Pinochet, Augusto

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Pinochet, Augusto

[NOVEMBER 25, 1915–]

Chilean dictator from 1973 to 1990

Recognized as one of the most ruthless and violent strongmen in the history of Latin America, General Augusto Pinochet's name became synonymous with human rights atrocities during the last quarter of the twentieth century. During his seventeen-year military regime in Chile, his security forces were responsible for the murders of 3,197 Chilean citizens. Of those, 1,100 were "disappeared"—abused to death and buried in still-secret graves, or thrown from military helicopters into the Pacific Ocean. An estimated 30,000 Chileans survived imprisonment and severe torture by agents of Pinochet's secret police—electric shock, beatings, near-drowning, and rape in secret detention facilities. In the mid-1970s, the Pinochet regime also organized a network of secret police agencies (given the code name Operation Condor) that coordinated the repression of groups and individuals who had been identified as opponents of the military governments of the Southern Cone (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay). Condor's methods included secret surveillance, kidnapping, interrogation, torture, and terrorist attacks. International efforts to hold General Pinochet legally accountable for human rights atrocities in Chile and acts of terrorism abroad led to his arrest for crimes against humanity in London in 1998.

Officials of Scotland Yard detained Pinochet on October 16, 1998, while he was recovering from back surgery at a private London hospital. He was served with an arrest warrant filed through Interpol by Spanish judges seeking to extradite him to Madrid to stand trial for "crimes of genocide and terrorism." For more than five hundred days, Pinochet was kept under house arrest in England; legal proceedings against him became a cause célèbre around the world. His detention became a leading symbol of the globalization of justice, and elevated and transformed the principle of universal jurisdiction—the ability of the international community to pursue the prosecution of dictators, torturers, and mass murderers beyond the borders of their home nations—into a precedent for future legal efforts against perpetrators of human rights crimes.

General Augusto Pinochet took power on September 11, 1973, during a U.S.–supported bloody military coup that overthrew the democratically elected Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende. In a country that had a long tradition of civility and constitutional rule, the military takeover was brutal and violent. In the six weeks that followed the coup approximately 1,500 civilians were killed, including some 320 to 360 who were summarily executed, according to U.S. intelligence reports. More than 13,500 Chilean citizens and several thousand foreigners were detained through mass arrests and sent to detention camps. Many of those were brought to Chile's National Stadium, which was transformed from a sports arena into a center for interrogation, torture, and execution. Two U.S. citizens, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, were among the hundreds who were killed there.

Born on November 25, 1915, Pinochet entered the military academy in Santiago at age seventeen and rose steadily through the ranks of the Chilean army over the forty years that followed. In late August 1973, he succeeded General Carlos Prats as Commander-in-Chief of the Army. In the months leading up to the coup Prats opposed the overthrow of the elected government; his forced resignation and his replacement by Pinochet enabled coup-plotting to accelerate.

As head of the powerful Chilean army, Pinochet outmaneuvered other commanders of the Chilean Armed Forces who had expected to govern Chile after the coup by way of a rotating leadership within the military junta. In June 1974 Pinochet pressured the other members of the junta to name him "Supreme Chief of the Nation." On December 18, 1974, he decreed himself "President of the Republic"—a title he kept until early 1990, when he was forced to yield power to a new civilian government.

During his seventeen-year rule Chile became a pariah state, internationally condemned for ongoing, systematic violations of human rights. Pinochet played a leadership role in initiating and overseeing many of these atrocities. One month after the coup, he authorized a death squad, led by his close associate General Sergio Arellano, to "expedite justice" in relation to civic leaders of the former Allende government—police chiefs, mayors, local union officials—who had been arrested in the northern provinces after the coup. Using a Puma helicopter, a five-member military team led by General Arellano flew to various northern cities and, at each stop, selected prisoners and shot or bayoneted them in the middle of the night. Over a period of four days, sixty-eight civilians were killed, having committed no crime other than serving in local community leadership roles under the elected Allende government. This series of atrocities became known as "the Caravan of Death."

