Chile’s northern Atacama Desert is arguably the driest place on Earth. In some parts of it, rainfall has never even been recorded.
Which means, if you’re a mass murderer, it’s also a fairly dumb place to bury your victims.
A corpse, and the forensic evidence it bears, simply won’t decompose in those conditions. So when authorities found a mass grave in the Atacama in 1991, its occupants were remarkably well preserved – even though they’d been murdered in 1973, during the darkest days of the military coup that brought Gen. Augusto Pinochet and his brutal, 17-year-long dictatorship to power.
One of those bodies was that of 28-year-old Winston Cabello, a planning official in the leftist government that Pinochet overthrew. His throat had been slit by a corvo, a curved military knife. It was also apparent to any northern Chilean that Winston and the others had been victims of a roving Pinochet army unit known as the Caravan of Death.
Proving that, however, would take more than a decade – and the moment of justice, one of the first-ever exacted on a leading Pinochet henchman, would take place 3,800 miles away, in Miami.
This is an especially apt time to remember that landmark. On Nov. 17, Chile is holding a presidential election at the same time Chileans are observing the 40th anniversary of Pinochet’s bloody putsch. The election front-runner, former President Michelle Bachelet, was herself a torture victim of the Pinochet regime, which killed or “disappeared” more than 3,000 people.
But this autumn also marks a more positive milestone: the 10th anniversary of the Miami trial that held one of the leaders of the Caravan of Death – Armando Fernández Larios – responsible for Winston Cabello’s murder outside the northern Chilean city of Copiapó.
“It was the most transformative experience of my life,” Winston’s sister, Zita Cabello-Barrueto, says of the 2003 Miami verdict. “For the first time in U.S. history, someone was found responsible for crimes against humanity.”
Caravan killers like Fernández Larios were certain their handiwork would never be discovered. By the time the Atacama grave was located, however, Fernández Larios had already moved to Miami – safe, he thought, from any legal consequences for his Chilean crimes.
But Zita, now a developmental economist in San Francisco, was determined to identify her brother’s murderers. And slowly but surely, as Chile settled back into democracy after Pinochet’s 1990 departure from power, she found militares who would talk.
“I traveled about 10 times to Chile looking for witnesses,” she says. “And at the end I was very surprised that some military officers, vey high-ranking officers, were willing to testify.”
By 1999, she and the Center for Justice and Accountability, a San Francisco-based human-rights organization, decided they’d amassed enough evidence to put Fernández Larios on trial in federal court in Miami. And they were charging him not just with Winston’s death but with a broader blotter of crimes against humanity.
Problem was, extrajudicial killings committed in foreign countries before 1994 could not be prosecuted criminally under U.S. law. Zita and her family would have to sue Fernández Larios in civil court with no possibility of putting him behind bars.
Zita also feared that in the anti-communist hothouse of Miami, it would be hard to find a jury sympathetic to a left-wing victim such as her brother. But her Miami attorney, Julie Ferguson, was more optimistic.
“To me, this is a community full of people who are here precisely because they left dictatorial regimes and abuses in their home countries,” says Ferguson, today an immigration attorney at the Carlton Fields firm in Miami. “So I’m not surprised that there was a jury sympathetic.”
Ferguson was right. In October 2003, the Miami jury found Fernández Larios liable for torture, murder and even crimes against humanity. It was the first verdict of its kind in a U.S. court – and Fernández Larios was ordered to pay Winston Cabello’s family $4 million. He claimed a statute of limitations, but the verdict was upheld on appeal.
“I have such gratitude for people there in Miami,” says Zita. “I think they really, really understood how important this case was.”
Important not just for her family but for thousands of other Chileans. The Miami case has since helped inspire them to press, often successfully, for the prosecution of other Pinochet-era killers.
“My brother’s case really opened the door for similar actions,” says Zita.
That includes a civil suit recently filed in Jacksonville. It accuses another Pinochet officer living in Florida, Pedro Barrientos, in the grisly 1973 execution of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara. (Barrientos denies the charge.)
As Ferguson points out, the 2003 verdict also helped make Miami and the U.S. a less insulated hiding place for killers like Fernández Larios – who still insists he was simply following justifiable military orders when he killed Winston.
“It was important to know that those people can come here but they’re going to be held accountable,” says Ferguson.
Fernández Larios, claiming penury, has paid Winston’s family little, if any, of the jury award. But Zita insists that’s not why she took him to court.
“I sometimes struggle with the trial’s meaning,” she says. “But in this case the real meaning was about getting to the truth.”
As for the Atacama, it became a source of life in 2010 when 33 Chilean miners, trapped 2,000 feet beneath the desert, were rescued as the whole world watched. It happened almost seven years to the day after Zita’s Miami victory.