Obsessive Pursuit

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

As the years wore on, Zita lost the emotional support of friends, including one of her best friends, a Chilean woman named Gloria who said her endless questions on sensitive matters was suicidal.

"I realized she abandoned me," Zita says. "She reflected what many Chileans think: It's not worth it, staying in the past. I said, 'We're doing this for the future.'"

Some friends simply thought she was torturing herself. They stopped returning her calls and getting together with her when she was in Chile.

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.

"People wanted to help me, and they'd say, 'Why don't you stop doing that?'" Zita says. "I wanted to hear, 'We'll make it less painful.' I've lost everybody now, except my family."

Even her family couldn't always be there. She spent many nights in Chile alone, facing her defeats. She invited her brother Aldo along on her trips, but he liked to be "behind the scenes" and didn't go. Pato and Roberto couldn't get time off from work.

Zita was undeterred. She gave up her job at UC Santa Cruz so she could concentrate even more on her case.

"When I say I'm going to do something, I will do the best, anything that it takes," she says. "It took so much from me, but I already said I'm going to do this." Leo Cunningham says: "There should be a word for how much Zita cares about this."

She says she split the cost of her trips with her other attorney, Bob Kerrigan, and racked up enough miles on American Airlines to give Pato a ticket for a Chilean vacation.

In ways both big and small, her detective work paid off.

One breakthrough involved Enrique Vidal, a Copiapo garrison guard. Zita often left letters for potential witnesses, explaining her case, and she tried leaving one for Vidal at his Santiago condominium. The building security guard assumed she was Vidal's friend and gave her Vidal's home phone number. She left a message, not expecting to hear back.

At midnight, her hotel telephone rang. She scrambled to answer. It was Vidal.

"I didn't know what to say, because he was such an important guy," Zita says.

The ex-guard remembered Winston, and it turned out he'd attended the national military academy with Fernandez Larios. He said he'd seen the soldier the night the Caravan of Death arrived in Copiapo, when he and Haag went to the soccer field where the helicopters landed.

"He knew so much," Zita says. Better yet, he was willing to give sworn testimony in her suit.

Kerrigan had rented a large hotel suite in Santiago where they videotaped what various witnesses had to say. Zita sat at the table for each deposition, listening, asking questions, learning even more details. It had taken her years of hounding witnesses and collecting documents, but she'd built her case. She finally was ready for court.

The trial was to be held in Miami, where Fernandez Larios lived. And by last September, the city was buzzing with news of the case. Newspapers editorialized about it, and the large Latino community, especially Cuban-Americans, debated it.

Cunningham worried that Miami's political environment was unreceptive, even hostile. Many people there had fled Castro's Cuba, and they hated communists or anything like them. Such people might not automatically view Pinochet and his henchmen -- who stamped out left-wingers -- as villains. If they got on his jury, it could be disastrous.

"The political philosophy is so shaped by the Cuban situation that that affects everything in Miami," Cunningham says. "That's where Latin American dictators go to die."

Zita's story also showed up on CNN, in a number of major U.S. newspapers, and in Chile's main paper, El Mercurio. If Winston's death had once been a secret whispered among prisoners, it was now an international topic of conversation.

The Center for Justice and Accountability provided a cluster of condos in Miami for the Cabello family. When each day's testimony ended, the Cabellos ate together and swam in the ocean nearby. "It was like one of those ridiculous real-life shows," says Karin.

After the pretrial phases, the jury had three weeks to understand the complex case and make a decision.

On the trial's first day, news reporters swarmed the courthouse. Because Zita had been misquoted in an article already, her lawyers asked her not to speak to them. Her sons assigned themselves "Zita duty" during the trial; one of Roberto's main chores was running physical interference for Zita with people she didn't want to meet, including reporters.

Roberto also had to protect her from the one person she didn't want to confront: Fernandez Larios.

In a photo taken at the trial, Fernandez Larios, 54, looks hefty in a double-breasted gray suit. He wears glasses and has a few strands of hair combed over his bald spot. To Cunningham, he came across as a typical Miami businessman.

Fernandez Larios only looked around the courtroom once, about midway through the trial, says Felipe. He surveyed the audience, appearing imperious and commanding. The rest of the time, he sat at the defense table, not looking at or otherwise acknowledging the Cabello family.

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