The two plans to assassinate Trotsky

In the late 1930s, the Soviet secret service was ordered to eliminate Trotsky. Stalin's greatest enemy was the target of two attacks. The second would succeed.

The two plans to assassinate Trotsky
Leon Trotsky, in the center, with admirers in Mexico shortly before his assassination. (Public Domain)

In 1939, when the plot of the assassination of the revolutionary Lev Davidovich Bronstein, better known as Leon Trotsky, began, he was 61 years old and lived in Mexico, threatened with death by the long hand of Stalin's secret services. Little was left of Trotsky who forged the Red Army and was the leader of the Bolshevik insurrection that assaulted the Winter Palace in 1917.

In exile, he barely kept a shadow of the power of old, although his prestige and guidance continued to be indisputable for the followers of his doctrine scattered throughout the world. The mistrust between Trotsky and Stalin came from afar, from the early days of the Bolshevik triumph, and was accentuated in the last years of Lenin's life.

When Lenin died in 1924, Stalin took over the machinery of power and politically cornered Trotsky. He expelled him from the Communist Party and forced him to leave the USSR to save his life. The antipathy between the two men ended up festering in a personal and political conflict that no longer left room for any kind of compromise.

The conspiracy is woven

In the late 1930s, the services of the NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the precursor of the KGB), led by Laurenti Beria, were ordered to focus on the elimination of Trotskyist leaders, including, of course, Trotsky himself.

He arrived in Mexico in 1937 thanks to the political asylum granted to him by President Lázaro Cárdenas. Previously he had been a refugee in Turkey, France, and Norway, countries that considered him a very problematic guest and did their best to keep him away.

A secret force would go to Mexico to assassinate Trotsky. The operation would bear the code name UTKA

Plans to put an end to Trotsky, who continued to fantasize about millions of revolutionaries following him to "storm heaven and earth," received a new impetus in March 1939, with the appointment of Pavel Sudoplatov as head of special operations for Soviet Foreign Intelligence. In Beria's presence, the new head of the elimination of the "enemies of the people" received direct orders from Stalin.

His priority mission would be to send a secret force to Mexico to assassinate Trotsky. The operation would be code-named UTKA. Sudoplatov wasted no time. He organized a special force of Mexican and Spanish communists collaborating with the NKVD during the Spanish Civil War, which he placed under the supervision of Nahum (Leonidas) Alexandrovich Eitingon.

Eitingon was a character with great experience in the elimination of Trotskyists and anarchists in Spain, who had taken part in the contest under the false name of "General Kotov". While on the peninsula, he became a lover of the Barcelona communist Caridad Mercader del Río, who he recruited for the NKVD, and through her, he recruited her son, Ramón Mercader.

Sudoplatov's special force consisted of three groups. In the first were Caridad and Ramón. The second was headed by the Mexican painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, who was second to one of his disciples, Antonio Pujol. The third group was sent by Soviet agent Iosif Romualdovich Grigulevich, of Lithuanian Jewish origin and active liquidator of opponents in Spain, who took a direct part in the assassination of the Catalan Trotskyist leader Andreu Nin and had the help of the Mexican communist Laura Araujo Aguilar, his future wife.

The three groups acted independently and did not know each other. The cost of the operation was estimated at half a million dollars.

Arrival in Petrograd in May 1917.
Arrival in Petrograd in May 1917. (Public Domain)

A first attempt

The first attempt at elimination was made by the group led by Siqueiros. They shot at the village of Coyoacán, on the outskirts of Mexico City, owned by Mexican artist Diego Rivera, where Trotski resided with his wife. The revolutionary had been under close surveillance by the NKVD since his arrival in Mexico. His residence was a fortress defended by fences, electrified wires, automatic alarms, and a permanent guard of Trotskyist police and volunteers.

A fundamental element for carrying out this plan was the recruitment, in April 1940, of a young American, Robert Sheldon Harte, who served as village watchman. His task was to open the entrance gate to the residence from the inside when the attacking group began the assault in the middle of the night.

Eitingon didn't take part in that action. According to the KGB archives, the real leader of the shadow assault was Grigulevich, who, in addition to controlling the operation, had to ensure the entry of Siqueiros' assailants into the village.

The group had a plan of the place obtained furtively by one of the best agents of the Soviet Intelligence, the Spanish María de la Sierra, who had also participated in the Civil War and whose real name was Africa de las Heras. She had worked as Trotsky's secretary in Norway and then followed him to Mexico but had to be moved suddenly to Moscow because of the desertion of Alexander Orlov, who had been head of the NKVD in Spain and knew her, could uncover the plot.

