 1983 American embassy bombing in Beirut that killed 63.

“Bombing investigations are inherently difficult to solve,” Cornick said, “because evidence is destroyed as well as people.” For 12 years, until his retirement in 1988, he led the FBI’s investigation into the Letelier bombing.

The only reason the FBI had any claim on the case at all was due to a law called the Protection of Foreign Officials Statute, which had only been written in 1972. And the foreign-ambassadors clause of the law, which gave the bureau the authority to investigate crimes committed against current or former diplomats, was only added at the suggestion of a junior State Department attorney. That Cornick would work the case was dependent on this minute legal detail.

Larger forces were also at play. During Watergate, the FBI—which investigated the break-in and eventually identified members of the Nixon administration and re-election campaign as culpable—was under tremendous political pressure. L. Patrick Gray, the FBI’s acting director, helped the Nixon administration delay the investigation in 1972, and so legitimate concerns about the independence of the bureau led to the creation of the major crimes unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. For the first time, and much to the chagrin of agents in the bureau, U.S. attorneys would work investigations with their colleagues from the FBI instead of merely prosecuting them. Watergate was handled this way, and the Letelier bombing was the second case to fall under the unit’s authority.

Early on the morning after the bombing, the FBI’s special agent in charge, Nick Stames, called Cornick into his office and told him he’d be working the case with the Justice Department.

“No, I’m not,” Cornick recalled saying. “I have no intention of working with the Justice Department. I don’t want some assistant U.S. attorney telling me how to run a case.”

The man who would become his partner was equally unenthusiastic. When assistant U.S. attorney Eugene Propper heard about the Letelier killing, his first thought was that it would become an albatross hanging around some poor prosecutor’s neck. “I remember sitting at lunch with a very good friend of mine, who was also an assistant U.S. attorney, saying, ‘I wonder who’s going to get that case,’” Propper told me when we talked last summer. “‘That’s not going to be any fun.’ And when the U.S. attorney spoke to me about it, he said, ‘Look, we’ve never had a case like this. We may never solve it no matter what you do. Give it your best shot.’”

Propper, who went on to coauthor a book about the killing, Labyrinth, in 1982, was only 29 when he was assigned to the most high-profile investigation in the country. Today he expresses shock at some of his own actions nearly 40 years ago. In his pursuit of the case, he even agreed to be led blindfolded to a meeting with a prominent anti-Castro militant in Miami. “I wonder what sort of insanity caused me to do that,” he said. But then he recalled that the militant told him, “If we wanted you dead, we wouldn’t have to blindfold you.”

Propper and Cornick met for the first time in Propper’s cramped office the morning after the bombing. They were an incongruous duo: Cornick clean-cut and clean-shaven, genteel, and deeply southern; Propper an outspoken, bearded, motorcycle rider from Long Island. For the next three years, the two men would work together on the case the bureau codenamed Chilbom.

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Rescue crews and investigators at the site of the bombing, September 21, 1976. (Photo: Associated Press) 

Within two days of the bombing, an informant named Ricardo Morales told the FBI that he knew who was responsible for the killings. It was two Cuban brothers, he said—Guillermo and Ignacio Novo—living in Union City, New Jersey. Both were well-known anti-Castro militants, and both believed themselves to be—and were anxious to be considered—part of a much larger fight against communism that extended through all of Latin America and, indeed, in their minds, across the globe. When asked where his information came from, Morales, a high-ranking member of Venezuela’s intelligence services, said that he learned about the Novos from Dr. Orlando Bosch, an infamous anti-Castro terrorist, federal fugitive, and trained pediatrician also living in Venezuela. Morales, himself a committed anti-Castro militant, was a profoundly shrewd operator, at various times informing for the CIA, FBI, DEA, and Miami Police Department, all the while working for the Venezuelan intelligence agency, known as DISIP.

This arrangement was less unusual than it may seem. By the late 1960s, DISIP was populated by a number of high-profile anti-Castro Cubans. To this day there are lingering questions as to why the Venezuelan intelligence service would absorb so many foreigners into its ranks, given the obvious sensitivities of the job. It may have something to do with what American officials referred to in the early 1960s as the “disposal problem”—that is, what to do with Cuban militants who’d been trained by America to take on Castro and, now living in exile in America, were waging that fight on U.S. soil, in operations the U.S. government didn’t sanction and couldn’t control. As far back as the Kennedy administration, officials knew they had created something of a monster: thousands of highly committed anti-Castro foot soldiers willing to wage war across the hemisphere in the effort to defeat communism.

Such men were useful to the CIA, if they could be managed. But they often proved unwilling to abide by agency strictures. When I started discussing Morales’s and Bosch’s roles in the case with Cornick, he gave me a quizzical look, then asked, “Do you know how the Cubans got to Venezuela?” When I said no, he erupted, “The agency put them down there!” Cornick claims that the CIA placed Cubans “recruited by the agency to fight the good war against Castro” into Venezuelan intelligence. (I later asked retired CIA agent Jack Devine, who helped run covert operations in Latin America for over two decades and was stationed in Chile from 1971 to 1974, about Cornick’s claim. “He’s full of shit,” Devine responded. “Go show me. Prove it.” This was the only instance during our interview where Devine, who was otherwise guarded and deft in his responses, flashed a hint of pique.)

Given the thick web of relationships, some of which were still operational in 1976, between the Cubans in DISIP and the CIA (not to mention the vested interest the agency has to this day in not disclosing these ties), it’s hard not to consider Cornick’s assertion credible.

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Guillermo Novo, November 1975. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

These Cubans in Venezuela were linked to the Novo brothers—the men who Ricardo Morales told the FBI were responsible for the killings—through an umbrella group called the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations. Cuban militants were notoriously splintered, and CORU—formed at a meeting in the Dominican Republic in June 1976, three months before the Letelier bombing—was an attempt to bring together the major exile groups and to coordinate future targets, there to put aside their differences and focus on shared enemies and goals.

There were a number of anti-Castro groups in attendance, among them the radical Cuban Nationalist Movement (CNM), represented at the meeting by Guillermo Novo and another of the group’s leaders, Jose Suarez, whose reputation for ruthlessness (his nickname was Charco de Sangre—“Puddle of Blood”) was widely known. Orlando Bosch, the source whose information regarding the Novo brothers had been passed on to the FBI, was also there. According to a declassified FBI telegram from late September 1976, Bosch had an agreement with the Venezuelan government: As long as he refrained from planning and committing terrorist attacks inside Venezuela, he would be allowed to raise money for anti-Castro activities (an agreement he violated four months after the meeting, in October 1976, when he and another Cuban in Venezuela, Luis Posada, conspired to bomb a Cubana Airlines plane, killing 73, including Cuba’s national fencing team).

At the time of the CORU meeting, Guillermo and Ignacio Novo were famous, or infamous, among the exile groups for their botched attack on the United Nations headquarters in December 1964. Using a bazooka, they launched a rocket across the East River, hoping to strike the General Assembly during a speech being given by Che Guevara. The Novos misfired, the missile fell into the river, and nearly two weeks later they were apprehended for the attack—only to be released in June 1965 because they were never properly processed by the NYPD. Farcical as the operation might have been, it foreshadowed a stunning wave of violence, all in the name of anti-Castro militancy, that would be carried out within the borders of the country most committed to stopping the spread of communism.

Between 1974 and 1976, there were over 200 bombings in the Miami area alone, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the local FBI office, the Dade County Police Department, and the airport. Five Cuban exiles were assassinated during this time.

For his part, after the botched UN attack, Guillermo Novo orchestrated a scheme to blow up a Cuban ship anchored in Montreal and to attack the Cuba booth at the Montreal World’s Fair in 1967. A trained chemist, Novo worked as a lab supervisor in a chemical company in New Jersey. In 1968, when he was expelled from the American Chemists Association after being convicted of possession of explosives, he turned to selling cars, at least during the day.

Jose Suarez, the Novos’ partner in the Cuban National Movement, also led a double life selling cars in New Jersey. Suarez was a colonel in Castro’s army before defecting to the United States in October 1960 and receiving training by the CIA for the Bay of Pigs invasion. According to an FBI informant at the CORU meeting, it was Suarez who told attendees that the CNM needed to “perform one more contract” for the Chilean government before they could cease operations in the U.S.

When Carter Cornick arrived at the bomb scene in Sheridan Square and heard Michael Moffitt screaming about DINA, the name meant nothing to him. But it meant a lot to Letelier’s family and colleagues at IPS, whom Cornick visited the evening of the bombing. They told Cornick they were convinced that the government of Chile, all the way up to President Augusto Pinochet, was complicit in the crime. And they all believed that DINA, short for the Directorate of National Intelligence, was the prime culprit.

DINA was Chile’s combined foreign intelligence agency and domestic secret police. In the years after the coup, DINA agents were responsible for hundreds of summary executions and nocturnal disappearances (in which, after the disappeared were murdered, their bodies were often loaded onto airplanes, their stomachs slit open to prevent floatation, and dumped into the sea). From late 1973 to 1977, DINA was led by Pinochet’s right-hand man, Manuel Contreras, who also served as a CIA informant during those years against leftist sympathizers in Chile. The CIA’s friendliness toward the Pinochet regime, and DINA in particular, manifested itself in other ways. A State Department official named Bob Steven, who was based in Santiago in the mid-seventies, said in an interview in 2001 that the CIA possessed what “amounted to a veto” over the State Department’s reporting on the country’s human rights abuses, making it nearly impossible for State Department officials in Santiago to transmit information back to D.C. about the regime’s use of torture or extrajudicial murder.

