The Al Capone of the Southern Cone
"My rackets are run on strictly American lines and they’re going to stay that way!"
– Claud Cockburn, British journalist, interviewed Capone in 1929 (In Time of Trouble, 1956)
I smiled when I read in late July that a Senate Committee had discovered that the Riggs Bank of Washington had laundered at least $8 million registered under the names of Augusto Pinochet and his wife, Lucia. Poetic justice, I asked? Like his true biographical twin, Al Capone, Pinochet had under-reported–lied about–his wealth. Not only would the Department of Justice investigate this apparent hanky-panky, but so too would the Chilean equivalent of the IRS.
Could Pinochet, former president of Chile and commander in chief of its armed forces (1973-97), take a fall for income tax evasion? Would the poster boy for late twentieth century dictators go down in history as yet another example of a thief and murderer who claimed patriotism as his moral underpinning?
The late Chicago bootlegging gangster paid off politicians and cops and hired expensive lawyers to keep the feds off his back the American way. Before he left the presidential office in 1990, Pinochet designed his escape from potential legal tormentors by granting himself amnesty for all crimes. Generalissimo Augusto Pinochet Ugarte also appointed himself commander of the army and Senator for life; he had nothing to worry about.
In the early fall of 1998, the recently retired Pinochet landed in London. His Excellency had acquired a slightly changed facial expression, that Cesare Borgia look, which Friedrich Nietzsche attributed to the murderous and lecherous Pope who in his 90s purportedly died in bed with two nubile beauties wrapped around him and a beatific smile on his face.
Pinochet never perfected the innocent façade. "I’ve got a sour face, perhaps that’s why they say I’m a dictator," he remarked in August 1986. He never succeeded at portraying himself as genial, because he could never obscure the contemptuous and defiant expression that taunted his enemies: "I have transcended your morality, gotten away with torture [tens of thousands], murder [3,190], the devastation of my enemies [hundreds of thousands forced into exile]. Now, look at me, aging gracefully, the beneficiary of the red carpet in England, the mother of modern empires and home of true civilization."
Pinochet had reason to feel the sense of satisfaction that comes in the twilight years with knowledge of one’s accomplishments. He had ruled Chile for seventeen years, four more than Hitler in Germany, survived an assassination plot and a global political campaign to undermine him. He had even managed to tolerate the carping of the insatiable Americans, his former benefactors. Nixon encouraged a bloody coup, roundup and torture of subversives and then President Carter invented human rights to judge nations by, as if Washington had no connection with its chosen disciple in the southern cone. Oh well, Americans are difficult, not like the elegant Madame Thatcher, who had extended an invitation to the Generalissimo for tea when he finished shopping at Harrods and dining in the expensive establishments that befitted a former head of state.
Then, amidst this royal treatment, while emerging from the anesthetic from a minor operation at an expensive private clinic, Pinochet heard an English voice. "You are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent…" According to the police officer who read him his rights, Pinochet appeared to smile, possibly a gas pain. Did Pinochet imagine a scene from the movies or American television? Elliot Ness arresting Al Capone? In this case, Judge Baltazar Garzon had issued an arrest warrant through Interpol and the British police had enforced it. International law working against one of the winners? The warrant claimed that Pinochet had tortured tens of thousands, used genocide against his political opponents and ordered a series of assassinations abroad, all crimes in international law.
The political directorate of Chile, the United States and England reacted in horror. The very law they themselves had promulgated might now ensnare one of their clients, a man who could recite endless details about the support he received from Washington and London for the criminal policies outlined in the arrest order. The Spanish government tried to disqualify the arrest warrant of its own Judge Grazon in a series of unsuccessful legal maneuvers.
But the words of the torture, genocide and anti-terrorist treaties were crystal clear, the evidence abundant and public opinion very active against Pinochet. Like the Chicago gangster, Pinochet kept repeating the "you got nuttin on me" phrase. The man who had once boasted that "not a leaf stirs in this country without my consent," now eschewed all knowledge of human rights violations. Not my department, he said. If these terrible things actually happened, someone else must have ordered them.
