SECURITY AT COYOACAN
News Line January 7, 1977, page 7
Leon Trotsky was murdered on the Tuesday afternoon of 20 August 1940, in his study in the house where he spent the last year and a half of his life. It is located on Avenida Viena, No. 19, in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City.
The International Committee of the Fourth International’s special commission has now been to Coyoacan to investigate all the circumstances surrounding his assassination by the GPU agent Ramon Mercader del Rio and the unsuccessful attempt by Stalinist thugs led by agent Siqueiros on May 24, 1940.
This is the first time the Trotskyist movement had conducted such an on-the-spot investigation into the murder of its founder.
It has never been explained how the GPU managed on two occasions within the space of three months – on May 24 and August 20, 1940, to send armed assassins into Avenida Viena 19 without encountering any opposition.
This is because those who had chief responsibility for the defence of Trotsky’s life have actively opposed for more than three decades a complete exposure of the GPU conspiracy that led to his death.
We charge two men with the organisation of this cover-up: Joseph Hansen and George Novack, both leaders of the Socialist Workers Party of the United States.
Hansen, who had been assigned by the SWP Political Committee to serve as Trotsky’s secretary and undertake chief responsibility for security arrangements at Coyoacan, has never presented a detailed and factually accurate account of the organisation of Trotsky’s defence. Nor has Novack, who has written:
“For six years, from 1934, shortly after I joined the Communist League of America, until the day of Trotsky’s death in August 1940, I was more or less occupied by assignment with matters pertaining to Trotsky’s security.” (In Intercontinental Press, December 8, 1975)
The International Committee’s investigation in Mexico City, its study of the defences at Coyoacan and the interviews with witnesses to the events of 1940 – these all mean that we are now able to strip away
The myths and falsehoods piled one upon another by Hansen and Novack.
MYTH NO. 1: That Trotsky’s position within the house on Avenida Viena was virtually indefensible, and that he had little chance of surviving an Attack by the GPU.
Hansen has written the following:
“Our chief problem, however, was our fixed position. We had no way of changing our base the way guerrillas do, thereby constantly disrupting the plans of attackers. Of course, we had a few places that could serve as temporary hide-outs for Trotsky and that we actually used when the situation appeared particularly dangerous. Under GPU surveillance, however, these could prove to be deadly traps.” (Intercontinental Press November 24, 1975)
The impression given here is that the house on Avenida Viena afforded Trotsky little protection. But what if fact was the case?
Approaching Avenida Viena 19, even today when a number of modern buildings stand in its vicinity, one is immediately struck be the fortress-like structure in which Trotsky lived.
It is entirely enclosed by concrete walls which, attached to one side of the house, form a perimeter around the property. On the side facing Avenida Viena the concrete wall had been built up to a height of 10 to 15 feet after the May 24 raid. Nor was there any possible entrance to the house from the Calle Morelos, the only part of the house proper actually visible from the outside. On this side, the walls rise to at least twenty feet and the windows are either three-quarters or entirely walled up.
To the rear of the compound – as the enclosed house and court-yard can best be described - ran along the Rio Churrobusco (Coyoacan-Xochimilco Canal) and was fortified by a concrete wall which also rises to a height of 10 the 15 feet.
Trotsky’s home was T-shaped and his bedroom and office were located in the stem of that “T” which juts out into the enclosed and protected courtyard.
In order to penetrate that area, it is first necessary to pass beyond the walls into the courtyard. Except for scaling the concrete walls – a veritable suicide mission as we will later explain – the only entrance into the enclosed courtyard in 1940 was through a wooden (later replaced by metal) door which opened onto the Avenida Viena. This door was attended by a guard who was first able to identify all visitors through a peephole.
The guard attending the door sat in a lean-to garage with contained the controls of the alarm system. Once admitted, the visitor had then to pass through a small metal mesh door which separated the lean-to from the courtyard.
An important aspect of the security features of the compound was the commanding view which the guards could obtain by climbing onto either the roof of the library or to another height overlooking the wall facing the Rio Churrobusco.
The first mentioned was particularly important. Reached by a ladder located about eight meters to the right of the French windows of Trotsky’s study, the roof afforded the guard an unimpaired view of the Avenida Viena, the Calle Morelos and well beyond.
Furthermore, from the roof a guard had a clear view of the courtyard – especially the crucial area between the wing of the house which contained Trotsky’s bedroom and study and the wall facing the Avenida Viena.