Shortly after his arrival in the U.S., Orlov had written to Trotsky warning him that there was a plan in place to assassinate him and advising him not to trust anyone visiting him from Spain. In principle, everything went according to plan. On the night of May 23, Siqueiros and a group of about twenty armed men, disguised in police and army uniforms, arrived at the village of Coyoacán around 3:30 in the morning.

Grigulevich spoke to Sheldon, who was unaware of how the attack was going to take place, and early opened the door. From then on, everything unfolds like a gangster movie. The gunmen invaded the residence. As they advance, they throw an incendiary bomb in Trotsky's grandson's room and sweep the rest of the rooms with their shots. In one of them are Trotski and his wife, who save their lives by hiding under the bed. Mexican police count 73 gunshot wounds to the walls and ceiling of the bedroom. The assault fails and the attacking group disperses.

Trotsky had to be stabbed, beheaded or hit with some object, without firearms.

The ruling was - I would say a long time later Sudoplatov - that the group of assailants was not made up of experienced professional assassins. All of them were peasants and miners, with elementary training.

The fiasco of Siqueiros' attack impatient Stalin, who orders Beria to move on to the alternative plan. Ramon Mercader, who was considered ready for the mission because of his training as a guerrilla in Spain, was to play the role of executor. Eitingon and Caridad met with Ramón to study the plan.

They decided that the attack would be silent, as only then could he escape. This meant that Trotsky had to be stabbed, beheaded, or hit with an object. No firearms. They also decided that, if captured, the motivation for the murder had to be disguised as Mercader's revenge, for financial reasons, or passionate reasons, linked to his love affair with the American Silvia Agelov, Trotski's friend and collaborator. He should also claim that the exiled leader was pressuring him to join an international terrorist group planning to assassinate Stalin.

Trotsky haranguing troops in front of Moscow's Bolshói theater.
Trotsky haranguing troops in front of Moscow's Bolshói theater, along with Lenin and Lev Kámenev, in May 1920. (Public Domain)

The young executioner Jaime Ramon Mercader del Rio Hernandez, the man appointed by Moscow to eliminate Trotsky, was born in Barcelona in 1913. His father, Pau Mercader, was a fervent Catholic. His mother, Caridad del Río, born in Santiago de Cuba, came from an aristocratic family on the island. After a hazardous life, she joined the Communist Party and adopted the surname Mercader. A secret agent of the Kremlin and Eitingon's lover since 1936, he ended up recruiting his son for the NKVD.

Ramón had an almost photographic memory and soon demonstrated his qualities. According to historian Christopher Andrew and former Soviet spy Oleg Gordievsky, he was "very intelligent, spoke several languages, a trained athlete and a skillful dissimulator with remarkable self-control. A fanatical Communist, Mercader was a bold and well-directed agent.

Mercader used his gifts in Paris to seduce Silvia Agelov and get closer to his victim. The opportunity to have direct access to Trotsky came to her when Silvia began working as a secretary for the revolutionary in Mexico in the early 1940s.

In practice, for Ramon Mercader it all began in August of the year before, when he left France with his mother by boat for New York. There they met with Eitingon, whose export-import company served as Ramon's cover.

Silvia Agelov, with whom Mercader established a solid relationship, was also in New York at that time. In Trotskyist circles, he was passed off as an eccentric and rich businessman, a character without political affiliation, but sympathetic to the "cause".

When Silvia moved to Mexico, Ramon followed her. Armed with a fake Canadian passport in the name of Frank Jackson, he made frequent trips to the United States to receive instructions and money from Eitingon.

In Mexico, Mercader showed no special interest in approaching Trotsky. He acted with the tranquility of the predator who has his prey insured. Every day he would drive Silvia to the village of Coyoacán and pick her up again after work. Little by little, the family environment and the guards who guarded Trotski's residence got to know him. In March 1940 he managed to enter the house for the first time.

Only five days after Siqueiros' failed assault did Trotsky and his assassin meet personally. Silvia facilitated his entry to the residence. Mercader was very kind and gave a toy glider to the grandson of the exiled revolutionary.

Over the next three months, Ramon made ten visits. He always carried small gifts for Natasha, Trotski's wife, and never stayed long. In that period he only saw the Communist leader two or three times and made a couple of trips to New York to contact the "resident" of the NKVD and fine-tune the preparations for the planned execution.

The terrible and penetrating scream chased Mercader for the rest of his life.

On August 20th Mercader took the final step. Provided with a mountaineer's pick that he hid under his raincoat, he presented himself in the village and managed to be received alone by Trotski in his studio, under the pretext of having an article he had written corrected for him.

