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The Least Known Assassin: The Story of Ramon Mercader

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Defected to the U.S.S.R.: 28 Nov 2006, 20:19
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Post 02 Mar 2007, 07:56
The Least Known Assassin
The Story of Ramon Mercader

by Dan Engler

It seems a constant throughout history, that an assassin have a grand name. John Wilkes Booth, Charles Julius Guiteau, Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, Mark David Chapman; the list goes on. It was the executioner of Lev Davidovich Trotsky, however, who had the grandest name of all.

Jaime Ramon Mercader del Rio Hernandez.

Certainly people know this, right? Ramon Mercader (as he is more frequently referred to) did, after all, end the life of a man with more political and historical significance than any of the Kennedy boys could have ever hoped to possess. In spite of this, Mercader is virtually unknown. On the topic of Trotsky’s demise, books generally suffice it to say that the great revolutionary was killed by a stalinist agent wielding and ice pick, few texts bother to mention the assassin’s mouthful of names.

Despite Mercader’s obscurity, the relatively few interested historians have pieced-together a great deal about him since his fateful date with Trotsky on August 20, 1940.

The son of Eustacia Maria Caridad del Rio Hernandez and Don Pablo Mercader Marina, Ramon Mercader was born February 7, 1914 in Barcelona. His childhood was less than normal. The climate in Catalonia in which Mercader grew up was revolutionary to say the least. In 1918, when Mercader was four, over 200 bombs were exploded by anarchists and provocateurs in Barcelona. In 1925 Ramon Mercader’s parents separated and Caridad took her children to France. There she was introduced to communism by her French lover. As Caridad Mercader became an active member of the French Communist Party, Ramon shared time between his mother in France and his father in Spain. His relationship with Don Pablo, however, began to wane.

By 1934 his mother’s political influence prevailed and Mercader found himself fighting as a member of the communist forces against Madrid’s Federal Government. He organized the Cervantes Artistic Recreational Circle, a front for a cell of underground communists. On June 12, 1935 Mercader was arrested along with several other members of the group, but in 1936 the Popular Front government took over in Madrid and Mercader was released. By this time Caridad Mercader was back in Barcelona and after leading a successful attack against Franco’s forces in the Catalonian capitol, took charge of the Union of Communist Women. Ramon Mercader, now a lieutenant, became a political commissar in the 27th Division.

Though she had worked indirectly as a Stalinist agent for years via the directives of the Comintern, Caridad Mercader was formally indoctrinated into the NKVD by Leonid Eitingon who operated in Spain under the alias of General Kotov. Caridad had a long running affair with Eitingon,who not only recruited her, but her son Ramon as well. Eitingon trained Mercader in the ways of sabatoge and Guerrilla warfare and in 1937, took him to Moscow for more specialized training in dissembling and assassination.

Eitingon was the mastermind behind the Trotsky assassination, directing it via the Soviet consulate in New York. To get close to Trotsky, it was decided that Mercader would have to become romantically involved with someone who had access to Trotsky’s inner sanctum. The NKVD chose Sylvia Ageloff, a Brooklyn social worker, Trotskyite, and confidante of Trotsky himself. It was assumed that Ageloff would be attending a secret conference of Trotsky’s Fourth International (about which the NKVD had been tipped off) in France in the summer of 1938. The NKVD used Ruby Weil, a wavering Trotskyite and acquaintance of Ageloff, to travel to Europe with Ageloff and set her up with Mercader via an agent by the name of Gertrude.

In Paris, Mercader was posing as Jacques Mornard, a student of journalism at the Sorbonne and son of a Belgian diplomat. "Mornard" swept Ageloff off her feet almost immediately. He was suave, attractive, and romantic. Ageloff had no idea that her beloved "Mornard" was actually a Stalinist ideologue and NKVD assassin working towards a single goal. In fact, "Mornard" showed absolutely no interest in politics what-so-ever. He told Ageloff that he made a living writing sports articles, though she later recalled that he never once attended a sporting event during their time in Paris.

During their time in Europe, "Mornard" frequently took trips, telling Ageloff conflicting and preposterous stories to explain his absences. He refused Ageloff’s requests to meet his parents, claiming they would not accept her. Blinded by love, Ageloff swallowed his absurd stories. In February of 1939, "Mornard" told Ageloff that he had accepted a position in New York as a corespondent for a Belgian newspaper. Ageloff was to leave for New York and "Mornard" would follow in some weeks.