Members of the caravan team were subsequently integrated into a new secret police force known as the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA). Pinochet handpicked Colonel Manuel Contreras, a close friend of his in the Chilean military with no background in intelligence, to be director of DINA. United States intelligence reports described Contreras as a "strong character, with intense loyalty to President Pinochet. . . . [H]e will advance only with the personal support of President Pinochet" (Kornbluh, 2003, pp. 160–161). Between 1974 and 1977 DINA expanded into a massive, institutionalized force of repression in Chile, terrorizing Chilean society at every level. DINA agents conducted clandestine raids and arrests; it forced prisoners through a network of clandestine interrogation centers to extract information from them. Many DINA prisoners were tortured to death and then "disappeared." The U.S. military reported from Santiago that DINA was "becoming a modern day Gestapo" (Kornbluh, 2003, p. 160). One informant announced to U.S. officials, "There are three sources of power in Chile: Pinochet, God, and DINA" (Kornbluh, 2003, p. 153).

DINA served as the central pillar of Pinochet's power. It actively eliminated all leftist opposition to his regime in Chile, and Contreras assigned agents to spy on other military commanders and intimidate anyone who challenged Pinochet's authority. Through executive decrees Pinochet bestowed on DINA the authority to establish a virtual monopoly over repression in Chile. Officially, DINA fell under the jurisdiction of the military junta. In reality, Contreras reported only to—and only took orders from—General Pinochet. Contreras met with Pinochet every morning, at 7:30 AM, to brief him on DINA operations. United States intelligence agents reported: "The President issues instructions on DINA; is aware of its activities; and, in fact, heads it" (Kornbluh, 2003, p. 166).

Pinochet's secret police not only carried out vicious acts of repression at home, but also sought to dispose of opponents of his regime abroad. In September 1974 DINA agents, using a car bomb, assassinated General Prats (Pinochet's predecessor as Commander-in-Chief of the army) who was living in exile in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The bomb also killed Prats's wife. A year later, DINA agents orchestrated the shooting of a leader of the Chilean Christian Democratic Party and his wife in Rome, Italy. In November 1975 Colonel Contreras decided to coordinate efforts with the military regimes of other Southern Cone countries to track down and eliminate dissidents in exile; he invited intelligence officials from Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia to come to Santiago and establish what he called an "Interpol against subversion in Latin America." This network of military intelligence services (the aforementioned Operation Condor) carried out violent, clandestine acts of terror in the region and throughout the world for more than five years.

Operation Condor quickly became the most sinister state-sponsored terrorist network in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world. In coordination with neighboring military governments, the Pinochet regime implemented surveillance, kidnappings, brutal interrogations, and the secret detention of political opponents in the Southern Cone, Europe, and even the United States. United States intelligence agencies eventually learned that "a third and reportedly very secret phase of 'Operation Condor' involves the formation of special teams from member countries who are to carry out operations to include assassinations" (Kornbluh, 2003, p. 324). In September 1976, with the assistance of Paraguay, agents of DINA traveled to the United States to undertake what has become the best known Condor plot: the car-bombing assassination of Pinochet's leading critic-in-exile, former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier. That September 21, 1976, car bombing in downtown Washington, D.C., also took the life of Letelier's colleague, 25-year-old Ronni Karpen Moffitt, and was considered at the time to be the most egregious act of international terrorism to ever have taken place in the U.S. capital. Within a week of the assassination, the FBI reported that it had probably been the work of Operation Condor.

In the spring of 1978, when the U.S. Justice Department presented the Chilean military government with clear evidence of DINA's role in the car bombing, General Pinochet personally took the lead in covering up the crime and obstructing U.S. efforts to bring those guilty to justice. The CIA learned that Pinochet was pursuing a multifaceted plan to derail the investigation, which included protecting DINA director Manuel Contreras from prosecution; stalling on U.S. requests for evidence; tampering with witnesses—Pinochet ordered one member of the assassination team who wanted to turn himself over to the FBI to "stay at his post"; and intervening with the Chilean Supreme Court to assure that neither Contreras nor his subordinates would be extradited to Washington. Pinochet, the CIA reported, "has manipulated the Supreme Court judges and now is satisfied that the court will reject extradition of any Chileans indicted" (Kornbluh, 2003, p. 401).

