The truth behind Pablo Neruda’s death: Bacterium found in remains confirms murder theory

The scientific confirmation underpins what the poet's secretary, Manuel Araya, revealed to Proceso in May 2011 and that triggered the opening of a judicial investigation: that the Nobel Prize winner was assassinated by the Pinochet regime.

Half a century after the death of Pablo Neruda, a scientific panel has just determined that his death was not due to natural causes: his remains contained the bacterium clostridium botulinum, which is not “contagious” in the environment. This scientific confirmation supports what his secretary, Manuel Araya, revealed to the Mexican newspaper Proceso in May 2011, which triggered the opening of a judicial investigation: that the Pinochet regime murdered the poet.

VALPARAÍSO, CHILE. “In summary, we understand that from the work (of the University) of MacMaster and the Copenhagen Laboratory, it is demonstrated that there was clostridium botulinum ( in the pulp of the molar (sterile site)” and “that this bacterium was present before his death (endogenous), that it belongs to C. bot of group I and II which are highly pathogenic strains for humans (…) These strains of do not integrate the natural microbiota of the human being and can only enter by hematogenous route…”.

This is the main conclusion of the Third International Panel of Experts “Genomic Proteomic” of the Neruda case -according to the summary made by the technical expert reviewers, the doctor in microbiology and genetic engineering Maria-Paz Weisshaar and Romilio Espejo (doctor in chemistry, molecular biology, and genetics, as well as National Prize of Sciences of Chile).

What the experts concluded implies that the bacterium found was (or entered) Neruda’s body before his death and not via later contamination or from the environment; that it is a lethal strain (Alaska E43), which has been used as a bioweapon or bioterrorism and could have caused Neruda’s death.

Also that it is possible that it was injected in the abdomen area a few hours before Neruda’s death (22:30 hours of September 23, 1973), as reported by the poet’s personal secretary, Manuel Araya, to this weekly (Neruda was murdered, in Proceso 1801, May 8, 2011) which determined the opening of the judicial investigation.

The fact that it is a bioweapon and not a chemical weapon implies that the victim’s death is not immediate but can take hours or days.

“This weapon is highly effective when a host is an immunocompromised person, as was the case of Neruda,” according to a member of the panel who preferred to keep his identity confidential, given the prohibition to information issued by Judge Paola Plaza and which is supported by the provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

Despite these central conclusions, the panel was not unanimous. The conclusions of doctors Heindrik and Debi Poiner recognized that, with what is known, it could not be confirmed with 100% certainty that the possible murder of Neruda could have been carried out with the bacteria mentioned above.

This third panel (of hybrid or semi-presential character) began on January 24 and lasted until last Friday, 3. And after two postponements, on Wednesday 15, the coordinator of this panel, the Chilean doctor Gloria Ramirez, delivered the conclusions to Minister Plaza, who has been investigating this case since 2020.

According to the resolution of the magistrate mentioned above, Plaza, of January 12, in which she fixed the functions of the panel, the task of “search and determination of molecular traces through Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology” was entrusted to doctors Debi and Hendrik Poinar, of the MacMaster University’s Ancient DNA Center. Drs. Niels Morling and Marie Louise Kampmann of the Forensic Genetics Laboratory of the Medical Faculty of the University of Copenhagen were in charge of the complementary forensic genetics expertise with MacMaster.

NGS experts Espejo and Weisshaar were appointed independent reviewers of the MacMaster and Copenhagen reports and conclusions.

NGS technology is noted for its ability to obtain large amounts of DNA sequence data that enable identification of the sample’s origin and the presence of DNA from foreign organisms in the sample, even in tissues that have undergone extensive degradation.

Dr. Charles Brenner – a consultant in forensic mathematics – was to submit a report called “plausibility ratio” of the hypothesis in relation to the genetic microbiology studied in the Neruda case. However, he did not deliver his report.

