WikiLeaked

Details on the strange death of a former Chilean president

The death of former Chilean President Eduardo Frei Montalva is that country’s equivalent of the John F. Kennedy assassaination: a national mystery around which so much speculation circulates that no truth will probably ever be known. On a January day in 1982, Frei checked into the hospital in the capital, Santiago, for what should have ...

STF/AFP/Getty Images
STF/AFP/Getty Images

The death of former Chilean President Eduardo Frei Montalva is that country’s equivalent of the John F. Kennedy assassaination: a national mystery around which so much speculation circulates that no truth will probably ever be known. On a January day in 1982, Frei checked into the hospital in the capital, Santiago, for what should have been a routine operation. Hours later, he was dead. His family and supporters believe he was poisoned. A December 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks on Tuesday offers odd details about what happened next — including an in-hospital autopsy — that will only further stoke the conspiracy theories.

First, a bit  of backgrond: Frei one of the founding members of the Christian Democrats, a moderately right-leaning party in Chile, was president from 1964-1970. Though he initially supported the military coup that brought General Augusto Pinochet to power, he later became a "leading figure in the opposition to [the] military dictator," as the cable puts it. 

Frei’s supporters, and many pro-democracy activists from that time in Chile, believe that Frei was slowly poisoned by the dictator. And on December 7, 2009, two-and-a-half decades after his death, a Santiago-based judge charged half-a-dozen Chileans with carrying out the crime. According to the judge, two chemicals, thalium and mustard gas, were given to Frei over several months to weaken his immune system, leaving him vulnerable to the infection that eventually killed him.

The cable offers further details about the president’s:

Less than one hour after his death, doctors from the Catholic University Pathological Anatomy Department came to Clinica Santa Maria and performed an autopsy of Frei without the family’s consent. The highly unusual autopsy was allegedly performed in the hospital room where Frei died, using a ladder to hang the body upside down in order to drain bodily fluids into the bathtub. Some organs, and in particular those whose chemical compositions might indicate poisoning, were removed and destroyed, and the body was embalmed.

Years later, the United States was approached for help in investigating the crime, and specifically, for help with forensic analysis of the body. But what followed was a series of frustrating exchanges, recounted in what reads as an annoyed tone, in the cable. Chilean officials repeatedly failed to follow protocol in reaching out to U.S. diplomats, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Centers for Disease Control. Meanwhile, a U.S. military analysis of samples from Frei’s remains found no traces of poison (though the alleged chemicals wouldn’t have showed up 20 years later, the cable claims.)

What is portrayed in the cable as diplomatic frustration, however, may well seem like U.S. reticence to help in Chile. American officials were intimately involved in trying to stoke unrest in the Chilean military to spark a coup — and subsequent administrations continued to back Pinochet once he came to office, though this position had begun to shift by the time of Frei’s death.

(As an aside, the Chilean Judge issued his warrants days before a presidential election between Jose Piñera and Frei’s son, Eduardo, also a former president — described in another cable as "Smart, dependable, honest, and dull." If the charges were an attempt to push Frei’s candidacy forward, however, it didn’t work; he lost the vote.)

So in short, no resolution and lots more intrigue. As the December 2009 cable puts it: "the death of this emblematic president seems destined to be yet one more area [from the Pinochet years] in which the full truth may never be known."

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