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The Letelier case (September 21, 1976) refers to the murder of Orlando Letelier, a Chilean political figure and, later, United States-based activist, who was assassinated in Washington, D.C. along with his American assistant, Ronni Moffitt, by Chilean agents of the DINA, the Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (National Intelligence Directorate), which was the Chilean secret police during the government of Augusto Pinochet.


In 1971, Letelier was appointed ambassador to the United States by Salvador Allende, the socialist president of Chile. During 1973, Letelier served successively as Minister of Foreign Relations, then Interior Minister and finally Defense Minister. After the Chilean coup of 1973 that brought Augusto Pinochet to power, Letelier was arrested by the Chilean government and sent to a political prison in Tierra del Fuego. After his release in 1974, he moved to Washington where he was working with the Institute for Policy Studies. He plunged into writing, speaking and lobbying the US Congress and European governments against Augusto Pinochet's regime, and soon became the leading voice of the Chilean resistance, preventing several loans (especially from Europe) from being awarded to the military government.

Letelier and Moffitt were colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies. Moffitt was a 25-year-old fundraiser who ran a "Music Carryout" program that made musical instruments available to the poor and who was also campaigning for democracy in Chile.


On September 21, 1976, in Washington D.C., Orlando Letelier, was traveling to work, together with Ronni Karpen Moffitt and her husband of four months, Michael. Orlando Letelier was driving, while Ronni Moffitt was in the front passenger seat, and Michael Moffitt was in the rear behind his wife. As they rounded Sheridan Circle, an explosion erupted under the car, lifting it off the ground. When the car came to a halt, after colliding with a VW illegally parked in front of the Irish embassy, Michael Moffitt was able to escape from the rear end by crawling out the back window.

He then saw his wife stumbling away from the car and, assuming that she was all right, went to assist Letelier. He found Letelier still in the driver’s seat. He appeared barely conscious and in great pain. Letelier’s head was rolling back and forth, his eyes were moving slightly, and he attempted to mutter several things, which were unintelligible. Michael Moffitt 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 Moffitt 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 hospital shortly thereafter. At the hospital it was discovered that Ronni's carotid artery had been severed by a piece of flying shrapnel. She drowned in her own blood 20 minutes after Letelier's death while her husband Michael miraculously suffered only a minor head wound. Michael Moffitt estimated that the bomb was detonated at approximately 9:30 a.m., and the reports of the Medical Examiner’s office set the time of death of Orlando Letelier at 9:50 a.m. and the time of death of Ronni Moffitt at 10:37 a.m. The cause of death for both was listed as explosion-incurred injuries due to a car bomb placed under the car on the driver's side.

Assassination preparation


The FBI eventually were convinced that Michael Townley, a DINA U.S. 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 Robert White, the United States ambassador to Paraguay, at the urging of the Paraguayan government despite their having false Paraguayan passports.

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 Jose Dionisio "Bloodbath" Suarez, Virgilio Paz Romero, Alvin Ross Diaz, and brothers Guillermo and Ignacio Novo Sampoll . 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 Diaz began in Washington. General Pinochet refused to allow Romero and Suarez, who were DINA officers, to be extradited. All three were found guilty of murder. Guillermo Novo and Diaz 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 cooperate 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 to seven and six years of prison respectively. Pinochet, who died on December 10, 2006, was never brought to trial for the murders, although Townley implicated him as being responsible for them.

Allegations of U.S. knowledge

Allegations of U.S. early knowledge of the Letelier assassination hinges on the communiques 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 Walters in the United States, concerning CIA business. Landua was suspicious of this declaration, and cabled for more information. The B-2 visas were revoked by the State Department on August 9, 1976. 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. 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.

The director of the CIA, George H. W. Bush, was quickly told that DINA and several of his contract agents were involved in the assassination. However, he leaked a story to members of Operation Mockingbird, a CIA operation to influence domestic and foreign media, that attempted to cover up the role that the CIA and DINA had played in the killings. Jeremiah O'Leary in the Washington Star (8th October, 1976) wrote: The right-wing Chilean junta had nothing to gain and everything to lose by the assassination of a peaceful and popular socialist leader. Newsweek added: The CIA has concluded that the Chilean secret police was not involved. (11th October).

American commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote on October 25, 1976: U.S. investigators think it unlikely that Chile would risk with an action of this kind the respect it has won with great difficulty during the past year in many Western countries, which before were hostile to its policies. According to Donald Freed, Buckley had been providing disinformation for the Pinochet government since October 1974. He also unearthed information that William Buckley's brother, James Buckley, met with Townley and Guillermo Novo in New York City just a week before Letelier was assassinated.