Pablo Neruda with Matilde Urrutia. Demand for investigation. Photo: Facebook
With Matilde Urrutia. Demand for investigation. Photo: Facebook

The conclusions

McMaster University’s Ancient DNA Centre is one of five in the world with expertise in the meticulous characterization and recovery of DNA from forensic, archaeological, and paleontological remains. “We have been at the forefront of method development and analysis, including the first DNA from feces and sediments, the first use of next-generation sequencing (NGS) on extinct animals, and the first use of targeted enrichment to capture pathogens leading to the death of Black Death victims,” as Poiner notes in his report’s introduction.

On pages 12 and following – of their 33-page report – the Poiners address the topic that matters most in this investigation: the microbiology contained in the sterile (uncontaminated) areas of Neruda’s skeletal remains. There is the section “On the hunt for a biological weapon” where they ask:

“Were there any other bacteria present (other than the golden staphylococcus found on Neruda’s remains in the 2013 expert panel and later found to correspond to external contamination) that could have been used as a biological weapon?”

The Poiner’s answer:

1. C. botulinum is present at relatively “high” read counts in the samples (…) 3) Damage patterns suggest endogeneity. 4) The assigned reads show an edit distance characteristic of authenticity, and 5) C. botulinum has historically been used as a biological weapon in several countries in the past, including before and during the time period surrounding the death of Pablo Neruda.

They add, “It is extremely important to remember that C. botulinum is normally a soil-dwelling bacterium and is ubiquitous in many environments. However, the toxin associated with C. botulinum is often responsible for fatal botulism and is a known biological weapon. Therefore, a genome-wide investigation would be required to discern the specific strain(s) of C. botulinum present in the remains of Pablo Neruda and show how this strain may or may not differ from the strains found. in the sediments around his grave or inside his coffin.

At the end of the paper, the summary of scientific data concludes, among other points:

“The C. botulinum Type II profile found in Neruda’s molar is from a single strain. This implies a strong case that C. botulinum is endogenous to Pablo Neruda.”

“The strain of C. botulinum Type II in the molar clusters phylogenetically, with 100% certainty, with a previously sequenced strain of C. botulinum called Alaska E43, which was isolated from salmon eggs. This strain is known to be toxic.”

“Unlike Alaska E43, the C. botulinum strain in the molar only appears to have a single virulence gene (botR) and not the canonical gene (boNT) associated with botulinum neurotoxin. Due to bait size limitations, we could only reconstruct a portion of the C. botulinum genome found in the Neruda molar, resulting in several missing core genes.”

All these points tend to confirm the possibility of the bioterrorism crime, but at the end of their report, the Poiner husband and wife install three conclusions that call for doubt:

“It is possible that the strains of found in Neruda’s remains are non-toxic strains from contaminated food ingested before he died (…).

“Despite being endogenous to Neruda’s molar, it is unclear whether this strain could have been responsible for his death. Virulence tests of the strain could be performed on mice to assess its lethality.

“Should other strains of C. botulinum come to light, such as those used to poison seven inmates of Chile’s former public prison in 1981, their sequences could be compared to the draft genome reconstructed from Pablo Neruda’s remains.

“This is explained by the fact that they could not detect toxin because it degrades and it is not a genomic material, but a proteomic one,” an expert consulted by a panel member points out.

Dr. Weisshaar stated during the panel: “It is not normal for a C. botulinum to be present in a human organism without serious consequences, including high mortality; that all C. botulinum produces botulinum toxin, classified by letters from A to H. In the case of C. botulinum Alaska E43, it produces botulinum toxin, classified by letters from A to H. In the case of C. botulinum Alaska E43, it produces botulinum toxin, classified by letters from A to H. In this case, it produces botulinum toxin. botulinum Alaska E43 produces botulinum toxin E; the toxin is highly degraded post-mortem (by proteases), and therefore it is not expected to find traces of toxin at the forensic level; However, the genome is more resistant, and although a percentage may be damaged, it is recoverable with state-of-the-art technologies, such as those used in this case (NGS); that these technologies include in the result, the mathematical calculation of samples and controls.