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Orlando Letelier, Washington, D.C., 1976. (Photo: Museum of Memory and Human Rights)

As a former high-ranking member of the Allende government, Orlando Letelier still had important connections in Washington, through which he lobbied forcefully against the Pinochet regime. He was particularly close to prominent Senate liberals Ted Kennedy and George McGovern and congressmen Tom Harkin and George Miller. He spoke at the UN about mass torture being perpetrated by the regime and helped convince the Dutch government to cancel a $63 million investment in Chile’s mining industry. As Letelier’s stature rose, Pinochet and Contreras feared that he was becoming the unofficial leader of the opposition and that he would begin to form a government in exile.

That a military government with a history of murdering its enemies would seek to obliterate one of its most prominent critics should not have been shocking. But the Letelier killing was followed by a surprising suspension of disbelief in Washington. Many refused to consider that a foreign government would be so brazen as to commit a spectacular assassination a mere 100 yards from the Chilean ambassador’s residence. It is hard to imagine a less covert way of eliminating one’s adversaries.

The CIA quickly made clear that it was disinclined to view Chile as a suspect. Jack Devine, the retired CIA agent who was based in Chile from ’71 to ‘74, described the Letelier killing to me as one of those situations “where conventional wisdom and rationality sometimes gets in the way of intelligence.” The assassination was seen as so “outlandish,” he said, that the idea that the Chileans—our allies, after all—could have committed it was “almost incomprehensible.” Devine said that his view was shared by almost everyone he worked with in intelligence at the time. A declassified National Security Council memorandum, written the day of the killing, speculated that, “in view of Letelier’s role in the Allende government, right wing Chileans are the obvious candidates. But they seem to be too obvious, and we think that they would think twice about creating a martyr for the Chilean Left.”

The germ of an unlikely idea began to grow, nurtured by the ascendant conservative politics of the time: that Letelier was murdered by one of his own in an effort to discredit the Chilean regime. The day after the killing, the New York Times editorial board floated this possibility. Prominent right-wing intellectuals and politicians such as William F. Buckley, Jesse Helms, and Ronald Reagan, who hosted his own radio show at the time, all ran with the idea. Some even suggested that Letelier was a secret Soviet or Cuban agent.

In such a charged environment, federal investigators felt the political ramifications of the case acutely. They were attacked by liberals for not assuming the culpability of the Chilean government; they were attacked by conservatives for trying to demonize a steadfast ally in America’s war on communism.

“When we looked at the Chileans,” Propper told me, “we looked at the Pinochet government, which really came into effect because the CIA helped get rid of Allende. I met with people at the CIA who said, ‘What the hell are you doing? You can’t be pulling that shit up again.’”

The State Department was also not enthused about the investigation. The prevailing stance at Foggy Bottom was one of passive, even hostile, noncooperation. According to Bob Steven, who returned to D.C. in 1977 to oversee the Chile desk, “The basic attitude was that we had approved the coup, that our interests were best served by a military regime, and that it was not in the U.S. interest to see the situation become inflamed or otherwise rattle the cage.” Nonetheless, Steven began to pursue the case vigorously and was censured by the assistant secretary through an intermediary. “He called me in and said, ‘Bob, we really think that we should let Justice take the lead in this.’ The signal was very, very clear: Lay off.”

“The CIA helped get rid of Allende. I met with people at the CIA who said, ‘What the hell are you doing? You can’t be pulling that shit up again.’”

Under this intense glare, Cornick and Propper turned their attention to anyone other than the Chilean government who might have a motive for the killing. “Everyone kept telling us, ‘DINA did it, DINA did it, DINA did it.’ Well,” said Cornick, “that and a dime will get you a cup of coffee in a courtroom.” Letelier had a reputation as a lothario, for instance (it was widely known that he was having a relationship with a well-connected Venezuelan woman); maybe he was killed by a jealous spouse. Another theory had it that perhaps he was involved with Ronni Moffitt, and so Michael had arranged for the murder. As Propper recalled, “The FBI felt quite strongly that they’d look like idiots if they investigated all this other stuff”—meaning leads that went back to the Chilean government—“and it turned out to be that his wife wanted him dead because he had an affair.”

These theories quickly proved baseless, while the chatter about the role of the Cuban Nationalist Movement was unceasing. Cuban diplomats at the United Nations, whom Propper met with in late 1977, claimed that Cuban intelligence had identified the CNM as the authors of the bombing. There was the talk from Orlando Bosch in Venezuela about the role of the Novo brothers. There was evidence that Bosch, Guillermo Novo, and Suarez had traveled together to Venezuela in December 1974, on their way to Chile to establish a relationship with the Pinochet government. There were also tantalizing reports from FBI agents working informants in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, as well as in Union City, of Guillermo Novo meeting with a mysterious tall, blond Chilean, a colonel in the Chilean intelligence services, just prior to the bombing.

In mid-October 1976, Propper brought Guillermo and Ignacio Novo before a grand jury. The Novo brothers denied knowledge of the killing. But Propper and Cornick became increasingly suspicious that if the Novos hadn’t killed Letelier themselves, they knew who ordered the assassination. So Propper tried to arrange a trip to Venezuela, in order to get Bosch’s official testimony about the Novos’ involvement and to procure hard evidence that Guillermo had traveled through the country. To Propper’s increasing frustration, though, Venezuelan officials, who now had Bosch in custody, stonewalled him for months, refusing to permit him to meet with Bosch.

Finally, in March 1977, after exhausting legal negotiations with the Venezuelans, Propper was granted permission to travel secretly to Caracas, but he was still denied a meeting with Bosch. He spoke with a DISIP official who said he had personally met Novo and Suarez, who were with Bosch in Caracas in 1974. Back in the U.S., Propper, now surer than ever that Novo and Suarez were key to the case, now called Suarez to testify at the grand jury. Suarez refused to cooperate and was jailed for contempt. He would remain in prison for nearly a year, until late March 1978—the longest possible jail time for the violation.

Propper and Cornick also began to close in on Guillermo Novo. Armed with proof that Novo left the U.S. illegally—his parole agreement from the attempted bombing in Montreal in 1967 forbade him from traveling outside the country—Propper arranged for a hearing on Novo’s parole violation in late June 1977. When the day came, Novo failed to appear, becoming a fugitive. It was a disastrous development for Propper, who’d finally caught Novo in a bind and planned to use Novo’s precarious legal situation to pressure him into talking. Now the man had disappeared entirely.

But other members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement did start talking—even bragging—to their associates about their exploits. Ricardo Canete was a small-time criminal in Union City with ties to the CNM. In the spring of 1977, Canete was caught counterfeiting U.S. currency and admitted that he had also provided false IDs to CNM members after the Letelier bombing. Canete, pressured into informing for the FBI, relayed conversations he’d had with two CNM members—a man named Alvin Ross, who told Canete he’d helped build the bomb that killed Letelier, and another named Virgilio Paz, who admitted that he’d taken part in the killing.

Canete feared for his safety. By sharing their exploits with him, Ross and Paz had purposefully brought him into the conspiracy. He could no longer claim that he merely provided these men with false documents; he was now an accessory after the fact to a double murder. One evening in March 1978, concerned that Canete would testify to a grand jury, Paz and Ross blindfolded him and drove to a windowless safe house. They took him to a room whose walls were lined with machine guns and threatened him and his family.

Of all the CNM members involved in the killing, Ross was the oldest. Paz, who was only 24 when the assassination took place, was almost two decades younger. But the two men had much in common. Paz, who was 15 when he fled Cuba in 1966, blamed Castro for the death of his father, a former officer in the Cuban military expelled after the revolution. Paz traveled with his family to Mexico City, en route to defecting to the United States. While in transit, Paz’s father contracted pneumonia and died. Settling in Union City—home to the second-largest Cuban population in the United States—Paz became involved with the CNM at a very young age. He was selected as the leader of its youth section, and was the director of its newsletter, El Joven Nationalista (The Young Nationalist).

Ross was a veteran and victim of America’s secret war against the Castro regime. Born to a British father and a Cuban mother, he fled the country soon after Castro’s final victory on New Year’s Day 1959. Like Jose Suarez and Luis Posada, he was recruited by the CIA to fight in the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. Indeed, like Posada, he was brought to Guatemala by the CIA and trained as an infantry captain in anticipation of the invasion. (He claimed to the FBI that in Guatemala someone from the U.S. embassy gave him a phosphorus weapon disguised as a pack of cigarettes.) Ross was taken captive during the botched invasion of April 1961, and was eventually released in a prisoner exchange.

Paz and Ross detested Letelier for his socialist political leanings, but their eagerness to take part in the assassination went beyond their desire to rid the world of one more leftist.

According to Cornick, the CNM “wanted recognition by the Chilean government. That was the important thing in becoming a legitimate force in exile. That’s what they wanted. And the Chileans agreed to provide training. So there was a quid pro quo in there.” The hope was that cooperation with the Pinochet government, which was seen as a beacon of anticommunism and a regional leader, would catapult the CNM to preeminence among the Cuban exile community.

For Cornick and Propper, though, proving that the CNM was working directly with the Chilean government—connecting the dots between the men in Union City and DINA—was an ongoing exercise in frustration.

They did have one possible if puzzling lead, concerning two DINA agents entering the country in late August 1976, about a month before the Letelier assassination. Despite its general reluctance to get involved in the investigation, the State Department handed over to Propper and Cornick photographs and background information on the DINA agents—Juan Williams and Alejandro Romeral—who’d entered the U.S. through Miami with official Chilean passports.