Especially after the turret overlooking the wall and the courtyard had been built, any one guard would be well stationed to battle anything less than a full scale assault team willing to sustain major losses in pursuit of its aim.
Even without the turret, a marksman stationed above the roof of the library would have been positioned to deposit a lethal rain of bullets upon even a party of marauders.
In the case of the Sequeiros raid, it is know that some of the assassins fired into Trotsky’s bedroom as they stood in the courtyard between his living quarters and the wall on the Avenida Viena. Had even one guard been placed – as proper security procedures dictated – on the library roof, not one of those assassins would have escaped alive from a hail of machine gun fire. As it was, they rampaged around the courtyard shooting up the house and throwing firebombs without one of the being hit by anything.
Our observations of the physical attributes of Coyoacan are confirmed by General Leandro Sanchez Salazar, the Mexican police chief, who was in charge of the raid probe:
“We approached the gate of the fortress-house. It was a summer residence, built at the end of the lasr century, simply constructed. It was T-shaped. The iron railings which had surrounded it had been replaced by a high wall of concrete, surmounted by battlement towers, which now made it into a veritable fortress. This gate, the high stern walls and the machine gun towers gave it a air of a prison rather than a dwelling place. What precautions the old man had to take to protect his life!” (Murder in Mexico, Secker and Warburg, 1950, page 4)
But faced with elementary questions of how security was handled by him at Coyoacan, Hansen takes his members on a ride through Disneyland. He gravely pronounces that “the Healyites leave out of account other security problems that were of great concern to us at Coyoacan.” (Intercontinental Press November 24, 1975). He goes on to site six of these “problems”:
“1. Sappers could tunnel from an area in the neighbourhood and dynamite the house. This method had been used by the GPU against revolutionaries in Europe. If I recall correctly Trotsky mentioned that this had occurred in Poland.
2. The place could be bombed by a small plane. We weighed the feasibility of setting up steel nets. [!]. But this was not within our means and it might not have proved workable.
3. We could be machine-gunned on the highway or on a street in Coyoacan. This seemed to me an especially vulnerable point. WE tried to meet in with careful procedures and split second timing on all trips that included L.D.
4. Package bombs could be tried.
5. Poisons could be introduced through food brought into the house. We tried repeatedly to lower this possibility, but it always remained a danger.
6. The place could be attacked by demonstrators mobilised by the Mexican Stalinists. This was a very real threat. Several times the Stalinists seemed to be organising for this, but our counter measures proved effective.”
What Hansen never gets around to pointing out is that the GPU did not have to resort to dynamite, bombs or poison; assassins did not have to blast their way into Avenida Viena 19 of scale the walls under fire.
The fact of the matter is that they were let into Coyoacan through the front door! First Sequeiros and then Mercader.
Having established the fortress character of the Coyoacan compound, the gravest questions must arise about the Sequeiros raid of May 24, 1940.
It is nothing less than extraordinary that the Sequeiros gang never came under serious retaliatory fire, let alone sustain casualties.
Had the raiders not been admitted into the courtyard by Robert Sheldon Harte, the guard on duty, they could never have carried out their attack.
Another question must be raised; would the Sequeiros gang have attempted the assault if they had not been confident that they would not face return fire?
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the GPU knew that the assassins could pin down the guards in the rear of the courtyard while selected members of the murder team fired with impunity into Trotsky’d bedroom. The GPU must have been convinces that the assassins di not face the danger of return fire from, say, s guard on the library roof.
The GPU could not have stages this assault without advance knowledge of the layout and functioning of the household.
Trotsky himself insisted upon this in his impassioned analysis of the May 24th. raid, Stalin Seeks my Death:
“Very noteworthy is the exceptionally high technique of the assault. The assassination failed owing to one of those accidents which enter as an integral element into every war. But this preparation and execution of the assault are astonishing in their scope, planning and efficiency.
The terrorists are familiar with the lay-out of the house, and its internal life … they paralyse the guards with a correct strategy of fire, they penetrate into the intended victim’s room, fire with impunity for three to five minutes, throw incendiary bombs and leave the area of attacks without a trace.”
Hansen and Novack have never attempted to answer the question raised by Trotsky himself; how did the GPU obtain such intimate knowledge of the internal life and lay-out in Avenida Viena?
The testimony delivered by ex-Stalinist Thomas L. Black before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, DC on May 17, 1956 assumes ever greater significance. Sec&FI-36.jpeg
Black stated that he had been told by his GPU controller, Dr. Gregory Rabinowitz, that there were GPU agents inside Trotsky’s household. His assignment, which Black ultimately refused, was to join the household in Coyoacan, establish contact with other agents and prepare the assassination of Trotsky.