Up to the point of the Letelier-Moffitt assassination, General Pinochet had enjoyed positive relations with the United States. In a private meeting in June 1976, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said to Pinochet: "[I]n the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here. . . . We want to help, not undermine, you" (Kornbluh, 2003, p. 201). After the assassination, however, President Jimmy Carter held Pinochet at arms length and openly pressed the regime to improve its human rights record. Initially, the Reagan administration supported General Pinochet as a forceful anticommunist ally and a kindred spirit in the furtherance of free-market economic policies. But by the mid-1980s, when the Chilean economy suffered a severe recession and the left wing of that nation began to reemerge as a significant political force despite continuing repression, the United States moved to support what the State Department called a "real and orderly transition to democracy."

In an effort to extend his dictatorship through to the end of the twentieth century, Pinochet called a plebiscite for October 1988. If a majority of Chileans voted "No" (to Pinochet), new elections would be held in 1989 and the military would turn over power to a civilian president. Although Pinochet expected to win, he developed a contingency plan that would go into effect if it appeared that he was losing. "Close supporters of President Pinochet are said to have contingency plans to derail the plebiscite by encouraging and staging acts of violence," one top-secret U.S. intelligence report stated (Kornbluh, 2003, p. 424). Pinochet would then institute a state of emergency and declare the election "invalid." When his own commanders failed to implement that plan on the day of the plebiscite, Pinochet attempted to get the rest of the junta to authorize the use of the armed forces to seize the capital and nullify the election. The junta refused. The campaign of "No" won.

General Pinochet turned over the presidency to a civilian leader, Patricio Aylwin, on March 11, 1990. Yet, he retained his powerful position as commander of the Chilean armed forces, a post from which he commanded the new civilian government not to pursue any prosecution of the human rights crimes that had been committed under his regime. "The day they touch one of my men the state of law ends," he warned (Constable and Valenzuela, 1991, p. 317). When Pinochet finally stepped down from the military command, in March 1998, he assumed the title of Senador Vitalica (Senator for Life), providing himself with additional legal immunity from prosecution inside Chile.

Early judicial cases filed against Pinochet by the families of his victims failed to overcome the legal obstacles his regime had imposed on the Chilean court system. Internationally, however, other avenues were being explored. In 1996, in Madrid, Joan Garcés, a Spanish lawyer and former aide to Salvador Allende, filed a criminal case with a special branch of the Spanish judiciary called the Audiencia Nacional, which accepted the principle of universal jurisdiction for offenses such as genocide, terrorism, and other crimes against humanity. For two years, however, Spanish authorities had no way of physically securing the target of their investigation. After Pinochet traveled to London on September 21, 1998, however, Garcés arranged for Judge Baltazar Garzón to send a detention request to Scotland Yard, under the European Anti-Terrorism Convention. A British magistrate signed an arrest warrant for Pinochet on October 16; late that evening, Scotland Yard detectives secured his room at the private London clinic where he was recuperating from back surgery, disarmed his bodyguards, and served him with a "priority red warrant" for crimes against humanity.


For much of his career General Pinochet maintained the image of the incorruptible, if ruthlessly violent, Prussian-style officer. But in July 2004, a financial scandal shattered his carefully honed image as an austere, modest, professional soldier—a reputation that had distinguished Pinochet's career from other Latin American strongmen who were known as much for their greed as their repression.

A U.S. Senate Committee, investigating money laundering and foreign corruption at the Washington D.C.-based Riggs National Bank, uncovered detailed documentation on secret bank accounts Pinochet maintained outside of Chile after he was forced from power in 1990. The Senate investigation revealed that Riggs had opened multiple accounts for Pinochet and "deliberately assisted him in the concealment and movement of his funds while he was under investigation [in London] and the subject of a worldwide court order freezing his assets."

Pinochet's Chilean tax returns record an official income of $90,000 a year. But between 1994 and 2002, he deposited up to $8 million into three personal and three shell corporation accounts created by Riggs officials to hide his wealth. During his long detention under house arrest in London, he drew on these funds even as Spanish authorities seeking his extradition obtained a court order that his assets be frozen. After his return to Chile, Riggs officials arranged for $1.9 million in cashiers checks to be secretly couriered from the United States. At the same time as the Chilean courts declared him mentally incompetent to stand trial on human rights crimes, Pinochet was repeatedly conferring with Riggs officials on the surrepticious transfer of his monies, and personally cashing some thirty-eight checks—each one for the sum of $50,000—at different banks in Santiago.