The memo from the State Department recounted a bizarre diplomatic incident in Paraguay a month earlier: At the request of DINA head Manuel Contreras, two Chilean men using those same names—Williams and Romeral—had also applied for visas to the United States. As part of their cover, “Williams” and “Romeral” were going to travel to the U.S. as Paraguayan nationals. When a Paraguayan official informed the American ambassador, George Landau, about Contreras’s request, Landau grew suspicious. Why would intelligence agents from Chile, a friendly government, need to travel to the U.S. with false Paraguayan passports? It was well known that spies from friendly regimes used false names when they traveled, but not under the aegis of another government. Notifying the CIA and State Department, the ambassador rescinded the visas for Romeral and Williams, but not before copying the photographs of both men from their passports.

Then, prior to Williams and Romeral entering the U.S. with Chilean passports in August, the Chilean government informed U.S. officials, including the CIA, that the two men were planning to visit the country. This was not exactly an advisable strategy to carry out an assassination, thought Cornick. If DINA was planning on using these men to kill Letelier, why would they alert the U.S. government to their presence on American soil after they’d already botched an attempt to shroud their trip in secrecy?

Cornick checked immigration records and found no mention of Romeral or Williams passing through customs. For months it remained a dead end, until July 1977, when FBI agents showed the passport pictures to Ricardo Canete, the counterfeiter turned informant, and a jailed Cuban militant named Rolando Otero. In front of Cornick, Otero identified Williams as a Chilean colonel he met in February 1976. Separately, Canete identified Williams as the blond Chilean colonel he had seen meeting with Guillermo Novo shortly before the assassination.

Propper and Cornick now knew that Williams had been in the country. They knew that he was a colonel in the Chilean intelligence services. And they had a witness placing him with Guillermo Novo right before Letelier was killed.

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Wanted poster for Virgilio Paz, 1978.

What they still didn’t have, though, was hard evidence that either man had entered the United States. So Cornick revisited the INS office in December 1977, this time with a team of FBI agents, scouring the facilities until they found documents showing that Romeral and Williams had indeed entered the country in August 1976. The problem now was that the documents also showed that both men exited the country on September 2, 1976, long before the assassination. If Williams left the U.S. then, how could he have met with Novo around the time of the killing?

Whatever the truth was about who these men were, and whether they were the same men in the strange Paraguay incident, Propper wanted to question “Williams” and “Romeral.” There was, however, the small matter of inducing the Chilean government to produce two primary suspects—covert operatives in that country’s intelligence agency—in a high-profile assassination. In February 1978, Propper sent a formal request to the Chilean government, imploring Chilean authorities to bring Romeral and Williams in for questioning regarding the Letelier bombing.

A month after Propper’s official request, the photos that he provided of Romeral and Williams were leaked by someone at the FBI to the Washington Star, a widely read daily newspaper at the time, and were subsequently published on the cover of the conservative Chilean daily El Mercurio. El Mercurio identified Williams—the “blond Chilean” who was not a Chilean at all. His real name was Michael Townley. Townley was the son of a Ford executive formerly based in Chile. He was born in Waterloo, Iowa. He was an American.

The release of the photos unleashed a torrent of information. An employee of the Organization of American States identified “Romeral” as Armando Fernandez, a captain in the Chilean army and DINA operative. Fernandez had a sister in New York. When agents questioned her, she confirmed that her brother had visited the U.S. in early September 1976.

As for Townley, FBI agents fanned out up and down the East Coast to question his friends, family, and business associates. They spoke to his father, Vernon, who now worked as a bank executive in South Florida. They visited an AAMCO auto-body shop in Miami, where Townley was employed as a mechanic in the early seventies, before the coup. And they stopped at a shady private-security equipment retailer, where, under the alias Kenneth Enyart, Townley appeared to have made a number of purchases of surveillance electronics on behalf of the Chilean government.

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July 1979 issue of El Nacionalista, publication of the Cuban Nationalist Movement. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

But it was in Tarrytown, New York, a picturesque commuter village on the Hudson River, where the pieces all came together. Townley had a sister living there. When agents showed her the picture of the man identified as “Williams” and asked if he was her brother, she said yes and that he had stopped in for a brief visit—the first in some time—in September 1976. When agents asked to look at her phone records, she obliged. There they found a series of phone calls from the house in Tarrytown to Union City on September 19, 1976—two days before the assassination. The number in Union City was the home phone of Guillermo Novo.

On March 19, 1978, six days after FBI agents questioned Townley’s sister, Propper and Cornick arrived in Chile looking to make a deal with the Chilean government to let them take Townley back to the United States. They believed he was still in the country, likely being hidden by allies in DINA.

After weeks of stalling on the part of the Chileans, and intense legal wrangling between the two governments, the Chileans finally gave up Townley, and Cornick escorted him back to the U.S.

Townley was 33 when he orchestrated the murder of Ronni Moffitt and Orlando Letelier. He had lived in Chile since he was 14, eventually marrying a Chilean woman, Mariana Callejas—who would also become a DINA agent—and settling in Santiago. He was harshly anticommunist, participating in numerous acts of sabotage and helping to set up a bomb-making factory for a neo-fascist group, Patria y Libertad (which had received funding from the CIA) in 1972. In the spring of 1973, Townley, pursued by the Allende government, was forced to flee the country.

After the coup in September 1973, though, Townley returned, and within six months he’d become an official agent of DINA. The agency sent him on several missions abroad—to Argentina in September 1974, where he helped arrange the fatal car bombing of the dissident Chilean general Carlos Prats and his wife; to Mexico in the spring of 1975, to try to assassinate a group of leftist Chilean politicians; to Rome in October 1975, where he masterminded a failed assassination attempt on Bernardo Leighton, an exiled Chilean politician and his wife (the would-be assassin succeeded in maiming both); and then to Washington, D.C., in September 1976, to kill the man who may have been the Pinochet regime’s most vocal critic. In just a few years, he had gone from being an agitator and provocateur to a state-sponsored assassin.

When Propper and Cornick brought Townley back to the United States, investigators had an important decision to make. They could prosecute him for the murder of Letelier and Moffitt, or they could pressure him into revealing details of the larger conspiracy. “We had good circumstantial evidence.” Cornick told me. “We did not have, in my opinion, a prosecutable case. So what we did was we made a deal with the worst possible guy. The government never does that. But without it, we had no case.”

In exchange for pleading guilty to the crime of conspiring to murder a former official—with a maximum sentence of just ten years, and with the first opportunity for parole after three years and four months—Townley agreed to divulge all the details of the killing. His deal stipulated that he was only required to provide information regarding violations of U.S. law or crimes committed in U.S. jurisdictions; that he could not be charged by American officials for crimes he committed abroad while working for DINA; and that, finally, once his prison sentence was completed, he would be permanently resettled in the United States under the witness-protection program. The agreement was signed on April 18, 1978.

In a conference room at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, Propper, Cornick, and other investigators sat rapt as Townley chain-smoked and paced the room, unfurling the details of the conspiracy. On behalf of DINA, Townley said, he and his wife, Mariana Callejas, traveled undercover to New Jersey in February 1975. There he met with Guillermo Novo, Jose Suarez, and another CNM member at a restaurant in Union City. Townley said that if the CNM would assist in several planned assassinations, Chile could provide material support and training to the group. Novo, noncommittal, arranged a meeting in Townley’s hotel room the next morning.

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Cuban Nationalist Movement logo. (Illustration: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

Before the agreed-upon meeting time, the three CNM members burst into Townley’s room. Suarez pointed a gun at him and his wife. The other men rifled through his belongings, accusing him of working for the CIA and searching for clues about his true identity and affiliations. Eventually, following a period of interrogation, the men relented, and a tenuous alliance, characterized from that moment on by mutual mistrust and paranoia, was formed. Soon after the meeting in Union City, Townley and Callejas traveled to Florida to meet another CNM member, Virgilio Paz, who would then join Townley on his missions to assassinate Chilean socialists in Mexico and to kill Bernardo Leighton in Rome.

In June 1976, Townley met his DINA supervisor on the outskirts of Santiago, where he was assigned the mission to assassinate Letelier. “Try to make it seem innocuous,” Townley recounted his boss saying. “But the important point is to get it done.”

Townley flew into JFK on September 9, 1976, ready to oversee the assassination. He would later reveal in letters from prison that he carried with him liquid sarin, a deadly nerve gas, secreted in a Chanel No. 5 bottle, hoping that he might get close enough to Letelier to use it. In the airport, Townley met a DINA agent (Armando Fernandez, the “Romeral” to Townley’s “Williams”) who had been conducting surveillance on Letelier. According to Townley, Fernandez handed him a document containing “a sketch of Letelier’s residence and employment,” as well as his license plate number and information about the kind of car he drove and the route he followed on his daily commute.

Townley rented a car and headed straight for Union City, where he met Novo and Suarez and requested their assistance in assassinating Letelier. A few days later CNM leadership agreed.

Using the sarin properly would be difficult, so they settled on a car bomb. According to Townley, on the evening of September 14, Guillermo Novo and Suarez gave him and Paz C-4 compound, TNT, and a detonating cord. Later that night, Townley and Paz drove from New Jersey to Washington, D.C. They spent two days trailing Letelier. On September 17, they went to Sears to purchase more parts for the explosive. Suarez arrived the next day, and the three men assembled the bomb that night and decided to immediately place it beneath Letelier’s car.

