In years past, the cronies of Gen. Augusto Pinochet–fellow generals, right-wing politicos and wealthy Chilean businessmen who profited from his seventeen-year dictatorship–have gathered on September 11 to fete the memory of his bloody rise to power. But this year’s anniversary of the military coup in Chile is a lonely time for the retired strongman.
Long condemned as a pariah abroad, Pinochet has now been abandoned by his friends at home. The legacy he hoped for among his own military and the Chilean elite has desaparecido–disappeared, like so many of his victims. Today, Pinochet is as close as he has ever been to being prosecuted for crimes ranging from “illicit enrichment” to international terrorism.
Until only a few weeks ago, the 88-year-old general appeared destined to live out his remaining years beyond the reach of justice. In July 2002 the Chilean Supreme Court closed down the long legal process against Pinochet that had begun with his October 1998 arrest in London, ruling that he suffered from “irreversible” dementia. “I have a clean conscience,” Pinochet then declared in a rather coherent statement. “The work of my government will be judged by history.”
Instead, his “work” is again being judged by Chilean tribunals. On August 26 the Supreme Court essentially reversed itself; in a 9-to-8 vote, the court stripped Pinochet of his immunity, giving the green light for a special magistrate, Judge Juan Guzman, to prosecute Pinochet as the “author of the crimes of kidnapping, conspiracy and torture” in the disappearances of nineteen people during the mid-1970s.
The sudden reversal of Pinochet’s legal and political fortunes is the result of the dramatic exposure of his hidden fortune in the United States. On July 15 a Senate subcommittee released a report on “Money Laundering and Foreign Corruption,” which detailed evidence of secret bank accounts Pinochet had kept between 1994 and 2002 at the Washington, DC-based Riggs Bank. Riggs had been Pinochet’s “personal banker,” according to the report, and “deliberately assisted him in the concealment and movement of his funds while he was under investigation [during his detention in London] and the subject of a world-wide court order freezing his assets.”
Some $8 million passed through these accounts. Although Pinochet’s official tax returns showed that he earned only $90,000 a year as a retired general, one Riggs client profile estimated his total personal net worth at “US$ 50 to 100 MM.”
Revelations of his hidden, and still unexplained, wealth created an instant uproar in Chile. Pinochet had enjoyed the image of austere, selfless incorruptibility. A declassified US intelligence biography reflected this popular perception, describing him as “honest, hardworking…lives very modestly.”
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But with the “Pinocheques” scandal, as it has come to be known in Chile, Pinochet joins the ranks of the Somozas and Duvaliers as a greed-driven tinhorn despot. Both his military and the Pinochetista political party, UDI, have moved to distance themselves from their besieged patriarch. In the past six weeks Chilean authorities have opened inquiries into the unidentified sources of Pinochet’s riches. Like a Chilean Al Capone, Pinochet now faces the prospect of being convicted of tax evasion.
The corruption scandal clearly had an impact on the August ruling to lift Pinochet’s immunity for human rights crimes. Internal Riggs memorandums show that between August 2000 and April 2002–the very time frame during which the Chilean courts were evaluating Pinochet’s claims of mental infirmity–Riggs officials surreptitiously sent thirty-eight cashier’s checks, totaling $1.9 million, directly to Pinochet, who then cashed them at various Santiago banks. The image of the general orchestrating the secret transfer of funds and personally cashing the $50,000 checks, even as he submitted brief after brief to convince the courts that he was crippled by dementia, provided significant ammunition for his victims to argue that the court had been snookered. “How can he be mad to kill, but sane to steal?” as one lawyer, Eduardo Contreras, put it to the justices during oral arguments.
The Supreme Court ruling opens the way for Judge Guzman to pursue Pinochet for acts of terror related to an insidious component of his military regime: Operation Condor. Under Pinochet, the Chilean secret police organized what declassified US intelligence documents described as an “international Murder Inc.” among the Southern Cone countries to track down and kill leftist opponents in the region–and beyond. Guzman’s investigation into the disappearance of nineteen Condor victims promises to reveal new details of how Pinochet’s dictatorship collaborated with Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and other regimes to create and operate in the mid-1970s what amounted to the world’s largest state-sponsored network of international terrorists.
General Pinochet, of course, will resist being held accountable to the bitter end. As The Nation went to press, his lawyers were filing motions to remove Guzman as special prosecutor and had blocked, at least temporarily, the judge’s subpoena for Pinochet to submit to a formal interrogation on his role in authorizing and overseeing Condor operations. But while Pinochet could eventually manage, through legal maneuvering or death, to escape final judicial reckoning, it is clear that the impunity of his actions, and the immunity of his legacy among his closest supporters, has been stripped away once and for all.