Memorial to Orlando Letelier

Memorial to Orlando Letelier

It was 38 years ago today that Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean government minister, diplomat and ambassador to the U.S., was assassinated here in D.C. I was only 14 years old at the time, but I remember it happening because of the unusual and audacious method by which he was killed – a car bomb.

Marcos Orlando Letelier del Solar was a Chilean economist, Socialist politician and diplomat during the presidency of Socialist President Salvador Allende. After a military coup d’état led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the government in 1973, Letelier was arrested. He spent approximately a year in prisons and various concentration camps, including the infamous Dawson Island, which was used by the Allende regime to house political prisoners suspected of being communist activists. After diplomatic pressure from Venezuelan government prompted his release, Letelier moved to D.C. at the invitation of writer and film-maker Saul Landau to work at the Institute of Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank. He then became the leading voice of Chilean resistance to Pinochet, lobbying Congress and European powers to stop trading with the military dictatorship of American-backed General Pinochet.

Approximately a year after coming to D.C., on September 21, 1976, Letelier was on his way to work like any other day, except that he was giving his assistant, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, and her husband, Michael, a ride because their car had broken down. Letelier was driving, while Ronni was in the front passenger seat and Michael was in the rear behind his wife. As they rounded Sheridan Circle in northwest D.C. at approximately 9:35 am, a violent explosion under the car lifted it off the ground and caused it to collide with another car that happened to be parked illegally in front of the Irish embassy.

Michael was able to escape from the car by crawling out where the shattered rear window. Assuming Ronni was alright when he saw her get out of the car and stumble away, he made his way around the car to check on Letelier, who was still in the driver’s seat. Letelier’s lower torso was blown away and his legs were severed, but he was still alive. Both Ronni and Letelier were taken to the George Washington University Medical Center. Letelier succumbed to the massive injuries suffered in the explosion approximately 20 minutes later.   Ronni’s died a little over an hour later, her larynx and carotid artery having been severed by a piece of shrapnel from the bomb. Michael suffered only a minor head wound.

An FBI investigation determined that the assassination had been orchestrated by agents of the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), the Chilean secret police, led by an American named Michael Townley, who was a DINA U.S. expatriate who had once worked for the CIA, along with right-wing Cuban militants who they had hired to carry out the hit. Townley was extradited to the U.S., and agreed in a plea deal to provide evidence against his co-conspirators in exchange for pleading guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to commit murder and being given a ten-year sentence. Townley’s wife, Mariana Callejas, also agreed to testify in exchange for not being prosecuted. The Chilean government refused to extradite two DINA officials who were involved, but they were tried and convicted in Chile, and sentenced to between 6 and 7 years in prison. The Cubans were tried in the U.S. and sentenced to life in prison. Soon after the trial, Townley was freed under the Witness Protection Program.   General Pinochet, who died in December of 2006, was never charged or brought to trial for the murders, despite CIA evidence implicating him as having ordered the assassination.

On this bike ride, I rode to the Letelier-Moffitt Memorial at the site of the bombing in which they were killed. The memorial is located in the southwest area of Sheridan Circle, near 23rd Street and Massachusetts Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Embassy Row neighborhood. The memorial consists of a small brass plaque embedded in the grass between the sidewalk and the curb where they were killed, near the Irish and Romanian embassies.

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