VALPARAISO, Chile — A court forensics expert said Wednesday that former Chilean President Eduardo Frei Montalva was assassinated in January 1982 after a simple hernia operation during the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The statement by Carmen Cerda, the chief of the forensics team investigating the case, confirmed longtime suspicions that Frei Montalva, who was Chile's elected president from 1964 to 1970, had died of foul play at age 71. Medical officials had said that infection related to the surgery was the cause of death.
Cerda, however, said that a combination of toxins, including mustard gas, gradually administered to the former president ultimately killed him. If confirmed, Frei Montalva would be the only Chilean president to be assassinated.
Judge Alejandro Madrid, whom Chile's Supreme Court appointed to investigate Frei Montalva's death, said he hadn't issued a final ruling in the case and called any conclusions "premature."
Frei Montalva's son, Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle, who was Chile's president from 1994 to 2000, said he was certain that his father had been killed, and he demanded that the crime's "intellectual authors" be found.
"Here, there were organisms like the Chilean army that dedicated themselves to producing chemicals, protochemicals and gases to eliminate people," Frei Ruiz-Tagle said Wednesday in the country's legislature, where he is a senator. "Unfortunately, they were also used on President Frei."
Frei Ruiz-Tagle said he hoped Wednesday's bombshell disclosure would "accelerate" the ongoing investigation into his father's death, which started eight years ago.
Separate investigations have showed that the Pinochet regime ordered the assassinations of top officials of previous governments such as former army chief Gen. Carlos Prats, who died in a 1974 car bomb attack in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and former Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier, who was killed in a similar 1976 car bomb attack in Washington.
Manuel Contreras, who headed Pinochet's intelligence services, was given double life prison sentences last week for masterminding the Prats assassination.
The forensics expert did not say who killed Frei Montalva, but leaders of the ex-president's Christian Democrat party accused the Pinochet regime.
The killing "reflects the disdain of a dictatorship for the life of a person, including that of an ex-president," said Sen. Soledad Alvear, president of the Christian Democrats. "We hope that we arrive at the truth until the very end, as much as to the material authors as the intellectual ones."
As president, Frei Montalva oversaw ambitious social programs that built housing for poor Chileans and redistributed land to poor farmers. He also seized more state control of the country's mining resources.
Frei Montalva at first supported the 1973 coup that ousted socialist President Salvador Allende and brought Pinochet to power, saying it had helped the country avoid a civil war.
As the dictatorship stretched on, ultimately leading to the politically motivated deaths and disappearances of more than 3,000 people, the ex-president called for Pinochet to step down and became a top opposition figure.
(Hughes is a McClatchy special correspondent.)