The Letelier Assassination and the Power of Non-State Actors

The following is a guest blog post from Alan McPherson, author of Ghosts of Sheridan Circle: How a Washington Assassination Brought Pinochet’s Terror State to Justice.

On September 21, 1976, a car bomb killed Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean ambassador to the United States, along with his colleague Ronni Moffitt. The murder shocked the world, especially because of its setting–Sheridan Circle, in the heart of Washington, D.C. Letelier’s widow and her allies immediately suspected the secret police of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who eliminated opponents around the world. Because U.S. political leaders saw the tyrant as a Cold War ally, they failed to warn him against assassinating Letelier and hesitated to blame him afterward. Government investigators and diplomats, however, pledged to find the killers, defying a monstrous, secretive regime. Was justice attainable? Finding out would take nearly two decades. 

With interviews from three continents, never-before-used documents, and recently declassified sources that conclude that Pinochet himself ordered the hit and then covered it up, Alan McPherson has produced the definitive history of one of the Cold War’s most consequential assassinations.

Happy belated Book Birthday to Ghosts of Sheridan Circle: How a Washington Assassination Brought Pinochet’s Terror State to Justice, officially on sale in paperback!

The death of Fabiola Letelier, 92, on November 18, 2021, reminds us of the power of ordinary people to seek justice against violators of human rights. Letelier was the sister of Orlando Letelier, the former ambassador to the United States and Cabinet member under Chilean President Salvador Allende. A military coup overthrew Allende on September 11, 1973. Without pressing charges, the military took Letelier, then serving as minister of Defense, to Dawson’s Island at the frozen southern tip of Chile. 

Fabiola Letelier

A year later the regime, now led by Augusto Pinochet, exiled him. He ended up in Washington, D.C, criticizing the junta’s horrors—exactly what Pinochet warned him not to do. On September 21, 1976, the regime’s secret police blew up the exile’s car as he drove around Sheridan Circle. The bomb killed Orlando Letelier almost immediately. It also took the life of Ronni Moffitt, a U.S. citizen and co-worker in the car with him that morning. 

Ghosts of Sheridan Circle, now in paperback, tells the full story of the Letelier-Moffitt assassination and the long quest for justice that followed. Partly, that story was a traditional state-to-state confrontation: the FBI investigated the crime, collaborated with the State Department, and managed to get the Pinochet regime to give up the bombmaker—an American-Chilean named Michael Townley. 

Yet those who ordered the assassination remained free in Chile. The long slog to get them to face justice fell largely to the Letelier and Moffitt families. Prominent among these were Michael Moffitt, Ronni’s widower, and especially Isabel Letelier, Orlando’s widow. Chileans now looked to this woman to carry on the consciousness-raising, human rights-reporting, and sanctions-lobbying crusade of her husband. She and Moffitt also kept up the pressure on the U.S. Congress and the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan administrations to, in turn, pressure the Chileans. Even the Carter White House, explicitly devoted to human rights, was wary of confronting a Cold War ally such as Pinochet. When it did so, it was largely because of non-state actors. 

Solidarity non-governmental organizations working on Chile, plentiful and diverse, were also part of the non-state universe. There were two national groups, maybe three dozen local ones from Boston to Seattle, and several more devoted to specific Chilean issues such as women or political prisoners. Trade unions and students also helped. Orlando Letelier himself counted 93 solidarity committees.

Prodding Washington for action was one thing; Fabiola Letelier’s bravery in defying Pinochet’s iron-fisted Chile was another matter altogether. One of Isabel and Orlando’s sons called his aunt “brilliant. She’s the brains in the family. She is an old-school lawyer and has a savant ability to remember names and dates.” Fabiola carried herself erect, with piercing eyes and a long, narrow face.

She birthed four children and still obtained a law degree in Chile. Her husband disagreed with her ambitions, and they divorced. Moved by the U.S. struggle for civil rights and the 1965 U.S. military intervention in the Dominican Republic, she moved left politically. 

After the Pinochet coup,  Fabiola Letelier recalled, “I was arrested and held in the basement of the Interior Ministry. I was very anxious because I was Orlando’s sister.” Her son Fernando toyed with joining the revolutionary left and she had to get him out of the country. Her advocacy for political prisoners began with her brother. 

As of 1974, she handled exile cases, then worked with the Catholic Church, heading the Vicariate of Solidarity’s projects to free political prisoners and investigate cases of disappearance from 1978 on. In the 1980s, against long odds and along with lawyer Jaime Castille, she kept alive her brother’s assassination case in Chilean courts disinclined to challenge the dictatorship. 

By 1991, right after Chilean voters rejected Pinochet and fifteen years after the car bomb, the Letelier case had a breakthrough: the former head of the secret police, Manuel Contreras, and his chief of operations, Pedro Espinoza, were indicted for the crime. In 1993 the courts found them guilty, and in 1995 the Supreme Court of Chile affirmed their verdict. They were the first Latin American violators of Cold War human rights sent to prison. 

The victory was a result of the relentless work of Fabiola Letelier and her ilk, many of them women, in Latin America and elsewhere, who refused to abide by the false promises and delaying tactics of men in government. 

Alan McPherson is professor of history at Temple University and the author of The Invaded: How Latin Americans and their Allies Fought and Ended U.S. Occupations