Exhuming Salvador Allende: An Autopsy into Chile's Brutal Past

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The 1973 death of Chilean President Salvador Allende, pictured in 1971, has led to decades of debate over whether he committed suicide or was murdered

In the early afternoon of Sept. 11, 1973, with Chile's presidential palace in the pall of a coup d'état's smoke and gunfire, President Salvador Allende, the world's first democratically elected Marxist President, bid his country farewell in a radio address and, after ordering the palace defenders to surrender, entered the Independence Hall alone.

What happened next is the subject of myth and mystery. The official version, cobbled together from bits and pieces of testimony, and an autopsy conducted under extreme duress by two doctors — one of them a gynecologist — says the 65-year-old Allende placed an AK-47 given to him by Fidel Castro under his chin and pulled the trigger. But discrepancies surrounding the autopsy and absence of multiple witnesses have made the tale of his suicide difficult for many to accept.

After 38 years of heated debate, a team of domestic and international forensic specialists will attempt to shed light on what is perhaps the defining event of contemporary Chilean history. On Monday, Allende's body will be exhumed under court order, upon the request of Allende relatives, to set straight once and for all if indeed he did pull the trigger, paying "with my life the loyalty of the people," becoming a martyr. Or was he murdered by General Augusto Pinochet's troops in a bloody coup?

To be clear, says Isabel Allende, the President's daughter and now a Chilean Senator, the family "has no doubt about the suicide of my father," explaining that it was a decision he made to die with dignity rather than surrender. Above all, the exhumation is an opportunity to clear up lingering doubts and conduct an official investigation, which has never been done, and place his death in the context of the violence on that day. "In a sense, Allende is the first disappeared, he's the first victim whether he kills himself or not," said Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean novelist who served as cultural adviser to the President. "It really was his death that inaugurates the time of terror, of lying and of hiding the truth in Chile."

Dorfman, like many Allende supporters, once rejected the idea that the President had taken his own life, which he discussed in his memoir Heading South, Looking North. He said he chose to cling to the myth of the good king killed by the treacherous person, embodied in this case by the commander in chief of the army that he had appointed. While the symmetry appealed to Dorfman for a while, he said that over time it wasn't sufficient. After listening to Dr. Patricio Guijón, a member of Allende's medical staff who claims to have witnessed Allende shoot himself, Dorfman says he has now adopted another myth, that of the king who tells his people that "my sacrifice will not be in vain," taking his own life so that others may live.

According to the government, more than 3,000 people disappeared or were killed by the regime of Pinochet, whose 17-year dictatorship was one of Latin America's longest. If Allende was among the first victims, his case is also one of the last investigated. But there are others. For years the Group of Families of the Politically Executed pressured Chilean courts to bring to justice the perpetrators of human rights violations and end "the national shame we suffered for years" under judicial cowardice, according to Alicia Lira Matus, the group's president. A current set of judges, led by Judge Mario Carroza, has given the group renewed hope, Lira says, starting with an official investigation into 726 human rights complaints, a number that includes Allende's.

Carroza requested that Chile's Legal Medical Service review the original autopsy, and based on its report, he authorized Allende's exhumation. Dr. Patricio Bustos Streeter, national director of the service, is wary of getting caught up in the emotionally charged events that are about to transpire. "Although we are an institution, we're also citizens," he says. "We are impartial, but we aren't neutral," he says, looking over his spectacles to emphasize his point.

Time and oxygen will have worn away flesh and ligament, complicating somewhat the job of forensics. It should not prove insurmountable, Bustos says, pointing out that two years ago specialists determined the details of the brutal torture and death of Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, who was killed in 1973 as well.

Still, even with the latest technology, an absolute truth may prove elusive if evidence has been lost, says Dr. Luis Ravanal Zepeda, a forensic specialist in Chile who reviewed the original autopsy report in 2008 for lawyers investigating Dr. José Luis Vásquez Fernández, one of its authors. Ravanal concluded that Allende's wounds "were not compatible with suicide," further clouding the matter. He found that the description of the President's wounds suggested there were two gunshot wounds: one from a smaller weapon, likely a pistol, and a much larger wound, from a rifle like an AK-47. What concerns Ravanal most is that vital skull fragments were lost or thrown out when Allende was transferred from the coastal city of Viña del Mar to the General Cemetery in Santiago upon the return to democracy in 1990. "If that's the case, they would have thrown in the trash an important part of our country's history," Ravanal says.

On one overcast fall afternoon, 74-year-old Juan Rebolledo, groundskeeper at the General Cemetery, lazily piles fallen leaves into an aged wicker basket, the same task he's performed thousands of times before. Rebolledo remembers the wonderful fountain at Patio 40 that Allende's mausoleum replaced, watching as the line of visitors has slowed to a trickle. After a life spent among the dead, he questions the value in disturbing Allende's remains. "If it were my family, I would let the dead rest," Rebolledo says.

Then again, the autopsy is more about the living than the dead. If you have something from the dead, a message, there is a chance at closure, at least to move on in some way, according to Dorfman. As jets bombarded the palace and tanks closed in, Allende may have offered such a message in his final radio address. "These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, it will be a moral lesson that will punish felony, cowardice and treason."