Letelier assassination

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Letelier assassination
Location Washington, D.C.
Date September 21, 1976
9:30 am (UTC-04:00)
Target Orlando Letelier
Attack type
car bombing
Deaths 2
Non-fatal injuries
Perpetrators DINA

The Letelier assassination refers to the September 21, 1976 car bombing, in Washington, D.C., of Orlando Letelier, a leading opponent of Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Letelier, who was living in exile in the United States, was killed along with his American assistant, Ronni Karpen Moffitt. The assassination was perpetrated by agents of the Chilean secret police (the DINA), and was one among many carried out as part of Operation Condor.


Letelier in 1976.

In 1971, Letelier was appointed ambassador to the United States by Salvador Allende, the socialist president of Chile.[1] Letelier had lived in Washington, D.C. during the 1960s and had supported Allende's campaign for the presidency. Allende believed Letelier's experience and connections in international banking would be highly beneficial to developing US–Chile diplomatic relations.[2] During 1973, Letelier served successively as Minister of Foreign Affairs, then Interior Minister, and, finally, Defense Minister. After the Chilean coup of 1973 that brought Augusto Pinochet to power, Letelier became the first member of the Allende administration to be arrested by the Chilean government and sent to a political prison in Tierra del Fuego.

He was held for 12 months in different concentration camps suffering severe torture: first at the Tacna Regiment, then at the Military Academy; later he was sent to a political prison for eight months in Dawson Island and from there he was transferred to the basement of the Air Force War Academy, and finally to the concentration camp of Ritoque, until international diplomatic pressure especially from Diego Arria, then Governor of the city of Caracas, Venezuela, and United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger[3] resulted in the sudden release of Letelier on the condition that he immediately leave Chile. He was told by the officer in charge of his release that "the arm of DINA is long, General Pinochet will not and does not tolerate activities against his government", a clear warning to Letelier that living outside of Chile wouldn't guarantee his safety.[4]

After his release in 1974, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he became a senior fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, an independent international policy studies think tank.[5] He plunged into writing, speaking, and lobbying the US Congress and European governments against Augusto Pinochet's regime, and soon he became the leading voice of the Chilean resistance, in the process preventing several loans (especially from Europe) from being awarded to the military government. He was described by his colleagues as being "the most respected and effective spokesman in the international campaign to condemn and isolate" Pinochet's dictatorship.[6] Letelier was assisted at the Institute for Policy Studies by Ronni Moffitt, a 25-year-old fundraiser who ran a "Music Carryout" program that produced musical instruments for the poor, and also campaigned for democracy in Chile.[7]

Letelier soon became a person of interest for Operation Condor, a campaign initiated by right-wing dictatorships in South America to gather intelligence on opposition movements and to assassinate the leaders of these movements. Former General and political figure Carlos Prats, who had become a vocal opponent of the Pinochet government,[8] was killed by a radio-controlled car bomb on September 30, 1974, in an assassination planned and executed by members of DINA.[9] Letelier's pro-democracy campaign and his vehement criticisms of Pinochet had been under watch by the Chilean government. Letelier became a target in DINA director Manuel Contreras' efforts to eliminate resistance to the Pinochet government.[10]

In October 1975, Letelier became the Director of Planning and Development for the International Political Economy Programme of the Transnational Institute, an international think tank for progressive politics affiliated with the Institute for Policy Studies. Through the institute's operations in the Netherlands, Letelier convinced the Dutch government not to invest US$63 million in the Chilean mining industry.[11][12] On September 10, 1976, the Chilean government revoked Letelier's Chilean citizenship. Pinochet signed a decree declaring that the former ambassador's citizenship be canceled for his interference "with normal financial support to Chile"[11] and his efforts "to hinder or prevent the investment of Dutch capital in Chile".[12] Later that day, in a speech he delivered at the Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden, Letelier proclaimed:

Today Pinochet has signed a decree in which it is said that I am deprived of my nationality. This is an important day for me. A dramatic day in my life in which the action of the fascist generals against me makes me feel more Chilean than ever. Because we are the true Chileans, in the tradition of O'Higgins, Balmaceda, Allende, Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Claudio Arrau and Victor Jara, and they—the fascists—are the enemies of Chile, the traitors who are selling our country to foreign investments. I was born a Chilean, I am a Chilean and I will die a Chilean. They were born traitors, they live as traitors and they will be known forever as fascist traitors.[13]