On the way to Letelier’s home, Townley recalled, he “was informed by Paz and Suarez that they expected me to place the device on the car.” They wanted to ensure that DINA—and Townley himself—were “directly tied” to the plot. After some difficulty, he attached the bomb to the car’s undercarriage.

Townley flew back to New York early the next morning and traveled to Tarrytown to visit his sister, where he made the calls—the vital evidence that the FBI would later discover—to Novo’s home in Union City. On September 19, he met with Novo one final time, then flew to Miami, where two days later he would learn on the radio that not only had Letelier been killed, but so had an American woman in the car with him. In Miami, he met Ignacio Novo for a celebratory drink and then boarded a plane back to Chile.

By April 1978, Guillermo Novo had been a fugitive for ten months, since the day he failed to appear in court on suspicion of violating his parole. The FBI hadn’t stopped pursuing him, though, and neither had police in Miami and New Jersey. So when an officer in a Miami restaurant spotted a man wearing a shaggy brown wig who nevertheless strongly resembled Novo, he was immediately suspicious. The suspicion intensified when he realized that sitting with the man he believed to be Novo was another man he was almost certain was Alvin Ross. A third, unknown man was with them. The police tailed the three men to a hotel near the airport, informing the FBI about their discovery. They were told to hold off on making an arrest—a warrant was being drawn up for Alvin Ross, whose house in Union City had recently been searched, yielding a number of explosives and bomb-making materials.

Ross’s warrant came in late the next morning, April 14. Under surveillance by the FBI and the Miami Police Department, the three men were seen loading large bags into two cars, a gray Lincoln Continental and a brown Chevy Nova. Ross got into the Lincoln and drove in one direction; Novo and the third man took the Chevy in another. A police car soon pulled right behind the Lincoln, forcing Ross to turn into an Exxon station. Ross got out of the car, identified himself, and was placed under arrest.

Agents searched the car and found a pound of cocaine, as well as a scale, a .38-caliber Derringer, a stainless-steel .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver with five rounds of ammunition, a loaded .45-caliber Detonics automatic with a clip containing six rounds, a loaded .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver with extra hollow-point rounds, a Gucci bag, a fedora, and birth certificates for a number of men. With a straight face, Ross said that he “did not know anything about the weapons and cocaine,” according to FBI reports. (Ignacio Novo’s wife later said it was powdered milk, part of a setup aimed at “discrediting the patriotic work being performed by the CNM.”) There was also a brown address book inside the trunk with the name Andreas Wilson in it, an alias of Michael Townley’s. Next to the name was Townley’s phone number in Chile.

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Mug shot of Alvin Ross, 1981. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

The agents also found two blank checks and a New York State driver’s license for a man named Manuel Menendez, the third man they had seen with Guillermo Novo the previous night and earlier that morning. Menendez was a known member of a drug-smuggling ring that, according to a Miami Police Department intelligence report, brought 120 kilos of Mexican brown heroin into Newark a month, “a central figure in a drug organization that was so huge that DEA could not effectively penetrate it.” A single recent bust of this organization had netted 45 pounds of heroin and $400,000 in cash.

FBI agents and Miami police officers tailed Menendez and Novo until they stopped at a restaurant at the Holiday Inn Airport Lakes. They sat for about ten minutes. Then they got up and walked into the hotel lobby. Menendez exited the building, heading for a car in the parking lot, where FBI agents immediately intercepted him. Seeing the agents enter the hotel lobby, Novo turned around and walked to an elevator. An agent hurried to the elevator and rode with him, and when Novo pushed the button for the eighth floor, the agent—in what must have been the longest elevator ride of Novo’s life—waited for him to get out. As soon as he did, the agent asked for his ID. He took out a Florida driver’s license in the name of Victor Triquero. This was not persuasive, and although Novo attempted to continue denying his true identity, he eventually gave in.

After Novo was taken to the local FBI office in Miami, agents went through the contents of the brown Chevrolet and found a locked black Skyway suitcase in the trunk. Menendez denied that it was his. Then they asked Novo about it and whether he knew the combination. “Try 207,” he said. When they opened it, they found a dozen clippings of recent newspaper articles from the Miami Herald and elsewhere about Michael Townley’s transfer from Chile to the United States and his plans to testify about the assassination of Orlando Letelier.

The grand jury indictment was handed down on August 1, 1978, more than 22 months after the investigation began. It charged seven men—Manuel Contreras, Pedro Espinoza, and Armando Fernandez in Chile, and Guillermo Novo, Alvin Ross, Jose Suarez, and Virgilio Paz in the United States—with the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. (Ignacio Novo was charged concurrently with perjury and failing to report a felony.) But only three of the seven were in custody: Guillermo Novo and Ross, and Ignacio Novo, who was arrested by authorities at his sister’s home in north Jersey. Virgilio Paz had disappeared, as had Jose Suarez, who had been in prison until the end of March 1978 for his refusal to testify in front of the grand jury. Released just a few short weeks before his indictment, he, too, had vanished.

The three Chilean DINA officials—Contreras, Espinoza, and Fernandez—were thousands of miles removed from American jurisdiction and would need to be extradited to stand trial, a remote possibility. The Chilean judicial system was thoroughly subordinated to the military regime itself, and judges were cowed. Following a formal request by U.S. officials for the three men in late September, Contreras, Espinoza, and Fernandez were brought before a Chilean judge in October 1978, where all three lied about their knowledge about the crime. A wave of bombings, widely seen as a warning against pursuing the case too far, shook Chile. The home of the chief justice of the Chilean Supreme Court was bombed. Then the home of the judge investigating that bombing was bombed. The Chilean Supreme Court formally denied the extradition request.

On January 9, 1979, the trial commenced in Washington, D.C., under judge Barrington Parker. The level of security was extremely tight: Judge Parker, Assistant U.S. Attorney Propper, and at least one FBI agent had been threatened. A man had stalked an agent’s fiancée, warning her to dissuade him from pursuing the case. Once, when the judge temporarily retreated to his chambers, the Novo brothers and Ross began to viciously harangue Michael Townley, who was then in the courtroom, in Spanish, calling him a “traitor,” a “faggot,” and a “son of a whore.” Supporters of the defendants were bused down from New Jersey, lending an air of menace to the proceedings. “Someone should cut out your tongue!” yelled a Cuban woman in the gallery to Townley.

Michael Townley, now the government’s star witness, patiently recounted the whole plot on the stand. The prosecution’s case depended on making him believable. But FBI agents and prosecutors knew that his testimony alone might be insufficient, since the defense would attempt to paint Townley as unreliable—he was, by his own admission, an assassin and spy in the employ of a foreign government. So they had to provide corroborating evidence.

“An idea began to creep into my mind,” Cornick told me. He approached some of his colleagues with an audacious plan: “I said, ‘Suppose we built another bomb, just exactly like the first one. And suppose we got another car and blew that thing up. Would we get the same results?” If the two cars looked similar, argued Cornick, it would prove that Townley was the maker of the original bomb and therefore establish his reliability as a witness. Cornick’s bosses were incredulous about the idea—he had to convince them of the wisdom of allowing a confessed murderer, who also happened to be an explosives expert, to build a bomb on the government’s dollar. They had to take the request for approval, which they eventually received, all the way up to the deputy director.

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Aftermath of controlled FBI bombing, 1979. (Photo: Courtesy of Carter Cornick)

Cornick then called an FBI agent in Detroit and asked him to get in touch with General Motors and see if they could buy a car to blow up. It turned out GM had exactly the model and color Cornick was looking for. They took Townley out of prison, chaperoned by U.S. marshals, and visited every place he patronized while making the bomb—one of which was a Radio Shack right behind FBI headquarters. Townley then built a replica of the first bomb, and they attached it to the car and detonated it in an FBI training center in Quantico. As the smoke cleared, Cornick looked at Townley. He had turned “white as a lampshade,” Cornick said. Propper was also watching him. “I’ll never forget the look on his face,” recalled Propper. “Like, ‘Oh, my God, I did that.’ He looked sick, like he realized what that could have done to somebody.”

When I visited him at his home, Cornick brought out a framed set of pictures to show me. On the left side of the frame were photos of Letelier’s car. On the right were photos from the exact same angles, but of the test car. They looked identical: crumpled, burned, rent in the same places. “When I saw the car,” said Cornick, “I was just dumbstruck. We were all dumbstruck, those of us who had been at the crime scene.”

The trial lasted five weeks. The evidence was overwhelming. In prison, Guillermo Novo and Ross had been engaging in loose talk about their role in the Letelier killing, and the CNM’s activities more broadly, and admitted their involvement to fellow inmates, who became witnesses for the government.

But it was Townley’s testimony that made the case. When the jury went into deliberations, they asked for two items: the telephone receipts indicating when Townley had called Novo from his sister’s home in Tarrytown, and the pictures of the two destroyed cars. They found the defendants guilty on all counts. Guillermo Novo and Ross were each sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. Ignacio Novo was sentenced to eight years in prison, with the potential for parole after 32 months.

Finally victorious after a multiyear odyssey, FBI agents and prosecutors began saying their goodbyes. They ran into the lawyers for the defense, who, according to Cornick, were “as good as it got.” Exchanging pleasantries and shaking hands, the Cubans’ lead attorney turned to Cornick and smiled. “You got it all right,” he said, “except for one thing.”

“What he meant was who pushed the button,” Cornick said to me. “I though it was Suarez. It was Paz.”