Hansen and Novack, after having kept their mouths shut about this testimony for 20 years, now say that Black was lying and denounce the International Committee for quoting his testimony!
Nor will Hansen and Novack accept an inquiry into the actual role of Robert Sheldon Harte, the guard who broke discipline and admitted the Siqueiros squad into the compound – the only way they could have entered.
Hansen does not want the question of how the GPU obtained its inside information about Coyoacan to be raised because it inevitably must raise the question as to whether or not the GPU learned anything from Hansen himself during his secret meetings with the GPU agent “John” (Rabinowitz) in New York in 1938 and 1939 – meetings which Hansen admitted for the first time in August 1976 a full year after the had been exposed by the International Committee. To date, to our knowledge, Hansen has never reported what he discussed with “John”.
Far from being dangerously exposed in the Coyoacan fortress, the GPU could murder Trotsky only if the security provided by the building were undermined through the activity of agents within the Fourth International and the criminal negligence of those with the chief responsibilities for his protection.
MYTH NO. 2: That every possible measure was taken by the Socialist Workers Party and those with prime responsibility is security matters to defend Trotsky.
George Novack has set the tone for this myth. He wrote in Intercontinental Press on December 8, 1975:
“Of great importance was the positive fact that thanks to our efforts and intervention, Trotsky was enabled to enjoy a moratorium of three and a half years from January 1937 to August 1940. The execution of the death sentence was put off during those final years in which he continued to lead the Fourth International and wrote some of his most valuable contributions.
In 1935 Trotsky stated in his “Diary in Exile” that he needed five fore years of uninterrupted work to pass on to the oncoming generation his knowledge of the revolutionary method. He managed to receive those five years, although they were far from uninterrupted.
By August 1940, virtually all the other defendants in the Moscow Trials except the Old Man had already been done to death by Stalin. The vengeful Sec&FI-37.jpeg Healy is unwilling to give Cannon, Hansen and their colleagues any credit for that achievement. It was much more significant than the incapacity of Trotsky or his protectors to see from what quarter and “through what channel the next and final long-anticipated death blow would be delivered.”
One is almost forced is almost forced to rub one’s eyes is disbelief as one reads Novack’s hearty self-congratulation. Like a wealthy surgeon who boasts that the operation has been successful although the patient has died. Novack demands credit for Trotsky’s survival but indignantly rejects any responsibility for his death.
The pompous claims of Hansen and Novack about their “defence” of Trotsky are punctured by the overwhelming evidence that their negligence contributed to Trotsky’s death.
Novack talks about Trotsky’s incapacity to anticipate how the GPU would attempt to kill him. It requires the most brazen dishonesty to charge Trotsky with this responsibility.
Trotsky was assassinated by an agent introduced to him by the Socialist Workers Party. I appraising guards and visitors, he had to depend upon the recommendations of the SWP leaders in New York.
Trotsky did not know that among these leaders in New York City, serving as personal secretary to James P. Cannon, was the GPU agent Silvia Callen – unmasked by the FBI informer Louis Budenz in 1947 and named as a co-conspirator of Soviet spy Robert Soblen by a US Grand Jury in 1960. She is praised to this day by Hansen and Novack as an “exemplary comrade” and by Reba Hansen as “a warm human being.”
Ramon Mercader obtained access to Avenida Viena 19 through Silvia Ageloff with whom he was living. He was presented to Trotsky as a sympathiser of the Fourth International.
Hansen has also tried to pin the blame on Trotsky, writing in November 1975.
“Trotsky hated personal suspicion toward the members and sympathisers of the Fourth International. He considered it worse than the evil it was supposed to cure.”
That’s Hansen’s story. But a Mexican journalist, Eduardo Tellez Vargas of El Universal, who spoke with Trotsky frequently after the May 24 raid, has told the International Committee something entirely different.
“There came a moment when Trotsky trusted absolutely nobody. He trusted in no one. He didn’t specify or name names, but he did say to me: ‘I will be killed either by one of them in here or by one of my friends from outside, by someone who has access to the house. Because Stalin cannot spare my life.”
Senor Tellez repeatedly insisted that this was Trotsky’s attitude.
“No. He didn’t have specific suspicions of one person rather than another. But he suspected everyone. After the attack he trusted on one, and he said to me, ‘I will be killed either by one of them inside here or by someone who has access to my house.”
