Caso Mirage



During its protracted and delicate transition to democracy during the 1990s, Chile struggled to enforce new anti-corruption norms in an environment of lingering military prerogatives. The “Caso Mirage,” a kickbacks scandal involving the purchase in 1994 of twenty-five second-hand Mirage combat jets from Belgium, demonstrated the existence of cozy and lucrative relationships between arms dealers and senior air force officers that survived the end of the Pinochet era. Simultaneously, the Mirage scandal, which cost the Chilean state USD 15 million in commissions, cast a light on the transnational nature of arms corruption and the important role of intermediaries such as Lt. Gen. Jacques Lefebvre, a suspect figure in a separate Belgian political finance and arms sales scandal of the late 1980s, who enjoyed a second career as a sales agent for Belgium’s military equipment made redundant by the end of the Cold War. The tangled network of shell companies and secret bank accounts uncovered in the course of the Belgian and Chilean investigations also highlighted the importance of multi-jurisdictional prosecutorial cooperation in fighting international corruption schemes.

Case details
Seller country: Belgium
Seller company: SABCA
Buyer country: Chile
Goods category: Aircraft
Equipment sold: 25 Mirage-5M “Elkan” combat aircraft
Deal value: USD 114 million
Sum involved in corruption: USD 15 million
Start year: 1994
Outcome status: Trial Closed - Some Convictions

Dramatis Personae
  • Ramón Vega Hidalgo– head of the Chilean Air Force (1991-1995) and later an appointed senator (1998-2006); suspected of misappropriating USD 2.8 million in public funds. Arrested in 2009; released due to ill health and died in 2014.

  • Lt. Gen (retd.) Jacques Lefebvre – chief of staff of the Belgian Air Force (1985-1988) and founder of Europavia. Committed suicide in 1995.

  • Jaime Estay Viveros – former head of the logistics command of the Chilean Air Force. Convicted of embezzlement of public funds; received a 100-day suspended sentence and fined CLP 7.5 million.

  • Bernard Van Meer – son-in-law of Ramón Vega.

  • Carlos Honzik – Chilean arms dealer and key intermediary on the Mirage deal.

  • Patricio Rojas – Chilean defence minister at the time of the deal’s signing.

Summary of Corruption Allegations

Of the USD 39 million in modernization costs which Chile paid to SABCA, a large commission worth USD 15 million was in turn paid out to Lefebvre’s consultancy firm, Europavia. In March 1995, Lefebvre committed suicide after being implicated in a separate political controversy surrounding an arms procurement scandal in Belgium. Belgian investigators uncovered evidence of the USD 15 million commission associated with the Chilean deal among his papers. Lefebvre’s records revealed that the USD 15 million was divided up among several Belgian and Chilean agents involved in the deal. The general himself took a three percent cut of the commission, a SABCA representative in Chile named Francisco Smet d’Olbeck was assigned ten percent, a Paris-based aeronautics consultant received one percent, eight percent was sent to an anonymous account in Miami, and the remainder was transferred to a company with the name Berthier Investment Inc. The resulting investigations would firmly establish that the ultimate recipients of these funds were intermediaries and FACh officers, while several close associates of high-ranking civilian officials also benefited.

  • Jul 1994

    The FACh signed a USD 114 million contract for 20 jets modernized to the Mirage-5M “Elkan” standard, plus five additional jets for spare parts.

Investigation Outcomes
  • Jan 1999

    Chilean deputy Nelson Ávila brought to light suspicions of kickbacks related to the deal based on Lefebvre’s documents.

  • 2003

    Belgian investigating judge approached Chilean counterparts for legal assistance in determining the controllers of the accounts into which Europavia had transferred funds.

  • 2009

    Ramón Vega was arrested and placed in detention pending trial, however, he was released for health reasons.

  • 2010

    A parliamentary commission investigated the Mirage deal and released its report. It held that former presidents Eduardo Frei and Patricio Aylwin, their defence ministers Patricio Rojas and Edmundo Pérez Yoma, respectively, were responsible for failing to prevent the corruption associated with the deal.

  • Feb 2017

    Jaime Estay, the former head of the Logistics Command of the FACh, was found guilty of misappropriation of public funds and given a suspended 100-day prison sentence and fined CLP 7.5 million.

  • 2018

    President Sebastián Piñera introduced a plan to phase out the Copper Law while maintaining a link between copper revenues and arms procurement over a twelve-year transition period.

  • Mary Helen Spooner, “Chile military stays out in the cold,” Financial Times, Dec. 21, 1983, accessed through Nexis.

  • “Chile Interested in Buying 20 Belgian Mirage Jet Fighters,” Associated Press Worldstream, Mar. 6, 1994, accessed through Nexis.

  • “Air force buys 25 Mirage fighter aircraft from Belgium,” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, July 23, 1994, accessed through Nexis.

  • “Chilean Mirage rolled out,” Flight International, Vol. 146, No. 4443, Oct. 19, 1994, pp. 17, accessed through Nexis.

  • “Denuncian Irregularidades en Compra Mirage Belgas En 1994 [Denunciation of Irregularities in 1994 Purchase of Belgian Mirages],” Spanish Newswire Services, Jan. 7, 1999, accessed through Nexis.