Ronni Moffitt, Orlando Letelier's assistant at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Orlando Letelier was traveling to work in Washington DC on September 21, 1976 with Ronni Moffitt (January 10, 1951 to September 21, 1976) and her husband of four months, Michael. Letelier was driving, while Moffitt was in the front passenger seat and Michael was in the rear behind his wife.[14] As they rounded Sheridan Circle in Embassy Row at 9:35 am EDT, an explosion erupted under the car, lifting it off the ground. When the car came to a halt after colliding with a Volkswagen illegally parked in front of the Irish embassy, Michael was able to escape from the rear end of the car by crawling out of the back window. He then saw his wife stumbling away from the car and, assuming that she was alright, went to assist Letelier, who was still in the driver seat, barely conscious and appearing to be in great pain. Letelier's head was rolling back and forth, his eyes moved slightly, and he muttered unintelligibly. Michael tried to remove Letelier from the car but was unable to do so despite the fact that much of Letelier's lower torso was blown away and his legs had been severed.

At that point, Michael noticed that Ronni had disappeared from view and, as the police began to arrive, he left Letelier and went across the street, where he found her lying on the ground being attended to by a doctor who happened to be driving by at the time of the explosion. She was bleeding heavily from her mouth.

Both Ronni Moffitt and Orlando Letelier were taken to the George Washington University Medical Center shortly thereafter. At the hospital, it was discovered Ronni's larynx and carotid artery had been severed by a piece of flying shrapnel. She drowned in her own blood some 45 minutes after Letelier's death, while Michael suffered only a minor head wound. Michael estimated the bomb was detonated at approximately 9:30 am; the medical examiner report set the time of Letelier's death at 9:50 am and Moffitt's at 10:37 am, the cause of death for both listed as explosion-incurred injuries due to a car bomb placed under the car on the driver's side.

Investigation and prosecution[edit]

Letelier and Moffitt Memorial on Sheridan Circle, Washington D.C.

Investigators initially determined that the explosion was caused by a plastic bomb, molded to concentrate the force of its blast into the driver seat. The bomb was attached by wires or magnets to the car's underside and blew a "circular hole, 2 to 2½ feet in diameter" in the driver's seat.[14] The bomb was not believed to have been controlled by a timing device or a remote-controlled detonator.[14]

In the days after the incident, spokespersons for the United States Department of State said the department "expresses its gravest concern about Dr. Orlando Letelier's death".[3] Due to the assassination of Prats and the attempted assassination of Bernardo Leighton, the incident was believed to have been the latest of a series of state-sponsored assassination attempts against Chilean political exiles.[3] A spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said that this was the first incident of violence against Chilean exiles on American soil, according to agency records.[3]

The FBI eventually were convinced that Michael Townley, a DINA US expatriate who had once worked for the CIA, had organized the assassination of Orlando Letelier. Townley and Armando Fernandez Larios, who was also implicated in the murder, had been given visas by President Jimmy Carter's administration's United States ambassador to Paraguay, Robert White, at the urging of the Paraguayan government despite their having false Paraguayan passports. State Department cables report that Pinochet personally called Paraguayan President Alfredo Stroessner in the summer of 1976 and asked that "cover" passports be issued under phony names to Michael V. Townley and Armando Fernandez Larios, Chilean military intelligence operatives who ultimately pleaded guilty to involvement in the plot and went to prison in the United States.[15]

The documents show that State Department officials realized almost immediately that the visas they had stamped in the men's passports had been falsely obtained. Those visas were quickly canceled, but Townley and Fernandez Larios still managed to enter the United States in August 1976 using false names on Chilean passports. The documents show that the State Department also discovered this, and notified the FBI.