Sitting at his desk in his office, Trotski was reading it when Mercader hit him with his pickaxe on the back of his head. The tool penetrated deep into the skull, but the victim moved a little at the moment of the blow, preventing him from dying instantly.

As he struggled with the assassin, Trotski bit his right hand and released a scream of pain. The terrible, piercing scream chased Mercader for the rest of his life. He left him so stunned that he was unable to finish off the crime with the dagger sewn to the lining of the raincoat and the small pistol he carried with him. Trotsky survived only a few hours of spasms and pain.

Mercader had fulfilled his role as a hitman, but he made serious mistakes. Although he achieved the ultimate goal of killing Trotsky, he failed to execute the attack stealthily, as planned. He could not escape with the help of his mother and Eitingon, who were waiting for him near the village in a car. The NKVD had won, but he had lost and paid for it.

Ramón Mercader was convicted on 27 June 1944.
Ramón Mercader was convicted on 27 June 1944. (Public Domain)

The arrest of the murderer

Trotsky's cry alarmed his wife and several guards, who rushed into the room. One of the guards knocked Mercader out of combat, and the rest continued to beat him. He would have been killed right there had it not been for Trotsky himself, already dying, asked to be left alive so that he could confess who had sent him. Soon police cars and ambulances began to arrive. Eitingon and Charity understood that something had gone wrong and left the place.

Silvia Agelov, knowing the lover's identity and understanding that she had used it, tried to commit suicide.

Both Trotsky and his executioner were moved to the Green Cross Relief Post in the center of the capital, but attempts to save the life of Stalin's "number one enemy" proved futile. Trotsky died shortly thereafter, on the evening of August 21.

In another room nearby, guarded by the police and lying on a pallet, Mercader, with his head bandaged by the blows received, recovered from his wounds. Silvia Agelov, knowing the identity of the lover and understanding that she had used it, tried to commit suicide.

Eitingon and Caridad hid in Cuba for six months and then traveled to New York. Armed with false documents, they arrived in San Francisco, and from there they shipped to China. In May 1941 they returned to Moscow on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

The charity was welcomed by Beria, received by Stalin in the Kremlin, and given the Order of Lenin. But a few years later Eitingon abandoned her, and it took a long time for her to obtain permission to leave the USSR. He was finally allowed to march to Cuba in 1959, and for a time worked at the Cuban embassy in Paris. He ended his dark days in the French capital in 1975, at the age of 82.

Ramon Mercader was tenacious and had been well trained. Despite the harsh interrogations to which he was subjected in the Mexican prison of Lecumberri, he never revealed his true identity. He pretended to be Jacques Mornard, of Belgian nationality.

Sentenced in 1943 to twenty years in prison, he always repeated to his interrogators the version that he was Mornard and had committed the murder for personal motivations. Throughout his years in prison, he kept his Stalinist faith above the changes that were taking place in the Kremlin and refused parole in exchange for admitting membership in the Soviet secret service.

Mercader's identity only came to light unofficially in the early 1950s, when the Mexican police contacted the Spanish police, who confirmed that the fingerprints of the detainee in Mexico corresponded to the son of Caridad Mercader. Sudoplatov, however, claims that Mercader was only identified when a relative of Ramón deserted the USSR and moved to the West.

This family member, an official of the Spanish Communist Party, knew who Trotsky's murderer was because Charity had revealed it to him in Tashkent, the city in which she lived between 1941 and 1943. During her stay in prison, Stalin secretly awarded Mercader the medal of Hero of the Soviet Union. In 1960 he was released from prison and reunited with his mother in Cuba. He then traveled to Moscow, where he was proclaimed Hero of the USSR.

There he took the name Ramon Lopez and received a high pension, equivalent to that of a general, and a large apartment. Mercader's wife, Raquelía, whom he had married while in prison, worked as a broadcaster on Radio Moscow, and the couple adopted a boy and a girl, children of a Spanish communist agent who had taken refuge from the Civil War and returned to Spain and was captured.

In the mid-seventies, Ramón left Moscow and settled in Havana, where Fidel Castro welcomed him well. He worked as an advisor to the Ministry of the Interior until his death, in 1978, of bone cancer. At the end of his life, Mercader was a figure from the past who brought back bad memories. Even his co-religionists left him alone, but he never regretted his executing role and considered it a "privilege" to have worked under Eitingon's orders.

His widow moved his incinerated remains to Moscow and deposited them in the Moscow cemetery of Kuntzevo, in a tomb bearing the name of Ramon Ivanovich Lopez. A few years later a marble tombstone was placed on the tomb. In it appears the name of Ramón Mercader in Spanish and Russian.

Source: Historia y Vida