It is a tragic story familiar to most Americans and to many around the world. The date was Friday, November 22, 1963. It was a sunny day in Dallas when the motorcade of the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, found itself in Dealy Plaza near the Texas School Book Depository. At 12:30 in the afternoon, shots rang out and the young American president was killed. Within hours the Dallas Police apprehended Lee Harvey Oswald, a 24-year-old former US Marine, and later that night charged him with the killing of the president. On Sunday, November 24th, while Oswald was being transferred to the county jail, he was shot by a man named Jack Ruby who claimed he wanted to spare Mrs. Kennedy from the horrors of a murder trial. Oswald died an hour and a half later at Parkland Memorial Hospital, the same medical facility that tried to treat Kennedy. As Oswald would never stand trial, the public would never know a complete picture of the Kennedy assassination, including why Oswald did it – if he did do it – and if he had help. Right before he was shot Lee Harvey Oswald declared publicly that he did not do it and that he was set up as a patsy.
The nation and the world mourned the president’s death and sadness quickly turned to questions. The Warren Commission was formed by President Lyndon Johnson on November 29th 1963, less than a week after the killing of Kennedy, to investigate the assassination. The commission presented its 888-page report to President Johnson on September 24th 1964 and it was released to the public three days later. The report concluded without absolute proof that Oswald acted alone in killing President Kennedy and that Jack Ruby acted alone in killing Oswald. The Warren Commission was not the only government-sponsored investigation into the JFK assassination. Because of public skepticism of the commission’s findings and due to increasing concern about the lack of transparency of certain government agencies, in September of 1976 the United States House Select Committee on Assassinations was formed to look further into both the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After 18 months of investigation, the HSCA disagreed with the conclusions of the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone stating that Kennedy was “probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”. The second investigation was not able to identify any individuals or groups involved in the conspiracy, however. The House Select Committee left the American public with even more questions and in the 40 years since this last formal government investigation into the JFK assassination a whole cottage industry has sprung up to look more closely at this major historical event. There are thousands of books and articles written about this with hundreds upon hundreds of theories as to what really happened, who was involved in this tragedy and to what degree. In fact, the very term “conspiracy theory” was popularized right after the assassination, some say, to discredit the multitude of ideas spawned by this event. Speaking at a conference in September of 2014 titled “The Warren Report and the JFK Assassination: Five Decades of Significant Disclosures,” Dan Hardaway, a young law school student who was hired as a researcher for the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late ‘70s said this about conspiracies:
“If you’re involved in a conspiracy, one of the primary things you don’t want to happen is to have the people you are conspiring against discover the conspiracy. The essence of a conspiracy is that it stays secret. In the eventuality that information about the conspiracy should come out, the alternative that you want to do is to make it so confusing, to sow so many red herrings, plant so many false trails, to create so much disinformation that no one could be absolutely certain whether or not if there really was a conspiracy.”
Lee Harvey Oswald, while never able to defend himself publicly in a courtroom setting, has gotten the lion’s share of the scrutiny of all the complex characters involved in the Kennedy killing, and there are many of the “false trails” and “red herrings” mentioned by Hardway to make investigating Oswald very difficult and confusing. The days and months of Oswald’s life leading up to November 22nd 1963 have been examined in great detail but remain cloudy at best. Those familiar with the Kennedy assassination story and the cast of characters involved might not know that in September and October of 1963, just weeks before that fateful date in Dallas, Lee Harvey Oswald was in Mexico City. What were his activities while in Mexico? Was he alone? What role does Oswald’s visit to Mexico City play in the Kennedy assassination?
Before looking into the particulars of Oswald’s time in Mexico, we must first examine the context. The early 1960s saw the United States on high alert in Latin America. Cuba had just fallen to communism and the axis between Havana and Moscow had solidified. Numerous attempts were made to dissuade or oust Fidel Castro, but he held on to power, and as it seemed like he would be head of state for good, the American government began to fear the spread of communism in the Western Hemisphere. Mexico City in the early 1960s may have well been the center of Latin American Cold War intrigue. Using the latest surveillance equipment, the American CIA and FBI monitored the diplomatic compounds of a variety of communist countries, with special emphasis on those of the Soviet Union and Cuba. Across the street from the Cuban Embassy was the CIA surveillance post in a 3rd-floor apartment. From here an agent photographed visitors entering and exiting the front door. The door to the Cuban Consulate, on the side of the Cuban Embassy, was monitored by a pulse camera that snapped photos of people coming and going based on movement. This camera was installed on September 27, 1963, an important date to remember. The Soviet Embassy was monitored by manual cameras by CIA agents focusing on 3 different locations: 1 on a yard in the Embassy and 2 on the front entrances. Many of the phones at the Cuban and Soviet embassies were tapped. A total of 30 wiretaps recorded incoming and outgoing calls from the embassies. Agents at remote CIA listening posts would transcribe relevant phone conversations – whether they be in Spanish, English or Russian – translate to English if need be and consolidate the transcripts in what were called daily “resumas.” The resuma from the previous day would be on the desk of CIA station chief Winston Scott by 9:00 every morning. In addition to the video and audio surveillance of the Soviet and Cuban diplomatic compounds there were what was termed “penetration agents” inside the embassies. These penetration agents were covertly working for the CIA while holding low-level clerical jobs for the Cubans or Soviets. Often times the identities of these secret agents were only known by the station chief himself, who received regular reports and updates from them. There was very little that could get through this complex monitoring system down in Mexico City, and station chief Win Scott was known throughout the agency for running a tight ship.
