Gen. Augusto Pinochet, 1915-2006

A Chilean Dictator's Dark Legacy

Pinochet, shown here in 1998, suffered a heart attack a week ago and underwent an angioplasty.
Pinochet, shown here in 1998, suffered a heart attack a week ago and underwent an angioplasty. (Santiago Llanquin - AP)
By Monte Reel and J.Y. Smith
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 11, 2006

Gen. Augusto Pinochet, 91, the former Chilean dictator whose government murdered and tortured thousands during his repressive 17-year rule, died yesterday at a Santiago military hospital of complications from a heart attack, leaving incomplete numerous court cases that had sought to bring him to justice.

Pinochet assumed power on Sept. 11, 1973, in a bloody coup supported by the United States that toppled the elected government of Salvador Allende, a Marxist who had pledged to lead his country "down the democratic road to socialism."

First as head of a four-man military junta and then as president, Pinochet served until 1990, leaving a legacy of abuse that took successive governments years to catalogue. According to a government report that included testimony from more than 30,000 people, his government killed at least 3,197 people and tortured about 29,000. Two-thirds of the cases listed in the report happened in 1973.

An austere figure who claimed to be guided by "the spiritual force of God as a believer," Pinochet regarded himself as a soldier rather than a politician. With his stern visage and fondness for military uniforms and dark glasses, he seemed to personify implacable authority. He was both an opponent of communism and a critic of "orthodox democracy," which he said was "too easy to infiltrate and destroy."

"I would like to be remembered as a man who served his country, who served Chile throughout his entire life on this earth," he once told an interviewer. "And what he did was always done thinking about the welfare of Chile and never sacrificing my tradition to hand it to other countries."

Pinochet relinquished the presidency in 1990, but he retained the powerful position of head of the army until 1997, when he became a senator for life. He gave up that position in 2002, claiming mild dementia and physical infirmities -- ailments that helped him avoid trials in hundreds of court cases filed against him in recent years.

But legal actions against Pinochet had gathered momentum in the two years preceding his death, as courts locked several of his key subordinates behind bars and raised hopes among victims' families that Pinochet would meet a similar fate. He had been placed under house arrest in Santiago five times, most recently last month in connection with the murders of two of Allende's bodyguards.

Throughout his later years, Pinochet retained loyal supporters, who credited his government with instituting a fiscal discipline that helped make Chile's economy the region's strongest. But he lost many of those backers after multiple probes in recent years revealed financial corruption, including the discovery of millions of dollars in state funds held in numerous secret overseas accounts, among them several at the former Riggs Bank in Washington. As recently as October, Chilean investigators announced the discovery of 10 tons of gold, worth an estimated $160 million, in Pinochet's name in a Hong Kong bank.

Pinochet remained defiant in the face of the accusations, consistently refusing to apologize for his actions as president. But during his 91st birthday celebration last month, his wife read a statement that indicated the authoritarian took "political responsibility" for his government. The vague nature of the statement did little to appease the families of his victims.

"Today, near the end of my days, I want to say that I harbor no rancor against anybody, that I love my fatherland above all," Pinochet's statement read. "I take political responsibility for everything that was done."

Among the crimes attributed to Pinochet during his reign were several high-profile murders that stretched beyond Chile's borders, many carried out by the Directorate of National Intelligence, or DINA, a fear-inspiring secret police agency that Pinochet organized in 1974.

Prosecutors in Washington in 1999 began investigating Pinochet's possible role in the September 1976 car bombing on Embassy Row that killed Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean foreign minister, and his 25-year-old American assistant, Ronni Karpen Moffitt. Six people were imprisoned for the attack, but the case was reopened after Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 and held for 17 months on a warrant seeking his extradition to Spain on charges of murdering and torturing Spanish citizens in Chile.

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