On Wednesday the Chile government filed lawsuits against four banks, accusing them of assisting former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to conceal stolen public funds of approximately $26 million.
The lawsuits, filed in a Miami federal court, claim the banks were complicit in the alleged theft of the Chilean funds by Pinochet and others.
The Chilean government is now seeking damages for an undisclosed amount.
According to the lawsuits filed by Miami attorneys Pedro J. Martinez-Fraga and Tania Cruz on behalf of Chile's State Defense Council, had the banks adhered to basic regulations and complied with money-laundering rules, Pinochets’s hidden accounts would have probably been exposed.
More tragically, some of these financial institutions went beyond mere negligence, and instead chose to knowingly and actively assist Pinochet in concealing the source and true ownership of the substantial funds being deposited into their institutions, the lawsuits by Chile's government legal office say, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Chilean President Michelle Bachelet issued a decree authorizing the lawsuits. The decree states that lawsuits should seek adequate compensation for acts and omissions of United States banks stemming from their Pinochet dealings.
Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group Inc., Spain's Banco Santander, Espirito Santo Bank of Portugal, and the Bank of Chile are the four banks named in the government lawsuit with focus on the transactions handled mainly by their Miami or U.S. based subsidiaries.
A PNC spokesman said the bank wouldn't comment.
The State Defense Council, whose mission is to defend Chile's interests at home and abroad, said Thursday in Santiago that it would have no comment as part of the legal strategy.
In 1973 Pinochet let a coup d'état which put an end to Marxist President Salvador Allende, who died in the overthrow after his presidential palace was shelled, paving the way for him to become one of Latin Americas most notorious dictators.
Pinochet's regime has been accused of systematic and widespread human rights violations both in Chile and abroad, including mass-murder, torture, kidnapping, illegal detention, and censorship of the press.
He continued to serve as army commander-in-chief and as a Chilean senator until 2004, dying two years later at age 91.
At the end of his life, he was also accused of using his position to enrich himself and his family — a facet previously unknown to the general public, as he had always presented a rather modest lifestyle.
Many of the U.S. connections were exposed by a 2005 U.S. Senate probe that brought to light allegations that Pinochet controlled about 50 secret accounts in 10 U.S. banks through aliases, family members and offshore entities.
One such institution was the venerable Riggs Bank in Washington -- acquired in 2005 by PNC -- that paid more than $40 million in fines and penalties for its Pinochet relationships.
The Chilean lawsuits allege Pinochet siphoned public money for personal use through a number of means, including a government presidential security account, accounts opened in the names of Chilean military officers and commissions from various arms deals, such as a late-1990s transaction involving the sale of German Leopard I tanks.
The lawsuits have been assigned to four different judges but could possibly be consolidated to one hearing – of which no date has yet been set.
Pinochet's defense lawyers as well as family members insist the money was obtained through legitimate means and believe the accusations are politically motivated.
According to the lawyers and family members; the funds arose from donations made by wealthy supporters who worried Pinochet could face persecution once leaving government.