For fifteen months, his lawyers appealed while high officials of Chile, Spain, England and the United States connived to spring the octogenarian criminal. The House of Lords, the most conservative of British courts, finally ruled that the UN Convention against Torture became British law in 1988. Thus, the charges against Pinochet on those grounds alone would constitute sufficient reason to hold him for trial.
As Pinochet remained in London under house arrest through 1999, he apparently requested Riggs Bank officials to circumvent banking procedures and transfer his millions in order to avoid possible discovery by the pushy Judge Garzon. So, while Pinochet’s family declared him mentally unfit for trial, the Generalissimo schemed to launder his loot in Bahamas offshore companies. Very Caponelike!
How did Pinochet amass millions on a salary of $15 thousand a year? Donations, claimed Pinochet. Even some of his supporters laughed, but continued to insist that Pinochet saved their nation from communist destruction.
Pinochet maintains that he led the 1973 coup for patriotic reasons. Such rhetoric obscures the fine line between politics and crime. The Riggs Bank money implicates Pinochet criminally. Beyond his status as a mass murderer and torturer, he can now claim to be a thief as well.
What a candidate for a post Nuremberg human rights tribunal! Pinochet, backed by Nixon and Kissinger, claimed that no line existed between political exigencies and criminal acts. Pinochet also had Margaret Thatcher’s support for this position. So, politicians in London, Washington and Santiago began to connive to circumvent the principles of human rights law their governments had etched in stone on the UN Charter.
A medical solution arose. Carefully selected doctors declared Pinochet medically and psychologically unfit (no memory)–to stand trial. So, in March 2000, the King of the World solemnly mounted the steps of his Chilean government plane. As the southerly winds crossed his path he underwent a miraculous mental recovery. Disembarking in Chile, he practically danced the cueca and embraced his military pals, remembering all their names.
For 15 months under British house arrest, Pinochet maintained innocence and patriotism. He had brought tough love to Chile and the nation owed him a debt of gratitude. He lived a humble life and had not benefited from his 17 years in power. Pinochet asserted in 1982, "I’m the general of the poor."
The legal precedents set in Spain and England, however, emboldened Chilean Judge Juan Guzman, who opened investigations into Pinochet’s involvement with Operation Condor, the code name for Chile’s overseas assassinations squads.
On September 21, 1976, Pinochet’s agents assassinated Orlando Letelier, my friend and colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies. Ronni Moffitt, another friend and colleague, died when the bomb under Letelier’s car exploded in Washington’s Sheridan Circle. Pinochet ordered the assassination of over 3,190 others as well.
In June, the Chilean Court of Appeals cited Condor as they stripped Pinochet of his self-granted immunity. Pinochet theoretically could stand trial for murdering his opponents in other Condor nations, like Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina.
But Pinochet’s family insists that the aging tyrant is unfit for trial. The Chilean government has gratefully accepted the senility ruse. Chile’s political elite don’t want to disturb their 1990 pact with the armed forces avowing that criminals of the junta years would never face prosecution. The Armed Forces might make waves if the government brought Pinochet to trial. Bad for business!
Pinochet’s claims of being addled did not fool my friend, Juan Garces, the Spanish lawyer who filed the civil complaint against Pinochet in Spain in 1996. As Allende’s adviser between 1970-73, Garces came to understand Pinochet’s duplicitous character.
Nor did the unfit claims deter Judge Guzman from investigating Pinochet’s criminal deeds. The 88 year old despot will probably not do jail time, but he may face the same demeaning denouement as Al Capone, who also assassinated his opponents in order to consolidate criminal power. Capone’s mob, like Pinochet’s secret police, intimidated by routinely beating, torturing people and killing.
The Chicago mobster wore ostentatious clothing and spent lavishly. Pinochet projected the frugal image. But the $8 million in Riggs Bank shows that the criminal en jefe accumulated a sizeable fortune during his rule. "I always acted with democratic principles," Pinochet declared in the 1980s. With democrats like Pinochet, who needs dictators?
SAUL LANDAU is the Director of Digital Media and International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. His new book is The Business of America.