It was a cold and misty day when the clouds unleashed their massive tears of disbelief as three diplomats were killed in the Chilean embassy in Costa Rica. Only a day earlier, a priest was slain by an irate youth in the country’s cathedral. Now, in the middle of the northern desert, an army tank crushed into a school bus. Unusual events indeed, but even more unusual is the fact that General Augusto Pinochet is being investigated, both in the United States and Chile, for holding millionaire secret bank accounts.
Only two months ago the country’s Court of Appeal stripped Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution opening the way for a new trial on human rights violations during his regime. He is being investigated in relation to the infamous “Operation Condor”, an intelligence network organized in the 70s to persecute, arrest, torture and murder political opponents in Chile, Bolivia, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil.
Thus, the earth seems to be moving under the ageing dictator’s feet, but do not be deceived, for in spite of being responsible for horrendous crimes in Chile and other Latin American countries, Pinochet has never spent a single day in prison and it is highly unlikely that he ever will. His lawyers have pleaded insanity to avoid prosecution, the courts have accepted this argument and the Government is pleased that the General is not going to prison, because his freedom and impunity from prosecution were part of the negotiations between the Armed Forces and the civilian opposition over a decade ago.
Here in Chile, everyone knows that Pinochet is neither insane nor senile, not only because he frequently goes shopping to luxurious Malls or travels to the coast on holidays, but because the majority of Chileans are aware that his release from house detention in England on so called “humanitarian grounds”, was nothing but a political negotiation. It was precisely while he was in London that the New York based Riggs Bank transferred millions of dollars from his bank accounts to avoid detection by investigating judges. The question arises then: How did a person mentally unfit to stand trial manage six bank accounts and set up two offshore corporations in the Bahamas? Were the Ashburton Company and Althorp Investment Firm used for money laundering? Where did all this money come from? How could a General with a salary of less than 15 thousand dollars a year manage to save eight million dollars?
In September of 1975, two years after coming to power in a bloody coup d’etat, General Pinochet categorically stated: “This is a honourable government, that’s why we have the support of the Chilean people. When the time to go comes I will go to the Notary’s Office and I will take away the envelope where my possessions are listed. Nothing else. May be I’ll leave with less of what I had when I took over”. 29 years later and 8 million dollars richer, it is clear that General Pinochet did not fulfil his promises. In any case, this is not the first time that Pinochet, his family or the military are involved in obscure financial dealings. Right after the coup, the military organized a massive campaign to collect money for what they called the “National Reconstruction Fund”. Conspicuous army officers, right wing politicians and businessmen declared they had donated their gold wedding rings to contribute to this Fund. Many a Chilean believed in this and donated their rings too. No one knows what happened to all this gold and money.
Back in 1990, Pinochet’s oldest son, Augusto Pinochet Hiriart, was responsible for a major fraud involving State funds. He made over 2 million dollars profit by selling the bankrupt Valmoval Company to the army that knowingly paid well over the market price for the company. The Chilean parliament set up a special committee to investigate the fraud, but the army mobilized its troops and Pinochet threatened the first civilian government after 17 years of dictatorship with another coup if the investigation did not cease. Needless to say the case was shelved and the committee promptly dissolved. In 1995 the State Defence Council tried to reopen the case, but the government ordered the Council to drop the charges arguing “Reasons of State”. Right now, Pinochet’s son is under custody on a new fraud charge. It remains to be seen whether he will be sent to prison or not. What it is clear is that Pinochet is not the only one that became rich during his regime, on the contrary, the profound structural changes carried out by the military created a market economy where the poor became poorer and the rich richer. By the time the military left power in 1990, five million Chileans lived under the poverty line, over 40% of the population. On the other hand, a handful of economic groups became powerful economic and political actors. The head of the Angelini group, whose fortune was based on the Fishing, Energy and Forestry industries, became the country’s first multimillionaire, with a personal fortune of over 3 thousand million dollars.
General Pinochet is a vulgar thief that continues to lie to the Chilean people arguing that the money found in his secret bank accounts comes from donations. But, no matter how corrupt he might be, this is not his worst crime. He is responsible for the illegal detention, torture, rape, murder and disappearance of thousands of Chileans. This is his worst crime and for this he must be tried and sent to prison.
TITO TRICOT is a sociologist and director of the Center For Intercultural Studies- ILWEN Chile.