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Scientists found high levels of poison in poet Pablo Neruda's remains

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Relatives of the famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda say their suspicions of half a century are confirmed. Did you know this? They've long accused state agents of poisoning the poet after a U.S.-backed coup in Chile back in 1973. Now forensic scientists have delivered findings to officials that do show a toxin in his remains. Here's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: For the past five decades, the official story is that days after the coup, Pablo Neruda died in a Santiago hospital due to complications from prostate cancer. No one ever believed that lie, says Rodolfo Reyes, Neruda's nephew.

RODOLFO REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He was injected with a bacteria that caused his death, Reyes told NPR. Reyes is a lawyer and has seen the report that was delivered to the court. Scientists from Canada, Denmark and Chile reported they found large quantities of the bacterium that can cause botulism poisoning in bone and tooth samples from Neruda's exhumed body.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PABLO NERUDA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Perhaps the 20th century's most read poet, Neruda won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. He wrote epic poems about love, like his famous 20 on the topic. Here he is heard reading No. 15.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NERUDA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He was also a Chilean diplomat and staunch supporter of President Salvador Allende, a socialist who was deposed by the military with help from the U.S. in 1973. Reyes says there is no doubt that dictator Augusto Pinochet, who went on to rule Chile for the next two decades, killed his uncle.

REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "He or his agents were the only ones at the time capable of such a murder," says Reyes. Canada's McMaster University said scientists there did detect the toxin but couldn't conclude if it killed Neruda. However, they say, the same bacterium was used to kill political prisoners in Chile in the 1980s. Chilean Judge Paolo Plaza says the court must decide now how to proceed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAOLA PLAZA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: For now, she says, they are studying the findings. Relatives of Neruda want a criminal investigation open.

REYES: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Reyes says, "Neruda himself has spoken. The science today tells us that, yes, he was murdered."

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOUDKICKER'S "CRAWL SPACES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.

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