In 1978, Chile agreed to extradite Townley to the United States. During his U.S. trial, Townley confessed that he had hired five anti-Castro Cuban exiles to booby-trap Letelier's car. According to Jean-Guy Allard, after consultations with the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations (CORU) leadership, including Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, those elected to carry out the murder were Cuban-Americans José Dionisio Suárez, Virgilio Paz Romero, Alvin Ross Díaz, and brothers Guillermo and Ignacio Novo Sampoll[1][2] . According to the Miami Herald, Luis Posada Carriles was at this meeting, which formalized details that led to Letelier's death and also the Cubana bombing two weeks later. Townley also agreed to provide evidence against these men in exchange for a deal that involved his pleading guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to commit murder and being given a ten-year sentence. His wife, Mariana Callejas, also agreed to testify in exchange for not being prosecuted.

On January 9, 1979, the trial of the Novo Sampoll brothers and Díaz began in Washington. General Pinochet refused to allow Romero and Suárez, who were DINA officers, to be extradited. All three were found guilty of murder. Guillermo Novo and Díaz were sentenced to life imprisonment. Ignacio Novo received eighty years. Soon after the trial, Townley was freed under the Witness Protection Program.

In 1987, Larios fled Chile with the assistance of the FBI, claiming he feared that Pinochet was planning to kill him because he refused to co-operate in cover-up activities related to the Letelier murder. On February 4, 1987, Larios pled guilty to one count of acting as an accessory to the murder. In exchange for the plea and information about the plot, the authorities dropped the charges.

Several other people were also prosecuted and convicted for the murder. Among them were General Manuel Contreras, former head of the DINA, and Brigadier Pedro Espinoza Bravo, also formerly of the DINA. Contreras and Espinoza were convicted in Chile on November 12, 1993, and sentenced to seven and six years of prison respectively.

Pinochet, who died on December 10, 2006, was never charged in relation to this case. Orlando Letelier's son, representative Juan Pablo Letelier, gave this testimony: "What I have said once and again because I was taught to say the truth is that there is no evidence whatsoever from the thousands of pages of the process that may allow to affirm that there was participation of the Chilean Army nor of its Commander in Chief (general Pinochet) in the assassination of Orlando Letelier" (El Mercurio, June 4, 1995).

Allegations of U.S. knowledge[edit]

Allegations of U.S. early knowledge of the Letelier assassination hinge on the communiqués of U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay, George Landau, with the State Department, and other U.S. government agencies. When Townley and his Chilean associate tried to obtain B-2 visas to the United States in Paraguay, Landau was told by Paraguayan intelligence that these Paraguayan subjects were to meet with General Vernon A. Walters in the United States, concerning CIA business. Landau was suspicious of this declaration, and cabled for more information. The B-2 visas were revoked by the State Department on August 9, 1976.[16] However, under the same names, two DINA agents used fraudulent Chilean passports to travel to the U.S. on diplomatic A-2 visas, in order to shadow Letelier.[16][17] Townley himself flew to the U.S. on a fraudulent Chilean passport and under another assumed name. Landau had made copies of the visa applications though, which later documented the relationship of Townley and DINA with the Paraguayan visa applications.

According to John Dinges, co-author of Assassination on Embassy Row, documents released in 1999 and 2000 establish that "the CIA had inside intelligence about the assassination alliance at least two months before Letelier was killed but failed to act to stop the plans." It also knew about an Uruguayan attempt to kill U.S. Congressman Edward Koch, which then-CIA director George H.W. Bush warned him about only after Orlando Letelier's murder [3] .

Kenneth Maxwell points out that U.S. policymakers were aware not only of Operation Condor in general, but in particular "that a Chilean assassination team had been planning to enter the United States." A month before the Letelier assassination, Kissinger ordered "that the Latin American rulers involved be informed that the 'assassination of subversives, politicians and prominent figures both within the national borders of certain Southern Cone countries and abroad ... would create a most serious moral and political problem." Maxwell wrote in his review of Peter Kornbluh's book, "This demarche was apparently not delivered: the U.S. embassy in Santiago demurred on the ground that to deliver such a strong rebuke would upset the dictator", and that, on September 20, 1976, the day before Letelier and Moffitt were killed, the State Department instructed the ambassadors to take no further action with regard to the Condor scheme. [Maxwell, 2004, 18].

