SANTIAGO, Chile – Investigative Judge Sergio Munoz, who’s looking into sources of former Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet’s millions, may well determine whether one of Latin America’s once most feared dictators dies a convict.

“I don’t feel any weight on me,” said Munoz, 47, a professorial man up against some of his country’s most aggressive lawyers. “I will do everything to make clear all the facts. You can be sure of that.”

Since mid-July, he’s been following up on a U.S. Senate report alleging that Pinochet, now 88, kept $4 million to $8 million in Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., much of which Senate investigators think was laundered money. Pinochet described it as “savings from a lifetime of work.”

The allegation doesn’t sound as grave as another ongoing investigation into whether Pinochet, who seized power in a bloody U.S.-backed coup in 1973, bears responsibility for the slayings of 3,197 real and suspected political foes during his regime.

But that case has been in the headlines more than five years and part of Chilean life for more than 30. The money-laundering allegations came as a shock.

“We were always taught that our dictator didn’t steal,” explained an aide to Socialist President Ricardo Lagos, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.

The aide thinks Munoz’s tax-evasion and money-laundering investigation tarnishes Pinochet directly, personally and freshly, and is likely to saddle his family with expensive and humiliating legal problems for years.

The impact reflects the fact that Chile is a conservative nation, by far the most Swiss country in South America, whose citizens pride themselves on their probity. Many believed that Pinochet might have been a ruthless dictator but at least he wasn’t a thief.

Now detractors claim that his secret U.S. bank accounts give credibility to claims that he took bribes from arms dealers and, possibly, siphoned off money from military accounts that are funded by a share of state copper sales and thus are off limits to modern presidents and lawmakers. Pinochet ruled until 1990, but lorded from the shadows as armed forces commander until 1998.

Munoz’s investigation looks, as the banking records do, beyond Pinochet to his children and wife, Lucia Hiriart, who has property in her name and headed a well-funded social organization that helped poor women sell handicrafts.

Munoz won acclaim for his convictions in 2002 in the long-unsolved 1982 murder of Tucapel Jimenez, a prominent anti-Pinochet labor leader. Under Chilean law, investigative judges are both prosecutor and trial judge.

Although rights groups criticized their sentences as light, Munoz convicted not only the killer, a lowly army major, but also a general who formerly headed army intelligence and ordered the killing. Munoz convicted three other generals for covering up the crime.

Despite having voted consistently as a member of the Court of Appeals to strip Pinochet of his immunity from prosecution, Munoz draws praise from Pinochet supporters such as retired Gen. Guillermo Garin, the strongman’s family spokesman.

“He is a very serious, hardworking, systematic person … he has acted with a great deal of sensitivity, very thorough but at the same very prudent,” Garin said.

That stands in sharp contrast to how Pinochet’s supporters feel about Judge Juan Guzman, who’s been conducting high-visibility investigations of the former dictator’s role in political murders for four years.

With the media unaware, Munoz questioned Pinochet at his home Aug. 5. That followed a grilling of his children and wife at police intelligence headquarters in Santiago.

Allegations concerning Pinochet’s assets aren’t new. In 1984, a Chilean investigator was beaten up while looking into Pinochet’s property and documents about it were stolen from him.

What Senate investigators found, while looking into Riggs’ practices rather than Pinochet’s, was that $4 million to $8 million flowed through the former dictator’s six accounts at the bank from 1994 to 2002. According to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, at least two shell companies were created in the Bahamas to further conceal the money, perhaps from criminal proceedings against Pinochet under way in Europe and Chile. Riggs Bank officials estimated Pinochet’s worth to be between $50 million and $100 million.

While Pinochet reportedly told Munoz the money was personal savings, his defense team says it also may have come from donors who sought to ensure that he was set for life after Chile returned to democracy. Lawyers say they have four donors willing to testify, although their names haven’t been made public.

“Many people with economic power or who are conservative very much admire the general, and this could explain the hidden money,” spokesman Garin said. “Because they are big names in the economic field or have many connections with politics, they don’t want to appear in public because the attacks will hurt them.”

Regardless of the outcome of Munoz’s investigation, the secret offshore accounts alone besmirch Pinochet’s image.

“He no longer is father of the nation, but a banana-republic dictator like any other,” said analyst Ricardo Israel, a television commentator and political scientist at the University of Chile.

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