Revelations of Pinochet's unexplained and hidden wealth, known in Chile as the "Pinocheques" scandal, cost Pinochet his legacy even among those who had benefited from his regime. His supporters in the military, the rightwing media, and Chilean economic elite, all who had backed the general against accusations of murder, disappearances, torture and terrorism, now abandoned him. The Chilean government initiated no less than three official criminal investigations—to identify the source of Pinochet's illicit funds, as well as to determine whether he was guilty of tax evasion.

The saga of Pinochet's arrest in London lasted sixteen months and caught the attention of the world community. His case was unprecedented: a former head of state detained outside his homeland for extradition to a third country. Already a recognized symbol of human rights atrocities, Pinochet became the leading symbol of the globalization of justice for perpetrators of such crimes. His arrest fostered hopes for many of his victims and their families that they might finally face him in a court of law. And the international effort to bring him to justice paved a legal path for similar prosecutions against other former dictators and military commanders accused of human rights crimes.

Pinochet lost all legal battles in Britain to prevent his extradition to Madrid. But behind-the-scenes political lobbying by the Chilean government, which found itself under intense pressure from the military to obtain Pinochet's release, and the resistance of José Aznar, the conservative Spanish prime minister who opposed Judge Garzón's effort to prosecute Pinochet in Madrid, appeared to convince British authorities to let Pinochet go. On March 2, 2000, British Home Secretary Jack Straw ruled that Pinochet had suffered a stroke that had resulted in mild dementia and therefore would be released on humanitarian grounds.

Pinochet returned to Chile the next day, believing himself to be finally free of legal threats. Within three days of his return, however, Chilean Judge Juan Guzman filed a legal request to have Pinochet's immunity lifted so that he could be prosecuted for disappearances associated with the Caravan of Death atrocities. On May 23, 2000, Chile's Court of Appeals surprised Chileans and the international community by voting to strip Pinochet of his immunity; the Chilean Supreme Court upheld that decision on June 5. In December, Judge Guzman indicted Pinochet as the "intellectual author" of the Caravan of Death; and in early 2001, for the first time, Pinochet was actually interrogated about his knowledge of and role in those crimes.

But, just as the British had released Pinochet on health grounds, eventually the Chilean courts yielded to the arguments of Pinochet's lawyers that he was "mentally unfit due to dementia" and therefore unable to stand trial for the murders and disappearances in the Caravan case. Pinochet then issued a statement that he was retiring from political life. "I have a clean conscience," he said. "The work of my government will be judged by history" (Kornbluh, 2003, p. 482).

At age eighty-eight, Pinochet did not retire quietly. In November 2003 he gave an interview to the Spanish language television network Telemundo, in which he described himself "as a good angel" who should be thanked for his contributions to Chile. Citing Pinochet's lucidity during the interview, Judge Guzman again petitioned the courts to strip Pinochet of his immunity—this time to prosecute him for murders relating to Operation Condor. On May 28, 2004, a Chilean court ruled that Pinochet could indeed stand trial for these crimes against humanity. While it remained likely that Pinochet would still escape justice through a decision of the Chilean Supreme Court to block his prosecution, the Condor case assured that he would not evade the verdict of history.

SEE ALSO Amnesty; Chile; Crimes Against Humanity; Disappearances; Immunity; Universal Jurisdiction


Burbach, Roger (2004). The Pinochet Affair. London: ZED Books.

Constable, Pamela, and Arturo Valenzuela (1991). A Nation of Enemies: Chile under Pinochet. New York: W. W. Norton.

Dinges, John (2004). The Condor Years. New York: The New Press.

Ensalaco, Mark (2000). Chile under Pinochet: Recovering the Truth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kornbluh, Peter (2003). The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability. New York: The New Press

O'Shaughnessy, Hugh (2000). Pinochet: The Politics of Torture. New York: New York University Press.

Peter Kornbluh