Later-released CIA documents show that the CIA was closely linked with Contreras up to, and even after, the assassination of Letelier. 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 Uruguay attempt to kill US Congressman Edward Koch, which then-CIA director George H.W. Bush warned him about only after Orlando Letelier's murder .

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].


Additional information

See also

  • Chilean political scandals
  • Chile under Pinochet
  • espionage
  • Eugenio Berrios, DINA biochemist who allegedly produced the explosive used in the bombing
  • terrorism
  • state terrorism
  • National Security Archive


  1. Dinges, John, and Landau, Saul. Assassination on Embassy Row (London, 1981) ISBN 0-07-016998-5, (McGraw-Hill, 1981)
  2. Dinges, John. The Condor Years (The New Press: 2004) ISBN 1-56584-764-4
  3. Hitchens, Christopher, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, (Verso: 2001) ISBN 1-85984-631-9
  4. Branch, Taylor and Propper, Eugene Labyrinth (Viking Press 1983, Penguin Books1983 ISBN 0-14-006683-7)

External links

  • Michael Townley and the Death of Orlando Letelier
  • Orlando Letelier Archive held by the Transnational Institute.
  • MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base Nine legal documents from the trials of Letelier's assassins. Includes trial transcripts.
  • Institute for Policy Studies, where Letelier and Moffitt worked at the time, gives circumstances surrounding bombing.
  • John Dinges John Dinges was a correspondent for the "Washington Post" in South America from 1975 to 1983, author of The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents (The New Press 2004) and (with Saul Landau) Assassination on Embassy Row (Pantheon 1980), (Asesinato en Washington, Lasser 1980, Planeta 1990)
  • National Security Archive page with documents and information about Latin America
  • History-of-Chile
  • Chilean-political-scandals

Other pages about Chilean political scandals

-2006&#8211? -Alejandrina Cox incident -Augusto Pinochet's arrest and trial -Burnt Alive case -Caso Degollados -Charles Horman -Cuban packages -Letelier case -List of major political scandals in Chile -Scorpion scandal -Seguro Obrero massacre

Other pages about History of Chile

-1925 Chilean coup d'etat -1973 Chilean coup d'etat -1992 Galvarino -2006&#8211? -Alejandrina Cox incident -Alessandri family -Allende family -Allende stamps -Antonio Samore -Arauco War -Ariostazo -Army of the Andes -Burnt Alive case -Capture of Valdivia -Carrera family -Caso Degollados -Charles Horman -Chile under Allende -Chile under Pinochet -Chilean Civil War -Chilean Revolution of 1829 -Chilean coup d'etat -Chilean transition to democracy -City of the Caesars -Clemente de Lantano -Colonia Dignidad -Covadonga (ship) -Crossing of the Andes -Cuban packages -DINA -Death of Salvador Allende -Economic history of Chile -Errazuriz family -Esmeralda (BE-43) -Estadio Nacional de Chile -Estadio Victor Jara -Figueroa mutiny -First Ladies of Chile -Flach (submarine) -Forced disappearance -Frei family -Gabino Gainza -Garcia de Nodal expedition -Government Junta of Chile (1924) -Government Juntas of Chile -Heroes (Chilean miniseries) -History of Chile -History of Chile during the Parliamentary Era (1891-1925) -Huaso (horse) -Ines de Suarez -John E. Hamm -Kingdom of Araucania and Patagonia -Kingdom of Chile -Leighton case -Letelier case -Liberal-Conservative Fusion (Chile) -List of archaeological sites in Chile -List of major political scandals in Chile -List of presidents of Chile -Lonco -Maitland Plan -Mapuche -Maria Callcott -Marusia massacre -Michael Townley -Missing (film) -Montt family -National Party (Chile) -Norte Grande insurrection -Nueva Extremadura -Occupation of the Araucania -Operation Colombo -Operation Condor -Operation TOUCAN (KGB) -Paul Schafer -Pedro de Valdivia -Project Cybersyn -Project FUBELT -Ranquil massacre -Rettig Report -Royal Governor of Chile -Saber noise -Sailors' mutiny -Schneider Doctrine -Scorpion scandal -Seguro Obrero massacre -Supreme director -Tacnazo insurrection -Tanquetazo -Timeline of Chilean history -Toqui -Valech Report -Valparaiso bombardment -Villa Grimaldi

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Letelier_case

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