It wasn’t until September that Mercader arrived in New York, this time under a doctored Canadian Passport of a one Frank Jacson (the spelling apparently being a mistake on the behalf of the NKVD forger.) He told Ageloff that he had trouble acquiring a passport because of his failure to complete compulsory military service in Belgium and purchased the fake Canadian documents for $3000. Mercader only spent a month in New York before telling Ageloff that he had secured a position with a British importer in Mexico. He gave her several thousand dollars and told her she should join him in Mexico.

In mid October of 1939, Mercader arrived in Mexico city as Frank Jacson and took up residence in a tourist camp. He received word that Eitingon and Caridad Mercader would soon be arriving in Mexico to coordinate Operation Trotsky. Mercader or "Jacson" as he was now known, bought a used Buick and settled in as he awaited Ageloff.

In January, Ageloff arrived in Mexico. They took up residence in a hotel. "Jacson" told Ageloff that he had an office in Mexico City, but when Ageloff attempted to find it, she discovered the address did not exist. When questioned about the matter, "Jacson" offered that he had accidentally given her the wrong address and gave her a new suite number. Ageloff was suspicious and asked a friend to check out the new address. Ageloff’s friend failed to find "Jacson" in the office, but an office boy did tell her that it was indeed "Jacson’s" office. Whatever remained of Ageloff’s suspicions dissolved and she never again questioned "Jacson’s" business.

While "Jacson" was "working," Ageloff would frequently make visits to Trotsky’s fortified villa in the suburb of Coyoacan. She did not, however, take "Jacson" with her because, as she confessed to Trotsky, she did not want to compromise him. Ageloff did recall, though, that during her first months with him in Mexico, "Jacson" did begin to show more of an interest in politics, particularly those of the Trotskyites. She had no idea that "Jacson" was spending his days with his mother and her NKVD lover, Eitingon.

Though "Jacson" did not accompany Ageloff to the Trotsky villa, the couple did develop a friendship with Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer, the french couple who escorted Trotsky’s orphaned grandson to Mexico after the murder of Trotsky’s son, Lev Sedov, in 1938. The Rosmers were living with the Trotsky’s at the villa in Coyoacan and often engaged in social activities with Ageloff and "Jacson."

Because "Jacson" had a car, the foursome would picnic and take drives, often of great distance. "Jacson" would explain that he had business in some of these areas, areas he claimed to travel to frequently, though he was usually quite unfamiliar with the municipalities when they arrived. When "Jacson" and Ageloff would pick up the Rosmers at Coyoacan, Ageloff would not allow, "Jacson" to enter the compound, citing her caution regarding the founder of the Fourth International.

In March, Ageloff returned to New York, probably to transport documents for Trotsky. Before she left, however, she made "Jacson" promise that he would not visit the Trotsky compound during her absence. "Jacson" agreed, but shortly after Ageloff’s departure, Alfred Rosmer fell ill and asked "Jacson" if he wouldn’t mind ferrying him to the hospital and running errands for Rosmer and his wife while he was incapacitated. This was Mercader’s grand opportunity.

During these visits "Jacson" fostered a congenial relationship with the guards at Coyoacan. After a few visits he was on a first name basis with all of them and was not checked for weapons. Utilizing his photographic memory, "Jacson" made detailed mental notes about the layout, fortifications and staffing of the Coyoacan villa which he later reported to Eitingon.

At this point, the NKVD had no plans of using Mercader as the assassin. His job was solely to gather intelligence for the planning of the assassination. After several weeks of information gathering on Mercader’s behalf, Eitingon felt that the time was right.

Eitingon enlisted David Alfaro Sisqueiros, a Mexican communist and revolutionary painter, to lead an attack on the Trotsky compound. At dawn on May 24, 1940, Sisqueiros took his group to Coyoacan. He had arranged for communists within the local police department to throw a party for the department the previous evening, so the number of officers guarding the outside of the compound was minimal. The attackers parked their cars about a block from Trotsky’s villa and walked to the gate.

The NKVD had spared no expense in outfitting their death squad. Tailors had been hired to make bogus police and army uniforms. They were heavily armed with submachine guns, home-made incendiary devices and two dynamite bombs. The also had an extensive equipment list which included ladders, grapling hooks, and a power saw.