Lee Harvey Oswald’s movements and activities in Mexico were lightly touched upon in the original Warren Commission Report in 1964 but further expanded in the report generated by the House Select Committee on Assassinations some 15 years later. Oswald allegedly arrived by bus in Mexico City’s central camionera, or central bus station, at 10:00 am on Friday, September 27, 1963 and departed for Texas on Wednesday morning, October 3rd, spending 5 full days in Mexico. While in Mexico City he made contact with the Soviet and Cuban consulates by phone and in person. His objective was to secure two travel visas: one “in-transit” visa to Cuba and then another visa to his ultimate destination, the Soviet Union. Oswald had lived in the Soviet Union before. After an honorable discharged from the US Marines in 1959, he defected to the USSR and settled in the city of Minsk where he married a Russian woman, Marina Nikolayevna Prusakova. He returned to the US with his Russian bride in February of 1962. He had special interest in Cuba because not only was he an avowed Marxist, he was also the New Orleans president of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.
When Oswald arrived in Mexico City on Friday, September 27th, he immediately got down to business. He secured a hotel room and then, according to the government investigations, made two calls to the Soviet Consulate, one at 10:30 am and one at 10:37 am, asking routine questions having to do with hours of operations and when the consul would be available to process visas. The caller spoke perfect Spanish. This is troublesome, as Oswald did not know how to speak Spanish. We will leave that for now and continue with the timeline. At 11:00 on this same Friday morning, Oswald showed up at the Cuban Consulate, which is located in the Cuban Embassy compound, requesting an in-transit visa to travel through Cuba on his way to the USSR. His contact at the Cuban Consulate was a 26-year-old, very attractive Mexican national named Silvia Duran. Oswald showed Duran various documents to complete the visa application, but none of the documents had a passport-type photo that was required for the paperwork. One of the documents Oswald proudly showed to Duran was his Fair Play for Cuba ID card and declared himself to be a communist. Silvia Duran thought this strange, as it was routine for the American Communist Party to send its members down to the Cuban Consulate in Mexico City to get immediate visas. They had a special deal with the Cuban Communist Party for properly vetted communists to have a hassle-free paperwork experience for their travel to Cuba. The man before Duran was going about this he hard way, she thought, or something else was going on. As he didn’t have the proper photographs, Oswald left the Cuban Consulate and came back with the appropriate pictures at about 12:15 in the afternoon. He filled out all of the paperwork in Duran’s presence and then she explained to him that he needed to get a Soviet travel visa first before the Cuban Consulate would issue the in-transit visa to get him to Cuba. On this, Oswald walked to the Soviet Consulate and arrived at around 12:30. On arrival, he met with Embassy worker Valery Kostikov, who had long been watched by the CIA as a possible KGB agent. Kostikov handed Oswald off to a man named Oleg Nechiporenko. Nechiporenko explained to Oswald that all travel matters to the Soviet Union are handled by the Embassy of the country of the traveler’s origin. Since Oswald was not a Mexican citizen, the Soviet offices in Mexico could not help him. He would have to go to the Soviet Embassy in Washington DC. Oswald explained that he didn’t want the FBI to arrest him for establishing contact with the Soviets, so he figured that getting a visa through Mexico was a better option, and, as previously mentioned, he wanted to make a stopover in Cuba. Nechiporenko explained to Oswald that they could make a special exception in his case, but the paperwork would take 4 months to process. This made Oswald very angry, so much so that Nechiporenko ended the meeting and escorted the American off the premises with no visa paperwork filled out. At around 4:00 pm that afternoon Oswald returned to the Cuban Consulate and spoke with Silvia Duran. He lied to her and told her that there were no problems with his Soviet visa application and that they should proceed with his Cuban paperwork. Duran called the Soviet Consulate to verify Oswald’s story and in about 20 minutes they called her back, confirming that they had not processed any paperwork for him and that a visa to the Soviet Union would take about 4 months to get. Silvia Duran put down the phone and explained the situation to a very unhappy Lee Harvey Oswald. The tirade drew the attention of the other Cuban staff members including the consul himself, a man named Eusebio Aszcue. Azcue explained to Oswald that Cuba had to be very careful as to who it let into the country and that he was obviously not a man of the revolution if he could not understand that. Oswald received an escort out of the building and never returned to the Cuban Consulate. He did however, return to the Soviet Consulate the next morning, Saturday, September 28th to try one more time to get a visa to the USSR. This time Oswald