The Pinochet Cases and the Invasion of Iraq

30 September 2004

September has become Generalissimo Augusto Pinochet Ugarte's cruelest month.

Published at
Progreso Weekly

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September has become Generalissimo Augusto Pinochet Ugarte's cruelest month. September once loomed as the time of Pinochet's personal triumph - and death for his victims around the world. On September 11, 1973 (28 years before the World Trade Center-Pentagon attack), Pinochet led a bloody, US-backed coup against the elected socialist government of Dr. Salvador Allende who died as assault troops stormed his office.

In September 1974, Pinochet ordered his secret police to assassinate his former boss, General Carlos Prats, Chile's army chief under Allende, who lived in exile in Buenos Aires. A car bomb blew Prats and his wife six stories high.

In September 1975, Pinochet authorized another overseas hit. In early October, a gunman fired at close range into the heads of Bernardo Leighton and his wife as they strolled on a Rome street. Both the exiled Christian Democratic leader and his wife survived but never fully recovered from the critical wounds.

In September 1976, Pinochet gave the green light to kill Orlando Letelier, another of his former bosses. Letelier had been Allende's last Defense Minister. He fell victim to Pinochet's hit squad when they detonated the bomb placed under his car on Washington DC's Embassy Row. The blast severed Letelier's legs and also killed Ronni Moffitt, a young American woman passenger and colleague of Letelier's at the Institute for Policy Studies where both worked.

These assassinations took place under Operation Condor, a pact between several intelligence agencies throughout Latin America, with some participation by US services as well, to pursue and kill Latin American dissidents in foreign countries.

September once meant death and destruction for Pinochet's political enemies. This year, however, September meant discovery. A Chilean judge ordered divers to search for evidence relating to missing bodies of other Pinochet victims. On September 22, the underwater team found pieces of railroad track that Pinochet's killers had apparently used to weight down the bodies of the dictator's ideological enemies. One body has thus far been found.

Judge Juan Guzman claimed that he had "abundant information" about how Chilean armed forces personnel used railroad ties to weigh down bodies to make sure they sank before throwing them into the ocean. For several years, Guzman has investigated the whereabouts of the 1200 "disappeared" people - the euphemism for the way Pinochet tried to avoid a paper trail for his murderous operations. No arrest records. No corpse! No crime! Voila! But as years passed and Pinochet's pursuers refused to quit, some of the tyrant's collaborators evidently told Guzman where and how the assassins disposed of the bodies.

Two years ago, retired Air Fore Sgt. Juan Carlos Molina, told a Chilean TV audience that he and other armed forces members had lashed dead bodies to railroad ties, put them in bags and thrown them from airplanes into the sea. Four years ago, Chile's military command formally acknowledged that it had disposed of 200 bodies in such fashion.

One of Guzman's cases involves the disappearance of 10 Communist Party leaders in 1976, including Jorge Munoz, the husband of the current Party leader, Gladys Marin. Three years ago, Guzman also ordered Pinochet placed under house arrest, but Chile's Supreme Court declared the aging despot too sick and demented to stand trial. He supposedly suffers from memory loss, diabetes and arthritis. He did, however, appear entirely cogent in a long interview he recently granted to a Miami TV station and, as we shall see, in the handling of his finances.

In August, Guzman finally convinced the Supreme Court to strip Pinochet of immunity from prosecution, voiding the amnesty the former emperor gave himself before leaving the presidency to which he had appointed himself. Pinochet has 3,197 murder charges facing him, the number of people that Chilean government investigators counted as having been assassinated during his 17 year reign of terror (1973-90).

In September, the law struck Pinochet again in the form of a demand to freeze Pinochet;s assets and file charges against him and the bank that hid his money. In July, the US Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had issued a report that made the general's declining years look even grimmer. They discovered that he had colluded with officers of the Riggs Bank of Washington DC to hide as much as $16 million in accounts in his and his wife's name. Even the members of Pinochet aging fan club shuddered when they learned that the man who had sworn to restore law and honesty and claimed to have lived on a modest general's salary had obviously received kickbacks and collected extortion money. And Pinochet had not declared this income to Chile's internal revenue service - yet, another crime. To add to this Southern Cone Macbeth's misery is the fact that his victims and their families have filed a lawsuit to collect his assets.

Spanish lawyer Juan Garces first instigated legal proceedings against Pinochet almost a decade ago and his legal efforts have opened the path for Chilean Judge Guzman to proceed. Garces represents Pinochet's victims in a civil suit. Thanks to his efforts, Pinochet now faces legal problems on several fronts.

Garces got Judge Baltazar Garzon to demand that the Justice Department file charges in the illicit funds scam against the Riggs Bank of Washington D.C. and its officers because they illegally concealed Pinochet's assets. If Justice does not indict Pinochet Spain will charge him and the Riggs bank with money laundering and concealing assets.

Garces, a Spaniard who served as Allende's political adviser and narrowly escaped death on the morning of the 1973 coup, never stopped pursuing justice in the Pinochet case. In the mid 1990s, thinking he had sufficient legal authority to proceed, he organized prosecutors and lawyers in Spain to file criminal and civil suits against the dictator. A Spanish judge accepted jurisdiction on the grounds that sufficient evidence existed that Pinochet had committed terrorist acts, genocide and torture - all crimes under international law.

When he learned of Pinochet's 1998 stay in London convinced Judge Garzon, who had recently taken over the case, to request British authorities to arrest Pinochet and freeze his assets. To the amazement of the international legal community, the British authorities complied. At the time, the old bully was visiting his pal, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, shopping at Harrods and dining at the elegant London bistros. The London arrest began Pinochet's fall from former president meriting red carpet treatment to accused criminal.

The House of Lords upheld the torture charges, throwing out the genocide and international terrorism accusations. But British and Chilean authorities concocted a medical escape for Pinochet, finding doctors who claimed he was too sick and demented to stand trial. After fifteen months as a prisoner, Pinochet landed in Chile and miraculously remembered the names of all his army buddies who lined up to greet him as he danced a cueca leaving the airplane. The dictator appeared to have escaped the grasp of justice.

But, said Garces, the Riggs Bank expose reopened the case, this time "about the money the criminal made and hid."

The Pinochet cases stand today as a watershed moment that relate to issues beyond the fate of an 88 year old ex tin horn dictator who claimed that he had to do what he did (kill 3,197 people, torture tens of thousands and force hundreds of thousands into exile ) because of the "needs of state."

Since the end of World War II, US presidents ordered the overthrow of governments in Iran, Guatemala, Brazil and Chile - a few examples - and invaded Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia -a few of many examples - because of Cold War "needs of state."

Ironically, US leaders had also introduced the Nuremberg laws, which outlawed aggressive war. They helped frame the UN Charter, which outlawed intervention in the affairs of other states. But Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, justifying President Nixon' decision to destabilize the government of Chile didn't "see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people." He referred to the judgment of Chileans at the election booths in 1970 when they chose Allende as their president.

Kissinger dramatized his preference for state needs over law when confronted by massive murder and torture in Chile. He told his staff that "we should understand our policy-that however unpleasant they [Pinochet's repressive forces] act, the government is better for us than Allende was."

The Pinochet cases also relate to the invasion of Iraq, a crime committed by George W. Bush for "needs of state." Bush's subjective interpretation of US national security nullifies law. The Pinochet cases question the right of heads of state to commit criminal acts. What a juicy issue for US voters! Unfortunately, Kerry has not exactly made the issue crystal clear.

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