At the compound’s gate Sisqueiros’ band quickly subdued the guards and penetrated the compound. Once inside, they opened fire. They let loose with an estimated 300 rounds, 75 alone were fired into Trotsky’s bedroom, but when Trotsky was awoke by the gunfire, he hit the floor and pulled his wife, Natalia, under the bed with him. Miraculously, they survived the attack unharmed. The attackers made no attempt to enter Trotsky’s quarters, certain that he could not survive the barrage of lead.

The attackers fled, taking one of Trotsky’s guards, an American by the name of Sheldon Harte, with them. Some of the men were later apprehended, but Sisqueiros was not. Harte’s body was found buried in the basement of a house which had been rented by Sisqueiros.

The failed assault forced Eitingon and his superiors in New York and Moscow to re-evaluate the course of Operation Trotsky. A new plan was devised, one in which Mercader would have to achieve an even greater level of penetration, such that he could kill Trotsky himself.

Trotsky would meet "Jacson" for the first time only four days after the failed attempt on his life. "Jacson" had learned that the Rosmers would be departing on May 28 for the United States from Veracruz, some 300 miles from Coyoacan. He did not hesitate to offer them a ride. When "Jacson" arrived at the villa on the morning the 28th, Trotsky was on the porch and introduced himself. Ever the gentleman, Trotsky invited this trusted friend of the Rosmers in for tea. "Jacson" obliged and even gave Trotsky’s grandson a toy glider which he had picked up on the way to the villa. After tea, "Jacson" and the Rosmers, accompanied by Mrs. Trotsky, left for Veracruz.

Natalia Trotsky had decided to go with to bid farewell to the Rosmers and keep "Jacson" company on the way back. "Jacson" took advantage of this opportunity to cultivate a friendship with Mrs. Trotsky.

On June 12, "Jacson" arrived at the Trotsky compound to tell Trotsky and his wife that he would be leaving for New York on business and that they may have use of his Buick if he might store it there. They were happy to have the extra vehicle at their disposal and wished "Jacson" a pleasant journey.

Mercader evidently returned to New York to confer with Eitingon, who had evacuated the country immediately following the May 24 fiasco. Mercader stayed at the NKDV residency in the Soviet Consulate General’s compound and Ageloff, who was still in New York, was unaware he was in the city.

On July 29, "Jacson" showed up unexpectedly at the Trotsky villa to pick up his car. He stayed there for a little more than an hour. When asked if he had visited the headquarters of the American Trotskyite movement while in New York, he replied he had not, explaining that he had been to busy. This failure to conduct an obvious pilgrimage bewildered the guards at the villa and Trotsky confessed to his wife later, that he felt "Jacson" was "a little light-minded."

"Jacson" visited the villa five times in the next three weeks. On August 10, "Jacson" and Ageloff had tea with the Trotsky’s. During this visit, "Jacson" asked Trotsky if he would mind reading an article he had been working on. Though Trotsky felt "Jacson’s" political mind was somewhat undeveloped, he agreed to examine his article. A week later, "Jacson" arrived for his appointment with Trotsky. Trotsky received "Jacson" alone in his study, as was customary for business calls. The visit lasted only eleven minutes. Trotsky felt the article was simplistic and offered "Jacson" some suggestions. "Jacson" said he would return with a revised version and Trotsky agreed. Later he complained to his wife that "Jacson’s" behavior had offended him. He didn’t remove his hat and he sat on the edge of Trotsky’s desk.

By now the means of Trotsky’s demise had been decided upon. Mercader, who was an expert alpinist, purchased a piolet or ice-axe. One swift blow to the back of the head should be enough to dispatch Trotsky. This was, in fact, a favored method of the NKVD. It had been used before. It was quiet and should allow Mercader to get out of the compound before anyone realized something was amiss.

At 5:20 p.m. on Tuesday, August 20, "Jacson" checked into the Trotsky compound for the last time. Caridad Mercader waited in a getaway car a few blocks away, Eitingon in another car further down the road. "Jacson" had a raincoat folded over his arm and under it lay the piolet. Concealed in his jacket was a large dagger, and .45 caliber pistol was stuffed in his boot. He also carried a letter in which he "confessed" that he had been a follower of Trotsky, who had been ordered by the latter to kill Stalin, but had recoiled from the prospect and decided to eliminate Trotsky instead.

