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Zita Cabello-Barrueto sat in a chilly convent near the bottom of the world, yearning for justice. The only other person in the almost bare room was a nun who wouldn't look her in the eye.
From her home in Foster City, Cabello-Barrueto had returned to her native Chile in search of witnesses to her brother's long-ago murder. She thought a nun at this convent in the Andean foothills knew about the killer. But the nun didn't want to talk.
Cabello-Barrueto, a shy, middle-aged former UC Santa Cruz professor, had taken the unusual step of suing over the slaying of her beloved older sibling Winston Cabello during Chile's 1973 "dirty war." She believed a Chilean soldier had slashed Winston to death following a military coup directed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who deposed Chile's democratically elected Socialist leader, Salvador Allende.
The soldier, Armando Fernandez Larios, was thought to have been a member of a mobile execution squad that traveled around Chile killing Pinochet's political opponents. Chileans called it "the Caravan of Death." Winston had been a regional economic planner for Allende in northern Chile, where the government wanted to nationalize copper mines. Then 28, Winston was killed with a corvo, a wickedly curved knife traditionally carried by Chilean military men.
Shortly after the coup, Cabello-Barrueto and her husband fled to the Bay Area. Haunted by her brother's death, however, Cabello-Barrueto had returned to Chile over and over in later years to hunt for information on Winston. Standing barely 5 feet tall, with delicate facial features and a soft voice, she was hardly intimidating, but she was relentless and effective. She knocked on the doors of ex-Pinochet bureaucrats, former military officials, and anyone else she felt could help advance her lawsuit against Fernandez Larios. In the process she transformed herself from a mild-mannered teacher of Latin American studies into a cross between Columbo and Capt. Ahab, her disorganized, low-key style masking a steely determination.
In 2001, Cabello-Barrueto's investigation took her to the convent in Temuco, a small city in southern Chile's picturesque lake district. She wanted to prove in court that Fernandez Larios tortured and killed other Chileans besides her brother, and she knew the nun's testimony would help. When she had phoned from the United States, the nun had been reluctant to speak with her. It was a reaction Cabello-Barrueto was used to. Many Chileans simply didn't want to remember the violence and repression that convulsed their country more than a quarter-century earlier, and plenty of witnesses already had turned Cabello-Barrueto down. With her gentle persistence, though, she persuaded others to at least meet her, and the nun finally agreed to do so.
Fulvia Fuentealva was an austere and imposing figure: 6 feet tall and wearing a long gray tunic and a cross at her throat. Though only in her late teens in 1973, she had been arrested for her political sympathies. According to another witness, Fernandez Larios interrogated her, at first exhibiting remarkable politeness. But when Fuentealva sat down without his permission, he exploded, beating her until she lay bleeding on the floor. Fernandez Larios then loaded four of her friends into a jeep, leaving no room for her. He and some other soldiers drove the friends to a field and allegedly shot them to death.
For some reason, the soldiers didn't return for Fuentealva.
But the nun didn't want to talk about it. A trial, she complained, might upset her sick mother. Her superiors wouldn't let her testify. Besides, it all happened long ago, and she was too busy now working with children and poor people.
Cabello-Barrueto was direct with her. "Your best friend died and you are probably the only witness," she said. "You are becoming an accomplice."
Fuentealva didn't want to hear that. Cabello-Barrueto quickly switched tactics, appealing to the nun's sense of justice.
"I don't care about justice," Fuentealva retorted. She'd already made her peace with God.
Her attitude stunned Cabello-Barrueto. Justice was the most important thing in her life. She had given up her UC job over her obsessive pursuit of Fernandez Larios. Friends were distancing themselves from her, some even abandoning her altogether.
In the end, the diminutive academic ran Fernandez Larios to ground. With the help of a San Francisco legal center, she forced him to appear in an American courtroom on charges of torture, kidnapping, extrajudicial killings, and crimes against humanity. And in October, a jury handed down an unprecedented verdict.
But that day was still far in the future. Here in this frigid convent, another door had been slammed in her face. The tight-lipped nun called Cabello-Barrueto a cab.
On Sept. 11, 1973, the Chilean capital of Santiago turned into a war zone. Under orders from Gen. Pinochet, soldiers stormed the historic presidential palace where Allende was holed up with his Cabinet. Allende went into a side room and blew his brains out. According to A Nation of Enemies, a book on the Chilean military by Pamela Constable and Arturo Valenzuela, one of the soldiers at the palace that day was Fernandez Larios.
Where Zita Cabello-Barrueto lived, 400 miles to the north in Copiapo, the day was peaceful. "Everything was happening in Santiago, not in Copiapo," she remembers. "It was a regional city. We weren't having a civil war."