Pinochet made millions after coup

Hugh O'Shaughnessy,Kim Sengupta
Sunday 14 February 1999 00:02 GMT

AS AUGUSTO Pinochet waits the final few days to discover whether he has immunity from prosecution for human rights abuses, other investigations are under way to discover just how many millions the old dictator's family has salted away.

The concerted and well-funded propaganda campaign on behalf of General Pinochet had striven to portray him as a scrupulously honest man who did not use his years in power to benefit financially. His wife, Lucia, has claimed that she and her husband exist solely on his army pension.

His supporters have done their utmost to buttress this image. And among Chilean journalists and politicians there is apprehension about the reaction of the military to inquiries in this sensitive area.

Yet the Pinochet family is worth, say some Chilean politicians, tens of millions of pounds. "His is one of the richest families in Latin America," said Dr Robinson Rojas, who lectures in London on the Pinochet era.

Legal investigations in Switzerland, Spain and Luxembourg are soon likely to yield details of the benefits the Pinochet family has enjoyed since the general seized power in September 1973.

The Pinochets' worldwide assets are believed to embrace Soquimich, the largest Chilean producer of iodine and nitrate fertiliser. Originally a state company, it was privatised during the Pinochet years and, as in similar cases in Britain, brought riches to its new owners. After privatisation it was headed by Chilean businessman Julio Ponce, the husband of General Pinochet's middle daughter, Veronica. He is widely known in Chilean business circles as El Yerno (the son-in-law), or sometimes El Yernisimo (the super son-in-law).

Mr Ponce has been well known in Chilean business for years. He made his first pile in Chile's booming timber trade and subsequently headed Iansa, the Chilean sugar corporation, Endesa, the electric power company and Corfo, the state industrial holding company.

General Pinochet's responsibility for the sale of state assets during his dictatorship started to be investigated last July by Adriana Delpiano, the Minister of National Assets, but without much success so far.

The sales involved hundreds of flats, houses and pieces of land and were carried out under a decree which has been invalid since 1971, two years before he seized power.

At the same time, a citizens' group laid criminal charges against a person or persons unknown responsible for the illegal sale of the land and other assets and demanded that General Pinochet and other military figures give evidence to an examining magistrate. Neither he nor any other officer has yet done so.

In the 1980s Mr Ponce was vice-president of Corfo, the long-established state company which held shares in a number of firms which General Pinochet decided to privatise. In July 1983, Corfo announced he had quit "for personal reasons". Later he enigmatically stated that only his father-in-law was allowed to reveal the real reasons.

Soquimich exports goods to Britain, and its subsidiary, The Nitrate Corporation of Chile, used to maintain a large office in Ropemaker Street, London, near the Barbican. It is a partner with the British cement giant Blue Circle in a big manufacturing operation in Chile.

Then there is the question of General Pinochet's personal involvement in the arms trade. The military expenditure of Chile is a massive figure, including sums spent directly by the armed forces and the organisations and public businesses associated with them: Famae, Asmar, Enaer, Direccion General de Movilizacion Nacional, Instituto Geofracio Militar, Instituto Hidrografico de la Armada and Direccion General de la Aeronautica Civil y Servicio Aerofotogrametrico.

Just before General Pinochet handed over power to Chile's democratically elected president, Patricio Aylwin, he proposed a tripartite alliance of the armed forces, private enterprise and government authorities for arms purchases, with a central role for himself.

Since then, millions of pounds have been spent, with General Pinochet overseeing many of the purchases. According to defence industry sources, substantial commissions have been paid out on the deals to people "close to Pinochet". One senior source said: "The overwhelming impression is that all the major purchases involving the Chilean armed forces have taken place only after the authorisation of General Pinochet, so obviously defence suppliers want to keep him happy."

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