  • “Gerecht valt binnen bij leger, Delcredere en Sabca [Investigators raid army, Delcredere, and Sabca],” De Tijd (online), July 1, 2002,

  • Gregory Weeks, The Military and Politics in Postauthoritarian Chile (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press,

  • 2003).

  • “Bélgica busca en Chile pistas por millonario fraude en venta del Mirage [Belgium searches in Chile for tracks of million-dollar fraud in sale of Mirage],” La Estrella de Valparaíso (online), June 17, 2003,

  • Luis Narváez, “El Caso Mirage [The Mirage Case], La Nación (online), Oct. 11, 2003,

  • Hubert Leclercq and Gilbert Dupont, “Argent sale et Mirage belges [Dirty money and Belgian Mirages],” La Dernière Heure (online), Mar. 10, 2004,

  • “Caso Mirage: contradicción de Ramón Vega podría constituir perjurio [The Mirage Case: Contradiction of Ramón Vega could constitute perjury],” El Mostrador (online), Apr. 13, 2004,

  • Luis Narvaez, “El Hombre en las Sombras [The man in the shadows],” La Nación (online), Jan. 19, 2008,

  • “General Vega se quedó con casi US$3 millones por compra de aviones Mirage [General Vega left with almost US$3 million for purchase of Mirage airplanes],” La Nación (online), Jan. 19, 2009,

  • Claudia Farfán and Lorena Rubio, “La historia de un hombre crucial en el caso Mirage [The history of a crucial man in the Mirage Case],” La Tercera (online), Jan. 30, 2009,

  • Francisco Artaza y Juan Pablo Sallaberry, “Dezerega, el nexo que complica a Rojas en caso Mirage [Dezerega, the nexus that implicates Rojas in the Mirage Case],” La Tercera (online), Feb. 1, 2009,

  • Sebastián Minay, “La conexión de Patricio Rojas con el caso Mirage y sus negocios con el Ministerio de Defensa [The connection from Patricio Rojas to the Mirage Case and his business with the Ministry of Defense],” CIPER (El Centro de Investigación Periodística) (website), Apr. 15, 2009,

  • Francisca Skoknic and Sebastián Minay, “Revise los estudios vendidos por la corporación de Patricio Rojas a Defensa [Read the studies sold by Patricio Rojas’ company to the Ministry of Defense],” CIPER (El Centro de Investigación Periodística) (website), Apr. 23, 2009,

  • Miguel Paz, “Conrado Ariztía: el hombre detrás de la oferta de helicópteros Black Hawk para la FACH [Conrado Ariztía: the man behind the offer of Black Hawk helicopters for the FACh],” El Mostrador (online), July 8, 2009,

  • “Comisión Mirage aprueba informe que responsabiliza a Frei, Aylwin y Pérez Yoma [Mirage Commission approves report that places responsibility on Frei, Aylwin, and Pérez Yoma],” El Mercurio (online), Jan. 19, 2010,

  • Camara de Diputados de Chile [Chamber of Deputies of Chile], “Informe de la Comisión Especial Investigadora encargada de analizar las presuntas comisiones indebidas que se habrían pagado en el marco de la compras del Gobierno de Chile de 25 aviones Mirage a Bélgica y de 200 tanques Leopard I a Holanda [Report of the Special Investigative Commission encharged with analyzing presumed improper commissions that were paid in the context of the purchase by the Government of Chile of 25 Mirage airplanes from Belgium and of 200 Leopard I tanks from the Netherlands],” report, Jan. 19, 2010,

  • Kristina Mani, Democratization and Military Transformation in Argentina and Chile (Boulder: FirstForumPress, 2011).

  • “Justicia suiza congeló más de 13 millones de dólares retenidos en fondos ligados al caso Mirage [Swiss authorities freeze more than 13 million dollars linked to Mirage Case,” El Mostrador (online), Mar. 28, 2012,

  • “Muere Ramón Vega, ex comandante en jefe de la FACh entre 1991-1995 [Death of Ramón Vega, former commander in chief of the FACh in 1991-1995],” El Mercurio (online), May 7, 2014,

  • “Juez cerró caso Mirage y no se pudo encontrar un millón de dólares [Judge closes Mirage Case without finding one million dollars],” El Mercurio, Aug. 25, 2014, available from Nexis.

  • Alberto Arellano and Catalina Albert, “Las interrogantes de la hermética compra de los helicópteros Black Hawk de la FACH [Questions about the closed purchase of Black Hawk helicopters for the FACh],” CIPER (El Centro de Investigación Periodística) (website), Sep. 23, 2016,

  • “Caso Mirage: juez Omar Astudillo condena a general (r) de la FACh y a esposa de empresario checo [Mirage Case: Judge Omar Astudillo sentences a retired general of the FACh and the wife of a Czech businessman],” El Mostrador (online), Feb. 3, 2017,

  • Francisco Artaza, “Un histórico militante DC en la mira del caso Frei Montalva [An old Christian Democrat operative in the crosshairs of the Frei Montalva Case],” La Tercera (online), Dec. 12, 2018,

  • Claudio Fuentes S., “Eliminación de la Ley Reservada del Cobre: que no le pasen gato por liebre,” CIPER (El Centro de Investigación Periodística) (website), Aug. 16, 2018,