Obsessive Pursuit

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

The law center connected Zita and her relatives with two attorneys, Leo Cunningham of Walnut Creek and Bob Kerrigan of Miami.

Cunningham is a polished, genteel litigator whose firm normally defends corporations and their executives, but also takes on some pro bono cases each year. Though he could barely distinguish between Chile and Argentina at the time, Cunningham found Zita's story compelling and decided to offer his services. Kerrigan, who's spearheaded other human rights lawsuits, wanted to see "the atrocities of the Pinochet regime" tried in court. He eventually spent $100,000 of his firm's money on Zita's case.

The Cabellos' lawsuit relied on an obscure 1789 law, the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows noncitizens to be sued for wrongdoings, or torts. Its original intent was to prosecute pirates on the high seas, but in the 1970s a federal judge declared that it also applied to human rights cases.

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.

One major problem for the Cabellos' lawyers was how to directly connect Fernandez Larios with Winston's murder. Most of the eyewitnesses to the killing -- i.e., the other 12 Copiapo prisoners -- were also executed.

The legal team thus decided to sue Fernandez Larios for crimes against humanity, originally defined at the Nuremberg trials of former Nazis as those carried out by a government against its people. This, according to Cunningham, would put Fernandez Larios' actions in Copiapo in the context of violence he allegedly perpetrated throughout the country.

Zita, meantime, obtained a copy of the Tomos, or Tomes, a voluminous 1998 investigation of Pinochet and the Caravan of Death conducted by a Chilean jurist. Judge Juan Guzman had found Fernandez Larios guilty in absentia of 19 counts of kidnapping. But because of Fernandez Larios' plea agreement with the Justice Department, the U.S. wouldn't extradite him. The Tomos take up more than 20,000 pages and contain a lot of fragmentary information that is often incorrect. Many people, for instance, gave false names and addresses when they testified.

"They didn't want to be found," Zita says. "They knew someone would read this. They were right."

Zita spread the pages out on her dining room table and in her guest bedroom. She marked each appearance of Fernandez Larios' name with a Post-it and wrote down the name and address of anyone who might have been involved with the Caravan or the killings of the Copiapo men. She painstakingly transferred the information to her computer and typed a long memo for her lawyers summarizing her findings.

Cunningham had brought on a Chilean lawyer to help build the case, but most witnesses -- especially ex-military people -- didn't want to talk.

"The subject matter was difficult," he says. "It's gut-wrenching to revisit these roles. You don't have an upside. These army people didn't want to describe on the record what they'd witnessed."

Zita reviewed her memo at a meeting with the lawyers. At the end they concluded there was only one person familiar enough with the case to find witnesses and persuade them to testify: Zita.

In the beginning, Zita thought it'd take her six weeks to line up witnesses. It took her nearly five years, with a total of 10 trips to Chile, to get all the information she needed.

She had to find those who could prove Fernandez Larios was a member of the Caravan of Death and had gone to Copiapo, linking him to Winston. She also had to prove he'd tortured and killed other people in Chile. This meant talking to his colleagues, men with blood on their own hands, as well as his victims.

In 1999, she flew to Chile and began knocking on doors.

"My mom likes to laugh at herself a lot," says Felipe, now a 31-year-old professional dancer. "She likes to laugh at the fact that when she began this process she didn't know what she was doing."

That's an understatement. Zita had no strategy for finding witnesses or persuading them to talk. She had addresses that were out of date, names that didn't exist.

She'd tried to set up her interviews from California, but that didn't work.

"You cannot plan these things in advance," Zita says. "Nobody said no. No one really went out of their way. That's who we are as Chileans. We say we're going to do it, but we don't mean it."

It was easier just to show up and play things by ear. Zita presented her case simply to those she met: She was looking for the truth, and she knew they had a piece of it. She often introduced herself in a brief, almost abrupt way, announcing, "I'm Zita" -- no last name, no title, no job description.

Most of the time, doors were closed in her face. People wanted to leave the past in the past. They didn't want to dredge up old memories; ex-military types still felt loyalty for the old regime. The Pinochet repression was over, but Zita found that people were still afraid to talk.

For example, she located a priest who'd witnessed 14 killings. He'd embraced the victims, heard their final confessions, and accepted messages for their families that he'd never delivered. Zita argued that he needed to speak up about what he saw, but he didn't have the courage to help her, she says.

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