Obsessive Pursuit

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

The Cabellos, however, watched him like hawks.

Felipe can say at what point in the trial he took notes, how urgently he wrote, and when he put his pen down to play with a paper clip. Pato studied Fernandez Larios, wondering if this was the same cruel-looking soldier he'd seen in the jail doorway in Copiapo. When Karin left the courtroom one day, she accidentally bumped into the former soldier. She looked into his eyes, wanting to say, "You killed my brother. Here I am." But she held her tongue.

"He was very cold," Karin says about the moment. "You could see his bad energy."

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.

The defense case was simple: Fernandez Larios was the least powerful member of the Caravan. When he accompanied Gen. Stark on the helicopter, the argument ran, his role was similar to that of a secretary; he didn't order or participate in interrogations or killings. He'd been there, but he hadn't done anything.

The Cabellos' lawyers faced problems both legal and political.

First, they had to prove Fernandez Larios had committed crimes against humanity, not an easy task and something an American jury had never been asked to consider before, according to the CJA. Second, they wanted to keep the focus on Winston rather than Zita.

"We didn't want the case to be Zita versus Fernandez Larios," Cunningham explains. "Zita never pitched herself as a victim. We preferred the jury view Winston as the victim."

And there were those Miami anti-communist politics to consider. The case could easily become a debate about Pinochet, something too large for a single lawsuit. The attorneys decided to avoid certain politically charged topics, such as Fernandez Larios' involvement in the Letelier assassination. They also didn't want Zita's own politics to become an issue.

"We were concerned if the jury registered us or Zita as politically motivated, they wouldn't be able to do the right thing," Cunningham says. "We were afraid the defense would make something out of the fact Zita has deeply held beliefs that are political."

As the trial progressed, Zita, despite giving so much to the case, backed away. The legal truth, she decided, was different from the historical one, less complete and smaller in scope. She had done her best to compile the historical truth, and was content to let the lawyers unfold the legal one. For much of the proceeding, she simply sat quietly, holding Roberto's hand.

Despite her son's protectiveness, the day came when Zita had to take the witness stand herself, sitting only a few feet from the man she believed killed her brother. As Zita spoke, she could feel Fernandez Larios gazing at her intently, but she refused to look at him.

Her lawyers were afraid that the defense attorney, Steven Davis, would try to portray Zita as a crusader looking for a scapegoat.

Instead, Davis tried mostly to poke holes in her research.

She hadn't, for example, gotten the general who led the Caravan of Death, Arellano Stark, to talk to her. In his cross-examination, Davis attempted to get Zita to answer with a simple yes or no whether she'd talked to other people, says Felipe.

But Zita insisted on explaining that she contacted many more people than had actually talked to her. Instead of appearing as if she had pursued witnesses selectively, she came out looking thorough.

"She tried to talk to everyone," says Felipe.

The taped depositions of the witnesses rounded up by Zita, says Cunningham, were particularly effective with the jury. Cunningham and Kerrigan used excerpts from them to paint a chillingly vivid picture of the last days of Winston and the other Copiapo prisoners.

The excerpts started with Enrique Vidal, the former garrison guard, saying he'd greeted the Caravan men when their Pumas landed. According to Vidal, Fernandez Larios was carrying a macelike weapon with nails protruding from it. Vidal asked him about the device, and the soldier said it was for "tickling the little pigeons," which Vidal understood to mean torturing the prisoners. Other depositions recalled Fernandez Larios torturing people throughout the country.

Especially emotional testimony came from the local coroner, Victor Bravo Monroy, who issued death certificates for the Copiapo prisoners, many of whom he'd met. Bravo Monroy described wounds on the men's corpses, drawing his hand across his throat to indicate that Winston had been slashed to death. Some of the victims, he testified, had tried to shield their faces from gunshots, and ended up with bullet wounds in their hands.

Then, apparently overcome by the brutality of the executions, he suddenly stopped.

"Why didn't they just kill them?" he said softly, as if to himself. "So bloody."

Bravo Monroy clearly was shocked, and his testimony moved the jurors, Cunningham says.

Eventually, the Cabellos' lawyers called Fernandez Larios to testify. At first, Cunningham says, he seemed agitated and flustered. But when the ex-soldier calmed down, "he seemed more calculating." Fernandez Larios said all the right things, but they "didn't ring true," the attorney says. In the end, he says, Larios "was not likable" and failed to win over the jury.

After three weeks, Cunningham presented his closing argument. He recapitulated what the Caravan of Death had done, and pointed out that the people who would have been in the best position to testify against Fernandez Larios weren't alive to do so. He spoke with power and eloquence.

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