The assassination of Orlando Letelier Part Two: “I was born a Chilean, I am a Chilean and I will die a Chilean”.
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The assassination of Orlando Letelier Part Two: “I was born a Chilean, I am a Chilean and I will die a Chilean”.

Orlando Letelier, a dissident Chilean living in exile in the U.S., had spent the better part of a year in Washington D.C. lobbying against the regime of Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. For his efforts Letelier had managed to end U.S. military aid to Chile and pushed other countries to end economic cooperation with the regime.

However, Letelier had become a target for his dissent against a government that had already suppressed 3,000 opponents through executions or ‘disappearances’ as well as detained and tortured 40,000 others.

Letelier had received several threats and his wife, speaking to the BBC in 1978, said, “I remember one very specifically because it was really short… They called me and said, “‘Are you Ms Letelier?’ I said, ‘Yes’ and they laughed and said, ‘No, you are his widow.’”

In addition to threats, Letelier was also stripped of his Chilean citizenship on September 10 1976, just 11 days before his assassination.

On the same day he gave a speech in Madison Square Garden about his loss of citizenship:  “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.” On September 21 1976, thirty-nine years ago this week,

Letelier was assassinated after a bomb placed under his car exploded killing him and his colleague less than a mile from the White House.

Shockwaves across the U.S.

Letelier’s assassination sent shockwaves across the U.S. with huge public demand to uncover the perpetrators. As John Dignes, in his book ‘The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his allies brought terrorism to three continents’, puts its 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.”

A CIA and FBI lead investigation discovered the attack was ordered by DINA (National Intelligence Directorate), Chile’s secret police, who had used an American agent Michael Townley to carry out the bombing.

See more:

The assassination of Orlando Letelier part one: The exiled voice of resistance to Chile’s dictatorship

Townley, who was also convicted of attempted murder by Italian courts in absentia and was wanted in Argentina over the murder of Chilean general Carlos Prats and his wife, made a plea bargain and confessed to his role in the D.C. bombing: Townley only served five years of his sentence before moving into witness protection.

The head of DINA, Miguel Contreas, was sentenced in 1993 for his role and claimed that Pinochet had known about the assassination. Pinochet, however, like many from the dictatorship-era, was never brought to justice after an amnesty was called as his hold over Chile began to crumble. Pinochet died in 2006 and was never brought to trial for his crimes.

Operation Condor

In somewhat of a silver lining, a subsequent investigation into the assassination also resulted in the uncovering of Operation Condor; a secretive co-operation between military governments of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay to assist in capturing, interrogating and killing each other’s opponents.

Today, Chile still battles with removing Pinochet’s legacy over 40 years on. Monday’s anniversary of Letelier’s assassination is yet another reminder of the reach, and extent, of Pinochet’s brutal oppression over his own population.

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

Assassination on Embassy Row, Dinges, John and Landua, Saul Assassination on Embassy Row X: Pantheon Books, 1980.