Another member of the panel points out: “The detection of C. botulinum in a usually sterile area such as the pulp of a molar is a finding of the utmost importance: its endogeneity (i.e., antemortem presence) was demonstrated in Neruda since its arrival can only be explained by blood route, and in this case with an eventual entrance door through the omentum (rich in blood vessels, lymphatic and fat), makes highly probable his cause of death by this bacterium in a matter of hours.”

Araya. Faithful assistant. Photo: AP
Araya. Faithful assistant. Photo: AP

Urrutia’s version

This third panel of experts, dedicated to “proteomic genomics,” arose after the second panel – which operated between 2015 and 2017 – found Clostridium botulinum DNA in the bulb of a molar, making it necessary to determine whether or not it was homicidal.

In that instance -which had its final and decisive meeting at the Hotel San Francisco, in Santiago, in October 2017- it was also concluded the invalidity of the medical death certificate issued on September 24, 1973, which established cachexia due to metastatic prostate cancer, as the cause of death.

Photographs were taken of Neruda shortly after his death, as well as the bone analysis, carried out by the toxicologist of the University of Murcia, Aurelio Luna, and even an expert analysis of Neruda’s belt (Proceso was the first media to reveal the importance of “this key piece”), proved it.

Note that the medical death certificate was drawn up on September 24, 1973 by Neruda’s attending physician, urologist Roberto Vargas Salazar, who was not present at the clinic when the poet died… nor in the hours that followed.

Several testimonies collected by this reporter, in addition to the one provided by Manuel Araya, such as that of the now-extinct Mexican ambassador in Chile, Gonzalo Martínez Corbalá, as well as those of the nurses Patricia Albornoz and Elena Gallo (which are in the file) and that of Matilde Urrutia herself coincide in pointing out that Neruda was not seriously ill, much less prior to his death at the Santa María clinic. In fact, the poet worked there in his memoirs with his secretary (later murdered) Homero Arce.

“(Neruda) liked to have some stuffed animals in his bed, stuffed toys and there he had some… he made jokes… he talked”, as Ambassador Martínez Corbalá told us in an interview that appears in the book The double murder of Neruda (El doble asesinato de Neruda) (Ocho Libros, 2012).

This is important to emphasize since the official version of the poet’s death, maintained by the Pablo Neruda Foundation (an entity in which neither his descendants participate nor respects the will of the author expressed in the statutes of the Cantalao Foundation, is now forgotten) is based on the autobiographical book by Matilde Urrutia, My life with Pablo Neruda (Mi vida junto a Pablo Neruda) (Seix Barral, 1985).

This was published 10 months after the author’s death and was revised and edited by members of the Neruda Foundation, which is not revealed anywhere. There, Urrutia appears to sustain a version very different from the one given in several interviews concerning the last hours and days in the life of the author of Canto General.

After Neruda’s death, Urrutia was consistent in pointing out (denouncing) that the cancer that affected him was not in a terminal phase, as he expressed in the program “A Fondo,” hosted by Joaquín Soler Serrano, on October 24, 1976: “The doctors had assured me, a little before he (Neruda) died, that Pablo would live at least six years.”

In any case, Minister Plaza will have to determine in the coming weeks whether Neruda was murdered or not. To do so, she will have to evaluate the report of the recent panel and the whole of the background information in the case.

And these are clear in showing that Neruda was in good health, fully operational, and about to leave Chile for Mexico, where he would set up his base to defeat Pinochet’s military junta, as Manuel Araya revealed to us.

It will also have to consider especially the tests performed on Neruda. At the same time, he was alive, which confirms that he did not have advanced cancer (if he had it), and evaluated the mistakes made in the 2013 panel of experts, which pretended to establish that he had advanced metastasis at the time of his death.