An excerpt from the book "Los Nazis en Mexico", by Juan Alberto Cedillo
By Michael Parker-Stainback Original Print Publication: February, 2008
Juan Alberto Cedillo stumbled upon a surprising piece of information in 1986, while conducting research in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.: Nazi secret police had collaborated with Stalin’s men to assassinate Leon Trotsky in Coyoacán, Mexico City. He began to wonder: just how active were the Nazis in Mexico in the period leading up to and during World War II? The answer, it turns out, is “very.” Last year Cedillo published a fascinating book on the subject (Los Nazis en México, Debate, 2007). Though the book has not been published in English, Inside México has translated and condensed the epilogue, which relates the bizarre plot to bump off Trotsky. If you read Spanish, we recommend the entire book.
On August 20 1940, Leon Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City. His murder was planned by a special Soviet intelligence unit created to eliminate Stalin’s enemies abroad.
The Mexican secret service, aware of what was transpiring, didn’t merely complicate the operation; it caused the Russian agents to modify their plans. The Soviet operation had to call on new allies to help carry out its mission. Russian agents approached both the Gestapo [Nazi secret police] and the Abwehr [the German intelligence agency between 1921-1944], whose operatives circulated freely in Mexico City, cloaked by associations forged in corridors of power and money. Nazi agents were key to the Russian revolutionary’s murder.
One year before Trotsky’s death, on August 23, 1939, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov, signed the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. The pact brought both countries’ overseas agents closer together and allowed for the exchange of classified dispatches. By April 1940, the American embassy in Mexico had confirmed the existence of this undesirable alliance to Washington.
The principal source for information sent to Washington was world-renowned muralist Diego Rivera, who with a team of thirty agents, gathered information for US intelligence officials.
The artist collaborated with Washington diplomats for nearly six months, during which he delivered information about former Communist comrades and the alliance they forged with Nazi agents.
For Rivera, links between Stalin’s and Hitler’s agents constituted a worse threat than the United States, motivating him to collaborate with “imperialism’s representatives.”
Rivera’s connection with the Americans began at the end of 1939, after he convened a press conference in which he denounced various Mexican politicians, accusing them of collaboration with Soviet agents that had entered Mexico at the end of the Spanish Civil War.
Soon afterward, Rivera met with an American operative and delivered a list naming fifty Mexican Communist Party (PCM) members firmly installed in President Lázaro Cárdenas’s government.
The US diplomat who established contact with Rivera was Robert McGregor. In their interviews, the artist insisted Mexican Communist Party leaders and Nazi agents were collaborating, statements that the American intelligence community accepted with skepticism.
Time would pass before the information Rivera had delivered would be confirmed. His accusations regarding the arrival in Mexico of “Stalin’s thugs”, there to assassinate Trotsky, were not verified until 1994, when Pavel Sudoplatov, director of the KGB’s Foreign Intelligence service, published his memoirs. In them, he confesses that “[he] was the author of Trotsky’s murder,” and recounts the moment Stalin ordered “Operation Pato” (“Operation Duck”), the name Moscow used to identify the crime that ended the exiled leader’s life.
Towards the end of 1938, Stalin called Sudoplatov and Laurentis Beria, Interior Minister and head of the Soviet security apparatus, and informed them that “without Trotsky’s elimination […]we won’t be able to trust our allies in the international Communist movement when the Imperialists attack the Soviet Union. If they have to worry about Trotskyite infiltrations in their ranks, their international role of destabilizing the enemy’s rear guard through sabotage and guerilla warfare will face major impediments.” Beria and Sudoplatov began to plan their crime immediately.
The team put together by Sudoplatov was led by Alexander Mikhailovich Orlov and Leonidas Eitingon. Orlov, a ferocious assassin, was Beria’s righthand man, whereas Eitingon was a personal friend of Sudoplatov. Eitingon’s mistress in Spain was Caridad Mercader, mother of Trotsky’s ultimate assassin, Ramón Mercader.
Eitingon and Sudoplatov decided to leave Orlov out of their anti-Trotsky plans. They argued to Beria that Latin American agents with no connection to anti-Trotsky activity should be used in order to eliminate obvious suspicions.
