Was Pablo Neruda murdered?

By Jack Nicas

SANTIAGO – When Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, perhaps the nation’s most celebrated figure, died in 1973, the official cause was cancer.

But there has long been suspicion that Neruda was murdered, and plenty of circumstantial evidence appeared to support the theory.

Less than two weeks before his death, a military coup had toppled the leftist government. Neruda was one of the government’s most prominent allies and was just hours from fleeing to Mexico.

Then, in 2011, his chauffeur made a bombshell allegation: Neruda was mysteriously injected in the stomach shortly before his death.

On Wednesday (15), after a decade-long investigation, a team of international forensic experts gave a Chilean judge their final report about their analysis of Neruda’s exhumed remains. It was a moment Chileans had long been awaiting.

So, was Neruda murdered? Their answer was not very satisfying: maybe.

The scientists found in Neruda’s body a potentially toxic type of bacteria that would not naturally occur there, and confirmed that it was in his system when he died, according to a two-page summary of the report shared with The New York Times. But they could not distinguish whether it was a toxic strain, and they could not conclude whether he was injected with the bacteria or if, instead, it came from contaminated food.

Yet the scientists conceded that other circumstantial evidence supported the theory of murder, including that in 1981, the military dictatorship poisoned political prisoners with bacteria possibly similar to the strain found in Neruda. (However, that method of poisoning stemmed from a chemical weapons program the dictatorship began in 1976, three years after Neruda’s death.)

Instead of providing clarity, the highly anticipated report showed that a murder mystery that has hung over Chile for the past 50 years may never be solved.

“If he had a toxic strain, how would it have gotten there?” said Charles Brenner, a forensic investigator from California who helped complete the report. “That is more a matter of imagination, and not science.”

The scientists had announced in 2017 that they had found traces of the bacterium in Neruda’s tooth, but they were unsure whether it had seeped into his body after his burial, which can occur.

The new finding that the bacterium was inside Neruda when he died is likely to fuel the deep-seated suspicion among many Chileans that the death of the nation’s most prominent cultural figure was just one more atrocity of Chile’s military dictatorship.

The dictatorship, which ruled from 1973 to 1990 under the iron fist of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, drove hundreds of thousands of Chileans into exile, tortured tens of thousands and left more than 3,000 dead.

Paola Plaza, the Chilean judge overseeing the investigation into Neruda’s death, received the report Wednesday and said she would consider it as important evidence in the inquiry into whether Neruda was poisoned. Plaza could file murder charges if she finds that she has enough evidence.

Yet Wednesday’s report and Plaza’s eventual conclusion may never sway some of the Chilean public. Karen Donoso, a Chilean historian, compared the uncertainty over Neruda’s death to some people’s lasting questions over the death of leftist President Salvador Allende, who shot himself rather than fall into the hands of the military as it overthrew his government.

“For many people, Allende was murdered, even though judicial investigations have proven otherwise. Something similar may happen with Neruda,” she said. “Many people will keep thinking he was killed, and that is what will remain in their memory.”

To some of Neruda’s relatives, who have long believed the poet was murdered, the report was evidence that he was. “We have now found the murder weapon. But who killed him? That is the second stage,” said Rodolfo Reyes, Neruda’s nephew and a lawyer and plaintiff in the case. “But at least it has been recorded in history that Neruda did not die of sorrow or cancer.”

Known for his love poems, Neruda is widely regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, winning the Nobel Prize in literature in 1971. His legacy has also been reconsidered in recent years in light of his admission in his memoir that he sexually assaulted a maid, when he was a diplomat in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in the 1930s.

Neruda was actively involved in politics, including as a former senator for the Communist Party and the Chilean ambassador to France. Neruda was in Paris when he first underwent treatment for prostate cancer, eventually returning to Chile in 1972.

A year later, the military seized power. Troops looted and destroyed Neruda’s house in Santiago, Chile, and twice raided his coastal home 70 miles west, where he lived with his third wife.

Amid the tumult, the Mexican government offered Neruda asylum. But days before he was scheduled to travel, Neruda was admitted to a medical clinic in Santiago, where he died at age 69.

While there were some suspicions of foul play, the idea that he died of natural causes was widely accepted across Chile. In the 1980s, the Pablo Neruda Foundation, a non-profit that manages the poet’s former homes, argued that there was “no evidence to support that the cause of death was anything other than cancer.”

But in 2011 came a new allegation. Neruda’s former driver, Manuel Araya, told a Mexican magazine that Neruda had told him on his deathbed that doctors had injected him in the stomach with an unknown substance that made him “burn inside”.

At the time, few of Neruda’s relatives and friends believed Araya’s version, nor did the Pablo Neruda Foundation.

It was unclear why Araya had kept silent for 40 years. He said that he had tried to tell Chile’s Communist Party decades earlier but that no one would listen. But after his public allegation, the party filed a lawsuit to investigate the death.

In April 2013, Neruda’s body was exhumed under orders from a judge. Forensic experts from Chile, Spain and the United States analyzed the remains and published a report seven months later that said there was “no forensic evidence whatsoever” pointing to a cause of death other than cancer. The examiners found metastatic lesions in the skeleton corresponding to prostate cancer and traces of medication to treat it.

Yet forensic labs at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark and McMaster University in Canada continued to examine Neruda’s remains, including the DNA. In 2017, they said that an official cause of death, cachexia, or the wasting of the body caused by cancer, was incorrect.

“There was no indication of cachexia. He was an obese man at the time of death,” Dr. Niels Morling, a Danish scientist who helped lead the analysis, said at the time. “All other circumstances in his last phase of life pointed to some kind of infection.”

But crucially, the researchers also found in one of Neruda’s molars traces of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Some strains of that bacterium cause botulism, which can paralyze and kill people, and are among the world’s deadliest toxins, sometimes used in biological weapons.

Still, the 2017 analysis was incomplete, and the scientists said they needed more time to determine whether the bacteria was in his body at the time of death — instead of seeping in later — and whether it had killed him.

In their final report Wednesday, the scientists concluded the bacterium was in Neruda’s body when he died, in part by finding small amounts in the ground near where he was buried.

But they could not determine whether it killed him, or even if the strain was a toxic one, in part because they were only able to reconstruct about one-third of its genome. Because the DNA was so old, it had degraded.

“Botulinum is the most potent poison there is for humans. And therefore, a mention of a person dying with botulinum bacteria in them is hair-raising. It’s sensational,” said Brenner, the member of the expert panel. “However, the truth is, some botulinum strains do not produce the toxin, and in this case, there was no clear evidence that was the case.”

Toxic botulinum bacteria in humans is more often the result of eating rotten fish, he said. “We don’t have a lot of murderers, but we do have a lot of deaths from botulism,” he said.

-New York Times



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