The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fabiola Letelier, Chilean human rights activist, dies at 92

Fabiola Letelier enters a London court to attend an extradition hearing for former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet in 1999. (Christine Nesbitt/AP)

One of the most brazen acts of state-sponsored terrorism ever perpetrated in the United States took place on Sept. 21, 1976, when Orlando Letelier, a Chilean exile and leading critic of strongman Augusto Pinochet, was assassinated in a car bombing on Washington’s Embassy Row.

Letelier, a former ambassador to the United States and Cabinet minister in the Marxist government of Salvador Allende, drove down Massachusetts Avenue NW that morning, then rounded his way onto Sheridan Circle. There, a remote-controlled explosive device detonated under his vehicle, killing Letelier and an American colleague, Ronni Moffitt. Moffitt’s husband, Michael, was also present in the car and survived.

The incident prompted international condemnation, strained U.S.-Chilean ties and stood out as one of the most egregious acts of violence committed during the repressive rule of Pinochet, the army general who ruled Chile for 17 years after toppling Allende in a 1973 coup.

For years, those ultimately responsible for the bombing went unpunished. Throughout that time and beyond, the murdered diplomat found a devoted advocate in his sister, Fabiola Letelier, one of her country’s leading human rights lawyers.

Ms. Letelier, who pursued his case both in her capacity as a lawyer and with the moral authority of a grieving sister, died Nov. 18 at her home in Santiago, the Chilean capital. She was 92. A granddaughter, Javiera Erazo, confirmed her death and said the cause was complications from a stroke.

The eldest of her family’s three children, Ms. Letelier grew up in a liberal environment, her granddaughter said, one where she was encouraged to pursue professional opportunities beyond those available to most women of her era. She graduated from law school, established herself as a lawyer and became increasingly active in the defense of human rights after Pinochet took power.

Then, as she once told the Agence France-Presse, reflecting on the loss of her brother, “I became a victim, too.”

During the coup that brought Pinochet to power, the Chilean air force bombed the presidential palace, called La Moneda, and Allende, who had been democratically elected three years earlier, died in what was ruled a suicide.

Orlando Letelier, who had served in posts including foreign and defense minister, was arrested and imprisoned in camps, including one at the southern tip of Chile near the South Pole. His sister tried to visit him, to no avail.

He was eventually permitted to expatriate and settled in Washington, where he worked at a think tank. He became an outspoken critic of Pinochet’s abuses, which included as many as 4,000 killings and disappearances and the imprisonment of tens of thousands of political enemies.

The bombing that killed Letelier was widely understood from the outset to be politically motivated. A group of conspirators was convicted in connection with the assassination, but for years the alleged masterminds — Manuel Contreras and Pedro Espinoza, the two highest-ranking officials in the Chilean secret police, known by the Spanish acronym DINA — went untried. Chile denied a request for their extradition to the United States.

Pinochet relinquished the presidency in 1990, with a long-standing amnesty law in place preventing the prosecution of human rights violations from the 1970s. The Letelier murder was exempted from the amnesty law, however, and thus provided a rare opportunity for Chile to reckon with its past.

“Among the thousands of cases, this is the one that must be clarified if we are to restore a minimum of prestige to Chile’s courts,” Ms. Letelier told the Boston Globe in 1991. “Its impact transcends far beyond our family. If there is no justice in this case, there will be no justice for Chile.”

In 1991, Contreras and Espinoza, who blamed Letelier’s murder on the CIA, were indicted in Chile for their role in the assassination. They were convicted in 1993 and given prison terms of seven and six years, respectively. Although brief, the sentences were of enormous symbolic value, Ms. Letelier declared at the time.

As the years passed, Pinochet himself was increasingly implicated in Letelier’s death. “The evidence against Pinochet is as strong in the Letelier case as any of the other cases he is facing,” John Dinges, an authority on Latin America and co-author of the book “Assassination on Embassy Row,” told the New York Times in September 2006, exactly 30 years after Letelier’s death.

Pinochet died in a Santiago military hospital three months later.

Fabiola Alicia Letelier del Solar was born on July 17, 1929, in Temuco, in central Chile. Her father was a printer, and her mother was a homemaker and poet.

Ms. Letelier grew up mainly in Santiago, where she received a law degree from the University of Chile in 1963. During the 1960s she worked for the Organization of American States in Washington, where her granddaughter said she was deeply influenced by the ideals of the civil rights movement.

In Chile, Ms. Letelier worked with groups including the Vicariate of Solidarity, a Catholic organization that tracked human rights abuses under the Pinochet regime. Among the cases she took on that of Charles Horman, an American journalist and filmmaker whose kidnapping and murder in the wake of the 1973 coup inspired the film “Missing” (1982) directed by Costa-Gavras.

Ms. Letelier’s marriage to Fernando Leiva ended in divorce. Survivors include two sons, Fernando Leiva and Rodrigo Leiva, both of Santa Cruz, Calif.; two daughters, Fabiola Leiva and Manuela Leiva, both of Santiago; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Years after her brother’s death, Ms. Letelier still wore a pendent he had made for her in prison, a black rock carved on one side with an image of the Virgin Mary and on the back with his prison number.

“I carry such pain in my heart for all these years, but I continue the struggle for justice,” she told the Times Union of Albany, N.Y., in 2003. “I won’t give up because they killed my brother and so many thousands more like him were killed or tortured. … We only want the truth.”