I arrived here in Chile May 8 as a material witness in a criminal complaint against former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet for the murder of an American friend just days after the 1973 coup. But by the time the week was over, I found myself giving face-to-face testimony against one of the former top officials of the US Embassy in Chile and–in effect–against former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
The last time I had seen former US Consul General Fred Purdy was on the morning of September 17, 1973, when I and a handful of other young Americans living here at the time stood nervously outside his office and pleaded with him for some sort of US protection. Six days earlier General Pinochet’s military had seized power, declared a state of internal war and unleashed a ferocious and bloody spasm of terror and murder. But a gruff, impatient and profane Purdy snubbed our plea and literally pushed us back into the chaotic streets, telling us we had nothing to fear from the new military regime–and that the US embassy could and would do nothing for us.
We would soon learn that at about the same hour we were begging Purdy for help, a truckload of Chilean troops had kidnapped our fellow American Charlie Horman from his home a few miles away. Within forty-eight hours Horman was summarily and secretly executed. As memorialized in the 1982 Costa-Gavras film Missing, his body wasn’t found for another month, and his killers were never identified. Within days of Horman’s execution, another young American friend, Frank Teruggi, was also seized and murdered by Chilean forces. And Chile was plunged into the seventeen-year nightmare of Pinochet’s military dictatorship that stamped out at least 3,000 other lives and sent nearly a million into exile.
Purdy has never admitted he was wrong, and it’s likely he still believes he never made a mistake. US policy-makers from Henry Kissinger in the 1970s to Otto Reich, George W. Bush’s top man on Latin America, have always been quicker to praise Pinochet for his fealty to American-style free-market economics than to condemn him for his butchery.
Now, however, Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia–the courageous Chilean magistrate who last year indicted Pinochet on kidnapping and murder charges–is helping set the historical record straight. At the behest of Charlie Horman’s widow, Joyce, Judge Guzmán opened a formal criminal probe into the circumstances of Horman’s death, including any US role. As a witness in Judge Guzmán’s chambers for three days, I was asked to confirm under oath that in the wake of the military takeover, Purdy and the embassy turned their back on Americans in need–especially Americans thought to have been sympathetic to Socialist President Salvador Allende, deposed in the coup.
Under Chile’s arcane Napoleonic legal system, Purdy, who now lives in Santiago, was subpoenaed for a careo–forced to be personally confronted by me in the presence of the judge. Purdy, now 73, may be visibly aged but he is the same truculent functionary I remember from that morning twenty-nine years ago. His objections to my testimony were loud enough to be heard by others in the waiting room outside the judge’s chambers. He vociferously argued that he had done everything possible to save American lives in the aftermath of the coup and that Horman could not be rescued, primarily because he had never sought the help of the embassy. In recent declarations to the Chilean press, Purdy had claimed–with no substantiation–that Horman might have been picked up because he was friendly with an armed ultraleft group. So here we were, back to 1973. According to Purdy, honest people had nothing to fear from the Chilean military.