Obsessive Pursuit

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

She decided to simultaneously pursue a master's degree in public health and a Ph.D. in developmental economics at UC Berkeley. The ambitious educational program presented challenges in every area of her life: money, language, schedules, feelings. Just getting accepted was a battle. She had no letters of recommendation; after all, she'd been working as a cleaning woman.

By 1989, though, Zita had received her Ph.D. and become a professor at UC Santa Cruz, teaching developmental economics and Latin American studies. In the meantime Pato had opened a day-care center in San Mateo, a job he loved.

Their sons grew up with stories about their missing uncle. Still, none of Zita's siblings ever said his name, and only Zita knew how Winston had died.

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.

In 1990, Chile finally held free elections and Pinochet peacefully gave up his long reign. The entire country began looking for answers to the mysteries of those who had disappeared or were killed under the aging general.

That year, families searched the Atacama Desert for the bodies of the 13 men killed in Copiapo. Zita's brother Aldo, who now owns the Baby World chain in the Bay Area, kept in touch with the group and got a call as it was close to finding the mass grave. He flew to Chile, and there, during the excavation, part of Zita's secret was confirmed. Winston's neck had been slashed. The family knew for certain he was killed with a corvo.

Back in Foster City, where the Barruetos were now living, Zita grew frustrated. The new Chilean president, Patricio Aylwin, was heading a national commission to investigate human rights violations under Pinochet. Zita thought the commission should do more than seek and record the truth. She wanted it to deliver justice.

"The more I read about the genocide, I said there's nothing happening in Chile that hasn't happened before," she says. "We're always trying to forget the past in the name of peace."

Ever the academic, she researched her quandary by making a low-budget documentary, Never Again Shall We Say Never Again. Her assistants were her son Felipe and two recent college graduates who knew how to work a video camera. Dedicated to Winston, the 1995 film explored Chileans' opinions about how those who commit genocide should be punished. It was intended primarily to help Zita find answers, not entertain theatergoers.

A friend from Chile called Zita to suggest an interview subject, a former Pinochet soldier now living in the United States. Zita went numb when she heard the man's name: Armando Fernandez Larios.

"He could be a neighbor," she recalls herself thinking. "It was scary that he could be in this country."

Fernandez Larios had become an even more notorious figure. In 1976 he'd entered the U.S. and gathered information on Orlando Letelier, Allende's former ambassador to the United States, who was then living in Washington, D.C. The material was given to an assassin who killed Letelier and his American assistant with a car bomb. Chile refused to extradite Fernandez Larios to the U.S. for prosecution. In the 1980s, Fernandez Larios' story appeared in U.S. newspapers as well as in a book, Death in Washington. But Zita hadn't heard his name since her lunch with Ximena de la Barra.

Fernandez Larios later fell out of favor with his military. He cut a deal with the U.S. Justice Department, much of which remains secret. In exchange for providing information on the assassin and Chilean intelligence operations, he'd go to a federal prison for seven years and would never be deported to Chile. Argentina wanted to extradite Fernandez Larios for his alleged involvement in another political hit, but the plea agreement protected him from that as well.

A federal judge in New York released Fernandez Larios after five months in prison. That short stay, coupled with time he spent in Chilean military hospitals, counted as time served. Fernandez Larios settled in Miami and found work in an auto-body repair shop.

Zita made her documentary without interviewing him, but she was uneasy knowing he lived in her new country. She wrestled with what to do with the information about him and Winston, and decided to let it lie for the time being.

Her frustration stayed with her. Her documentary had told some truths, but it had not brought about justice. Then another political earthquake hit Chile.

In 1998, on the 25th anniversary of Winston's death, Pinochet was arrested in England. He was detained on a warrant from the Spanish government, which wanted to know what had happened to some Spanish citizens who'd disappeared in Chile during his reign.

The ripple effects of Pinochet's arrest spread to San Francisco, where the Center for Justice and Accountability, a nonprofit group that prosecutes human rights abusers through the U.S. courts, joined an international search for those who might provide evidence against the former dictator. Zita heard about the center's work and brought it information on Winston.

Pinochet was found mentally unfit to stand trial, but the CJA had a new case to work on. The Cabello family had decided to sue Fernandez Larios.


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