Death Of A Dictator

Chilean President Gen. Augusto Pinochet salutes during the Independence Day celebration in Santiago, Chile on Sept. 18, 1985. Pinochet, the fierce anti-communist dictator who ruled Chile with an iron fist from 1973 to 1990, died Sunday, Dec. 10, 2006 from heart complications.
This commentary was written by's Alfonso Serrano.

It is a bizarre coincidence that Augusto Pinochet, the dictator who interrupted Chile's democratic history with 17 brutal years of rule, died on December 10, a day celebrated worldwide as International Human Rights Day.

As a history buff, Pinochet would not have failed to see the irony. Nor would Pinochet have been pleased with President Michele Bachelet's decision to deny him a state funeral.

The timing of his death, though, does nothing to appease the families of Pinochet's victims, and human rights activists, who hoped to see Pinochet face his accusers in court — a right that Pinochet never granted his victims. Having failed to see the dictator tried in court, Pinochet's victims must find solace in the idea that history will render Pinochet's verdict.

With the backing of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Pinochet stormed his way into power in 1973, ousting Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president.

More than 3,200 people were killed in the years following the coup, while an estimated 30,000 were tortured in prison camps around the country, including Villa Grimaldi, Chacabuco and Chile's National Stadium. Pinochet gave go-ahead to a "Caravan of Death," a group of officers who traveled throughout the country by helicopter, killing political dissidents.

In 1976 Pinochet's secret police, DINA, killed the former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier and his American colleague, Ronnie Moffitt, with a car bomb in Washington. In 1974 DINA also assassinated Gen. Carlos Prats, who had refused to partake in the coup, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Pinochet tightened his grip on power through the 70s and into the mid-80s. In October 1981 he famously declared: "Not even a leaf moves in Chile without me knowing about it."

In 1988, in an effort to legitimize his rule, Pinochet agreed to a plebiscite — and lost. The following year, Patricio Alwyn won the presidential election. But Pinochet remained commander-in-chief of the army for eight more years. And he was sworn in as senator-for-life, which gave him immunity from prosecution. Pinochet had lost his rule, but he remained a towering and feared figure in Chilean political life.

That changed in 1998, when the Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon convinced British authorities to arrest Pinochet during a visit to London, something the Chilean judicial system had not been willing to do.