"Jacson" proceeded to Trotsky’s study, and as he expected, found him alone. Pleasantries were exchanged and "Jacson" gave Trotsky his revised article. Trotsky sat down at his desk and began to read. "Jacson" took the piolet in his hand, raised it, and brought it down on Trotsky’s skull. The blow, however, was not enough to kill Trotsky instantly. As he fell to the floor he let out a terrible shriek, one which Mercader said he would "hear forever."

Within moments guards rushed into the study and began to beat "Jacson." He may not have lived to tell the tale if it were not for his victim, Trotsky, who, a historian to his final day, yelled, "Do not kill him. This man has a story to tell."

Sensing something was wrong, Caridad Mercader and Eitingon Fled.

Trotsky was rushed to the Green Cross Emergency Hospital where, despite his massive head trauma, he remained conscious for several hours, only to die 24 hours after the attack.

While in the hospital recovering from the beating, Mercader confessed to the crime. He showed no remorse and stated that history would recognize him as a great man for ridding the world of the evil Trotsky. When questioned about his identity, he told police that he was "Jacques Mornard," the son of a Belgian diplomat, but the Belgian diplomatic corps had no record of a "Mornard" and "Mornard’s" story was full of historical and chronological errors. At all times he claimed to have acted of his own volition.

Mercader was convicted of murder by a Mexican court and sentenced to serve 20 years in Lecumberri prison. "Mornard" had no objection to his punishment. he said he felt it was just.

During the first six months of his imprisonment, "Mornard" provided psychologist Dr. Alfonso Quiroz Cuaron a unique opportunity. Quiroz, who had become very interested in the case, asked "Mornard" if he would mind participating in some psychological tests. "Mornard," seeing it as a challenging mental game, humored Quiroz, but was careful not divulge any information which would identify himself or connect him to the NKVD.

Over the course of those six months, "Mornard" was revealed to be a most remarkable individual. In addition to speaking several languages and being extremely smart about a variety of topics, he had an amazing analytical ability. Quiroz and his assistants administered several tests in which "Mornard" was allowed to examine the pieces of a very intricate, Japanese style wooden puzzle for a matter of minutes. The pieces were then removed and the doctors would return with them the next day. In complete darkness, "Mornard" would be asked to assemble the puzzle. On every occasion, he completed the puzzle in a matter of minutes (Mercader was also said to be able to completely strip and reassemble a Mauser in total darkness in three minutes and 43 seconds.)

In another test, "Mornard" was given a coded message and asked to decipher it. While he was unable to decode the message, he did grasp the theory of the cipher in a matter of minutes and prepared his own encoded message for the doctors.

Mercader possessed incredible skills of memory. He could remember seemingly unending sequences of numbers, words in foreign languages and nonsense syllables.

His senses were abnormally acute. He had an extremely accurate sense of time, he could walk six yards down a chalk line while blindfolded without the slightest deviation, and he could detect differences in the levels of objects over which he passed his hands within three hundredths of a millimeter. In one test he was blindfolded and given a selection of metal engravings, each one centimeter square. He was able to draw each of the engravings simply by what he felt with his fingertips. Quiroz concluded that "Mornard’s" skin was hypersensitive, but when his pain threshold was tested, he achieved superhuman results.

During his 20 years in prison, "Mornard" never revealed his true identity or the fact that he worked for the NKVD. He was a model prisoner, taught others how to read and started a vocational training system in the prison.

Though "Mornard never offered it himself, he was identified in 1953. Quiroz had been tipped off by what he thought to be evidence of a Catalonian dialect in writings "Mornard" produced in the course of his tutoring. Quiroz began searching archives in Barcelona for something which might identify "Mornard." In August of 1953, officials in Barcelona notified Quiroz that "Mornard" was, without a doubt, Jaime Ramon Mercader del Rio Hernandez.

On May 6, 1960, Mercader was released from Lecumberri prison and flown immediately to Havana. After some time he arrived in Moscow via Prague, decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union, under the name of Ramon Lopez. In the mid ‘70’s Mercader returned to Cuba where he died in 1978. His widow, a mexican woman he married while in prison, took his remains back to Moscow where they lie in Kuntsevo Cemetery.

Though his application to the communist party was denied because it was no longer couth to condone Stalinist activities, Mercader has always been revered by the KGB (now the FSP), and holds a high position in the "Memory Room."
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