Chilean investigators were examining reports yesterday that 9 tonnes of gold had been found in a Hong Kong bank under the name of Augusto Pinochet. The gold, valued at US$160 million, was found during an ongoing investigation into tax evasion and money laundering by the former dictator.
"The information that has been given to us is, at the very least, to be taken seriously by the courts," said Alexandro Foxley, the Chilean foreign minister.
Foxley said the information was being analyzed swiftly in order to have embargo orders issued "very quickly." The authorities are seeking to prevent Pinochet getting access to the gold if the reports prove to be true.
Pinochet, 91, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990, is under investigation for alleged human rights violations such as torture and the "disappearing" of political opponents, and financial crimes including money laundering.
Chilean press reports said the 3m3 of gold is being held in an HSBC warehouse. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the territory's de facto central bank, said it would investigate the reports.
A spokesman for HSBC in London said: "In response to media reports in Chile we have launched an investigation into this but have not had a formal approach from the Chilean authorities. The preliminary findings suggest that we do not have this gold."
If the reports turn out to be true, the gold would take Pinochet's estimated fortune to more than US$200 million, mostly held in more than 100 bank accounts under the names of his wife, children and advisers.
Pinochet advisers and his lawyer, Pablo Rodriguez, argue that the money comes from savings and wise investments.
"I was with General Pinochet and his family yesterday and I can say with absolute certainty that General Pinochet has never had a gram of gold in any of the banks indicated. If even 1g of gold exists overseas in General Pinochet's name, I will be the first to resign as his defense attorney," he said.
A Chilean government investigation ruled that the Pinochet fortune was obtained illegally, with much of the money apparently paid to the former dictator in weapons deals. Two years ago, Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon ordered HSBC to turn over information about accounts held by the Pinochet family.
In the past week the Chilean supreme court authorized Garzon to interrogate Pinochet, his wife, Lucia, and top aides in a money laundering investigation. The judge is investigating how the former dictator evaded a 1998 order that froze his assets.
In a court settlement with Riggs Bank, Garzon retrieved US$8 million from Pinochet family accounts. The money is being used to compensate victims of the military dictatorship that tortured an estimated 35,000 people and killed 3,000.