At about 5:30 in the afternoon on August 20, 1940, a blood-curdling scream was heard coming from the nearby home office. This was followed by more screams and scuffling. Within a minute, or two, the bodyguards sprang into action and charged into the study. As they entered the room, Leon Trotsky lay on the ground bleeding profusely from a gaping hole on his head. He pointed to his assassin – Jacques Mornard, a Belgium living in México. The murderer, Jacques Mornard wasn’t the assassin’s real name nor was Frank Jacson, the name he had given Sylvia Ageloff, a U.S. communist that he used to get close to Trotsky. The assassin’s real name was Jaime Ramón Mercader del Rio, a communist Spaniard working for the NKVD, the first Soviet secret service. As a true spy, Mercader never revealed his true identity, nor his connections to Soviet intelligence. He was eventually identified by a Mexican reporter working for Excelsior, Víctor Alba, another Spanish communist and verified by the U.S. counter-intelligence operation known as the Venona project.
The story of the assassination of Leon Trotsky takes us on the journey of the birth of Communism, the Cold War, the Soviet intelligence apparatus and how a Soviet operative used a silly, U.S. citizen communist girl to get close enough to kill Leon Trotsky by bludgeoning him with an ice pick. As if the story wasn’t convoluted enough already, even the newspaper man that first exposed Jaime Mercader’s real name, Víctor Alba, was himself a Trotskyist who was working under a pseudonym. Trotskyism is the theory of Marxism as advocated by Leon Trotsky. This is where we begin the story that led the communist assassin to México.
When discussing communism, most readers jump directly to the time when Russia became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Some readers have a hard time believing that Russia fought alongside the United States against Hitler during World War II as most have grown accustomed to the belief that the Russians have always been enemies of the country. Russia did not start out communist, although it is the first country to embrace communism as a form of government. Arguably, the birthplace of communism as a government, Russia was neither the authority on communism nor was it the only form of Marxism that every communist ascribed to. Russian communism evolved from The Communist Manifesto, a form of Marxism espoused by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. For years, Trotsky worked to expand Marxism across Russia and across the world.
Vladimir Lenin, the name often associated with the USSR and the Cold War, succeeded in taking control of Russia in November of 1917, after the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II, in February of that year. Lenin appointed Leon Trotsky as the first leader of the Red Army, officially known as the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army. The Red Army, which was the main military component of the Soviets, evolved into the Soviet Army and remained so until it was dissolved soon after the dissolution of the USSR.
The Red Army’s first task, under Trotsky, was to neutralize the White Army, those opposed to Lenin. After the Russian civil war, Russia was under the defacto control of both Lenin and Trotsky, who had been appointed a member of the Communist Party by Lenin. Trotsky was the heir apparent to Lenin. Lenin and Trotsky went about modeling Russia under the Marxism model along with Joseph Stalin, who was a later interloper to the Russian government reorganization under communism.
Stalinism vs. Trotskyism
As Marxism evolved, different theories of workers taking over government developed. Leon Trotsky favored a version of Marxism based on the theory that the worker class was to have control of the political power across the globe. Under Leon Trotsky, the Marxist revolutions would spread across the globe leading to the worker class controlling all governments. Lenin, although favoring Trotsky’s version of Marxism, was pragmatic in understanding that a foothold had to be first established in Russia. Joseph Stalin also advocated for centralizing Marxism in Russian first and from their spreading the revolution across the world. Stalin supported the need to strengthen Russia internally and make it the beacon of communism. Trotsky wanted the Marxist revolution to grow across the globe at the same time as Vladimir Lenin was trying to formulate the new Russian government causing conflict among them. This chasm, in ideology, led to friction between Trotsky, who controlled the Red Army, and Lenin who was the Russian leader, providing Joseph Stalin an opportunity to play a central role in the development of the future Russia based on communism. Although there was friction between Lenin and Trotsky, Lenin still supported Trotsky as his successor.
Joseph Stalin, meanwhile, consolidated power within the Communist Party’s executive committee, the Politburo. When Lenin died on January 21, 1924, Stalin isolated Trotsky eventually expelling him from Russia. By February 1929, Stalin had banished Trotsky out of the country. Trotsky continued to oppose Joseph Stalin through his writings, championing his vision for the communist state. From 1929 through 1937, Leon Trotsky lived in France, Norway and Turkey before settling in Mexico City in January of 1937.