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Protesting the jailing of Guillermo Novo, New York City, 1979. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

Virgilio Paz woke up the morning of April 14, 1978, ready for a normal day at the car dealership where he worked. Leaving his apartment, he realized that he was low on cigarettes, so he decided to stop at a convenience store located at the corner of 48th Street and Bergenline Avenue in Union City. He double-parked his car and walked into the store, making small talk with the shop’s owner.

On the front page of the newspaper, kept on a small bench by the shop’s window, The New York Times was reporting that Michael Townley had been deported to the United States. Paz bought the paper, rushed home, and handed it to his wife. He knew immediately that Townley would talk. He gathered clothing, papers, money. He phoned a CNM sympathizer and asked him to call his workplace and tell his bosses that he was ill. He told his friend that he would need a ride out of town. That he would fill him in on the way. And then he was gone.

The Chileans and Cubans who perpetrated the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt believed that they were carrying on a proud legacy of resistance to tyranny; that the revolution that shook Russia in 1917 only presaged further horrors elsewhere; and that the paramount lesson of the 20th century was not found at Auschwitz in 1945 but in Spain in 1936. Augusto Pinochet even viewed himself as a latter-day Francisco Franco.

Through DINA, the Chileans formed alliances with like-minded organizations abroad: French and Italian neo-fascists, Corsican criminal syndicates, even German crypto-Nazis now living in Chile. (Colonia Dignidad, a German commune in rural Chile founded by the serial child molester and ex-Nazi Paul Schafer, was used by DINA as a detention and torture center. Schafer connected DINA agents to ex-Nazis working in West German intelligence in order to hunt down Chilean dissidents in Europe.)

This sense of existential threat was shared by many in the Cuban exile community in the United States. It was also largely ignored by U.S. law enforcement officials, considered a matter of “local interest” reflecting narrowly provincial Cuban concerns.

The misunderstanding on the part of the Americans approached a type of willful myopia. An article from the April 4, 1978, edition of the Miami Herald (“Home Held Bomb Gear, FBI Says”) describes the electronic circuit boards found in Alvin Ross’s home in Union City. Accompanying the article is not a picture of Ross but of Guillermo Novo, walking out of a courthouse in a light-colored suit and open-necked shirt. Facing the camera, his right hand is raised. His pointer and middle finger are forming a V. Below the picture is the caption: “Guillermo Novo Flashes Peace Sign.” This was an egregious misreading of the situation.

Victory, not peace, was the organizing principle of the Cuban Nationalist Movement and its fellow travelers, and victory could only be achieved through a war waged “throughout the roads of the world.” La lucha—the struggle, the fight—could know no bounds. The question was, who was prosecuting that fight, and how, and with whose support?

It’s well documented, of course, that the U.S. government, largely through the CIA, long supported anti-communist activities throughout Latin America. But the Americans’ relationship to the individuals and terrorist groups and repressive regimes that carried out those activities—as well as the relationships of all those entities to each other—were often opaque, at best, and thick with suggestion.

Take those between the 2506 Brigade (composed of veterans of the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion), the Cuban Nationalist Movement, and the Chilean government. In April 1975, the 2506 Brigade bestowed its first annual Freedom Award to General Augusto Pinochet. In December of that year, exiled Cuban leaders in Union City held a meeting attended by over 2,000 people in support of the Chilean junta.

In late April 1978, the lawyer for Guillermo Novo and Alvin Ross said that he was no longer representing them and that the 2506 Brigade would be covering their legal fees. A 2506 Brigade manual detailing surveillance methods, as well as bomb-making techniques, was recovered from Ross’s apartment (he, too, was a Bay of Pigs veteran trained by the CIA in Guatemala) after his arrest. These instructions included guidance on the proper use of TNT, C-4, and plastic detonating caps, all of which were used in the bomb that eventually killed Letelier and Moffitt.  

Leading up to the trial, the president of the 2506 Brigade wrote to major New York newspapers, declaring that the charges against the Novos and Ross were totally false and that their indictment was a bald attempt to persecute “Cuban Freedom Fighters.” A local merchant association sponsored a rally in Union City to protest the Novos’ and Ross’s jailing, and there were subsequent rallies held in Manhattan. On the day the trial began in January 1979, members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement walked up and down Berganline Avenue in Union City, intimidating shopkeepers into closing their stores to show solidarity with the jailed men.

These self-declared freedom fighters also unleashed a wave of terror within the U.S., the country that had given them refuge. Over a 48-hour period in December 1975, the city of Miami was shaken by thirteen separate bombings. In September 1978, the Cuban National Movement, under the nom de guerre Omega 7, bombed the Cuban Mission in New York City. The following month, it bombed a store across from Madison Square Garden and the offices of a Spanish-language newspaper in Manhattan. On March 25, 1979, bombs went off at John F. Kennedy Airport, at a pharmacy in Union City, and at a social service agency for Cuban refugees in Weehawken, New Jersey. These were followed by the bombings of the Cuban Mission in Washington, D.C., a cigar factory in Miami, and a travel agency in Puerto Rico in July. Between 1975 and 1983, Omega 7 carried out over 45 bombings in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and at least four assassinations, including a Cuban diplomat who was gunned down in his car in Queens on September 11, 1980. This is an American reality nearly impossible to fathom today.

On the morning of October 3, 1979, Hernan Cubillos, the Chilean foreign minister, entered the ultra-exclusive River Club in Midtown Manhattan and sat down for breakfast with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Under Nixon, Kissinger had overseen the campaign to destabilize Allende’s Chile and bring the military to power in September 1973.

By late ’79, though, relations between the United States and Chile had grown much more strained. Two days before this breakfast, the Chilean Supreme Court had rejected the U.S.’s extradition request for Manuel Contreras, Pedro Espinoza, and Armando Fernandez, and had ordered them freed from the military hospital they were being held in. The State Department howled in protest. Many on the left in America demanded that the Carter administration sever all diplomatic ties with the Pinochet government and institute punitive sanctions against the regime.

The contents of the conversation between Kissinger and Cubillos, which I discovered in Cubillos’s personal papers, have never before been made public. According to Cubillos, who sent a classified telegram to the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs summarizing his meeting, Kissinger had “harsh” words for Carter’s policy of encouraging democratization in Latin America. “What do we gain,” Cubillos reported Kissinger saying, “in replacing the military if it’s going to be left in the hands of the communists?” He added that the current administration’s treatment of the Pinochet regime was a “disgrace.”

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A never before publicized account of a conversation between Henry Kissinger and the Chilean foreign minister Hernan Cubillos. “When I mentioned the Letelier case and indicated our puzzlement at the fact that the United States did not respect Latin America’s legal institutions, he admitted we were right: that the Chilean legal decision was correct, but that this was not a legal problem so much as a political one. “It needs to be managed,” he said, “with political judgment.” Apologizing for his frankness, he said this was a bad case for us, and had been badly managed politically. He added that his only advice was that we treat the current United States administration with “brutality.” He suggested “this is the only language they understand.” He repeated this same idea several times during the conversation. He later said we should make our positions public, and move forward decisively.”

Kissinger also disparaged a number of high-level State Department employees—undersecretary Patt Derian was “stupid”; assistant secretary Viron Vaky was a “fanatic,” a “very dangerous element”—and gave advice on how Chile’s military regime could improve its image in Washington. He promised to speak on behalf of Cubillos with Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. (“If he worked with me he would be a good element, but I don’t trust him by himself,” Kissinger said.) He advised Cubillos to try lobbying senator Howard Baker and to not spend much time on senator Jesse Helms. (Helms was too far to the right for his opinions to be useful in swaying public and political opinion.) He gave Cubillos the names of figures at prominent think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Institute for Strategic Studies, and the American Enterprise Institute.

Cubillos asked about how the Chilean government should handle the ongoing Letelier case. It was a difficult question to answer, Kissinger said, because “the Carter administration is making enemies of its friends, and making friends with all its enemies.” He told Cubillos that the decision by the Chilean Supreme Court to deny the extradition request was correct. The Letelier case was “not a judicial problem, but a political one.” And “‘it needs to be managed,’ Kissinger said, ‘with political judgment.’”

The next administration will very likely be a Republican one, Kissinger said. According to Cubillos, he then used the idiomatic Spanish to say, “Until then, you will have to amarrar los pantalones”—resort to tough measures. “His only advice,” noted Cubillos, was to treat the Carter administration “with brutality.”

“This is the only language that they understand,” said Kissinger.

According to Cubillos, Kissinger returned to this idea “numerous times” over the course of their breakfast, which took place two days after Chile had denied the U.S. government’s extradition request for three men charged with murdering a former diplomat, and an American citizen, in the heart of Washington.

On September 15, 1980, the D.C. appellate court reversed the verdict against Guillermo and Ignacio Novo and Alvin Ross. There would have to be a retrial because some of the government’s evidence had now been deemed inadmissible. The defendants had talked loosely while in prison about their role in the bombing, including to government informants. But when those admissions of guilt were used in the trial, the appeals court ruled them “deliberately elicited.”

Propper calls the appeals court’s ruling a “horrible decision.” The anger rises in his voice even now as he speaks of it. “The case would never be reversed today,” he told me. “It was a very liberal court that came up with a theory [about the use of informants] that I think is completely bogus.” He worked on the case for years, solved it, and brought at least some of the perpetrators to justice—only to be defeated on technicalities. Still, the prosecution had an avenue for legal recourse: the appellate court’s decision could be brought before the Supreme Court on appeal. Propper, who was now in private practice, lobbied the solicitor general’s office to take the case.

