The end of a nightmare

After her husband was killed in Chile's bloody coup, Joyce Horman thought the only justice would come from telling her story. Now she has reason to hope those responsible will be forced to face the truth.

Published October 19, 1999 5:20PM (EDT)

Oct. 8 was a true day of celebration for Joyce Horman. Her 26 years of struggle had finally paid off. Not only was the man responsible for her husband's murder, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, ordered extradited to Spain to face charges of crimes against humanity, but that same day, she finally learned what she had long suspected: The U.S. government was partially culpable for his death.

"I feel vindicated," said Horman at her Upper East Side apartment in New York. "We were right."

For over a quarter of a century, Horman has been trying to obtain classified government documents about her husband's death. Charles Horman, then a 31-year-old freelance journalist, was detained in Santiago, the capital, days after the 1973 coup. His body was found later, buried in a cement wall. The Horman story was the subject of the 1982 Academy-Award winning movie "Missing," which claimed Charles was murdered because he uncovered sensitive information about American involvement in the bloody coup that left thousands of people dead. The Horman family never stopped believing that American officials in Chile took part in the plot to kill him.

After years of fruitless petitions and endless lawsuits, Joyce Horman was finally handed a government document that corroborated her until-now unsubstantiated conspiracy theory.

The document, dated Aug. 25, 1976 and issued the by the Department of State, was retrieved through a Freedom of Information Act request that Horman filed through the National Security Archives, a non-profit organization based in Washington. The document's release comes after the Clinton administration's directive to uncover intelligence material relating to the coup. The document states that "there is some circumstantial evidence to suggest U.S. intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman's death.

"At best," the document continues, "it was limited to providing or confirming information that helped motivate his murder by the (government of Chile). At worst, U.S. intelligence was aware the (government of Chile) saw Horman in a rather serious light and U.S. officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of (government of Chile) paranoia."

The document is a major breakthrough "I felt enormous joy and relief," Horman said of its release. "What a wonderful feeling. It's been such a long time."

But much critical evidence in the case remains hidden, and Horman's struggle is not over."What this document will do is put pressure on intelligence agencies to release more information about the Horman case," said Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives.

According to Kornbluh, there are more than a hundred documents still withheld in government vaults that are crucial to the Horman case. "The pathology of secrecy still reigns," he said. He is still waiting to see whether the CIA will comply with the presidential order to release more information.

Anya Guilsher, spokesperson for the CIA, insisted the agency is doing everything in its power to declassify as much information as possible. "We have to keep in mind here that we have not finished releasing documents," said Guilsher. "It's an ongoing process." Guilsher says the CIA maintains that it had no prior knowledge of and played no role in Horman's death.

She also said the State Department document released last Friday was open to interpretation. "It does not say we were complicit in his death, it says there is circumstantial evidence." Horman disagrees. "This was the conclusion the State Department came up with -- that the intelligence agencies were responsible. This is a very strong statement," The State Department refused to comment on the matter.

After so many years in the public eye, Joyce Horman still struggles with her wish for privacy and the need to get her message across. At 54, she remains striking. She is elegant, tall and gracious. There are no wrinkles on her face, no bitterness in her eyes. Her blond hair is fashionably cut at shoulder length and her voice is youthful. Horman never remarried. ("I didn't quite find the right guy," she said almost apologetically.) She still lives in the same building as Elizabeth Horman, Charles' mother.

When Joyce and Charles first moved to Chile in the early 1970s, it seemed to them a kind of paradise. Joyce was from a small town in Minnesota, while Charles was a native New Yorker, the child of an artist mother and businessman father. "He was the most delightful guy you've ever met," said his mother Elizabeth Horman, now 94. "He had an extraordinary sense of humor."

Charles and Joyce married in 1968, Three years later, they decided to travel to Central and South America. They arrived in Chile in July of 1972 and fell in love with the pastoral country along the Pacific Ocean. "It was a beautiful place," Horman recalled. They were fascinated by President Salvador Allende's socialist experiment. "People were taking a hold of their future. Everybody was talking about politics 100 percent of the time," Horman said enthusiastically. "It was vibrant, electric."

They decided to stay in Chile. Charles made a living as a freelance journalist, writing a few articles for a small leftist newspaper, while Joyce pursued art studies. Joyce describes her husband's leftist political views as mild, nothing that either of them would have anticipated as dangerous. But the political climate changed rapidly. Allende's reforms started going sour in 1973. Inflation rose to new heights. Copper, Chile's main export at the time, lost half its value in world markets and labor strikes were crippling the nation's economy.

