Who’s behind Pinochet’s millions? Judge looking

Kevin G. Hall
The Miami Herald
September 5, 2004
Santiago: Investigative Judge Sergio Muñoz, who is looking into sources of former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet’s millions, may well determine whether one of Latin America’s once most feared dictators dies a convict.

“I don’t feel any weight on me,” said Muñoz, 47, a professorial man up against some of his country’s most aggressive lawyers.

Since mid-July, he has been following up on a U.S. Senate report alleging that Pinochet, now 88, kept $4 million to $8 million in Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., much of which Senate investigators think was laundered money. Pinochet described it as “savings from a lifetime of work.”

The allegation doesn’t sound as grave as another ongoing investigation into whether Pinochet, who seized power in a bloody U.S.-backed coup in 1973, bears responsibility for the slayings of 3,197 real and suspected political foes during his regime.

But that case has been in the headlines more than five years and part of Chilean life for more than 30. The money-laundering allegations came as a shock.

“We were always taught that our dictator didn’t steal,” said an aide to Socialist President Ricardo Lagos, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

The aide thinks Muñoz’s tax-evasion and money-laundering investigation tarnishes Pinochet directly, personally and freshly, and is likely to saddle his family with expensive and humiliating legal problems for years.

The impact reflects the fact that Chile is a conservative nation, by far the most Swiss country in South America, whose citizens pride themselves on their probity. Many believed that Pinochet might have been a ruthless dictator but at least he wasn’t a thief.

Now detractors claim that his secret U.S. bank accounts give credibility to claims that he took bribes from arms dealers and, possibly, siphoned off money from military accounts that are funded by a share of state copper sales and thus are off-limits to modern presidents and lawmakers.

Muñoz’s investigation looks, as the banking records do, beyond Pinochet to his children and wife, Lucia Hiriart, who has property in her name and headed a well-funded social organization that helped poor women sell handicrafts.

With the media unaware, Muñoz questioned Pinochet at his home Aug. 5.

That followed a grilling of his children and wife at police intelligence headquarters in Santiago.

Allegations concerning Pinochet’s assets aren’t new. In 1984, a Chilean investigator was beaten up while looking into Pinochet’s property and documents about it were stolen from him.

What Senate investigators found, while looking into Riggs’ practices rather than Pinochet’s, was that $4 million to $8 million flowed through the former dictator’s six accounts at the bank from 1994 to 2002.

According to the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, at least two shell companies were created in the Bahamas to further conceal the money, perhaps from criminal proceedings against Pinochet under way in Europe and Chile. Riggs Bank officials estimated Pinochet’s worth to be $50 million to $100 million.

While Pinochet reportedly told Muñoz the money was personal savings, his defense team says it also may have come from donors who sought to ensure that he was set for life after Chile returned to democracy. Lawyers say they have four donors willing to testify, although their names haven’t been made public.

Regardless of the outcome of Muñoz’s investigation, the secret offshore accounts alone besmirch Pinochet’s image.

“He no longer is father of the nation, but a banana-republic dictator like any other,” said analyst Ricardo Israel.

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