While Hansen and Novack boast about all they did for Trotsky, they have never answered the serious questions raise by captain of the guard Harold Robins about the state of security in Coyoacan under the arrangements made by Hansen, the manner in which guards were selected, the faulty weaponry assigned to the guards, the general lack of proficiency with firearms, the failure to match ammunition to the weapon, the shortage of manpower and the careless sighting of lights.
Robins told the International Committee on December 10, 1975:
“Now this may be that this so-called security set-up was a matter of perhaps congenital stupidity on the part of the comrade who set it up, and of the Political Committee, who delegated it to Comrade Hansen, because he was their representative in charge of the guard, that this was all a case of stupidity and incompetence. In that case, a correction is in order.
The other question that arises is, if one wants to see Comrade Trotsky protected, this is not the way to do it. This is the way to get the guard knocked off and Comrade Trotsky murdered. This is the appearance of the thing; the word but not the deed. This is, in other words, a set up – either through stupidity or through planning.”
Robins’ charges have not been refuted by Hansen or Novack. They have not explained why the guns of guards jammed during the May 24 raid. They have not explained why the SWP, based in a country famous for the ready availability of firearms and the mass ownership and use of guns, failed to provide Trotsky with guards familiar with weapons and proficient as marksmen.
Rather than answer Robins with facts, Hansen and Novack resort to something else. It is:
MYTH NO. 3: That considering the hopeless situation in Coyoacan, Trotsky was doomed and his death was inevitable.
Here, Hansen and Novack depart this terrified planet and take their refuge in celestial forces. Novack writes:
“What Healy does claim isthat we abused that confidence and were guilty of not taking better precautions and thereby preventing Trotsky’s assassination. This turns the situation upside down.
It is true that we did not prevent Trotsky’s death. Despite the tightest defence and constant vigilance, it is not easy, and it is in fact hardly possible to hold off indefinitely a determined band of assassins, armed with inexhaustible resources, from carrying out their deadly objective. They can be staved off for a while, as happened by accident in May. But in the long run their chances of success are optimal, as Trotsky himself was well aware.
With all the forces at their command the Russian tsars and the two Kennedys became victims of assassins. How could an isolated exile with scant resources and a few friends in a foreign land have been expected to succeed where the entourage of these mighty heads of state failed?”
Hansen sings in precisely the same key:
“It is well understood today how difficult it is even for a powerful government to safeguard its top political figures from individual assassins. It can be imagined how much more difficult it is for an individual to block one of the most powerful governments in the world that has determined to kill him, particularly if that individual is pinned down, as it were, to a spot known to everyone.”
These statements are nothing but miserable rationales for covering up the circumstances of Trotsky’s death and opposing the exposure of the entire GPU network that orchestrated the assassination.
What is raised here is not speculation as to whether or not Trotsky might have lived longer, but the necessity of investigation the exact manner in which his murder was plotted and executed.
This is what Hansen and Novack do not want because it poses a thorough unmasking of Stalinist crimes and the modus operandi of the Soviet bureaucracy.
As accomplices of this bureaucracy and its secret police, they try to distort history and feed the Trotskyist movement a steady diet of poisonous myths.
Novack talks about “an isolated exile with scant resources and a few friends in a foreign land …” But the SWP had hundreds of members and was better placed than any section of the Trotskyist movement ever to defend the life of its founder.
As for Novack’s references to the “tightest defence” and “constant vigilance”, the investigation by the International Committee has long exposed this claim to be a monstrous fabrication.
Was the “constant vigilance” in force when Sheldon Harte was selected to become a guard in Coyoacan?
How, under this regime of “constant vigilance”, did GPU spy Sylvia Callen, party name Caldwell, become the personal secretary of SWP National Secretary James P. Cannon, and carry out vital and devastating espionage for the GPU which Hansen and Novack cover up to this day?
Was this “tightest defence” in operation when the GPU obtained detailed information about the internal life of Coyoacan and when Silvia Ageloff’s mysterious boyfriend, Ramon Mercader alias Frank Jacson, obtained access to Trotsky?
On January 1, 1976, the International Committee charged in its indictment naming Hansen and Novack as accomplices of the GPU that they “have deliberately created diversions and slander campaigns to prevent a full-scale inquiry into security at Coyoacan where Trotsky was murdered on August 20, 1940”.
This charge is proven.
The International Committee stands prepared to submit all its evidence, including the results of its in investigation in Mexico, to a Commission of Inquiry.