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Celebrating the acquittal in Union City, New Jersey, May 1981. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

But the politics of the case had changed, as had the country’s priorities. Carter, who had made human rights a cornerstone of his administration’s foreign policy, had given way to Reagan—whose election caused the Chilean military to “dance in the streets,” according to the U.S. ambassador there. And the new administration, pursuing a policy of aggressive anticommunism, treated the Chilean military dictatorship with forbearance, even admiration.

Bob Steven, the State Department official who’d been based in Santiago, was now working at the department’s Office of Humanitarian Affairs in Washington. Steven recalled a closed-door conversation he had with his then superior, Elliott Abrams, in which he brought up Letelier. “I just mentioned Orlando Letelier and the case and how it had affected and complicated the relationships we were having with Chile,” Steven recalled. Abrams looked at him, he said, and simply commented, “‘Wasn’t he some kind of a communist?’ In the context of the conversation we were having, I interpreted it, and I think correctly, as saying, ‘What difference did it make if he got assassinated? He probably had it coming.’”  

Elsewhere, the center was not holding: In Iran, where a revolutionary Islamic regime had overthrown the shah and upended America’s entire strategic calculus in the region; in Afghanistan, where a group of mujahideen had launched a holy war (with CIA backing) against the Soviet empire; and in El Salvador, where a ruthless oligarchy (supported by the U.S.) had suppressed a left-leaning opposition demanding land reforms, sparking a civil war that went on to kill 70,000. Looking out on a world loosed by anarchy, U.S. officials saw countries like Chile as potential stabilizers, perhaps a little impertinent at times, but an integral part of the anticommunist firmament nonetheless.

The solicitor general’s office declined to appeal. For Propper, this was much worse than the original reversal—“I was appalled,” he told me—because it meant that the Justice Department was letting the case die. Pleading with officials in the department, he reminded them that the Letelier case had involved a spectacular act of terrorism perpetrated on the streets of Washington, D.C., and that it led to a multiyear criminal investigation with many international ramifications. “I said, ‘Guys, this was the biggest criminal case in the country at the time.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, but we have a lot of issues to look at up there and this particular issue is not a big one.’” To this day, Propper is convinced that if the Supreme Court had taken the case, it would have reversed the appellate court’s ruling.

And so, in early May 1981, the second federal trial of Alvin Ross and Guillermo and Ignacio Novo began. By the end of that month, they were acquitted on all counts related to the murders.

In one final strange turn of events, in May 1983, Michael Townley was paroled from prison, after serving a mere 62 months. Eugene Propper told me something that had never been reported before, that “some prison official or trustee or someone” had mistakenly revealed Townley’s identity as a material witness for the government, thus putting his life in danger, so Townley had to be whisked away early into witness protection.

By the mid-1980s, then, not a single man named in the original indictment for the murders of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, one of the most high profile acts of terrorism ever perpetrated in America, was in prison. Jose Suarez and Virgilio Paz were still at large. The Novo brothers and Alvin Ross had been released on appeal and acquitted. Michael Townley was living a new life under U.S. government protection. Manuel Contreras, Pedro Espinoza, and Armando Fernandez were in Chile, protected by the Pinochet government.

These dynamics all changed with a single phone call. In early January 1986, U.S. attorney Larry Barcella received an urgent message from Alfredo Etcheberry, a prominent Chilean lawyer employed by the U.S. government to handle extradition requests and other legal matters regarding the Letelier case. Etcheberry was calling about Armando Fernandez, the DINA agent who had tailed Letelier in the weeks leading up to the assassination. Through an intermediary—Federico Willoughby, Pinochet’s former press secretary—Fernandez had reached out to Etcheberry. Fernandez said he wanted to change his relationship with the United States; he was tired of living under a cloud of suspicion and wanted to be able to travel freely throughout North America and Europe. He said what he wanted, most of all, was to “clear his name,” which had been besmirched by his association with the Letelier case. He wanted to defect. In exchange, he was willing to provide testimony about Contreras’s and Espinoza’s—and perhaps even Pinochet’s—foreknowledge of the killings, and about the subsequent cover-up.

For Barcella, Fernandez’s account of the assassination was “light years beyond anything” any Chilean had previously admitted. Though as deputy chief of mission George Jones, who was stationed in Santiago at the time, recalled: “We had no way of knowing if this was a setup or what it was … there were all kinds of problems.” Jones said there was intense skepticism about whether anything could ultimately be done. “How on earth is this guy going to be gotten out of Chile?” he said. “Being an army officer, is he going to walk up to the airport and fly to the United States? That is not at all likely.” (Active-duty military officers required special permission from their commanders to leave Chile. According to Fernandez, a plane was once forced to return to Chile in mid-flight because there was suspicion that he was on it.) There was also the question of what guarantees Fernandez would demand from the U.S. government.

Still, U.S. officials were enthusiastic about pursuing Fernandez. It was now Reagan’s second term, and human rights had become a more explicit part of the administration’s foreign policy. The U.S. had begun to distance itself somewhat from the Pinochet regime. In fact, the CIA had recently launched a formal inquiry to determine whether Pinochet was himself responsible for the killings. (The 1987 CIA report, the existence of which was kept secret until October 2015, strongly concluded that Pinochet was culpable. The report itself remains classified, but a memo to Reagan from secretary of state George Schulz, who read the report, states that the CIA has “convincing evidence that President Pinochet personally ordered [Contreras] to carry out the murders.” Schulz’s memo also concludes that “Pinochet decided to stonewall on the U.S. investigation to hide his involvement” and continues to do so, including through the possible “elimination of [Contreras,] his former intelligence chief.”)

In order to communicate without drawing attention to their negotiations, U.S. officials and Fernandez’s handlers in Chile developed an ingenious solution. Fernandez had a sister who lived in New York, and she would serve, along with an American lawyer, Axel Kleiboemer, as his emissary to U.S. officials. But first they needed to be completely apprised of what Fernandez knew about the murders and what kind of deal he was willing to take.

In March 1986, Fernandez wrote his sister a letter, which was passed discreetly out of the country in a classified diplomatic pouch. The letter instructed Fernandez’s sister to call him and announce that she was thinking of taking a trip to Chile to visit family. In Chile, Fernandez would relay all the pertinent information about the case to his sister, along with his conditions. She would then meet with U.S. officials in New York. She made the trip in mid-April, and soon thereafter the settled on the general contours of the deal.

State Department officials realized, though, that they couldn’t rely on intermediaries to conduct the complex negotiations still to come. In Santiago, Deputy Chief of Mission Jones decided to arrange a secret face-to-face meeting with Fernandez. As Jones recalled, “The ambassador … didn’t want anybody else at the embassy, except for the station chief, to know anything about this. … We were so concerned that if somehow word got out, Fernandez would disappear into a cell and never be seen again until you heard the noise of the firing squad.”

Jones arranged for the meeting to take place at the apartment of an embassy secretary, whose flat was unlikely to be bugged. On the afternoon of the rendezvous, he abruptly dismissed his driver and bodyguard. “I said, ‘That’s all for today. Nothing else on the schedule.’ They thought it was very peculiar that I was home at that hour of the afternoon and peculiar that I wasn’t going anywhere else.” As soon as the men were out of sight, Jones grabbed a bottle of Scotch and hailed a taxi to meet Fernandez, where they began to work out the logistics of a further meeting to take place outside Chile, in Buenos Aires.

“We were so concerned that if somehow word got out, Fernandez would disappear into a cell and never be seen again until you heard the noise of the firing squad.”

Jones informed Fernandez that his contact there was going to be CIA. The agent at the rendezvous point would have a rolled-up magazine next to him. Jones also gave Fernandez a “contact phrase” so Fernandez could be sure of the agent’s identity. As the meeting date neared, though, Fernandez balked, worried that it was too dangerous to leave the country unless it was for the last time.

On January 14, 1987, after more than a year of planning, Fernandez finally met with a group of senior representatives of the State Department, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and FBI at an empty apartment leased by the embassy commissary. (Because of fears that Cornick would be recognized in Santiago, he joined a secondary team operating out of Buenos Aires.) U.S. officials arrived in Santiago with a cover story about needing to interview a State Department employee. Fernandez’s American lawyer, Axel Kleiboemer, flew in for a Chilean “vacation.” It was agreed at that meeting that Fernandez would flee Chile for Brazil before making his way to the States. “The CIA station had checked and found out that his name wasn’t in the Chilean lookout book,” recalls Jones, meaning he wasn’t on any kind of airport watch list. “They had someone who had access to the airport computers and established that as near as they could tell, if Fernandez tried to leave, his name wasn’t going to come up on any kind of screen. So he decided he was prepared to risk it.”

Over the next few days, U.S. officials, along with Fernandez and his representatives, moved from safe house to safe house, negotiating the final details (among them that a female agent meet Fernandez at the airport in Rio to make it seem as if he had a Brazilian love interest). Finally, during a 2 a.m. car ride through Santiago—they had run out of safe houses—Kleiboemer told the Americans that they had a deal, conveying a message from Fernandez: “I will be in Rio Thursday. Or I’ll be dead.”

On January 22, Fernandez boarded a Santiago-to-Rio flight undetected. He was met in Rio by a team of FBI agents and State and Justice Department officials. Kleiboemer warned Fernandez that the lead U.S. attorney there, David Geneson, “hated” Fernandez. “He wants to put you in jail for the rest of your life,” Kleiboemer said. “If he catches you lying, that’s where you’ll be. So tell the truth. Anything you say will be tested by polygraph.” The Americans interrogated Fernandez for three days and subjected him to repeated polygraph tests that lasted up to ten hours at a time. Reporting back to Washington, the Rio team bragged that interrogators had “done a splendid job of breaking down Fernandez’s defenses.”

