At the end of 1953, the Costa Rican Ambassador to Italy and Yugoslavia, businessman Teodoro Bonnefil Castro, informed San José that he was going on an extended vacation, and two weeks later he resigned, arguing that his wife needed prolonged treatment in Switzerland. Then he disappeared without a trace. Thus ended the culmination of the spy career of Iósif Grigulevich, a Soviet intelligence agent since 1937.
The future spy was born in 1913 in Latvia, in a family of Karaites, an ethnic group of Turkish origin who professes a specific version of Judaism. In 1926, his father Romuald emigrated to Argentina where he became manager of a pharmacy in La Clarita, in the province of Entre Ríos. The same year, Iósif, only 13 years old, became interested in Marxism and joined a secret revolutionary group, for which he was excluded from school.
The family had to emigrate to Poland, where Grigulevich was arrested and spent about two years in prison. After being freed, he went, with the recommendations of the local Communist Party and under another name, to Paris, one of the most important centers of Polish emigration at the time. Historian Nil Nikándrov quotes his account:
I could go to the Soviet Union, and that would be the greatest possible happiness for me, but I saw my duty to continue fighting against capital and fascism.
In the French capital, Grigulevich began his studies at the prestigious École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and also joined the Secours rouge international (SRI), a branch of the Communist International which advocated amnesty for revolutionaries. In August 1934, he was sent as an agent of the SRI to Argentina. There he met his father and learned Spanish, but in July 1936 he was arrested in Buenos Aires during a meeting at the home of socialist doctor and politician Augusto Bunge. The agents having obtained his photo and his fingerprints, the International decided to send him to Spain, plunged into full civil war.
At 23, Grigulévitch arrived in Spain, where he took the name of José Ocampo. Thanks to his knowledge of several languages - Russian, Lithuanian, Spanish, French, German and Polish – he was assigned as assistant to the political commissar of the Fifth Regiment of Popular Militias, Vittorio Vidali, and later, to the Head of State. . Republican Major, Vicente Rojo. He soon went to work in the diplomatic mission of the USSR in the Republic.
There he was recruited by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs of the USSR (NKVD, for its acronym in Russian). According to Nikándrov, behind the operation was the agent Naúm Belkin, who was dedicated in Spain to the fight against the “fifth column” of Franco. Grigulevich himself described one of his first missions in an autobiographical account published under the pseudonym ‘I. Grigoriev ‘. The protagonist, who appears in the text as Boris Mironov, has to talk to a captured rebel general, about whom there have been conflicting reports about the division. For that, they put him in the cell of the soldiers wearing the uniform of an officer on the rebel side. Despite the initial disbelief, he convinces the general and he shares that his unit is demoralized and if he does not receive reinforcements he will be defeated in two or three days. After the division was defeated, the leader told Mironov:
Enter and close the door louder. Today we will have a long conversation. You played your part perfectly in Silva’s cell. Now is the time to move on to a bigger game. Moscow has authorized me to offer you a new assignment.
Gurévich not only helped in Spain in the fight against the underground Francoists, but also against the tendencies opposed to the pro-Soviet forces. He notably participated in armed clashes with the Trotskyists of the POUM and the anarchists of the CNT-FAI and other groups. He remembers with horror the fighting in the Catalan capital:
They all mixed up, they were shooting continuously from all sides. The soles of the shoes clung to the bloody cobblestones. There was a general ferocity; The Spaniards are brave fighters, no one wanted to give in and that is why they did not ask for mercy.
In June, Grigulevich was one of the members of Operation Nikolai, which consisted of the extrajudicial assassination of POUM leader Andrés Nin. A month later, while the suspects were wanted in Spain, the group was sent to the USSR.
A Communist activist since adolescence, Grigulevich had never been to the Soviet Union before. As he crossed the border he was very excited. “The new world, in defense of the one I fought since my youth, to whose service I have dedicated my life, has opened its doors with hospitality,” he wrote much later.
His stay in the USSR was not long. After completing his spy training, in May 1938, he arrived in Mexico. He had to kill Lev Trotsky, then Joseph Stalin’s greatest opponent in the left field.
Exiled since 1929, the “unarmed prophet”, as the historian Isaak Deutcher called him, arrived in the Mexican capital in 1937. There, the painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo gave him the so-called “Blue Hunt”, in the district of Coyoacán. Then he moved to a house next to rue de Vienne.
For two years, Grigulevich systematically guarded Trotsky himself, his bodyguards and his visitors, at the same time creating the group of assailants under the command of another famous Mexican painter, David Alfaro Siqueiros. In addition, he met and married the Mexican teacher Laura Aguilar Araujo, with whom he will live until death.
