Judge says Chilean ex-president's 1982 death was by poisoning

A judge's report confirmed Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle's suspicion that his father was killed.
A judge's report confirmed Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle's suspicion that his father was killed. (Roberto Candia/associated Press)
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By Juan Forero
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It all started nearly three decades ago with anonymous phone calls from someone who wanted to send a warning: Former president Eduardo Frei Montalva, undergoing surgery at the Santa María Clinic here, was being slowly poisoned.

So when Frei died in January 1982, his children did not believe the pathologists who listed the cause as septic shock from stomach hernia surgery. Frei, at 71, was not only robust but also had become the most prominent opponent of Augusto Pinochet's bloody dictatorship.

"That's why we had always doubted and thought that something else had happened," Carmen Frei, one of the former president's seven children, said in an interview Tuesday.

Their suspicions were confirmed Monday in a case that has shocked Chileans. Frei was killed, Judge Alejandro Madrid said, and he blamed figures linked to Pinochet.

Chile is holding a presidential election Sunday in which Frei's eldest son, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, is the ruling party's candidate, but the campaign is being overshadowed by disclosures from a long investigation that reads like a political thriller.

Madrid's report, issued Monday, said mustard gas and thallium had been administered to Frei, killing him. The investigative judge charged six people, including a doctor who had long been close to Frei and the former president's driver, describing the role of the latter as keeping tabs on the leader for Pinochet's intelligence services.

"I'm the last guy who is going to be shocked by the stuff Pinochet has done, and I'm shocked," said John Dinges, author of "The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents."

"This is probably the greatest crime of the military government, to kill a former president," Dinges added. "This is like discovering that Nixon was involved in the Kennedy assassination."

The case serves as a startling reminder that while Chile is now democratic and dynamic, it is still haunted by the strongman with the sunglasses and heavy gray cape. After overthrowing Salvador Allende in 1973, Pinochet ruled Chile over a 17-year span in which thousands were slain, disappeared, tortured or exiled. In 2006, 16 years after leaving office, he died, having escaped prosecution.

On Tuesday, relatives and friends of Frei gathered at the cemetery where he was buried, and the other candidates in Sunday's election turned their attention to the news about his alleged poisoning.

Sebastián Piñera, a wealthy conservative businessman who is leading in the polls, said he wanted to "show solidarity with the family, the children of President Frei Montalva who have spent 28 years searching for truth and justice."

For years, though, some Chileans could not fathom the idea that Frei, who ruled Chile from 1964 to 1970, may have been killed.

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