Obsessive Pursuit

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

"Why did you lie to me?" Zita asked the lawyer. Furious, she grabbed him and started to shake him. But all he could say to her was, "I'm sorry." The attorney, she later learned, was a military intelligence agent.

Zita's world went dark. "Even my trust in good people -- I lost it," she says. "There was nothing left for you to do, because your life doesn't belong to you anymore. What's the meaning of hope? They can kill you at any time."

With her older brother and close friend dead, Zita understood anything could happen in Chile. Her father, who'd often played guitar with Winston, put down his instrument and never played again. Her mother and younger sister Karin asked their priest to say a Mass for Winston, but he refused, saying it was too risky politically. Even speaking Winston's name was painful, so the family slipped into silence over his death.

Zita Cabello-Barrueto spent five years gathering 
evidence in the 1973 murder of her older brother 
Winston (inset).
James Sanders
Zita Cabello-Barrueto spent five years gathering evidence in the 1973 murder of her older brother Winston (inset).
Armando Fernandez Larios was a member of the 
notorious "Caravan of Death," which killed opponents 
of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
AP Wide World Photos
Armando Fernandez Larios was a member of the notorious "Caravan of Death," which killed opponents of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Zita didn't know if Pato was alive or dead. Adolfo Gonzalez, the jailer who'd told Veronica about Winston's death, now informed Zita that Pato was OK but would soon be transferred to a concentration camp. Zita went to the incandente's office, begging and pleading her way into a five-minute meeting with Oscar Haag.

Once inside his office she turned into a lioness.

"I made him sit," she says. "I told him he was a liar. I was not there for an explanation. I said, 'Send me to an island, but I want to go with my husband.'"

Haag acceded. He allowed her to select a village, and sent Pato there for town detention. Zita went with him. Then they finally got a major break. Another older brother of Zita, Manuel, was studying at UC Berkeley and could send his sister and brother-in-law U.S. visas. If they were willing to take the risk, they could get out of Chile. They were willing.

Before they left, though, one of Zita's former co-workers at the technical college who was now in the government's tourism office, Ximena de la Barra, invited them to lunch. Zita was perplexed. What did this woman want to talk about?

In the middle of the meal Pato got up to go to the restroom. The woman turned to Zita.

"Do you know how Winston died?" she asked. "Fernandez Larios killed him."

It was the first time Zita had heard that name, the first time she knew more than the official account. De la Barra was a friend of Fernandez Larios' psychiatrist, to whom Fernandez Larios had supposedly confessed everything.

"It was a game for them," Zita remembers de la Barra saying.

De la Barra said Winston was driven in a truck to a field and ordered to get out so he could be shot while running away.

But, she said, Winston defied Fernandez Larios, refusing to get out of the truck. The soldier then stabbed him repeatedly with a corvo, a long, double-edged knife with a talonlike blade, de la Barra said. A corvo doesn't slice into someone so much as tear through his body tissue and internal organs with its hook. Zita vowed her family would never know these devastating details.

In 1974, less than a year after the coup, Zita and Pato sneaked away from the town where Pato was in detention. They took 2-year-old Felipe, their visas, and one suitcase. If there had been computer databases or a Homeland Security Department in place at the time, anyone would have been able to see that Pato wasn't supposed to leave Chile. But there was no way of checking. And since the United States, which had supported the coup, was providing the visas, the little family didn't raise suspicions. Zita's parents and sister Karin watched as the three walked up the stairs to the plane and flew away to Oakland. Zita took her secret with her.

"I remember seeing Felipe waving us goodbye," Karin says. "Then it was like, 'Phew.'"

Zita and Pato had escaped the murderous purges of Pinochet's Chile. (About 3,200 people were killed or disappeared under the Pinochet regime; another 150,000 to 200,000 were jailed for political reasons.) But things were hardly easy in the Bay Area.

The two young economists who set out to change the world wound up as janitors in an Oakland bank building. They moved on to paint houses, learned English, and had another baby, Roberto.

In 1978, Zita's parents and two other siblings, Karin and Aldo, followed them to the Bay Area. "They were working cleaning houses, painting," Karin recalls. "You name it. We used to laugh about it. We knew somehow it would get better."

Still, Zita thought about the one brother who would never join them. She had a recurring dream about climbing stairs at the School of Economics, only to have the staircase fall away. In the background, Winston's voice asked her what she was doing with her life.

"Get out of this," he told her.

Zita thought Winston was telling her to make something of herself, just as he had when they were university students. Zita awoke from one of the dreams and told Pato she was going back to school. He could do whatever he wanted, she said, but she was going to improve their lives.

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