On Sept. 11, 1973, Chileans woke up to a frightening reality. Their democratically-elected government had been overthrown in a military coup. Within hours, Gen. Pinochet, commander-in-chief of the Chilean army, had taken over the capital, Santiago. Before the day was over, Allende committed suicide. The presidential palace was bombed and people were running for their lives. Over the next few days, Santiago became a battle zone. Anyone with ties to the former government was in danger.

The national soccer stadium became Pinochet's detention, interrogation, torture and execution center. In total, 3,178 were killed by Pinochet's forces between the years 1973 and 1990. According to unbiased reports, commissioned by Pinochet's successor, Patricio Aylwin, thousands more were arrested and tortured. The documents describe horrifying details of rape, genital electroshock, forced sexual acts with animals and gruesome acts of murder.

Six days after the coup, Charles Horman was dragged out of his house by soldiers and taken to the national stadium. According to Terry Simon, a friend of the Hormans and one of the last people to see Charles alive, the young journalist had bumped into U.S. Navy officials who openly discussed American cooperation with Pinochet. Though he did not publicize what he had heard, Simon says Horman continued to ask questions of various U.S. officials, making him a target for detention and interrogation.

Joyce Horman returned home that day to find her house in shambles. She immediately notified embassy officials, assuming they would take immediate action. She expected U.S. Ambassador Nathaniel Davis would put pressure on Chilean officials to release her husband. To her amazement, American officials told her the Chileans reported no U.S. citizens in custody, and that her husband was probably in hiding because of his political views. Realizing her own government was stonewalling, she began to panic. Ed, Charles' father, jumped on the first flight to Santiago to join in the search. Almost entirely on their own, Joyce and Ed spent a month scouring every hospital, morgue and mental institution.

Four weeks after Charles disappeared, Ed got news through a private source that he was murdered only days after his arrest. Since that fateful day, Horman has been struggling to make the people responsible for her husband's death accountable for their deeds. In 1976, three years after Charles' death, Horman learned that a Chilean intelligence officer had testified in front of the State Department that an American official was present when the order to execute Charles Horman was given.

The Hormans filed suit against 11 American officials, including then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, but their lawsuit was dismissed for lack of evidence. In an effort to keep the case in the public eye, Joyce and Ed Horman cooperated with writer Thomas Hauser on a book about their experiences in Chile. "The Execution of Charles Horman; an American Sacrifice."

Though it sold few copies, it did pique the interest of Academy Award-winning director Constantin Costa-Gavras. His film "Missing" became an effective vehicle for Horman's story. Joyce credits the visceral quality of the film with sparking public outrage against Pinochet's regime. "It's hard to describe that level of violence, that level of distress in words," she said. "The reaction I saw in that audience was bigger and much fuller than anything I had ever found from telling the story ... You hear machine guns, it's not a common sound. It does something to your nervous system." But despite the impact of the film on public opinion, U.S. foreign policy toward Chile and its dictator remained as forgiving as ever.

Until recently, Horman has focused her attention not on political outcomes but on simply publicizing her husband's story. "Getting the truth out is the real justice," she said. Accountability for Pinochet seemed out of reach.

It wasn't until Oct. 16, 1998 that Horman received news that the impossible had happened -- Pinochet was arrested in London while undergoing back surgery. Thanks to the efforts of a young Spanish judge, Baltasar Garzon, a plea for Pinochet's arrest was delivered to Scotland Yard. At around midnight, two British officers entered his hospital room, disconnected his phone and handed the 82-year-old the official warrant. Spain had demanded the former dictator be shipped to Madrid to face trial.

The news of Pinochet's arrest shocked the international community. Never before had a former head of state been taken into custody in another country. The legal battle to get Pinochet extradited was not without obstacles. The first reaction of the British court was to grant him immunity. According to international law, former heads of state could not be prosecuted for crimes committed during their years in power.

Horman flew to London to testify in front of the House of Commons in the hopes that her story would change the magistrate's decision. As she entered the room where the testimonies of Pinochet's victims were to be heard, Horman looked around nervously. Thirty-one TV crews from around the world and dozens of reporters were setting up their equipment. "I was overwhelmed," Horman said. As she heard the voices of the victims of Pinochet, she cried.

It took more than a year before the decision to extradite Pinochet to finally come down, and Pinochet's lawyers are appealing the decision. International law experts predict the extradition to be finalized within a year or less. The same day Horman finally obtained the document confirming some of CIA complicity in her husband's death. Now she is contemplating reopening her case against the American officials who she believes did nothing to stop Charles' murder. "They knew more than they were acknowledging," she said sadly. "I want this information to be investigated."

By Itay Hod

Itay Hod is a writer in New York.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Cia Latin America