Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, whose military regime killed thousands of political opponents in one of Latin America’s bloodiest “dirty wars,” died Sunday, weakened by ill health, pursued by government prosecutors and abandoned by all but his most loyal defenders. He was 91.

Shorn of his swagger and absent the menacing look he would flash from behind dark glasses, Pinochet at his death was a mere ghost of the emblematic military strongman who played a critical role in the Americas of the 1970s and 1980s.

Instead, Pinochet had adopted the grandfatherly image of a retired statesman. He had lobbied for a place in history that would reward him for opening Chile’s economy. And he had defended his regime as having done what was necessary to impose stability by seizing power in 1973.

Pinochet had saved Chile from communism, his supporters insisted; his only crime was being a patriot.

But the blood of the Pinochet era, most of it shed by the regime itself, followed Pinochet well after he left power in 1990.

It followed him to Europe, where human-rights lawyers lobbied for Pinochet’s arrest on charges that he had ordered the tortures, disappearances and deaths of political dissidents.

Then the blood followed Pinochet home. And by the time he suffered a serious heart attack that sent him to a Santiago hospital a week ago, Pinochet was under house arrest awaiting trial on charges ranging from abuse of power to stealing from the Chilean state.

“Pinochet was a very polarizing figure, and for some time after the end of the regime Chileans were still split about him,” said Rebecca Evans, an associate professor of politics and international relations at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. “But in the last several years, his image has steadily deteriorated.”

Pinochet lost most of his remaining international support in the late 1990s, when evidence produced in European courts linked him to the deaths or disappearances of political opponents during the 1970s and 1980s.

A government commission estimated that more than 3,000 people died or disappeared at the hands of the Pinochet regime. Thousands more were politically persecuted, some detained and tortured, others exiled, and still more harassed by secret police.

Yet a sizable minority of Chileans would not condemn Pinochet. Sometimes his supporters denied crimes had occurred. Sometimes they said the oppression was needed to protect Chile from a leftist takeover funded and engineered by Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union.

And sometimes – preposterously to Chileans who remembered Pinochet’s remark that “not a leaf moves in this country unless I move it” – his supporters argued that the supreme commander did not know about the abuses.

“The younger generation does not understand the full picture. We were on the verge of collapse,” said Guillermo Garin, a retired general who remained loyal to Pinochet. “If human rights were violated, they were violated as part of the struggle to protect the human rights of the majority of the Chilean public.”

To Garin and other Pinochet allies, the coup that brought down the democratically elected presidency of Salvador Allende was Chile’s salvation. Pinochet not only kept civil war from breaking out, but he also helped stop communism from taking root in South America.

Later, Garin said, the economic policies that Pinochet imposed set the stage for Chile’s long stretch of solid economic growth. Inspired by the late economist Milton Friedman and the “Chicago boys,” who preached free markets and fiscal discipline, Pinochet privatized state businesses and pursued international trade.

History, Garin said in a recent interview, would judge Pinochet kindly.

But the shadow of the rights abuses grew darker and longer over Pinochet as he approached death.

Secret accounts in foreign banks, some holding millions of dollars, turned up tied to Pinochet. Pinochet family members were accused of enriching themselves at public expense.

Supporters who had absolved Pinochet’s “excesses” in fighting communism could not brook theft. His reputation as a hard case politically but a man of personal integrity crumbled. Even support within the army faded away.

“Some crazies still love him,” Santiago political analyst David Altman said recently. “But more people are seeing the dictatorship for what it was.”

The dictatorship was, at first, a four-man affair, with Pinochet representing the army in the military junta.

How involved Pinochet was in planning the coup, just as how involved the United States and the CIA were in supporting the coup, remains unclear. But once the socialist Allende was ousted, Pinochet quickly moved to consolidate control.

Yet Pinochet’s rise to the top was 40 years in coming.

Augusto Jose Ramon Pinochet Ugarte was born on Nov. 25, 1915, in Valparaiso, to a middle-class merchant family. He went to Catholic school as a youngster, entered the military academy in 1933, against his mother’s wishes, and then embarked on an army career that would see him rise steadily through the ranks.

Along the way, Pinochet married and had five children – three daughters and two sons.

He became commander in chief of the Chilean army in August 1973. Allende himself appointed Pinochet to the post, believing the fellow Masonic lodge brother to be loyal.

But with strikes paralyzing Santiago and Congress accusing Allende of violating the constitution, Pinochet and his fellow chiefs of staff moved violently against the president.

Allende was found dead before troops could seize him. Most experts believe he committed suicide.

Though many Chileans reacted with joy to the coup, the political bloodletting that followed tore families apart.

Among the victims was the family of the current Chilean president, Michelle Bachelet. Her father was an Air Force officer who was arrested, tortured and killed shortly after the coup.

Bachelet herself, who was 22 at the time, and her mother were detained. They were held for a short time in a notorious detention center where women and girls were beaten, abused and raped. They then fled into exile.

Late last month, during his 91st birthday celebration, Pinochet issued a statement that for the first time indicated any acceptance of responsibility for the crimes committed under his regime.

“Today, near the end of my days, I want to say that I harbor no rancor against anybody, that I love my fatherland above all and that I take political responsibility for everything that was done which had no other goal than making Chile greater and avoiding its disintegration,” Pinochet said in a statement read by his wife.

Meanwhile, a member of Allende’s own re-constituted Socialist Party is president of Chile. Pinochet’s ideological enemy, Castro, is passing authority over Cuba to his brother, Raul Castro. The socialist Hugo Chavez recently was re-elected president of Venezuela. And left-leaning presidents run more than a half-dozen other nations in Latin America.

As for the Pinochet name, it is shorthand across the region for right-wing, military repression.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.