Nearly 43 years after the assassination of a famed Chilean folksinger, a Florida jury has found a former Chilean lieutenant liable for his grisly murder in the days after a U.S.-backed coup brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power.
A six-member Orlando jury found Pedro Pablo Barrientos Nuñez liable Monday (June 27) for the torture and murder of Victor Jara, rejecting the main defense argument that Barrientos never stepped foot in Chile Stadium where the folksinger was held with 5,000 others immediately after the coup.
Former Chilean soldiers under his command testified during the trial that Barrientos was stationed at the stadium, and one said that Barrientos repeatedly bragged that he had fired the two fatal gunshots into the songwriter’s head.
Barrientos -- a Florida resident who lied on immigration forms about his military past to gain entry into the U.S. in 1989 -- also claimed that until 2009 he had never heard of Jara, one of the most famous musicians in Chile at the time of the coup, who influenced the likes of Bob Dylan, U2 and Peter, Paul and Mary. Rolling Stone magazine voted him one of the top 15 protest artists of all time.
Jara -- who was shot 44 times after his wrists and hands were broken in torture sessions at the stadium -- had been a key supporter of the democratically elected Socialist President Salvador Allende, whom Pinochet overthrew on Sept. 11, 1973, ushering in a 17-year reign of terror. Jara’s politically charged songs about poverty and injustice were anathema to the dictatorship.
For more background, see our earlier story: Chilean ex-soldier stands trial for 1973 death of singer Victor Jara
The federal jury also awarded Jara’s family, which had filed the lawsuit under the Torture Victim Protection Act, some $28 million in damages. It is money the family never expects to see, however.
Barrientos had protected his assets in a trust before the trial where he was represented by Luis Calderon of The Baez Law firm. The firm has represented such clients as George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator acquitted of murder in the fatal shooting of an unarmed African American teen, and Casey Anthony, who was found not guilty of murdering her two-year-old daughter.
During the trial, Calderon portrayed Barrientos as a poverty-stricken retiree who drives an old car and lives in a modest 2-bedroom house.
After the verdict, Joan Jara -- the slain singer’s 88-year-old widow who testified about finding his tortured lifeless body in a morgue -- said it was never about money, but justice and accountability that the family has been seeking for four decades.
“It has been a long journey,” she said. “Today, there is some justice for Victor’s death, and for the thousands of families in Chile who have sought truth. I hope that the verdict continues the healing.”
C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability that filed the torture suit for the family in 2013, said the verdict “is a testament that justice can prevail, no matter how long it takes.”
It is not clear if the verdict will facilitate the extradition request by Chilean courts to have Barrientos sent back to Chile to face a criminal trial for murder. The U.S. government has yet to act on the 2013 request.
However, two former Salvadoran defense ministers have been deported and another high-ranking Salvadoran officer is awaiting extradition as the result of lawsuits brought by CJA, an international human rights firm based in San Francisco.
Former Salvadoran defense minister Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova was deported in 2015 and former defense minister Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia was deported this year. Both were tied to the rapes and murders of four U.S. churchwomen in El Salvador in 1980, among other war crimes. Both had been living comfortably for years in Florida.
Meanwhile former Salvadoran Col. Inocente Orlando Montano is awaiting extradition to Spain to stand trial for helping plot and carry out the murders of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989.
[Linda Cooper and James Hodge are the authors of Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of the Americas.]