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Pablo Neruda will finally have his last word

A group of forensic experts are to exhume the poet’s body to clear up suspicions over whether the Pinochet government murdered the Nobel Prize winner in 1973

The poet's driver and secretary, Manuel Araya Osorio visiting Pablo Neruda in the Santa María Hospital. Ampliar foto
The poet's driver and secretary, Manuel Araya Osorio visiting Pablo Neruda in the Santa María Hospital.

One of the most long-awaited facets of the ongoing investigation into the 1973 death of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda will get underway on Monday when a judge and 12 forensic experts are set to take part in exhuming his remains from a grave in the small Pacific beach resort of Isla Negra where he lived during his final years.

Officially, the Nobel Prize winner died from cancer at Santiago’s Santa María Hospital on September 23, 1973 – 13 days after Marxist President Salvador Allende committed suicide during a bloody coup.

However in 2011, his former driver, Manuel Araya Osorio, told the Mexican magazine Proceso that he was convinced that the new military regime headed by Augusto Pinochet had ordered a doctor to give Neruda a poisonous injection. "After the September 11 coup, he was planning to go into exile with his wife Matilde. The plan was to try to overthrow the dictator within three months from abroad. He was going to ask the world to help overthrow Pinochet, but before he could board a plane the plotters took advantage of the fact that he had been admitted to a hospital, and that's where they injected him in his stomach with poison," claimed the now 67-year-old Araya Osorio in a subsequent interview with EL PAÍS.

His version compelled the Chilean Communist Party (PCC), of which Neruda was a member, to demand a judicial investigation. Judge Mario Carroza, who also looked into the longstanding claim that Allende had been murdered, opened the inquiry in 2011.

After reviewing more than 500 documents, he decided early this year that an exhumation was warranted.

Was the illness the cause of his death? Did someone inject him with toxic substances?"

Besides the Allende inquiry, Carroza has also looked into the deaths of former President Eduardo Frei and has launched an ongoing investigation into the murder of the father of another ex-president, Michelle Bachelet.

Neruda’s was buried in Santiago’s General Cemetery but was removed in 1992 at the request of his surviving relatives to Isla Negra, the location of his favorite among the several homes he owned in Chile. He is buried inside the patio along with his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, who died in 1985.

Neruda, who was appointed ambassador to France by Allende, had returned to Chile in the early 1970s after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In the 1930s, Neruda served as consul and cultural attaché in Barcelona, and lived for a brief time in Madrid with his second wife, the Argentinean artist Delia del Carril.

According to a preliminary investigation, Neruda’s remains are deposited in a small urn inside a coffin some 65 centimeters underground.

“Fortunately, this isn’t a case of someone who was arrested and disappeared so there are photographic and video records that document the moment of the burial. We know his identify,” said Patricio Bustos, director of the Legal Medical Services (SML), which is helping in identifying the remains.

One of the goals is to determine whether Neruda was suffering from cancer when he died at the Santiago hospital. “But we will also try to answer some of the questions that Judge Carroza has asked: Was the illness the only cause of his death? Did someone inject him with any toxic substance or chemicals? This is why we are working with toxicologists, genetic experts, biochemists and doctors,” explained Bustos.

Among the experts who will run tests are three Spaniards: Guillermo Repetto of the University of Pablo de Olavide in Seville; Aurelio Luna from the University of Murcia; and Francisco Etxeberria of the Basque Country University.

“I am not focusing my work on any theory,” said Etxeberria in an interview with Efe.

Besides the judge and the 12 experts, a lawyer from the PC will also be on hand as well as Neruda’s nephew and grand-nephew.

The urn will be taken to the SML lab in Santiago under strict security. Before opening it, they will run X-rays and take photographs and videos. Samples of the remains will be sent to different laboratories in Chile and abroad. One of these samples may be sent to Seville. Carroza has not said when he hopes to have the first indications of the scientific tests.