The spread of Marxist ideology was at its height in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Different Marxist theories developed from different countries. Activists and far leftwing radicals mounted operations across the globe to force Marxism upon their countries.
The Red Scare
After the Bolshevik Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin and Trotsky found themselves establishing the first true Marxist government. The Marxist revolutionaries wanted workers to rise and create Marxist governments everywhere else. Anarchists, Marxists and other agitators loosely organized under the worker rights movements to establish Marxist-led governments in other countries. The Marxist ideology was based on spreading worker freedoms everywhere by whatever means possible. The Marxist saw their struggle as a rebellion against the establishment and believed that any means necessary was the ticket to their victory. A decentralized movement was the goal of the agitators.
To achieve their goals, the Marxists sent teams of agitators to organize and recruit native workers and other political operatives to create a Marxist state in their countries. The United States was targeted and the communist party, organized and manned by U.S. citizens, took hold in the country. Between 1917 and 1920, the United States government felt threatened, like other countries, about the spread of Marxist ideologies within its borders. This period became known as the first Red Scare. The second Red Scare was driven by McCarthyism from 1947 through the late 1950’s.
Although Lenin believed in the spread of communism, he was first focused on establishing a Russian government based on Marxist ideology. Lenin was preoccupied with establishing control after the Bolshevik Revolution. Meanwhile, Joseph Stalin was biding his time until he could impose his vision of making Russia the beacon of communism. His opportunity arose when Lenin died allowing Stalin to sideline Trotsky.
Trotsky Targeted for Assassination
To reinforce his control of the Soviet Union, Stalin began the purges of wiping out those that opposed him. After Stalin had banished Trotsky, and Trotsky continued to challenge Stalin, Stalin had Trotsky sentenced in absentia for anti-Stalin activities. When Trotsky was first banished, he lived in France, Norway and Turkey, until France and Norway were pressured to put Trotsky under arrest by Stalin. As a result, the Mexican government offered Leon Trotsky asylum in late 1936 to which Trotsky happily set sail for.
México, like the United States was under pressure by Marxist operatives, most of whom were U.S. citizens. They wanted to create a Marxist government in México. But México was different from the other countries in that México was also emerging from the Mexican Revolution, a peasant-led revolution, the first of its kind in the world. The Mexican government was still not firmly in control of the country as different factions continued to struggle for control. Although this made México ripe for a political ideological shift towards communism, the Mexican Revolution impeded that. First, the Mexican Revolution was a political ideology and thus created a situation where the allure of a worker-class revolution was not that palatable. There are many debates as to what the Mexican Revolution accomplished. However, it is undeniable that it created within the Mexican political elite a need to use nationalism to keep the masses at bay. (I’ll be exploring this further in tomorrow’s post.) It is this nationalism that significantly impeded the spread of communism in México. However, the sense of revolution and the need to keep the United States at bay created the scenario necessary to use the Trotsky affair as a political ploy by the Mexican government and thus México gave Leon Trotsky a platform and protection from Stalin.
Although it may seem that México was inviting communism, it, in fact, was placating social agitation while aggravating the United States and Russia by giving Trotsky a safe-heaven.
Meanwhile, Joseph Stalin continued to fear Trotsky’s growing popularity among Marxist revolutionaries across the world. As part of Stalin’s quest to control Russia, he purged anyone that stood in his way, regardless of how dangerous they were to Stalin’s control. If someone spoke out against Stalin, they were quickly purged. As part of the purges, Stalin created a secret service tasked with enforcing his purges by gathering intelligence, identifying subversives and eliminating them by whatever means necessary.
While in México, Trotsky continued to attack Stalin’s politics through his prolific writings. Stalin saw Trotsky as such a threat that Stalin literally removed Leon Trotsky pictures from the public records and purged all mention of him. Stalin also ordered Trotsky killed.
Cuban born Eustaquia María Caridad del Rio Hernández was an ardent Stalinist whose son, Jaime Mercader fought during the Spanish Civil War under her tutelage. The Spanish Civil War was between Francisco Franco, who represented the established conservative aristocrats and the worker class. As such, Franco leaned towards a strong fascist government. Opposed to Franco were the leftist revolutionaries, the anarchists and the searchers of class equality. Franco was supported and armed by Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Spanish Republicans, in alliance with the anarchists, were supported by the Soviet Union and by México. The United Kingdom and the United States officially remained neutral, forcing the Spanish Republicans to rely on brigades composed of thousands of foreigners to volunteer in the civil war. The volunteers hailed from across the globe. The USSR and México were the only two countries publicly and officially opposing Hitler’s buildup of his army that led to World War II.
