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 doubts 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.





More on the Neruda investigation

A laboratory in North Carolina is still studying samples taken from the remains of Chile’s Nobel Prize winning poet, Pablo Neruda, to determine whether he died of prostate cancer or was poisoned by a mysterious injection during his hospital stay shortly after the 1973 coup. (see earlier post:

Meanwhile, there has been speculation in both the Chilean and the foreign press that Neruda’s killer might have been Michael Townley, an American who worked for the Pinochet regime’s secret police organization, the DINA. Last week a Chilean judge ordered police to search for a “tall, blond, blue-eyed man” whom a doctor claimed to have seen at the hospital where Neruda died.  The physician, Dr. Sergio Draper, has changed his earlier account of the poet’s death and according to The Independent,

Dr Sergio Draper now claims a doctor called Price was with Neruda. There is no record of a Doctor Price in any of the hospital’s records and Draper said he never saw the man again after leaving him with Neruda.

The prosecutor believes that whoever the man was, “the important fact is that this was the person who ordered the injection” that may have killed Neruda. The description of Price as tall and blond with blue eyes matches Michael Townley, a CIA double agent (sic) who worked with the Chilean secret police under Pinochet.

There are a few problems with this line of inquiry. The DINA did not form until months after the coup, and neither this secret police organization nor its successor, the Central Nacional de Informaciones (CNI) worked with poisons until the 1980s. Townley, who moved to Chile with his parents as a teenager in the 1960s, is known to have been in the United States at the time of Neruda’s death.  As Peter Kornbluh, author of The Pinochet File, told the Santiago Times

“He was in Florida, a fugitive from justice in Chile where he had been part of an anti-Allende operation March 1972 that left a man dead. Only after Pinochet was well consolidated did he return and join DINA,” Kornbluh said.

He explained that officials in the U.S. undertook an extensive investigation into Townley and can verify his whereabouts for the time in question.

“Michael Townley was a prolific international terrorist who committed an act of terror and murder in the [U.S.] capital. As the target of a massive FBI investigation, the FBI retraced his movements in the years he was associated with violence in Chile,” said Kornbluh.

This blogger interviewed Townley’s ex-wife in Santiago in the late 1980s, and she remarked that her former husband had never lost his American accent. Which means that in the unlikely event he was in Santiago at the time of Neruda’s death, and managed to enter the poet’s hospital room dressed as a doctor, his accented Spanish would have made him even more conspicuous to hospital staff. And though they may be a minority, Chile does have its share of tall, blond and blue-eyed people.

A 36-year old murder case

A Spanish judge has issued indictments and international arrest warrants against seven former Pinochet regime security agents for the 1976 kidnapping and murder of Carmelo Soria, a Spanish diplomat working for the Santiago-based United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America. The former agents include Manuel Contreras, former head of regime’s secret police agency, the DINA, who is currently serving multiple prison sentences for killings and torture and Michael Townley, an American-born DINA agent who was extradited to the United States for his role in the killing of Chilean exile leader Orlando Letelier and his American colleague in a car bomb explosion in Washington.

Townley served a reduced prison sentence in the United States in return for testifying in the case, and entered the Federal Witness Protection Program. While working for the DINA his Santiago home was used to hold detainees, and Soria was among these victims (see earlier post

Judge Pablo Ruz said his Chilean counterparts “had shelved the case” and that there has not been “a serious investigation and follow up of these deeds.”  So what happens next? A lawyer for the Soria family said they were waiting for an extradition request in order to petition Chile’s Supreme Court to reopen the case.