Fernandez admitted to conducting surveillance on Letelier in September 1976. He said that Contreras and Espinoza had overseen the operation, and that Pinochet himself had advance knowledge of the killing. He also said that he had been ordered by his military superiors to lie to U.S. investigators. He would not, however, admit to knowing in advance of the mission’s ultimate objective—the assassination of Orlando Letelier. (Fernandez claimed that he was told his mission was simply to surveil Letelier, since Letelier was suspected of attempting to set up a government-in-exile. It was only later, he said, two or three years after the killing, that Contreras told him that Pinochet had ordered the killing.) For Larry Barcella, who knew the case better than anyone still working in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, this was, “of course, a lie.” Barcella’s skepticism was borne out by the polygraphs, which agents said found “consistent signs of deception in Fernandez’s disclaimers.”

But the political value of Fernandez’s testimony—it allowed U.S. officials to pressure Chile for the extradition of Contreras and Espinoza, to formally request civil damages on behalf of the Letelier and Moffitt families, and to demonstrate American resolve against terrorism—outweighed the legal or moral ambiguities. Fernandez continued to deny advance knowledge, and he provided just enough cover (he was never made aware of the plans, he claimed, but he “supposed” that’s what the mission could be all about) for officials to maintain the fiction. On Wednesday, February 4, Fernandez arrived in the United States. He agreed to plead guilty to one count of accessory after the fact, with a maximum sentence of seven years.

He served seven months. He was a free man in America, living under witness protection, by the end of the year.

The story fed to the press upon Fernandez’s arrival was that he felt dishonored and mistreated by the Chilean regime, that he had a guilty conscience, that he wanted to do something to make his dead father proud. It was not that Fernandez was already wanted by Argentinean authorities in connection with the 1974 assassination of a dissident Chilean general; or that by 1987 he had publicly admitted his prior membership in a military squad known as the Caravan of Death, which was accused of a series of prisoner massacres in northern Chile in 1973; or that it was clear by then that Chile was slowly transitioning away from military dictatorship.

No one discussed that Fernandez had received intelligence training at Fort Gulick, a U.S. military facility in the Panama Canal Zone, which meant that the very skills he had employed in the plot to assassinate Letelier may have been taught to him by the American government. The story was that he had fled under duress, not that he had been aided by Federico Willoughby, Pinochet’s former press secretary, who happened to be an antagonist of Manuel Contreras. The story was definitely not that, as early as May 1979, Willoughby had traveled secretly to Washington with a message: in exchange for prosecutors dropping the charges against Fernandez and Espinoza, Pinochet would be willing to hand over Contreras. And it was most certainly not that, by 1979, Pinochet believed conflict with Contreras, who was openly provoking and challenging him, was inevitable. The story was justice, penance, and progress, not calculation, interest, and survival.

On April 12, 1990, almost exactly a month after Chile returned to civilian rule, FBI agents and police in St. Petersburg, Florida, surrounded a modest home on a quiet residential street. Then they telephoned the house and told Jose Suarez to come out.

Suarez, who had been a fugitive for 12 years, was living an anonymous life with his young wife and infant child. FBI officials said they had received the information that led to his arrest in early April. His wife claimed that they had lived in Florida for seven years.

Less than a week later, Suarez’s lawyers entered a not-guilty plea before a U.S. magistrate in Washington, D.C. A trial date was set for September 10, 1990. Over a decade had passed between the original indictment and Suarez’s capture.

A Jose Dionisio Suarez Legal Defense Fund quickly materialized in Miami, Tampa, West Palm Beach, New Jersey, and California. Four Miami radio stations held a marathon fundraiser on behalf of the defendant. Guillermo Novo appeared as a special on-air guest, soliciting aid for his erstwhile comrade in the Cuban Nationalist Movement.

Prosecutors brought Michael Townley, who was still living under witness protection, in for questioning. The case against Suarez was utterly dependent on Townley’s testimony. But Townley’s relationship with the U.S. marshals responsible for his protection was “strained,” remembers Eric Dubelier, one of the U.S. attorneys overseeing the case, and he was making increasingly unreasonable demands in exchange for his testimony.

According to a number of declassified documents, Townley said he was unwilling to testify at all unless the U.S. government promised to shield him from potential extradition to Chile, Argentina, and Italy. He had good reason to fear for his freedom. In fact, on the very day Townley was paroled in the U.S. in 1983, Argentina formally requested his extradition in connection with his role in the 1974 car bombing of the dissident Chilean general Carols Prats, which killed Prats and his wife. At the time, a U.S. attorney found that Townley’s prior plea deal, which guaranteed protection against further prosecution within the U.S., implied protection from such requests. Now Townley was scared that what he revealed on the stand could subject him to further legal action.

Townley’s conditions riled officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government. The Department of Justice had never in its history agreed to protect the recipient of a plea deal from extradition to a country where the United States had a mutual extradition treaty in force. It could put the U.S. in violation of its international legal commitments and encourage other countries to deny American extradition requests. Nevertheless, senior officials in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Justice Department were willing to concede to Townley’s demands, given the import of the case and his centrality as a witness.

Officials in the State Department were not as pliant. They were upset by the original 1978 agreement with Townley (which had been drawn up without their input) and infuriated that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had not consulted with them now before assenting to Townley’s conditions. The matter traveled up the bureaucratic chain until, on August 28, 1990—less than two weeks before the trial date—deputy secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger wrote an extraordinary letter to attorney general Richard Thornburgh, registering “in the strongest possible terms” his “personal objection to the unilateral action taken by the U. S. Attorney.” In an earlier draft of the letter, he had said that he was “prepared to go on the record rejecting the assurance provided to Mr. Townley unless I receive a full explanation as to the basis for the actions in the case.”

Dubelier told me that he never expected there would be a plea. But on September 9, 1990, one day before the trial date, prosecutors announced that Jose Suarez had agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to murder a former official. As part of the deal, his wife would be protected from charges related to her harboring a fugitive. Suarez would serve no more than 12 years in federal prison.

With Suarez’s conviction, four of the five Cubans connected to the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt had seen their day in court. There was only one remaining fugitive, Virgilio Paz.

Paz heard the news while sitting in a liquor store parking lot in West Palm Beach. It was late February or early March 1991. His phone rang—a former member of the CNM, who knew Paz’s true identity, calling to say that America’s Most Wanted was going to air an episode devoted to Paz on April 19. His story would be broadcast into millions of homes. “What are you going to do?” asked the man from the CNM. “Why don’t you get the fuck out of there?”

Paz called his ex-wife and told her the news. On April 19, he took her and their children to a safe house nearby. They watched the program together there. It showed a picture of the two of them on their wedding day.

His family stayed in the safe house for a few days after the show aired. Paz slept at home, alone. But he went out in public all over West Palm Beach. He wanted to be arrested in public, he later wrote, “to avoid losing control of the situation,” fearing that if he did, “someone’s finger would slip on the trigger of an automatic weapon.”

On Monday, April 22, Paz prepared for work, assuming that he would be arrested that day. As the owner and operator of Greenheart Landscape Maintenance, he had several teams of workers on the job on a given day. He decided to supervise one of them in the field—something he rarely did—in Boca Raton, just to remain in public view. There was no sign that his identity had been revealed. Nothing. He retrieved his family from the safe house and brought them home.

The next morning, he surveyed the surrounding area for signs of police or the FBI. He took his son to school and headed to work. The offices of Greenheart Landscape Maintenance were located on Industrial Avenue in Boynton Beach. Paz knew that it was the worst possible location from which to escape—lined with storage facilities and ending in a cul-de-sac that abutted a canal. But he didn’t plan on running, in any case.

His instincts were right; this was where he would finally be apprehended. Before long he was surrounded by parked cars. Agents poured out of them, pointing their guns at him. A helicopter circled overhead, an armed FBI agent leaning out over one of its skis.

Paz, sitting behind the steering wheel, slowly reached his hands upward to the roof of the car. An agent walked up to Paz’s car, opened the door, and pointed a gun at his left ear. He pressed the gun firmly against Paz’s head and told him to hold the steering wheel tightly with his right hand, then to slowly reach around with his left to unbuckle his seatbelt. Paz complied, and the moment the belt came unsnapped, the agent pulled Paz out of the car and handcuffed him.

Paz’s time in South Florida had been remarkable for its unremarkableness. He was the picture of a solid citizen: a member of the Inter-American Business Association, and the Latin Chamber of Commerce in Palm Beach County, and the Cuban-American Club of West Palm Beach. He employed more than two dozen people at Greenheart Landscape Maintenance, which he’d owned since April 1986. Since 1980, he lived under the name Frank Baez, although he’d tried out other aliases, including, for a time, Ronaldo McDonaldo.

How could a man with such a high profile remain completely clandestine to his friends and neighbors, and to the community of expatriates and exiles of which he was a part? How many people knew about his past and countenanced the lie?

On September 12, 1991, Paz was given the same plea deal as Jose Suarez—a maximum sentence of 12 years for the crime of conspiracy to murder a foreign official. He called the murders a “horror” that changed his life forever. But during his arraignment he smiled and waved to the crowd of Cuban expats who’d gathered to support him at the court house in West Palm Beach. “Viva Cuba!” they cried.

Paz served a little less than seven years and was released in May 1998. Suarez was also freed around this time.

