NewsLatin AmericaThe mystery of Pablo Neruda's death: 12 years on the trail of a possible poisoning

The mystery of Pablo Neruda’s death: 12 years on the trail of a possible poisoning

Former Chilean President Salvador Allende and the poet Pablo Neruda, in an undated image.

If it were not for the fact that in 2011, 38 years after the death of Pablo Neruda, his ex-driver Manuel Araya said that the Chilean poet was poisoned during his hospitalization at the Santa Maria Clinic in Santiago, his cause of death would not have been questioned. The Nobel Prize for Literature was ill with metastatic prostate cancer and his death certificate, a document that has also been questioned, stated that his death was due to “cancerous cachexia.”

The death of Neruda, whose name was Neftali Reyes, dates back to September 23, 1973, 12 days after the military coup that overthrew socialist President Salvador Allende on September 11 of that year. Araya was the one who transferred him to the clinic, together with the poet’s wife, Matilde Urrutia, from his house in Isla Negra, a coastal town located about 100 kilometers from Santiago de Chile.

The testimony of the driver, the only one in the file that accounts for this suspicion, caused the Communist Party, in which the writer was a member, to file a complaint in 2011. Quickly, a judicial investigation was opened that in 2023 will be open for 12 years. An investigation that entered its decisive stage after the third international panel of scientists involved in the case determined, according to information released by the poet’s nephew Rodolfo Reyes, and not by the experts or by the court, that Neruda “would a biological weapon was injected.”

“The laboratory in Canada had the complete molar and a skeleton of the skull. In contrast, the one from Denmark had a femur, which is more porous, and an incisor, which had less Clostridium botulinum. But it is the same strain from the two laboratories, which worked interchangeably. There is no doubt that this was endogenous and injected. And they put it on Neruda while he was alive and it ran through the bloodstream,” says Reyes, who is a plaintiff lawyer in the case along with Elizabeth Flores.

The report and the judge

The preliminary report with these conclusions was delivered on February 15 to Judge Paola Plaza, who is investigating the circumstances of Neruda’s death. The person in charge of doing it was the head of the panel, the Chilean doctor Gloria Ramirez.

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The document, however, is not binding for the decision that the judge has to make, since she must weigh the opinion of these experts with the hundreds of testimonies and background information that make up the Neruda file. Among them, the results of the first panel that analyzed the remains of the poet in 2013, the same year that his body was exhumed, and which determined that his cause of death was cancer. Or with what was established by the second international group of specialists, which in 2017 found the presence of Clostridium botulinum in the molar and ruled out that he died from his disease.

The 2017 panel also found that Neruda’s death certificate did not reflect the cause of death and noted that “cachexia is ruled out.” In fact, the file contains an expert opinion on the poet’s belt that still had the mark on which he fastened it. From this test it was concluded that he would not have lost weight due to advanced cancer, but that at the time of death he could have weighed about 90 kilos.

The Minister specializing in Human Rights, Paola Plaza, during a press conference on the preliminary report, in Santiago, on February 3, 2023.
The Minister specializing in Human Rights, Paola Plaza, during a press conference on the preliminary report, in Santiago, on February 3, 2023. Aileen Diaz (EFE)

The fourth case is the death in 1982 at the Santa Maria Clinic of the former president of Chile between 1964 and 1970, the Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Montalva. Although in a first instance ruling in 2019 a judge considered that he was killed by a chemical substance, in 2021 the Court of Appeals ruled out the murder and attributed the death to “consequences of medical complications.” That decision was unanimous.

conflicting versions

Judge Paola Plaza took over the investigation in 2020 after Judge Mario Carroza, who investigated the case for nine years, was promoted to the Supreme Court. Currently, he is the national coordinator of the cases of human rights violations that occurred after the military coup.

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When Carroza received the Neruda case in 2011, the first thing he did was reconstruct the last days of the poet’s life in his house on Isla Negra. Basically, he had to determine whether or not his state of health, in the days prior to his emergency admission in 1973, was so critical that he died shortly after entering the clinic.

The first investigations focused on the private life of the poet, on knowing the story of his environment in the days before his death. To do this, Carroza questioned Neruda’s relatives and his neighbors, among them, he recalls, a well-known Chilean folklorist. Also a man who made repairs in the house on Isla Negra. But the proceedings did not yield any further data: “There were contradictory versions. Some pointed out that he was in very bad shape, in a state of advanced cancer. Others, like Mr. Araya, said no, that he behaved well, that he was normal, that the cancer was under control. Those were the two versions. None definitive with respect to the other”.

“They were all suspects”

The second stage of the investigation focused on the Santa Maria Clinic. First, the transfer by car from Isla Negra to Santiago was recreated. “But there was no one who could tell us that he saw Mr. Neruda and that he was in such conditions. He must have passed several checkpoints between Isla Negra and Santiago, because in those days there was a curfew. There were no witnesses to that journey, ”says the judge.

The driver did tell how that road was. And he said that they were detained several times, something that is consistent with the political situation in Chile 12 days after the coup.

In a raid on the Santa Maria Clinic, Carroza’s team reviewed hundreds of files. Only one card was found that reported Neruda’s admission, but not the diagnosis. According to the magistrate, from that health center they told him that, from time to time, old documents are destroyed.

Before the judge, the doctor Sergio Draper, who died in December 2022, also testified several times. He did so as a defendant, the stage prior to prosecution, but in his case it never progressed beyond that procedural stage. Draper was the one who treated Neruda at the Santa Maria Clinic and, when he finished, he said that he handed over the shift to another doctor, whom he identified as “Dr. Price.” He even described him as tall, blond and fair-skinned, data with which the police prepared a spoken portrait with the collaboration of Draper.

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Carroza tried to identify Price. But neither in the clinic, nor in the Medical College of Chile, nor in the country’s medical schools, was a person with that name or surname found.

Erwin Sapiain, Draper’s lawyer despite his death, told EL PAIS: “My client’s turn lasted until 8:00 p.m. the day before Neruda’s death. They had to go to drop him off at his house, because there was no mobilization due to the curfew. When he was leaving, he said that he met Dr. Price, who told him that he would take care of Neruda. He had not seen it before, but it was a situation that did not attract his attention due to the situation in the country at the time.

And he adds: “Sergio Draper, to lessen the pain, gave Neruda an injection of dipyrone in front of Matilde Urrutia. I have studied the issue of dipyrone at the time and it caused burning. It is what the science of those years says. But this has nothing to do with the existence of a strain of bacteria found in a molar.”

The judge continued advancing. And he also questioned several nurses. He remembers being told that Neruda “was in poor condition.”

Thus, says Carroza, while he investigated the case, there was a moment in which “everyone was suspected.” And he adds that, until then, “what could be verified is that Neruda received an injection. What could not be verified is what it was from.

The third stage of the investigation was the scientific one, with the intervention of the panels. And, after the delivery of the last report, it will be Judge Plaza who must make a decision and answer the question of how Pablo Neruda died, if it was from natural causes or from poisoning.

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