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Biography of Orlando Letelier

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Biography of Orlando Letelier

Letelier-Moffitt Memorial, Sheridan Circle, Washington, D.C.

Photo by Pepe Robles
Orlando Letelier (1932-1976) was a Chilean lawyer, economist, politician and diplomat. After the military takeover of the government in 1973, he became an outspoken critic of the Pinochet regime from exile. Considered a dangerous opponent, Letelier was assassinated by Chilean security forces in Washington, D.C. in 1976. The investigation into this high-profile murder helped bring the murky Operation Condor to light.

Early Years:

Born in Temuco, the bright young Letelier was accepted into the military academy at the age of sixteen. He later left military life for law school, graduating in 1954. He became involved in the booming copper industry as an analyst, although he was fired in 1959 for his overt support of liberal presidential candidate Salvador Allende. He moved to Venezuela with his family and found work in the mining industry there. In the 1960’s, he worked as an economist for the Inter-American Development Bank, which makes loans to developing countries.

Diplomat and Cabinet Minister:

Letelier’s support of Allende eventually paid off when the latter was elected President in 1970. Letelier, by then one of Allende’s most trusted advisors, was sent to the United States, where he served as ambassador and made contacts that would later serve him well. One of his most important tasks was negotiating compensation for American mining companies whose facilities had been nationalized by the Allende government. He was called back to Chile in 1973 and served as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of the Interior and Minister of Defense.

The 1973 Coup:

Letelier was serving as Minister of Defense on September 11, 1973, when General Augusto Pinochet and the military seized power from President Salvador Allende, who died during the attack on the Presidential Palace, presumably by his own hand. As one of the highest-ranking members of the Allende Administration, Letelier was himself a strategic target and he was one of the first captured by the insurgents. Along with many other high-ranking officials, he was sent to a prison on icy Dawson Island, located in the extreme south of Chile in the Strait of Magellan.

Release and Exile:

Letelier had met many important people while abroad, and they immediately began lobbying for his release. Henry Kissinger himself, the United States Secretary of State, asked the Chilean government to release him. He was eventually released in September of 1974, after spending almost an entire year in different prisons. He went first to Venezuela, but in 1975 he went to Washington, D.C. where he still had important contacts. He immediately began trying to convince the United States and Europe to cut off all support for the Pinochet government.

A Thorn in Pinochet’s Side:

The staunchly anti-communist Pinochet administration had close ties to the United States. Nevertheless, many American leaders were uncomfortable with the rumors of death squads and “disappearances” that came out of Chile with regularity. The charismatic Letelier was able to convince several liberal politicians (including Edward Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern, among others) to cut off aid. In July, 1976, the “Kennedy Amendment” passed, cutting off all military aid to Chile. In addition, Letelier was able to convince other nations, including Holland, to cancel investments in Chile. Pinochet was furious.

Assassination on Sheridan Circle:

The Chilean Secret Police, DINA (National Intelligence Directorate) decided to put an end to Letelier’s interference. They sent U.S. born Michael Townley, an assassin who had been involved in the murder of General Carlos Prats, to do the job. Aided by Cuban exiles and acting on the direct orders of DINA director Manuel Contreras, Townley placed a remote-control bomb in the undercarriage of Letelier’s car, and on September 21, 1976, as Letelier drove through Sheridan Circle in Washington, D.C., it was detonated. Letelier and Ronni Moffit, an assistant, were killed, and Ronni’s husband Michael was injured.

Aftermath:

The United States government, which had been diligently ignoring the increasing rumors of murders, tortures and disappearances coming from Chile, was forced to act. The fact that the bomb took out not only Letelier but American citizen Ronni Moffitt certainly had something to do with it. It was one thing to torture suspected subversives in a dank Chilean dungeon and another to murder U.S. citizens in the nation’s capital. Worst of all, the attack was planned and carried out by a supposed “ally” in the war against communism.

The subsequent investigation led the FBI and CIA to Townley, who had been traveling with false Paraguayan papers. This, in turn, helped uncover the long-suspected existence of Operation Condor, which consisted of active co-operation between the governments of Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia to help one another round up, interrogate and, in many cases, kill one another’s rebels and dissidents.

Townley was extradited in 1978 to face trial in the United States: he was convicted. He told his story, however, and went into the Witness Protection Program. DINA chief Contreras was later convicted as well. Contreras’ defense was that the CIA, not DINA, had planned and carried out the hit. Townley alleged that Pinochet had direct knowledge of the assassination, but the dictator, who died in 2006, was never brought up on charges.

In 2006, visiting Chilean President Michelle Bachelet laid a wreath at the memorial to Letelier and Moffitt on Sheridan Circle in Washington.

Source: Dinges, John. The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his allies brought terrorism to three continents New York: The New Press, 2004.

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