Eitingon selected collaborators in Spain that he then sent to Mexico. Eitingon also entered into contact with a group of Mexicans who had participated in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, and who publicly professed their disdain for President Lázaro Cárdenas and his offer of asylum to Leon Trotsky. The Mexican brigade, led by noted painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, was furious and felt that with Trotsky’s arrival in Mexico, its efforts in the Spanish Civil War were “devalued and practically ignored by Communists.” In addition, Stalin was the leader of international Communism, and it was a revolutionary duty to stay at his side.
In 1939, Sudoplatov and Eitingon reviewed the teams that would participate in the Coyoacán attack. A task force composed of Mexican nationals was under Siqueiros’ command. Ramón Mercader was chosen to infiltrate the Trotskyite network as a spy. Joseph Grigulevich, leader of a third section, was to make contact with Robert Sheldon Harte, one of Trotsky’s guards.
Eitingon requested $300,000 from Moscow and set up an import-export business in Brooklyn, New York, to cover his real activities and distribute money to his agents. Caridad and Ramón Mercader accompanied Eitingon to New York. The FBI documented that a former Mexican ambassador, Narciso Bassols, covered for Ramón and made sure he encountered no problems during his move to Mexico.
Eitingon and Caridad traveled to Mexico in September 1939 to oversee David Alfaro Siqueiros’ activities. It was first imagined that the group would approach from the rear and seize the Coyoacán house, but this plan—which had also entailed the use of boats on the nearby Churubusco River—was quickly discarded. The final plan was pulled together just days before the assassination attempt.
On May 24, 1940, automobiles pulled up to Trotsky’s house. They contained Siqueiros, […]Grigulevich and nearly twenty accomplices. Days before, two young female Communists, Julia Barrados and Anita López, were hired to create a diversion with the police officers posted outside the house. The women lived a few blocks from the Trotsky compound and that night they organized a party that various officers attended. Notably, the orchestrators of this exceedingly high-profile crime were able to involve numerous indirect participants by telling them that they would not kill Trotsky, but only sought to steal his papers.
Siqueiros wore a military overcoat as well as an enormous false moustache that made his co-conspirators laugh.
Around 4a.m. the group cut the compound’s power and telephone lines. Grigulevich knocked on the door and the bodyguard Harte appeared. Ramón Mercader had required little time to “make friends” with Harte; a few drunken sprees and nights with prostitutes, courtesy of Operation Pato, had sufficed. As the compound’s gates were opened, the group’s leader fired on the guardhouse. Then Siqueiros and a smaller group headed towards the room where Trotsky and Natalia were sleeping, stood before the windows, and opened fire. Upon hearing the shots, the couple hid beneath their bed. Police reported that the room was scarred by some 73 shots. However, the group didn’t dare enter, as the door was equipped with a firearm that would shoot anyone trying to pass.
During their getaway, the would-be-assassins deployed two incendiary bombs and left behind another device loaded with 1.5 kilos of dynamite, which failed to explode. They escaped in vehicles parked in the compound, one driven by Sheldon Harte, whose body was found by the police weeks later. Many of those familiar with the case, including Trotsky himself, wondered why Harte was killed when evidence existed that proved he was not compelled but instead voluntarily collaborated in the attempted murder. Sudoplatov confessed that the group decided to kill Harte because he knew Grigulevich, the only foreigner who had participated in the attempt, whose presence indicated that the crime had been orchestrated from Moscow.
The attempted assassination left no damage in its wake other than slight wounds to Trotsky’s grandson. Months of work, thousands of dollars, and a tremendous number of Soviet intelligence resources went up in smoke as a result of the rag-tag assassins’ inexperience. Siqueiros’ group left a great deal of evidence behind, jeopardizing the entire Soviet network.
Leonidas Eitingon sent a failure report to Moscow and reported that an alternate plan was in place. Ramón Mercader would approach Trotsky and replicate a crime committed by an agent who had carried a steel rod beneath his clothing, that he used to brain a Soviet ambassador. When Eitingon and Caridad Mercader let Ramón in on the plan, he suggested an ice axe, as it would also help him scale walls.
The new plan faced complications owing to denunciations Trotsky was publishing in the Mexican press that described the attack’s participants with precision, accusing Siqueiros of being its principal orchestrator. Trotsky persisted in his denunciations, publishing an article in which he accused Stalin’s assassins of receiving aid from German agents. He was right: US intelligence services discovered that Nazi spies were working within Communist organizations. Not only had they helped in previous operations, their support would be essential if Trotsky were to be eliminated. The Mexican secret service had become Russia’s principal impediment, but their new Nazi allies maintained numerous connections to Mexican agents and offi cials.