But neither was quite free yet. In 1996, the Republican Congress passed a law, signed by Bill Clinton, that subjected noncitizens, including legal permanent residents, convicted of violent crimes to be automatically deported. The day Paz and Suarez left prison, they both were taken into the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Services.

Like all Cubans in INS custody, their situation was unique. The United States and Cuba had no working extradition agreement. There was no way to process Cuban detainees and certainly no guarantee that the Castro regime would wish to repatriate them. The law required deportation, but there was nowhere to actually deport men like Paz and Suarez.

They found aid from the Cuban American National Foundation, the country’s most influential Cuban lobbying group. Under the tutelage of its founder, Jorge Mas Canosa, CANF became a bastion for anti-Castro hardliners. Mas himself fought in the Bay of Pigs and had an accommodating attitude toward the men on the extralegal fringes of the exile community.

CANF’s lawyers argued that Paz’s deportation—even if possible, which it was not—would violate the UN Convention Against Torture, since Paz would almost certainly be brutalized by the Castro regime.

In June 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the INS could not indefinitely hold detainees from countries with whom the United States lacked an extradition agreement. There were roughly 3,400 people eligible to be immediately freed by this decision, but attorney general John Ashcroft seemed determined to take advantage of a loophole stating that those detainees who were considered “dangerous criminal aliens” or “terrorists” were exempt from the ruling—that such men could, in fact, be held indefinitely. Those definitions proved broad enough that the vast majority of detainees remained in custody, though their connection to terrorist acts were questionable at best. By August 2001, only 300 detainees had in fact been released. One of the very first was Virgilio Paz.

CANF was deeply connected to local politicians, including two Cuban-American Republican members of Congress from South Florida, Lincoln Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. They, in turn, had important connections of their own, including Jeb Bush, then the state’s governor, who had a nuanced understanding of the truculent politics and fierce loyalties among South Florida’s anti-Castro Cuban community. In 1990, he successfully petitioned his father to free Orlando Bosch, widely considered responsible for the 1976 Cubana Airlines bombing that killed 73, among many other terrorist acts. (George H.W. Bush was intimately acquainted with the details of the Cubana bombing: it, like the Letelier killing, occurred when he was head of the CIA.)

According to the journalist Ann Louise Bardach, in 2001 Jeb Bush also successfully lobbied his brother to secure the release of Virgilio Paz and Jose Suarez. On August 14, 2001, Suarez walked out of an INS facility in Bradenton, Florida. “This is a fantastic day,” he said, “because I’m going to embrace my family and my children.” Less than a month later, the politics of terror in this country would shift seismically, but not before a few “men of action” in South Florida found themselves treated, yet again, to an especially soft landing.

For Michael Moffitt, the years following the assassination were unbearable. He was obsessed with the details of the bombing and became an insomniac and an alcoholic. He eventually put his life back together, remarried, and started a family. But over a decade after the bombing, he said that the smallest event—“a scene in a movie, a car, noise, a smell, dreams, or even a random image”—brought memories of the day rushing back. He obsessively checked his vehicle for hidden explosives, afraid to get in the car with his own family.

No one prosecuted for the Letelier and Moffitt murders served more than 12 years for the crime. Michael Townley and Armando Fernandez both presumably still reside in the United States under the witness protection program. Guillermo Novo, Jose Suarez, and Virgilio Paz all live freely today in South Florida. Alvin Ross lives in New Jersey. Ignacio Novo died in 2004. Guillermo Novo was arrested, along with Luis Posada, the Bay of Pigs veteran and co-mastermind, with Orlando Bosch, of the Air Cubana bombing, in Panama in 2000 for attempting to assassinate Fidel Castro. Posada and Novo were released under murky circumstances in 2004.

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 From left: Alvin Ross, Guillermo Novo, and Virgilio Paz in 2012. (Photo: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

These men still associate with one another. A 2012 photo, posted on an obscure website devoted to Cuban exile politics, shows Novo, Ross, and Paz together at a restaurant. Pictures from another such site show Suarez and Posada at an April 2015 meeting of militants in South Florida. Even more recent Facebook pictures show Paz and Suarez together.

Manuel Contreras and Pedro Espinoza, the two DINA masterminds behind the killings, have faced harder times. When Chile began its fragile transition back to democracy in 1990, civilian officials proved surprisingly dogged in their pursuit of justice. In 1991, both Contreras and Espinoza were sentenced to prison for crimes connected to the Letelier assassination. They were released in 2001. In 2005, they were incarcerated yet again, this time for much lengthier convictions. Contreras was sentenced to roughly 500 years in prison and died there in August 2015. Out of all the alleged perpetrators named in the 1978 indictment, it is the two men who stayed in Chile, who were never tried in America, who faced the most time in prison.

None of this is to minimize the effects of the FBI investigation. Manuel Contreras was removed from DINA—indeed, DINA was dissolved and entirely reorganized—because of American pressure. The day after Paz pleaded guilty in a D.C. court, a Supreme Court justice in Chile’s newly democratic government reopened the Letelier investigation. Nor were the effects limited to Chile.

“What the U.S. did in investigating this case has had enormous, enormous impact in Latin America,” John Dinges, an expert on Pinochet-era Chile, and the coauthor of Assassination on Embassy Row, a 1980 book about the Letelier killing, told me. “The beginning of the uncovering of all these human rights crimes—of Operation Condor, of the internal workings of the security services, all of that began with the FBI investigation. It was the first penetration of the interior workings of these intelligence forces. There’s a direct line between the FBI investigation and the enormous amount of information that we have now.”

The Letelier case also helped transform the way the FBI handles terrorism cases. It is hard to imagine this in the post-9/11 era, but terrorism was simply not a bureau priority in 1976, at least not like it is today. Much has changed since then. “You can call the Letelier case terrorism,” Propper remarked to me, “but it’s not terrorism like terrorism exists today. It was a foreign government deciding to get rid of one of its own citizens, and they were stupid enough to do it in the United States. There was a logic to what they did, even if it was a stupid logic. They weren’t planning to kill Ronni Moffitt. That was the Cubans, who didn’t care.”

The men who pushed the button almost certainly knew that the Moffitts were in the car. When Paz was released, he held his press conference at the CANF offices. He called the murders a “grave human error.” Sitting with his attorneys in August 2001, Suarez also said he regretted the bombing, “especially” the murder of Ronni Moffitt. Empathetic gestures of this sort can leave one legally vulnerable, however, and so they have to be carefully qualified. “He’s sorry in a humanitarian way,” Dario Diaz, one of Suarez’s attorneys, immediately stated to the Tampa Tribune. “The same way we’re sorry for Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandi.”

These expressions of remorse were feints, acts of performative contrition. The truth was, is, much more unyielding: “Now,” wrote Virgilio Paz on his Facebook page in April 2015, “looking back retrospectively after all those years, it’s worth asking ourselves: was it worth pursuing what we thought was our duty? Was it worth the risk and everything that we left behind? Was it worth giving up or losing our youth, families, and bringing suffering to our loved ones? Was it worth giving up the economic future that we could have achieved? Was it worth it? Yes, for me it was, because I think that we did what we thought was our duty as CUBANS.”

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Cartoon from La Nacionalista. From left: Ignacio Novo, Alvin Ross, and Guillermo Novo. (Illustration: Courtesy of latinamericanstudies.org)

On this point, at least one old “comrade” from the Cuban Nationalist Movement, Alvin Ross, agreed. “Si, Virgilio,” Ross replied to the Facebook post. “It was worth it, and it will be worth it till your last breath.”

Here it all was, alive as ever—Castro’s New Year’s Day revolution of 1959, CIA training camps in the jungles of Guatemala, blood of the patria soaking into the beach at the Bay of Pigs, jets thundering over the boulevards of Santiago, a car erupting in flames in Sheridan Circle, the bombs going off in American cities, month after month, for years, all in the name of la lucha, the struggle.

“Si, Virgilio,” Ross continued. “Tu lucha was worth it.”


A Note on Sources

In 2000, President Clinton ordered the release of thousands of Chile-related documents as part of what became known as the Chile Declassification Project. This includes “documents produced by the CIA, DOD, NARA, NSC, FBI, DOJ, and the Department of State.” In October 2015, President Obama supplemented this release with hundreds of new documents. Much of what appears in this article is the result of sifting through this trove.

I also interviewed a number of individuals associated with the case, though former government officials, as well as law enforcement agents, refused interview requests, often multiple times. Repeated requests for interviews with former members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement were similarly denied.

I am indebted to two books published in the 1980s, Assassination on Embassy Row, by John Dinges and Saul Landau, and Labyrinth, by Taylor Branch and Eugene Propper. Both books are key pieces of the historical record. I am also indebted to Without Fidel and Cuba Confidential, both by Ann Louise Bardach; The Pinochet File, by Peter Kornbluh; The Condor Years, by John Dinges; Legacy of Ashes, by Tim Weiner; and Miami, by Joan Didion.

Through the Library of Congress, I found the invaluable Oral History Interviews, conducted through the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. I also read many hundreds of pages of court documents, as well as newspaper and magazine articles, from 1973 to 2015, including from the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Tribune, New York Daily News, Hudson Dispatch, and Associated Press, as well as New York Magazine, among other sources. The nonprofit National Security Archive has done path-breaking work on Pinochet-era Chile, and many other countries and I benefitted greatly from their work.

I also conducted research at the Hoover Institute Library and Archives at Stanford University, where I found the George W. Landau Papers and Hernan Cubillos Salato Papers, which provided new and illuminating details about the case.


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