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No Pinochet gold hoard, bank says

The charge led even die-hard backers of the ex-dictator to waver.

October 27, 2006|Eva Vergara and Patrick J. McDonnell | Special to The Times

SANTIAGO, CHILE — A British bank Thursday cast serious doubt on reports that former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet had stashed 9 tons of gold in its Hong Kong vaults, saying no such ingots exist.

Documents purporting to show that Pinochet owns $160 million in gold are fake, said London-based HSBC, the financial institution reported to be holding the precious metal.

"We are able to confirm now that those documents are false," HSBC declared in a statement from the Chilean capital after reviewing the paperwork provided by Chilean authorities.

The bank also said no accounts belonging to Pinochet had been found.

"The only gold that Gen. Pinochet owns is his wedding ring," Pablo Rodriguez, a lawyer for the family, told reporters shortly before the bank's declaration. The general's son, Marco Antonio Pinochet, called the allegations "political persecution."

The reports of gold stashed in Hong Kong vaults had caused a sensation here, sparking a government inquiry and causing even die-hard supporters of the ex-general to suspect a man who long portrayed himself as a paragon of military integrity.

"Is it true? Is it a lie?" asked Noelia Navarrete, a 67-year-old homemaker, referring to the gold. "We backed him for many years and it's hard to accept."

Others seemed ready to believe almost anything after separate revelations that Pinochet, who ruled from 1973 to 1990, allegedly amassed a fortune in foreign banks of at least $28 million.

Pinochet has been indicted for alleged tax evasion and faces fraud and embezzlement charges in connection with those funds, which have been frozen. Prosecutors are also investigating the ex-general for massive human rights violations during his presidency. Family attorneys have said the money came from legitimate donations.

"Nothing surprises me from Pinochet anymore," said Ana Lopez Silva, 49, a secretary. "He had a chance to steal for a lot of years."

Pinochet, who turns 91 next month, is no longer active in politics and is said to be suffering from mild dementia and other ailments. But his shadow continues to loom large despite Chile's flourishing democracy and robust economy. Many debate whether Pinochet's brutal rule and free-market policies set the country back or put Chile on the right track.

"Hopefully these allegations of corruption will help ensure that Pinochet and his regime are fully discredited in the eyes of the Chilean people," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean who is executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "He basically ran the country like it was his personal business."

The fact that reports of illicit profits tend to generate more outrage than allegations of thousands of killings, disappearances and instances of torture during his rule also troubles many.

"It speaks badly of us Chileans that we react more strongly when we read a story about Pinochet and money, Pinochet and dollars, than when it is about Pinochet and deaths," said Eduardo Contreras, an attorney pursuing human rights cases against the former leader.

The latest furor emerged this week with published reports revealing the purported existence of the gold. The HSBC statement late Thursday raises the question of who was responsible for the fake paperwork.

patrick.mcdonnell

@latimes.com

Special correspondent Vergara reported from Santiago and Times staff writer McDonnell from Buenos Aires.

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