Mexican labor leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano established contact and coordinated meetings between Dr. Christian Zinsser (a high-placed Gestapo official who had served in Guatemala and Argentina) and members of the Mexican government, as well as key players in the conspiracy that culminated in Trotsky’s death.
Zinsser brought photographer Hermann Frederick Erben, a special agent operating in the United States, to Mexico. Erben quickly became one of the Führer’s most important American operatives; one of his principal missions was to expand the German espionage network, and it was he who recruited Errol Flynn as a Nazi agent.
Erben began to collaborate immediately with the Gestapo and with Moscow’s agents. He was to establish a residence in the south of Mexico City, less than three blocks from [Trotsky’s] Coyoacán compound; from there Nazis observed Trotsky and supervised his assassination.
The preparations for the murder included taking numerous photographs of the Viena Street house. The captured images, some perhaps taken by Erben, can be seen in the KGB archives. The photos present an album of the exile’s life with its barriers and bodyguards, as well as images of Trotsky stroking his dog, watering his plants, or sipping tea with friends. It is Trotsky’s intimate life exposed, with the house seen from every possible angle.
There are numerous people who deny Nazi involvement in Trotsky’s assassination. Nevertheless, the Austrian journalist Rudolph Stoiber, in preparation for his book Alibi: The Making of an Uncommon Spy, was able to interview Frederick Erben in 1983. The ex-Nazi agent boasted of knowing all about the murder’s preparation.
The final attack was planned for August 20, 1940. That day, Eitingon and Caridad Mercader escorted Ramón’s car as he left his residence. He had sewn a dagger and an ice axe into the lining of his coat; one of its pockets held a revolver and some writings that Trotsky was supposedly to revise. In another pocket was a letter that declared—in the case of a failed escape—that he had attempted the murder because Trotsky had compelled him to participate in a terrorist network seeking to assassinate Stalin.
When Mercader unleashed the ice ax against the old general’s head, the victim let forth a cry that summoned his guards. A few blocks away, the assassin’s mother and her lover awaited him, and they grew alarmed at the screech of sirens that approached at full speed. The sight of her bleeding son, escorted by Trotsky’s bodyguards, upset Caridad, and Eitingon thought they’d failed again. The lovers set out for Veracruz, where they planned to travel on to Havana: only after they found out the plan had worked did they travel to Moscow. Caridad received a medal of honor in her son’s name, personally delivered by Stalin.
Caridad and Eitingon returned to Mexico to free Ramón Mercader from prison. The operation to rescue Trotsky’s assassin cost nearly twenty thousand dollars, used to buy off the government and prison offi cials who would allow Ramón’s escape.
Leonidas Eitingon was obliged to suspend his activities and return to the United States, where he was charged with dispatching information of vital interest to Moscow: secrets regarding the construction of the atomic bomb, which were delivered to him by Manhattan Project scientists Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard. These builders of the first nuclear weapon believed the Germans would produce an atomic bomb before anyone else; for this reason, and because they understood the threat posed by such a bomb in the hands of just one nation, they shared their research with the Soviets.
After Trotsky’s murder, Leonidas Eitingon became the principal link in secret communiqués to Moscow regarding the Manhattan Project. One route for sending documents to Russia was through Mexico. In fact, the Soviet Union opened its Mexican embassy on 12 June 1943 with the purpose of providing legal cover to the “atomic spies” and the agents who sought to extract Ramón Mercader from Lecumberri prison.
The preparations for Trotsky’s murder were never known to Diego Rivera, in spite of the fact that several years later—when he attempted to rejoin the Communist Party—the painter loudly boasted that his request to offer political asylum to the Red Army’s founder was part of the scheme that ultimately ended the general’s life. Politically speaking, Diego Rivera was never taken seriously by his comrades, owing to his temperamental nature and his inconsistencies, perhaps the greatest of was becoming an informant on Communist activities for Washington, a turn of events that could be considered a betrayal of his leftist ideals. Ultimately, Diego Rivera was right: the Nazi-Soviet alliance, which he accused of numerous operations in Mexico, represented a tremendous threat, one later confirmed both by Nazi atrocities as well as Stalin’s purges and mass murders.
Excerpted from "Los Nazis en México" by Juan Alberto Cedillo, Mexico City:
Random House Mondadori, 2007.
(Translated and abridged by Michael