The assault took place on the night of May 23-24, 1940. The group riddled Trotsky’s room, but Trotsky was not injured. The failed operation will be followed by another, that of the Spaniard Ramón Mercader, who will kill Trotsky three months later. Meanwhile, Grigulevich had to flee to Argentina to create an illegal intelligence network.
Antifascist subversion in Latin America
The Third Reich’s early invasion of the Soviet Union forced Grigulevich – who had also expanded his network to Chile, Brazil and Uruguay – to sabotage businesses linked to Nazi Germany.
His first objective was to write the Argentinian newspaper Pampero, which received funds from the German Embassy and disseminated Nazi ideology. The building was set on fire. Later, the illegals carried out dozens of fires, both on the mainland and in the port of Buenos Aires, affecting the supply of the Axis countries with South American raw materials. They also succeeded in sending to Europe with false documents dozens of anti-fascists who joined the fight in the occupied territories.
Sabotage did not stop until mid-1944. The decision is due to the fact that Moscow learned that the intelligence services of the United States and the United Kingdom were aware of the Soviet group.
ambassador of Costa Rica
Grigulevich left Argentina for Chile, where his friend and member of the intelligence network, the Costa Rican writer Joaquín Gutiérrez Manguel, helped him forge a new identity. This time the spy became Teodoro Castro, the son of a Costa Rican businessman, who had lived in Chile since childhood. In this capacity, he spent time in Bolivia and Brazil, collecting useful data and connections.
In 1949, the spy moved with his wife to Italy. True to Teodoro Castro’s cover, he created a company dedicated to importing coffee and other products from Costa Rica and Latin America in general. Over time, he established useful relationships in Rome, but the real stroke of luck was the meeting with a Costa Rican diplomatic-trade mission headed by former President José Figueres Ferrer. Grigulevich convinced the politician that they were distant and also invited him to join his company.
In fact, the spy later claimed to have written for Figueres the electoral platform that brought him back to power in 1953, combining the rejection of US imperialism and Soviet communism with the call for sweeping social reforms. “He paid me with ingratitude. I never got the post of vice-president!
In any case, relations with the politician allowed Grigulevich to impose himself in diplomatic circles in Rome. In 1951 he was appointed first secretary of the Costa Rican consulate, and in July of the following year he became the Central American country’s ambassador to Italy. This recognition resulted not only in numerous relations with diplomats from various countries, but also in 15 audiences with Pope Pius XII, including one private. He was also appointed Ambassador to Yugoslavia.
Another important fact in the biography of Grigulevich is connected with this Slavic country. In 1952, the Ministry of State Security planned to assassinate Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, who had been in diplomatic conflict with Moscow since 1948. they proposed various regimes. One of them envisioned that the Soviet agent previously vaccinated against pulmonary plague would spread the pathogen in the room where Tito was. Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953 canceled these near-suicidal plans for the agent.
After his mysterious “disappearance” as Ambassador of Costa Rica, Grigulevich arrived in the USSR during the most tense phase of the struggle for power among the country’s top officials. In June he was removed from his post and on December 23 his supreme leader Lavrenti Beria was shot dead. The purge of the so-called “Stalinists” of intelligence has begun. The recruited and active agent during Stalin’s time was sent to the reserve for early retirement three years later. He had to start his life over.
He does not fold his arms and decides to forge from his vast knowledge, acquired during the service, the basis of Soviet studies in Latin America. In 1960 he worked as a researcher at the Institute of Ethnography of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. It was also at the beginning of the formation of the Latin American Institute, an entity dedicated to the study of the history, culture, politics and economy of the great region, previously little known in Soviet Union.
Both under his own name and under various pseudonyms, the most common of which was I. Lavretski – a tribute to his mother, Nadezhda -, Grigulévich wrote over 30 books, including lengthy biographies of Simón Bolívar, Ernesto Che Guevara and Salvador Allende, in addition to several works devoted to the internal politics of the papacy that he knew so well. Over time he gained international scientific fame, although due to his past he limited his trips to socialist countries.
However, the former agent never completely gave up on his past. In an interview, General Nikolai Leonov of the KGB remembered that an influential Costa Rican landowner, whom Grigulevich knew during his work in America, once arrived in the USSR. He wrote to the head of the First Senior Management of the KGB, Vladimir Kriuchkov: “I guarantee the success of this recruitment of the greatest planter, rich and powerful man, former President of Costa Rica. Despite the tempting outlook, management chose to refrain from the operation. Leonov continues:
When I relayed this decision to Grigulevich, he said to me: “Hey guys! They are not romantic, they are pragmatic! Okay, but I would recruit him instead.
The former agent died in 1988, eight years before his wife Laura. He was 75 years old.
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