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Chile exhumes body of poet Pablo Neruda

Chile looks into claims by a former chauffeur that the Nobel Prize laureate may have received a lethal injection shortly after Salvador Allende was overthrown.

April 08, 2013|By Fabiola Gutierrez and Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times
  • Coroner's personnel and relatives of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda accompany his remains in Isla Negra after the exhumation, in a photo provided by Chile's judiciary.
Coroner's personnel and relatives of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda accompany…

SANTIAGO, Chile — Chilean authorities on Monday exhumed the body of Pablo Neruda to check claims by a former chauffeur that the Nobel Prize-winning poet may have been killed by government agents shortly after the 1973 overthrow of his friend, President Salvador Allende.

Under a special tent and wearing protective clothing, a team of forensic pathologists that included a U.S. toxicologist gathered in the coastal resort town of Isla Negra to oversee the exhumation.

Neruda died on Sept. 23, 1973, with the cause officially listed as complications from prostate cancer. But charges brought in 2011 by former chauffeur Manuel Araya that the poet may have received a lethal injection shortly before he died caused Judge Mario Carroza to order an investigation.

One of Neruda's attending physicians at Santiago's Santa Maria Clinic, Sergio Draper, told an Argentine reporter that he had ordered the injection of a painkiller shortly before the poet's death. Neruda's widow, Matilde, died in 1985, apparently without demanding a public inquest of her husband's death.

Guillermo Teillier, president of Chile's Communist Party, of which Neruda was a member, was present at Monday's exhumation, as were Araya and Neruda's nephew, Rodolfo Reyes.

Officials said they planned to take Neruda's remains to the government's Legal Medical Services headquarters in Santiago, about 70 miles east of Isla Negra, where tests will be carried out to detect toxic substances. The forensic team is expected to say next week when it will finish the tests and render a finding.

The team includes five government forensic experts; four investigators from the University of Chile; and a foreign contingent that includes Ruth Winecker, a toxicologist from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

Even if Neruda did receive a lethal injection, experts cautioned, toxic traces may be difficult to detect 40 years after his death.

Neruda was an ardent supporter of Allende, who was overthrown Sept. 11, 1973, in a coup by armed forces led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. The general ruled Chile until 1990.

Neruda, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971, died during the turmoil that reigned over the country in the weeks after the coup, during which an estimated 10,000 dissidents disappeared or were killed by the armed forces.

Araya has said in interviews that although Neruda had been diagnosed as having prostate cancer, he did not seem to be in declining health when, four days before his death, he left his home in Isla Negra for a stay at the Santa Maria Clinic.

The main purpose was to escape harassment by authorities and to wait in a secure location for a flight to exile in Mexico that had been arranged by that country's then-President Luis Echeverria.

Monday's exhumation took place only after wrangling between Judge Carroza on one side and Araya and the poet's family on the other over which forensic experts would take part in the investigation.

Special correspondents Gutierrez reported from Santiago and Kraul from Bogota, Colombia.

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