Turn back the clock nearly 40 years: fighter jets are bombing Chile’s La Moneda presidential palace. As smoke rises from the burning building, Salvador Allende, the socialist president trapped inside, vows not to resign and prepares to die.
His body, with a rifle beside it, was discovered in a chair. But was his death, as his family maintains, a suicide – Allende finally blowing his brains out with the AK-47 given to him by Fidel Castro, rather than be captured? Or were there more shots to the head indicating – perhaps – murder?
Forensic scientists today exhume the former president’s body from the family mausoleum in Santiago’s General Cemetery to begin the search for answers to the enigma of his death during Augusto Pinochet’s coup on September 11, 1973.
“I saw his skull explode, splattering grey matter,” Patricio Guijón, one of Mr Allende’s doctors, told the Financial Times, recounting how he had started to leave the palace on the orders of a president determined to leave last, but decided to go back to pick up a gas mask as a souvenir for his children when he chanced upon the macabre scene.
“I was there just as he fired. It was a coincidence I would not like to repeat,” Mr Guijón said. “There was no one else around.”
He sat with the dead president for 15 to 20 minutes. “There was nothing that could be done – he was practically decapitated,” the 77-year-old retired surgeon recalled in a telephone interview from his home in central Chile. “He had the assault rifle between his knees. I have no doubt that this was a suicide shot.”
Luis Ravanal, a forensic expert who has spent the past four years poring over the military doctors’ autopsy report, is not so sure. He says it describes two gunshot wounds: one a round exit hole consistent with a shot from a revolver or pistol; the other, a wound from an assault rifle he says must have been subsequently fired under the jaw. The report says that shot blew a 28cm hole in Mr Allende’s head.
He says the report contains irregularities – such as an absence of photographs of the autopsy – and inconsistencies, including that regarding the trajectory of the AK-47’s bullet.
Scientists and doctors face the challenge to piece together and analyse bone fragments that are to be exhumed for the second time.
Mr Allende was hastily buried in Viña del Mar outside Santiago after the autopsy, only transferred to Santiago after restoration of democracy in 1990.
That transfer of the body was by unskilled workers. Clothing was thrown out, Mr Ravanal says, potentially complicating the forensic task: “There is a high probability that bone fragments will be missing.”
Patricio Bustos, head of Chile’s Forensic Medicine Service, in charge of analysis of Mr Allende’s remains, acknowledges the difficulties of a task expected to take two to three months. But he adds: “We have the progress of science.”
Judge Mario Carroza will make the ruling on cause of Mr Allende’s death. The former president is one of 726 cases of dictatorship-era deaths to be investigated at the behest of relatives. But Mr Bustos was confident of the prospect of finally being able to “tell the family, public opinion and history what happened”.
Alicia Lira Matus, president of the Group of Families of Executed Political Prisoners, is optimistic the “absolute truth” will come out – coincidentally after Chile’s return to centre-right rule last year under Sebastián Piñera for the first time since Pinochet. “If he killed himself, he must have been made to do it,” she believes.
But Isabel Allende, the former president’s daughter and now a senator (the novelist by the same name is a niece of Allende’s), says the exhumation will be “tremendously important because this is going to dispel any doubt or speculation” that it was a suicide.
“As a family we believe that . . . just as he vowed: ‘They’ll only get me out of La Moneda dead’, he chose to take his life,” she said recently.
Allende is only the latest political leader from the region to be disinterred.
The bones of Simón Bolívar, Latin America’s liberation hero, were exhumed last year in Venezuela to try to ascertain if he was poisoned or whether his death, in 1830, was caused by tuberculosis. Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president who takes Bolívar as the icon of his socialist revolution, ardently maintains he was murdered.
Perhaps the region’s most famous exhumation is that of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary killed in Bolivia in 1967 and buried in secret. His remains were discovered 30 years later and returned to Cuba, where he is revered as a martyr.