Money-laundering scandal involving Pinochet unfolds

Santiago, Chile – A U.S. Senate Subcommittee report released in July linking former Gen. Augusto Pinochet to suspected money-laundering activities at the Washington-based Riggs Bank has roused Chileans of various political factions, as well as the country’s traditionally conservative media and up-and-coming centrist and liberal publications.

Most agree with the need for the government here to investigate the source of the former dictator’s wealth.

“The potential political scandal surrounding this case is significant, especially because we are close to election time,” the leading conservative El Mercurio said in a July 18 editorial. “This is all the more reason why the facts relating to the case should be carefully and speedily determined.”

La Tercera, Chile’s second-largest newspaper also with a traditional conservative editorial line, said of the scandal (July 18): “Given the seriousness of the report, authorities and a wide segment of our population have been correct in calling for an investigation. This is the correct response: our justice system should determine where this money came from, if there are other deposits and if they originated from some kind of illegal action.”

President Ricardo Lagos ordered an internal investigation into the secret bank accounts within a week of the U.S. Senate report’s release. The Supreme Court assigned Judge Sergio Muñoz, who is also investigating a high-profile pedophilia case, to investigate the former general’s wealth.

According to the report, Pinochet hid between $4 and $8 million in at least six different accounts at Riggs. He opened his first account at the bank in 1994.

Pinochet, who was known for his financial and political austerity during the country’s 17-year military regime, is largely credited with putting Chile on track to becoming South America’s most stable and successful country. But now, even the country’s ultra-conservative factions are demanding an explanation to the Pinochet family wealth.

“This would be the end of his efforts to be remembered as a man of integrity, who gave his body and soul to serve his country,” said an Aug. 2 editorial in the conservative magazine Ercilla. “If there is not a plausible explanation for the origin of the millions of dollars, Pinochet will go into history as the president who broke with the tradition of honor of all those who at one point or another have passed through the presidential palace (La Moneda).”

“Morally, his image will be buried,” added the weekly publication.

Following the same posture on the need for an investigation, the state-run newspaper La Nación said in a July 27 editorial: “The case of Pinochet’s bank accounts is a new test for our institutionalism, in particular with the administration of the justice system. What’s important is the truth and that the courts meet their responsibility.

“Given the negative aspect (of the accusations), the case has forced some sectors that until today have defended the figure of Pinochet, to step back,” La Nación said.

Meanwhile, El Mercurio published a controversial column on July 21 by Hermógenes Pérez de Arce– a well-known Pinochet supporter– in which Pérez suggested there are strong political undertones in the money-laundering investigation and compared it to similar cases that have never been investigated. He sites the use of the presidential reserve funds during the Salvador Allende administration as an example and says that unlike other cases, “the four million dollars that, according to a North American accusation, Augusto Pinochet maintained in a bank over there are investigable,” Pérez said. “The government uses a leftist lawyer to chase after him. Now, the National Defense Council decides to mobilize.”

La Nación responded in an editorial saying: “In Pérez de Arce’s column, he highlights the idea that if something was not investigated in the past, then its better not to investigate it in the present. That is not exactly what the country needs. On the contrary, what it’s about is that Chileans don’t convert cynicism into a doctrine and that we do whatever possible not to be ashamed of ourselves in the future.”

“[The column] was reproduced as a Sunday insert by ex-officials of the Pinochet regime,” La Nación said.

The money-laundering case continues to overlap with other investigations involving the former general, including the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold a lower court’s order to strip the general of his immunity in ‘Operation Condor’, a brutal intelligence-gathering system conducted by the military dictatorships of six South American countries in the mid-1970s.

“When the general’s defense and his family allowed Judge Muñoz to interrogate him on his hidden fortune, they knew it could provoke the removal of the general’s immunity in the Operation Condor case: the act would reveal that he is indeed capable of facing a trial,” said El Mercurio in an Aug. 29 special report.

Pinochet, 88, was diagnosed with a mild case of dementia that has led courts in the past to deem him unfit to stand trial.

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