Hoping to put to rest a decades-old controversy, a national and international team of forensic experts descended upon Santiago’s General Cemetery Monday morning and cracked the mausoleum of former Chilean President Salvador Allende. Their mission: to determine whether the deposed socialist leader was killed or killed himself in a coup that ushered in an era of right-wing leadership across the region.
On September 11, 1973, with the presidential palace under aerial bombardment and surrounded by tanks, the president bid his nation farewell in a radio address, announcing that his “sacrifice will not have been in vain.” Next, he ordered the palace defenders to surrender before entering the building’s Independence Hall alone.
What happens next has been the subject of heated debate for decades. Officially, President Allende placed a gold-plated AK-47 gifted to him by Fidel Castro under his chin and pulled the trigger. This is the version recounted by a member of the president’s medical team, who claims to have walked in on Allende the moment he shot himself.
But doubts have always persisted amid discrepancies over military and police reports at the time. Most recently, Chilean forensic expert Dr. Luis Ravanal reviewed the original autopsy in 2008 and concluded that Allende’s wounds were “not consistent with suicide.” His report also suggested that there were two exit wounds, one from a smaller weapon, such as a pistol, and a larger wound, indicating a rifle, likely the AK-47.
Experts hope that by studying bone fragmentation they can uncover how many weapons might have caused death.
The families of those tortured and killed for political reasons have pushed for courts to properly investigate human rights complaints and in some cases prosecute criminals. Allende's is among 726 other cases also being reviewed. So the exhumation, above all, means the conclusion of a proper investigation – no matter what the results bear.
Isabel Allende, the daughter of the president and a current senator, has said the family has little doubt the president took his own life but they have supported the exhumation to put any doubts in Chile’s official history behind. She was at the ceremony but did not talk to reporters. Chile’s Legal Medical Service staff hoisted Allende’s coffin, draped in the Chilean flag, into a white van. A procession of family and friends trailed the van as it exited the cemetery.