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.
But Judge Guzmán was clear. “I have to tell you, Mr. Purdy,” he said calmly, “there are indications you were involved in a cover-up and that you have not been fully forthcoming with the investigation.” Judge Guzmán then officially declared Purdy inculpado–a “suspect”–in his investigation.
Thus Purdy becomes the first former US official to face possible criminal penalties in a case arising from the 1973 Chilean coup.
Infuriated by the judge’s ruling, Purdy stomped from the chambers and angrily confronted a waiting claque of courthouse reporters. With TV cameras rolling, Purdy–pressed to explain his behavior in 1973–grabbed a reporter by the arm and shouted in an odd Spanish-English mix, “Momen-fucking-tito!” Purdy’s indignation, featured prominently in Chilean newscasts, takes us to the moral center of this story. Purdy was shocked that a US official might actually be held responsible in a foreign court for crimes perpetrated by US policy. The obscure Purdy is now an important symbol in the quest for international justice. If the “Pinochet principle” established that former heads of state lack immunity from human rights violations, then so do ex-consuls general.
Purdy was caught in Guzmán’s net only because he retired here and could not escape a Chilean subpoena. But Guzmán’s bigger targets are sixteen other former US officials, including US Ambassador to Chile Nathaniel Davis and Kissinger. More than a year ago, Guzmán requested that Washington make these officials available. Only by questioning them can anyone begin to answer key questions like what the US government did or did not know about the murder of its own citizens and to what degree functionaries like Purdy were following a State Department line of cover-up for the Pinochet junta. So far Washington hasn’t responded to Guzmán’s request. Kissinger told a British audience in late April that while “it is quite possible mistakes were made,” a certain number of errors are inevitable and “the issue is whether, thirty years after the event, the courts are the appropriate means by which determination is made.”
Some pieces of the Horman puzzle that have emerged from thousands of pages of recently declassified documents indeed point to some level of US involvement. “There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest US intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman’s death,” reads one State Department memo, obtained by the National Security Archive. “At best it was limited to providing or confirming information that helped motivate his murder by the GOC [government of Chile]. At worst, US intelligence was aware that GOC saw Horman in a rather serious light and US officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of GOC paranoia.”
The Chileans might have been paranoid, but Washington was coldly calculating. The Nixon Administration found it more compelling to support Pinochet’s regime than to fully investigate and solve the murder of its own citizens. In early 1974, shortly after Horman and Teruggi’s bodies had been found and Pinochet’s blood orgy was rising to fever pitch, the State Department official in charge of Latin America, Jack Kubisch, had a private meeting with then-Chilean Foreign Minister Adm. Ismael Huerta. A confidential US Embassy cable to the State Department reports that in that meeting “Kubisch raised this subject [of Horman’s murder] in the context of the need to be careful to keep relatively small issues in our relationship from making our cooperation more difficult.”
The multilingual Judge Guzmán exudes erudite refinement. The son of a well-known poet, bearded and partial to blazers and regimental ties, Guzmán seems more the country squire than crusading magistrate. But his patience and polish, his deliberate even-temperedness, have led not only to indictments of the once-untouchable Pinochet but also of fifty-five other Chilean officers. As he ushered me into his chambers, he stopped first to shake the hands of several suspect former and active police officials he had cited who were waiting in an adjacent room. “Sometimes it is very difficult to have to treat these men you know are criminals and murderers as gentlemen,” he said. “But that’s why we have laws to punish them.”
In accord with those laws, Guzmán says that if the United States doesn’t act soon on his request to gather testimony from Kissinger and other US officials, he’ll have no choice but to file for their extradition to Chile. Kissinger could satisfy Guzmán’s request by testifying before a US judge, who would ask the questions Guzmán wants answered. Guzmán doesn’t want to indict Kissinger; he only wants to hear his testimony on these supposedly “relatively small issues.” But there’s a better way: Kissinger should get on a plane to Santiago and spend a few hours with the judge to help clear up these crimes. And he can be sure that Judge Guzmán will, at all times, treat him strictly as a gentleman.