ISLA NEGRA, Chile (AP) — Chilean forensic experts exhumed the body of Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda on Monday, trying to solve a four-decade mystery about the death of one the greatest poets of the 20th century.
The official version is that that the poet died from prostate cancer and the trauma of witnessing the 1973 military coup that led to the death and persecution of many of his friends. But his driver and many other Chileans say Neruda was murdered by agents of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's regime.
Experts had been concerned that high salinity and humidity could affect the exhumation because Neruda is buried next to his wife in Isla Negra, his home on a rocky outcropping overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
But Patricio Bustos, head of Chile's medical legal service, said Neruda's casket is in good shape after the one-hour exhumation. After draping Neruda's coffin in the Chilean national flag, forensics workers took his remains to the capital for tests.
"After we take a look at our lab, following the biomedical safety measures and with total vigilance, we will be able to set a timeline for the process," Bustos told reporters.
"The most complex part will be searching for toxic substances that could not only be classic poisons, but also, according to testimonies, could be medical substances at very high doses to harm the poet.
Neruda, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1971, was best known for his romantic verses, especially the collection "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair." He was also a leftist diplomat and close friend of socialist President Santiago Allende, who committed suicide rather than surrender to troops during the Sept. 11, 1973.
Neruda planned to go into exile, where he would have been an influential voice against the dictatorship. A day before he was scheduled to leave, he was taken by ambulance to the Santa Maria hospital in Santiago, where he was being treated for cancer and other ailments.
Officially, Neruda died there on Sept. 23 from natural causes related to the emotional trauma of the coup.
For years, his driver and bodyguard, Manuel Araya has said that the poet was murdered when agents of the dictatorship injected poison into his stomach at the clinic.
The exhumation was approved by Judge Mario Carroza on a request by Chile's Communist Party. It was attended by the driver and one of Neruda's four nephews.