Missing Gun, Missing Pilots

Salvador Allende holding a gun given him by Fidel Castro in 1971

It’s official:  Salvador Allende, the socialist who was Chile’s president from 1970 to 1973, was not shot to death by soldiers but committed suicide during the coup. Two months ago his body was exhumed and examined by an international team of specialists, whose findings were reported this week in a 500-page report.  Allende was killed by two bullets shot from an automatic weapon, an AK-47 rifle, held between his legs.  There was only one wound, in his skull.

But the investigation still has some loose ends to tie up.  Mario Carozza, the Chilean judge heading the inquiry, would like to interview the five pilots who strafed the presidential palace on September 11, 1973, the day of the coup.  He called in former air force commander General Fernando Matthei, who professed ignorance of the pilots’ identities.  At the time of the coup Matthei was a military attaché at the Chilean Embassy in London. The man who commanded Chile’s air force at the time, and ordered the Hawker Hunter planes to bombard the presidential palace, General Gustavo Leigh, died in 1999.

The Chilean press has already identified the pilots and published their names.  One of the pilots was Leigh’s own son, also named Gustavo, who was sent to bomb Allende’s home in eastern Santiago. As a military operation, it was not exactly a success—at least one of the younger Leigh’s bombs fell on the Chilean Air Force hospital and another was so wide of the mark it left a crater on the ground a few blocks away.

Another pilot is said to be retired General Fernando Rojas, who became air force commander in 1995.

So whatever became of the weapon Allende used to kill himself?  In the immediate aftermath of his death Allende’s widow told a Mexican journalist that he had used an AK-47 given him by Fidel Castro during the Cuban leader’s visit to Chile in 1971.   Judge Carozza has confiscated two such guns from the Museo Naval, which were donated years ago by the family of Admiral Jose Toribio Merino, one of the original four junta members.  The AK-47s are now at a police lab undergoing tests.

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