On April 10, 2010, the Associated Press reported that a document discovered by the National Security Archive indicated that the State Department communique that was supposed to have gone out to the Chilean government warning against the assassinations had been blocked by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.[18]

The Briefcase Affair[edit]

Allegedly during the FBI investigation into Letelier's assassination, the contents of the briefcase he had with him were copied and leaked to op-ed columnists Rowland Evans and TV-host Robert Novak of the Washington Post before being returned to his widow. Allegedly the documents show that Letelier was in contact with the surviving political leadership of the various parties that made up the Popular Unity coalition exiled in East Berlin, who had been given refuge and supported by the East German Government during their stay. Evans and Novak suspected that these individuals had been recruited by the Stasi.[19] Evans and Novak claim documents in the briefcase showed that Letelier had maintained contact with Salvador Allende’s daughter, Beatriz Allende, who was married to Cuban DGI station chief Luis Fernandez Ona.[20]

Fellow IPS member and friend Saul Landau described Evans and Novak as part of an “organized right wing attack”. In 1980, Letelier's widow, Isabel, wrote in the New York Times that the money sent to her late husband from Cuba was from western sources, and that Cuba had simply acted as an intermediary.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ McCann 2006, p. 132.
  2. ^ McCann 2006, p. 133.
  3. ^ a b c d Binder, David (September 22, 1976). "Opponent of Chilean Junta Slain In Washington by Bomb in His Auto". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-10. His release from prison resulted in large part from intervention by Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. 
  4. ^ Dinges & Landau 1981, p. 83.
  5. ^ McCann 2006, p. 134.
  6. ^ Kornbluh, Peter (2004), The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability, New York: The New Press, p. 349, ISBN 1-56584-936-1, OCLC 56633246 .
  7. ^ The Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Awards, Institute for Policy Studies, retrieved July 11, 2008 .
  8. ^ "Chilean agent convicted over Prats' killing", BBC News, November 20, 2000, retrieved July 11, 2008 .
  9. ^ Nagy-Zekmi, Silvia; Leiva, Fernando (2004), Democracy in Chile: The Legacy of September 11, 1973, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, p. 180, ISBN 1-84519-081-5, OCLC 60373757 .
  10. ^ McCann 2006, pp. 134–135.
  11. ^ a b Diuguid, Lewis H. (September 16, 1976), "Chile Decree Lifts Citizenship Of Ex-Ambassador Letelier", The Washington Post: A30 .
  12. ^ a b Letelier's Trips to Holland and the Stevin Group Affair, Transnational Institute, 17 November 2005, retrieved August 9, 2012 
  13. ^ Transcript of Orlando Letelier's Speech at the Felt Forum, Madison Square Garden on September 10, 1976, Transnational Institute .
  14. ^ a b c Lynton, Stephen J.; Meyer, Lawrence (September 22, 1976), "Ex-Chilean Ambassador Killed by Bomb Blast", The Washington Post .
  15. ^ The Washington Post, 14.11.00, p.A16. Documents Link Chile's Pinochet to Letelier Murder. By Vernon Loeb, Washington Post Staff Writer
  16. ^ a b U.S State Department (1976-09-01). "Issuance of Visas" (PDF). 
  17. ^ U.S State Department (1976-09-01). "Visas to Enter United States under False Pretenses" (PDF). 
  18. ^ "Cable Ties Kissinger to Chile Scandal". Associated Press in the New York Times. April 10, 2010. Retrieved 2010-04-10. As secretary of state, Henry Kissinger canceled a U.S. warning against carrying out international political assassinations that was to have gone to Chile and two neighboring nations just days before a former ambassador was killed by Chilean agents on Washington's Embassy Row in 1976, a newly released State Department cable shows. [dead link]
  19. ^ Robert Moss, The Letelier Papers. Foreign Report; March 22, 1977
  20. ^ Roland Evans and Robert Novak, Letelier Political Fund. Washington Post; February 16, 1977
  21. ^ Isabel, The Revival of Old Lies about Orlando Letelier. New York Times; November 8, 1980


External links[edit]

Coordinates: 38°54′42.7″N 77°3′1.1″W / 38.911861°N 77.050306°W / 38.911861; -77.050306 (Letelier cased)