Their 9/11 and Ours
SANTIAGO, CHILE -- I AM FINALLY DOING MY part in the war against international terrorism. I spent the morning touring the site of this country's most notorious concentration camp and killing field: the cold, cement basement of the massive National Stadium. Thousands of Chileans were at one time warehoused, interrogated, beaten and tortured here. As many as 150 were executed under the bleachers.
The tour was prep for court testimony I will give later this week against a band of international terrorists that a local judge would like to see finally brought to justice. The head of that outlaw gang is a guy named Henry Kissinger. And I'm now going to do my little part to help get him and his accomplices into the dock.
This story also begins on September 11, but in 1973. On that day two airplanes were also used to initiate the attack; two Chilean Air Force Hawker-Hunter jets ran eight bombing sorties against the Presidential Palace in downtown Santiago. As it went up in flames, so did a century of Chilean democracy. The elected president I worked for as a translator, Salvador Allende, killed himself rather than be taken as prisoner by his mutinous military.
And the dictator who took power that day, General Augusto Pinochet, every bit as obscurantist as Osama bin Laden, installed a bloody regime that -- in a sort of eerie premonition -- wound up snuffing out the lives of 3,100 innocent victims, almost the exact number that perished in the barbarity of last September 11. And just like the perpetrators of the World Trade Center attack, the coup makers of 1973 also had a network of international support. But their patrons' operational headquarters were not in Kabul, but rather in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C.
I was lucky and survived the coup unscathed. Luckier than some of the others with whom I went this morning to roam the silent bowels of the National Stadium's bottom floor. Wisconsin political scientist Adam Schesch showed us where he and his wife were held at gunpoint for eight days. Where he was beaten with rifle butts and his ribs broken. Where he and his wife huddled as a line of prisoners were marched out onto the playing field and mowed down with submachine guns. "Whenever the soldiers would come and turn on these big ventilation fans, we knew more executions were about to happen," Schesch said. "The noise of the fans was supposed to cover up the gunshots from outside."
All of us were luckier than our accompanying attorney Fabiola Letelier. Her brother Orlando, a former foreign minister, was killed by the same gang in 1976 when they set off a car bomb in Washington, D.C., in the first significant act of international terror on American soil.
WHAT BROUGHT US ALL TOGETHER IN SANTIAGO this week is the still-unresolved case of Charlie Horman. A young American filmmaker, Horman was arrested here six days after the coup and went missing until his battered and bullet-riddled body was found in a morgue a month later. Charlie, who was a casual friend of mine, was memorialized in the great Costa-Gavras film Missing and in Thomas Hauser's book The Execution of Charles Horman.
We've never been sure why Charlie was killed by the Chilean military. Maybe on the order of an irrational commander. Maybe by cooler calculation by a higher-up. And quite possibly because he knew too much -- because in the first hours of the military takeover he had literally stumbled onto evidence revealing the depth of U.S. encouragement and support for the bloody takeover.
What we do know is that the U.S. government engaged in an extraordinary cover-up to prevent Charlie's family and the American public from getting the facts and circumstances surrounding his murder. For those gory details I refer you to the movie or book above.
A year and a half ago, Charlie's widow, Joyce, returned to Santiago and filed a criminal lawsuit, demanding to know the truth. A courageous Chilean judge, Juan Guzman Tapia (the same judge leading all local investigations into Pinochet himself), accepted the complaint and opened a new probe.
This time around, Judge Guzman wants to find out not only which Chilean army unit pulled the trigger on Charlie Horman, but also what exactly the U.S. responsibilities were in this case. To that end, he sent a letter to the U.S. government demanding that Henry Kissinger -- who directed U.S.-Chilean policy at the time -- as well as other former American officials, including thenU.S. Ambassador to Chile Nathaniel Davis, testify about their knowledge of these events.
So far, the U.S. government has not officially responded. But Judge Guzman is not a man to be toyed with. He says if he doesn't soon hear back from Washington, he will file for Kissinger's extradition. And for those who doubt Guzman's resolve, be advised that he has already interrogated the man who was U.S. consul at the time, Fred Purdy. (Purdy could not escape Guzman's net, as he lives here in Chile.)
My role in all this is small, but I am eager to fulfill it. My testimony before Judge Guzman this week will focus on how this same Consul Purdy and, indeed, how the entirety of the U.S. Embassy here -- apparently under Kissinger's orders -- consistently denied any aid or protection to U.S. citizens during the Pinochet coup.
On three different occasions during that first nightmarish week of military rule in 1973, I asked the U.S. Embassy for protection. And three times I was turned down flat. The last time was on the morning of September 17 in a face-to-face encounter that I and a small group of fellow Americans had with Consul Purdy. He denied there was any threat to Americans. He told us to stay home and obey the new authorities. He warned us that the only danger was from what he called "left-wing snipers."
The consul told us that Ambassador Nathaniel Davis was too busy to meet with us. As history would have it, just about the same time we were making our plea for protection, a few miles to the south a truckload of Chilean troops had broken into Charlie Horman's house and were carrying him away to the National Stadium.
THERE'S A FINAL IRONY HERE. ABOUT a year ago I attended a diplomatic dinner in Los Angeles and found myself seated next to the same former Ambassador Nathaniel Davis -- now a wizened man in his 80s. He had no idea who I was. And I had no intention of making a scene and embarrassing the guest of honor, so I decided to bite my tongue.
But Davis kept making small talk with me and insisted -- in a friendly way -- on knowing more about me. I finally relented and said that I had been in Chile when he was there, but I only said that at the time I was a "student."
"Those were quite some times," the ambassador said with a whiff of nostalgia.
"Indeed," I agreed.
"By the way," the ambassador asked, "did you ever come to see me?"
"As a matter of fact, I did one time. But I couldn't get in to see you," I answered.
"Ahh, yes," he said with a distant look. "Those were very, very busy times for us. You must have caught me on a very busy day."
In retrospect, quite an understatement. Ambassador Davis is retired now and lives in Southern California. Now that his schedule is more relaxed, maybe he can respond to Judge Guzman's request and testify under oath what he knew about the death of Charlie Horman. I can only hope that my own testimony will make it a little harder for him and his old boss Kissinger to remain silent.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.
- Rain Could Douse This February Heat Wave. Maybe.
- City Cracks Down on Happy Ending Massage Parlors
- With the Coastal Commission's Chief Axed, Will SoCal Become the Jersey Shore?