The literary assassin

Mariana Callejas, former secret police agent and one of the more notorious figures from the Pinochet dictatorship, died in a care home this week.

I interviewed her in Santiago in 1989.  She was astonishingly frank, but then she was used to talking about her past, having given extended statements to FBI officials investigating the 1976 car bomb assassination of Chilean exile Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C.  Her husband, Michael Townley, an American working for the regime’s Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), had placed the bomb which killed Letelier and his co-worker Ronni Moffitt.

“If there are any doubt about what really went on under the regime, well, I had it straight from the horse’s mouth,” she told me. “These army people, the captains, the majors, when they talked about assassinations it was as if they were talking about the last movie they saw.”

The interview took place at her home in Lo Curro, an affluent municipality in eastern Santiago.  She brought out some short fiction to show me, saying she was writing more in English than in Spanish these days. I quickly read through one of the pieces, about an emperor and a butterfly and have to admit, she had writing talent. In the mid-seventies she hosted all-night literary gatherings (a curfew was in effect), even as their basement was being used as a holding pen and torture site for political prisoners. The late Roberto Bolaño wrote a fictionalized account of these dark events in his novella By Night in Chile; Callejas was called “Maria Canales.”  She published a collection of stories, La Larga Noche, which contained descriptions of torture and bomb making.  Another story was awarded a prize sponsored by a Chilean literary magazine, causing an understandable outcry; the magazine explained that the entries were submitted under pseudonyms and that the author’s identity was not known until after the winning story was announced.

I asked her how she came to work for the DINA.  She said the regime knew of her and Townley’s “resistance work” against the ill-fated socialist government of Salvador Allende, when far-right groups set off bombs and engaged in other sabotage.  She claimed to have been concerned when Townley told her of the plan to murder Letelier, and that the DINA chief had promised him a commission in the Chilean army after completing this deadly mission.

But Callejas was not exactly a cowed wife.  A Chilean court later found her guilty of involvement in another car bomb assassination: former army commander General Carlos Prats and his wife Sofia, in Buenos Aires in 1974. She was given a 20-year prison sentence in 2008 but Chile’s Supreme Court later reduced this to five years under house arrest.

Last year Callejas and 14 other DINA agents were indicted in the 1976 murder of a Spanish diplomat, Carlos Soria; Chile’s Supreme Court ruled that the victim had been kidnapped and brought to the Townley-Callejas home in Lo Curro where he was interrogated and killed during torture and that the perpetrators sought to cover up their crime by staging an automobile accident.  But Callejas, now in a care home, was suffering from dementia and was not formally charged.