Obsessive Pursuit

Years after her brother was murdered in Chile's "dirty war," a diminutive former professor went after the killer

There were no palaces in Copiapo, a dusty copper-mining town in the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world. The settlement was a collection of boxy, one-story houses surrounded by miles and miles of sand, so isolated that virtually everything had to be imported by truck.

Then 26, Cabello-Barrueto was a teacher at the Copiapo branch of the State Technical University. She favored short skirts and wore her hair past her shoulders. Riding to school aboard the 8 a.m. bus that day, she heard news of the coup. Too distracted to work, she began walking home.

A white van resembling an ambulance zoomed past her. She recognized her older brother, the tall and angular Winston, and her husband, baby-faced Pautrizio Barrueto, inside their official government vehicle. Winston was the economic planning director for the regional government and Pautrizio, nicknamed Pato, was his assistant.

Walnut Creek attorney Leo Cunningham represented 
the Cabello family in court.
James Sanders
Walnut Creek attorney Leo Cunningham represented the Cabello family in court.
Winston Cabello's best friend, Pato Barrueto, fled 
Chile in 1974.
James Sanders
Winston Cabello's best friend, Pato Barrueto, fled Chile in 1974.

"Winston had been with his hand on every major decision in the province," Pato explains.

The men told Zita they'd been at the airport, which makes her laugh now. "They went over there thinking they would have a flying lesson," she says. But the military had grounded all planes.

Zita got in the van, and they all rode to Zita and Pato's one-bedroom house for lunch. Winston talked about a miner who'd offered to show him a back road leading out of the country. But Winston said he didn't think escaping was necessary, and Zita didn't contradict him.

The three had developed a special friendship while studying at the University of Chile's rigorous School of Economics in Santiago. In college, Winston had looked after Zita, known for her forgetfulness, by reminding her of exams and reserving books for her in the library. He'd also encouraged her to become a dancer in a folkloric group for which he played guitar. Only two years apart, Zita and Winston had grown up close in a family with two older brothers and a younger sister.

At a folkloric performance, Zita met Pato, Winston's friend. Pato noticed that she danced "with an air of elegance and propriety." Their first official date was to Winston's wedding, when he married a woman named Veronica.

Winston, Zita, and Pato dreamed of building a new Chile. They refused to join a political party, but supported Allende. "We felt we were good people, probably better than we really were," Zita says. "As economists, we had the knowledge to figure out how the fruits of the economy would reach the margins of society. You figure out how to transform the society in a peaceful way. For us, what better way to spend your life, your knowledge, your education?"

But society was transforming in a way they'd never foreseen.

Zita told herself the military government would last six months before new elections were held (in fact, Pinochet remained Chile's dictator for nearly two decades). After the coup leaders took total control of the media, Zita, Winston, and Pato were desperate for information. On Sept. 12, Winston was summoned to meet with the new government. He thought he could learn some basic facts from the Pinochet functionaries about what was going on in Santiago.

"There was shooting and killing in Santiago, but we didn't know then," Pato says. "We didn't even know if Allende was alive."

The violence that saturated Santiago soon began seeping into Copiapo. Winston was arrested at the meeting by the town's new acting incandente, or mayor, a military officer named Oscar Haag. Winston was never formally charged with a crime, but Haag considered him a threat to the Pinochet government. This made him a political prisoner. Because no one in Copiapo knew what to do with political prisoners, Winston was thrown into jail with common criminals. A convict offered to help him escape, but again Winston didn't think that was necessary.

That night, Pato and Zita took Winston a sleeping bag and then returned home. Zita made herself a cup of tea, and they stood in the kitchen talking. The possibility of a coup had loomed for a while. In an attempt to socialize the country, Allende had launched a series of economic reforms that had triggered long bread lines and incapacitating strikes. The United States, Chile's main trading partner, feared Allende wanted to turn the country communist and worked to subvert him.

Zita once asked her older brother during those months of turmoil what might happen under a coup. "In this country," she remembers him saying, "they're going to detain people. And they're going to kill them all, because it's too expensive to have them in jail." Now, Zita worried deeply about Winston.

"Do you think they are going to kill him?" she asked Pato.

Her husband didn't answer. Zita dropped her cup of tea, which shattered on the floor.

Life slowly twisted into a new shape over the next few weeks. Zita missed the announcement that all Allende supporters were fired from the Technical University. She showed up at work and kept her job by arguing that economics was not a political field. Her points persuaded the administrators to appoint her chair of the social sciences department, a blessing now that Winston was in jail and she was the sole provider for her baby son Felipe, and was also helping support her sister-in-law Veronica and two nieces.

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