Obsessive Pursuit

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

"He said, 'Not even Jesus says the truth all the time,'" Zita remembers. She answered back with, "Maybe Jesus didn't have the opportunity to tell the truth like I'm giving to you."

She couldn't sway him. Finally the priest said, "I'll pray for you to be a success." Zita said she'd pray for him to change his mind. But he never did.

At night, alone in hotel rooms, Zita typed e-mails to her family, called friends in Chile such as Winston's widow, Veronica, or simply cried. She tried to fight the images bubbling up in her mind from what she had heard during the day. One soldier told her of putting naked prisoners in a drained swimming pool where frogs liked to nest. To keep the prisoners from talking, the soldier stuffed their mouths with frogs. To him, it was a funny memory, an anecdote. To Zita, it was chilling.

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.

"Sometimes she'd just feel awful. Sometimes she'd be excited. The swing was huge from one e-mail to the next," recalls her son Roberto, a program representative at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley.

Most of the e-mails Roberto received described getting interviews. "It was, 'He didn't want to talk, he was tentative, then he talked until 1 a.m.,'" he says. "It was all these small battles."

It was a lonely, emotionally devastating time. But Zita kept moving forward, propelled by an iron will and fierce intelligence.

"She has the best of both worlds: the passion and her love for knowledge and truth," her sister Karin says.

Zita, who's prone to think hard about questions, doesn't fully understand what kept her going. She's found only one concrete answer: The day her brother died, her life was damaged forever.

"I've been trying to transform that," Zita says, "to give meaning to what happened."

In a way, she couldn't win. If she didn't persuade someone to talk, she lost that information. If she did persuade him to talk, she had to listen.

One day she knocked on the door of retired Incandente Oscar Haag, who was hosting a tea party at the time. Haag trembled with nervousness when Zita explained who she was. She told him he'd once granted her a favor and now she needed another. They sat in his den, and he poured her a Coke.

She was struck by how different he was, stripped of his almost God-like authority in the post-Pinochet era. "In 1973, he looked like a huge, powerful man who could do anything," she says. Now he was just an old man shaking with fear.

It was almost unbearable, sitting in this comfortable home, talking quietly with a man she believed had helped orchestrate her brother's death.

"The more he talked, the more I wanted to stop listening," she says. "It was so horribly painful. I had to remind myself, 'Zita, this is not you asking the questions.'"

She employed the same trick in almost all of her interviews: She mentally erased herself. She became an objective outsider, calmly asking questions as if they didn't pertain to the most emotional events of her life. She buried her reactions to the answers she got. And it worked. People told her things they'd never said to anyone else.

"They were unburdening themselves," says Felipe, who sat in on some of the interviews. "They also wanted to understand what happened."

When Zita left Haag's house, she noticed roses in his garden, her favorites. The old man graciously cut her one. It was as if they were longtime friends, she and this man who'd had such a horrendous impact on her family. He died before the trial, but some of what he told her that day wound up in her lawsuit.

Felipe had a performance schedule that allowed him to see his mother in action in Chile. Her relentlessness always impressed him.

He remembers, for example, how she pursued Juan Morales, a former prison guard who declined to give her any information, even though he told Judge Guzman he'd seen Fernandez Larios with files on the Copiapo prisoners. But Zita wouldn't let go of Morales.

With Felipe in tow, she went into a Copiapo store to ask about Morales' new address. His wife happened to be shopping there at the time. Zita approached the woman, but she shied away. So Zita followed her home and came back later and got Morales to talk. He told her he'd seen Fernandez Larios repeatedly kick a defenseless prisoner in the head, and later testified in her suit.

Another time, Zita wanted to get inside the Copiapo jail. But instead of waiting outside with everyone else, she sauntered in behind a truck as it pulled through the prison gate.

"She plays the naive ingénue very well," Felipe says.

On the other hand, she wasn't much good at organizational details, says Felipe, who lovingly calls his mother "the absent-minded professor." For each trip to Chile, Zita carefully made up a list of phone numbers for interview subjects -- and promptly misplaced it. By the time she was ready to go home, her lists were crumpled and torn almost beyond recognition.

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