SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) – It had been 18 months since Gen. Augusto Pinochet reluctantly stepped down from the presidency and Chileans were just beginning to unearth the terrible secrets of his 1973-90 dictatorship.

In a bleak corner of Santiago’s sprawling General Cemetery known as Patio 29, workers were digging up the unmarked graves of more than 100 people who had been buried clandestinely in the weeks after the 1973 coup that put him in power.

Tearful relatives of the “disappeared” gathered to watch the digging, hoping to find evidence of their loved ones.

But the former dictator was unmoved. A powerful, feared figure for years after the return of democracy, Pinochet left army headquarters surrounded by his usual squad of bodyguards and was asked by reporters what he thought of the discovery that some of the coffins held two bodies each.

“A good cemetery space-saving measure,” the general replied with a grin.

The quip caused an uproar. Reprimanded by his civilian successor, President Patricio Alwyin, the general acknowledged his words were “probably unfortunate.”

It was the closest to an apology that Pinochet’s victims would ever get.

For many Chileans, the remark was emblematic of Pinochet’s lack of repentance, his disregard for those he considered his enemies.

According to an official report, 3,197 people were killed for political reasons in the 17 years after Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Marxist President Salvador Allende. More than 30,000 were tortured, many more illegally imprisoned, thousands forced into exile.

A devote Roman Catholic, Pinochet often said he believed he acted on a God-given mission to fight communism. In a 2003 interview with a Miami-based Spanish-language television station, he said he saw no reason to ask forgiveness for human rights violations committed during his right-wing dictatorship.

“They are the ones, the Marxists, who should ask me for forgiveness,” he said, recalling a 1986 attempt on his life in which five bodyguards were killed.

“I never ordered anyone to be killed,” Pinochet said. “I harbor no hatred or rancor. I am good, I consider myself an angel.”

Allende himself picked Pinochet to lead Chile’s military, convinced he was a loyalist who would back the constitutional government. The general had won the president’s confidence by donning a helmet, grabbing a submachine gun and leading loyal troops to put down a small uprising by soldiers in Santiago. He also helped quell a crippling truckers strike marked by daily riots in late 1972.

Records from that era indicate the CIA supported the strike as a way of undermining Chile’s economy and Allende’s Marxist government, which Washington feared was being used by Fidel Castro’s Cuba to spread communism in the region.

At an April 1973 reception at the East German Embassy, Pinochet spoke out in defense of what he called Chile’s right to follow its own political path. Then, 19 days after Allende promoted him to army commander, Pinochet sent warplanes, tanks and troops against the presidential palace.

“Unconditional surrender, unconditional surrender,” Pinochet ordered an officer who reported that Allende was offering to negotiate.

In the same recording of that day’s military radio traffic, Pinochet said that all Allende would be offered was an airplane to take him and his family out of the country. “And then the plane goes down,” Pinochet is heard saying with a laugh.

As air force jets bombed the presidential palace, Allende killed himself with a submachine gun given to him by Castro.

Pinochet’s toughness surprised many who had considered him to be moderate and nonpolitical. Documents later showed he joined the coup at the last minute, only after commanders of the other military branches said they would move with or without the army.

Pinochet quickly took complete control of the four-man junta. “Not a leaf moves in this country if I’m not moving it,” he said.

Pinochet and other South American military dictators, with secret help from U.S. intelligence agencies, then combined forces through Operation Condor to leave no sanctuary for dissidents fleeing their countries.

The operation, developed by Pinochet’s security chief, Gen. Manuel Contreras, was described in an FBI cable dated Sept. 28, 1976, as the “collection, exchange and storage of intelligence data concerning so-called ‘leftists, communists and Marxists,”‘ by the authoritarian governments of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay.

As the FBI cable put it, the “most secret phase of ‘Operation Condor’ involves the formation of special teams from member countries who are to travel anywhere in the world to nonmember countries to carry out sanctions up to assassination.”

The cable was written a week after the car-bombing assassination in Washington of former Chilean Cabinet member Orlando Letelier, a prominent Pinochet critic, and his administrative aide, Ronni Moffet, a U.S. citizen.

Pinochet wasn’t about to apologize. When widespread street protests against his government raged in the early 1980s, Pinochet warned organizers he would send 18,000 soldiers to crack down on the demonstrations. He did, and 22 people were killed in a single night.

He finally stepped down from power in March 1990, after voters rejected a referendum to extend his rule. But the constitution his regime drafted gave Pinochet immunity from prosecution as army commander and then senator-for-life.

The real fall began only in October 1998, when Pinochet was arrested in London on an international warrant issued by Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, who sought to try him in Spain for human rights abuses. Britain, however, decided he was too frail to stand trial and sent him home.

In Chile, Pinochet received a hero’s welcome from supporters but soon faced a barrage of criminal suits filed by victims of his regime and their relatives. The effort gained momentum toward the end of his life, subjecting Pinochet to indignities that Chileans who had lived in fear of him never expected to see: indictments, legal questioning, criminal bookings, house arrest.

Many former aides and allies still supported Pinochet – until evidence surfaced that he had spirited millions of dollars out of the country, enriching his family and evading Chilean taxes.

In 2004, the U.S. Senate disclosed that Pinochet had kept secret multimillion-dollar accounts in a Washington bank. Investigators said Pinochet had stashed as much as $17 million. Pinochet, his wife and three of their children were charged with evading $9.8 million in taxes.

As Pinochet’s time was running down, he adopted a rare conciliatory tone on Nov. 25, his 91st birthday, when his wife, Lucia Hiriart, read a statement that fell short of an apology.

“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,” he said.

Pinochet took power at a time of social, political and economic crisis, and laid the groundwork for South America’s most stable economy. His “Chicago Boys,” who studied under conservative U.S. economist Milton Friedman, lifted most state controls over Chile’s economy, privatized many sectors and strongly encouraged foreign investment with tax and other guarantees.

But he also left a legacy of impunity and fear. It has taken years for Chileans to speak up about human rights abuses, and even now the country trails its neighbor, Argentina, in efforts to hold perpetrators to account for “dirty war” crimes.

Some die-hard supporters backed Pinochet to the very end, noting his tough economic medicine made Chile a model of success.

“He is the Chilean who has had the greatest influence in the world,” wrote Hermogenes Perez de Arce, a prominent columnist and former right-wing congressman, complaining that Pinochet had been treated unfairly. “Admit it Chile, Pinochet was much too big for you.”

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