Forty years ago, during a drizzly morning commute in Washington, D.C., former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and his colleague Ronni Moffitt died from a car bomb planted under Letelier’s car. The gruesome deaths, mere blocks from the White House and State Department, shocked the city and the nation. A modest plaque along Sheridan Circle’s sidewalk now commemorates the tragedy, remembered largely for being—still to this day—the only act of state-supported international assassination in our nation’s capital.
But the Letelier-Moffitt killing of September 21, 1976, should be recalled more broadly. For three reasons, it stands as a watershed moment in the modern struggle of the U.S. and the West against terrorism.
First, it was a rare instance of victims of terrorism seeking redress not with the weapons of war—invasions, spies, drone strikes, special ops—as our violent nation is prone to do, but with the armaments of peace—investigation, diplomacy, law, and the courage and persistence of two families. And the victims prevailed.
Letelier had been not only Chile’s ambassador to the United States under the socialist government of Salvador Allende elected in 1970, but also the minister of foreign relations, interior, and defense, until the thugs behind Chile’s own 9/11, on September 11, 1973, threw him in a concentration camp. Dictator Augusto Pinochet only released Letelier a year later under fierce diplomatic pressure. When the freed Chilean advocated from Washington for a return to democracy, Pinochet’s secret police ordered his murder as part of a worldwide campaign of intimidation. To do the deed, the Chileans contracted another terrorist group, made up of Cuban Americans disenchanted with the mid-1970s U.S. rapprochement with Havana.
The years-long quest for justice following the car bomb makes for one of the most dramatic episodes in the annals of international legal diplomacy. The Letelier and Moffitt families pressed the U.S. government to concentrate its investigation on the Chilean secret police. Some in the CIA and the press tried to derail it, but the FBI pursued all leads and, in 1978, with the help of the State Department, pressured Santiago to hand over an American-Chilean bomb maker named Michael Townley. Townley confessed to everything and fingered the Cubans, all of whom were eventually caught.
Bringing the Chilean overlords to justice in Santiago proved a longer, more arduous saga. It was 1995—nineteen years after the crime—when Letelier’s persistent family and the Chilean Supreme Court successfully tried the head of the secret police, Manuel Contreras, and his chief of operations. That episode was even more perilous. Contreras and Pinochet often intimated that the military regime—and, once democracy returned in 1991, the army—would never permit the jailing of one of theirs. Contreras himself concocted daring escapes from the law. In the end, however, Chilean democracy withstood the pressure. The architects of terror wound up behind bars.
Despite dozens of threats to the lives of survivors, investigators, and judges, not a shot was fired to win sentences; not a soldier was mobilized to punish the guilty.
Second, the jailing of Contreras was significant for opening the legal floodgates and inspiring countless more prosecutions of terrorists. The Letelier case was exempted from a 1978 Chilean amnesty for all previous state crimes under Pinochet. It became an indicator to all those who had lost loved ones to the terror state: if the case produced indictments, maybe others could, too. Emboldened jurists seized on its success to strip other evildoers of their immunity.
Over time, Chilean courts adjudicated more than 1,000 cases of human rights violations. Contreras himself earned 59 additional sentences totaling another half-millennium. He died in prison in 2015, his reputation as evil incarnate cemented forever. Several other Latin American countries followed Chile’s lead.
Third and least appreciated, the Letelier case marked the end of U.S. tolerance of state-supported terror abroad. Sure, other U.S. allies have since committed atrocious acts at home, and Washington has often looked the other way. Allies may have even ventured to other countries to kill opponents. But one is hard pressed to find overt U.S. support for murder across borders. “We established, through this case, the position of the United States government with respect to terrorism,” recalled FBI agent Carter Cornick.
The reason is that the Letelier assassination awakened Washington to how its complacence could come back to bite it. President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger had perfected the cynical wink-wink to dictators with enemies abroad. Kissinger himself said nothing when Pinochet twice named Letelier as a major nuisance, and his State Department oddly failed to send a drafted warning against South American terror states’ international assassinations. But the Letelier bombing made clear that arrogant, psychopathic regimes would stop at nothing—not even U.S. borders—to hunt down their prey. Even for the Ronald Reagan administration, often sympathetic to Pinochet, U.S. national sovereignty trumped Cold War allies. “This is a blatant example of a chief of state’s direct involvement in an act of state terrorism,” wrote Secretary of State George Shultz to his president in 1987, “one that is particularly disturbing both because it occurred in our capital and since his [Pinochet’s] government is generally considered to be friendly.”
As we pause each September to remember the victims of terrorism, we should also contemplate the resourcefulness, persistence, and humaneness that can indeed be summoned to pursue terrorists, and how those virtues should remind us why we are better than they.
Alan McPherson is Professor of International and Area Studies at the University of Oklahoma.