Hitler used the Spanish Civil War to hone his military forces and equipment, illegal then under the Treaty of Versailles. At the same time, Joseph Stalin used the civil war to spread communism and build his intelligence operatives from the various nationalities volunteering in Spain. Although the Spanish Civil War gave Hitler valuable insight into his war machines, it also provided Stalin with the blueprint to spread communism and build his vast Soviet intelligence apparatus that allowed him to purge his enemies.
María Caridad used the various International Brigades to help build the Soviet intelligence machine. She also encouraged her son to fight for her political philosophy. Caridad, who had divorced her husband, Pau Mercader, a Spanish industrialist, indoctrinated and cultivated her son to be a Soviet agent. Jaime Mercader was trained in Russia as a Soviet agent and then brought back to Europe as Jacques Mornard, the estranged son of a Belgium diplomat. Now a NKVD agent, fluent in Spanish, French and English and an indoctrinated Stalinist, Mercader, then known as Mornard, was the perfect Soviet spy. He was soon tasked with gathering intelligence on Trotsky in anticipation of sending a Soviet kill squad to kill him.
To accomplish his task, Mercader befriended a young U.S. social worker in Paris in 1938. Sylvia Ageloff, a member of Trotsky’s inner circle, idolized Trotsky and his version of communism. Ageloff was in Paris learning French and participating in Trotsky’s organizational meetings of aspiring Trotsky followers. The NKVD orchestrated an introduction of Mercader, then living as Jacques Mornard to Ageloff in Paris. The two developed a romance.
Eventually Mercader and Ageloff ended up in Mexico City. Ageloff was working closely with Trotsky while Mercader bided his time pretending to be working in the import-export business. Although Ageloff was in love with Mercader, she kept Mercader far from Trotsky. Ageloff told Trotsky that she did not want to put Trotsky in danger by bringing in a person who was living illegally in México. Prior to moving to México, Mercader had told Sylvia Ageloff that he had to use a fake passport to travel to México. In México, Mercader was known as Frank Jacson, a Canadian. The name, Jacson, is assumed to be misspelled by accident by the Russian NKVD agents who put his cover together for his time in México.
Although the assumption has been made that Sylvia Ageloff gave the Soviet assassin access to the house where Trotsky lived, Trotsky’s wife, Natalia Sedova, confirmed that Ageloff never brought the killer to the Trotsky house. Mercader, then known to the Trotsky inner-circle as Frank Jacson, got close to Trotsky by convincing Trotsky to review a draft of an article he had written about communism. The first-time Trotsky read the draft, he promptly sent Mercader away because he was bothered by Mercader’s lack of deference and respect at the Trotsky house. Trotsky was put off by Mercader, but nonetheless he agreed to meet him again to review the article. By this time, Sylvia Ageloff was in New York and Mercader was relying on the friendships he developed overtime with some of Trotsky’s inner-circle to gain access to Trotsky.
On August 20, 1940, Trotsky, for the last time, invited Mercader to his house. By that afternoon, Mercader was in police custody and Trotsky was in the hospital with a severe brain injury. Then thirteen-year-old Trotsky grandson, Esteban Volkov, described that he saw Trotsky “bleeding profusely” to the BBC on August 2012.
According to news accounts, after drinking tea, Trotsky sat at his desk and began to read Mercader’s article. Mercader had snuck in an ice pick and smashed it into the back of Trotsky’s head. To Mercader’s horror, instead of dying suddenly, (Mercader had expected to have time run out of the house into one of two waiting cars ready to spirit him away) Trotsky, instead let out a horrific scream and fought back.
Mercader was beaten by the Trotsky guards who rushed in. Trotsky, severely injured but still alive, told his body guards to keep him alive so that they could get information from him as to who had sent him. Mercader was turned over to the Mexican police. Trotsky died at the hospital the next day from his injuries.
