Brutal Chilean dictator dies unpunished at 91

Published December 11, 2006

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) - Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew Chile's democratically elected Marxist president in a bloody coup and ruled this Andean nation for 17 years, died yesterday, dashing hopes of victims of his regime's abuses that he would be brought to justice. He was 91.

Pinochet suffered a heart attack a week ago and underwent an angioplasty, and the brief announcement by the Santiago Military hospital said his condition worsened suddenly yesterday. Dr. Juan Ignacio Vergara, spokesman for the medical team that had been treating him, said his family was with him when he died.

Police ringed the hospital, but a small group of Pinochet supporters remained at the entrance, shouting insults at people in passing cars. The supporters, including some weeping women, repeatedly called out "Long Live Pinochet!" and sang Chile's national anthem.

Chile's government says at least 3,197 people were killed for political reasons during his rule, but after leaving the presidency in 1990 Pinochet escaped hundreds of criminal complaints because of his declining physical and mental health.

Pinochet took power on Sept. 11, 1973, demanding an unconditional surrender from President Salvador Allende as warplanes bombed the presidential palace in downtown Santiago. Instead, Allende committed suicide with a submachine gun he had received as a gift from Fidel Castro.

As the mustachioed Pinochet crushed dissent during his 1973-90 rule, he left little doubt about who was in charge. "Not a leaf moves in this country if I'm not moving it," he once said.

But when it came to his regime's abuses, Pinochet refused for years to take responsibility, saying any murders of political prisoners were the work of subordinates. Then on his 91st birthday - just last month - he took "full political responsibility for everything that happened" during his long rule. The statement read by his wife, however, made no reference to the rights abuses.

In the days following Pinochet's seizure of power, soldiers carried out mass arrests of leftists.

Many detainees, including two Americans, were herded into the National Stadium, which became a torture and detention center. The Americans were among those executed by the Chilean military, their deaths chronicled in the 1982 film "Missing."

Other leftists were rounded up by a death squad known as the "Caravan of Death." Victims were buried in unmarked mass graves in the northern Atacama desert, in the coastal city of La Serena and in the southern city of Cauquenes.

Pinochet pledged to stay in power "only as long as circumstances demand it," but soon after seizing the presidency, he said he had "goals, not deadlines."