“I have no remorse. I haven’t killed anyone. I haven’t ordered anyone to be killed. That would be an aberration.” The words of the man who for 17 years led one of Latin America’s most oppressive regimes. When the Socialist leader Salvadore Allende was elected President in September 1970, Pinochet was made a general.
Three years later he led the coup that toppled Allende. The mass execution of opposition figures was the first sign of the price Chile’s society would have to pay to – in Pinochet’s words – “protect democracy” from the “perils of communism.”
But the dictator’s measures did not stop there. Left-wing political leaders were rounded up, tortured and thrown into jail, thousands of others were forced into exiled. Meanwhile, pro-democracy demonstrations were violently crushed.
Pinochet’s hold on power began to weaken in 1988 after he won less than 50 percent in a general election. He finally stepped down as president in 1990. But he remained head of Chile’s armed forces for another eight years after which he was made a life senator.
This made him immune from prosecution. However, during a trip to London he was arrested on genocide charges at the request of Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon. He escaped extradition to Spain on health grounds after spending 17 months under house arrest.
Eventually freed on compassionate grounds, Chile’s polarised passions were rekindled.
Chilean Judge Juan Guzman Tapia charged him over the so-called “Caravan of Death” – a military squad that criss-crossed the country in 1973 killing the government’s opponents.
Again Pinochet escaped prosecution when the Supreme Court ruled he was suffering from mild dementia.
But there was no respite from the wealth of drawn-out legal disputes as various attempts were made to force him to face human rights charges in the Chilean courts. But his failing health has helped him escape punishment.