General Leandro A. Sanchez Salazar
When Leon Trotsky arrived in México, General Leandro A. Sanchez Salazar, chief of the Mexican intelligence services was tasked with protecting Trotsky from Soviet assassins. Sanchez had managed to thwart at least one previous attack against Trotsky and was investigating a recent attempt by Mexican communist gunmen who had managed to infiltrate and shoot up the Trotsky house without killing him. Three days after Trotsky succumbed to his wounds, Sylvia Ageloff, then in police custody, was brought to the hospital where she was put in front of Mercader by Salazar. Salazar was attempting to find out if Ageloff was an accomplice to the murder.
Mercader had been told that he was being taken to the hospital for his wounds. At the hospital, Salazar had Mercader brought before Ageloff. Mercader demanded to be taken away while Ageloff called him a killer. Salazar agreed later that the hospital encounter, he orchestrated, was like a scene from a movie, with Mercader not daring to acknowledge Ageloff and Ageloff spitting and demanding that the assassin be killed right then and there for his heinous crime.
Mercader identified himself to the police officers as Jacques Mornard throughout the investigation. Mercader refused to provide the investigators his real name, even after the Mexican authorities had determined that the name Jacques Mornard was fake. Mercader was sentenced to twenty-years in prison as Jacques Mornard for the murder because he refused to provide his real name to the authorities.
However, and although he could not prove it, General Sanchez believed that Mornard was a Soviet spy and likely a Spaniard as other Spaniards had previously attempted to assassinate Trotsky. Although the Russians denied Mercader was a Soviet agent, after his release from jail, he moved to Russia where he was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest award the Soviets bestow.
Because Sylvia Ageloff had brought Mercader to Mexico City and was close to Trotsky, she was investigated for the murder. Charges against Ageloff were eventually dropped and she returned to the United States. Her part in the Trotsky matter and her communist activities brought her to the attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The committee investigated allegations of communist activities in the United States from 1938 through about 1975. It is important to note that although the committee did not officially end until 1975, it had ceased issuing subpoenas in 1969.
On December 4, 1950, Sylvia Ageloff testified before the committee. In her testimony, Ageloff stated that she was a member of the Trotskyite movement. Ageloff testified that she met Frank Jacson in Paris in June of 1938, although she knew him then as Jacques Mornard. Ageloff was introduced to the Soviet assassin by Ruby Weil. Jacques Mornard had entered the United States on a false Canadian passport with the name Frank Jacson on September 1939, according to her testimony before the committee.
Also, according to her testimony before the HUAC, Ruby Weil admitted that she was a member of the American Workers Party. Under questioning by the committee, Weil stated that she worked in the news media, working at the Associated Press as a picture editor before and after the Trotsky murder.
Weil’s testimony to the HUAC also established that Weil believed that Mercader was a NKVD agent only after she became aware of the Trotsky assassination. Prior to that, Weil testified that she was not tricked or a willingly participated in the introduction of Mercader to Ageloff for the eventual murder.
Víctor Alba, México’s First Anticommunist
But the Soviet subterfuge didn’t end there. The real identity of Jaime Ramón Mercader del Rio was first established by Víctor Alba, a journalist working for Excelsior in México. Project Verona confirmed the identity. But even the journalist who uncovered the name for Mercader, was he, himself a Spaniard hiding out from the Soviets in México. Alba’s real name is Pere Pages I Elies, a Spaniard from the Catalan region. Elias published many works under his pseudonym, Víctor Alba. Elies fought in the Spanish Civil War against Franco. He was imprisoned for six years. After his release, he eventually landed in México where he made his living as crime reporter working under the alias of Víctor Alba writing for Excelsior. He remained violently opposed to Stalin and the USSR. In 2003, Pere Pages I Elies aka Víctor Alba died from cancer after writing many books and other works.
Clearly, the tentacles of the soviet intelligence apparatus has many arms each with its own story to tell.
As you can also see by this story based on actual historical events, the birth of Soviet communism and its intelligence apparatus developed a highly-sophisticated art of subterfuge that not only ensured the security of the Soviet government for many years, but it allowed the Soviets to attempt to expand their brand of Marxism and eliminate opponents through any means possible – including assassination. The Trotsky murder allows us a glimpse of the Soviet apparatus that uses useful idiots, like Sylvia Ageloff and diehard adherents for the cause, like Jamie Mercader to weave an intricate plot over many years with the single goal of eliminating one opponent – Leon Trotsky.