was calm, and faced with the reality that he was not going to get a quick visa, he left the Soviet compound and didn’t even take the visa paperwork that was offered to him. It is the next event on the Oswald-Mexico City timeline that makes little sense. According to the House Select Committee report, a call recorded and transcribed by the CIA came into the Soviet Consulate from the Cuban Consulate that same Saturday morning at 11:51 am, about an hour and a half after Oswald left the Soviet compound. On the line to the Soviets was who had been identified as both Silvia Duran and Lee Harvey Oswald. The purpose of the call, it seems, was to clarify details on the visa paperwork. The call is strange for a few reasons. First, the Cuban Consulate was closed on Saturdays. For Silvia Duran to be working that day, she would have had to have been called in for a special situation. Second, by reading the transcript of this call, it seems like the people who are doing the talking are fishing for information and are not really sure of the sequence of events that had already happened. Third, the person identified as Oswald spoke broken, almost incomprehensible Russian. Oswald was a fluent speaker of that language. The fourth strange aspect of the call is that there was no need for it to have been made in the first place. If Oswald left the Soviet Consulate that morning and had resigned himself to the fact that getting a quick visa was hopeless, why would there be any need for a follow-up call? The House Select Committee theorized that this Oswald may have been an impostor. It was not uncommon for the CIA station itself or other intelligence agencies to impersonate people successfully for whatever ends. This voice impostor would make perfect sense. On Tuesday, October 1st, the day before Oswald left Mexico, two more calls came in to the Soviet Consulate, one made at 10:31 and the other at 10:45. The people transcribing the calls noted that it was the same person who was on the Saturday morning call to the Soviets. The man on the line identified himself as Oswald by name, spoke poor Russian and was checking on the status of his visa. Again, this makes no sense because there was no visa to check and the speaker’s Russian was bad. There can be very little doubt that the person who made the two calls on Tuesday and the one on Saturday was some sort of voice double for Oswald. The story does not end here and nor does it get any less complicated. After Lee Harvey Oswald left the Soviet diplomatic compound on Saturday morning we have a few days – the rest of Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday – that are not properly accounted for. In the original Warren Commission Report there is next to nothing about what he was doing on these missing days. It was after the commission published its findings that rumors began to circulate about Oswald’s whereabouts in Mexico from September 28th to October 3rd 1963. The two big rumors that ended up being investigated by the House Select Committee in the late 70s had to do with Oswald’s involvement with a leftist student group and Oswald being spotted at a party of a private home.
The House Committee eventually tracked down a man named Oscar Contreras who was part of a pro-Castro student group at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, or UNAM. Silvia Duran from the Cuban Consulate allegedly told Oswald that getting a solid recommendation from a pro-Cuban source might expedite his visa paperwork and so this was the reason for the university visit. Contreras and other Mexican students interacted with Oswald at a lecture at UNAM’s School of Philosophy. Besides Contreras, no other students from the group were ever identified or found. No photographs or other physical proof that Oswald was at the university have ever surfaced. In the course of an investigation undertaken by Jim Garrison, the District Attorney from New Orleans, Contreras was interviewed and provided vague details of his interaction with Oswald, but Contreras never spoke to the House Committee.
Another rumor that Oswald had been spotted at a party either Monday or Tuesday night comes from a very interesting source, the wife of Mexican poet and diplomat, Octavio Paz. This woman, a poet in her own right, was Elena Garro. Garro was at this party which was being held at the home of Rubén Duran Navarro, the brother-in-law of Silvia Duran, the Mexican employee at the Cuban Consulate. Rubén was Elena’s cousin. Garro claimed that she saw Oswald at the party with two other young “beatnik-looking” American men. No one at that party spoke to the three Americans and after the assassination the Durans stated that Oswald was never at any of their parties. Elena Garro claimed to see Oswald and the other two Americans the next day on Avenida de los Insurgentes, one of the main boulevards of the Mexican capital. No photographs of the party exist and there are no other witnesses to Oswald at the party. The House Select Committee on Assassinations tried to get a statement from Elena Garro in the late 1970s but could not. Garro was also responsible, in part, for perpetuating another rumor that Silvia Duran, the Mexican employee at the Cuban Consulate who supposedly helped Oswald with his visa issues, was having an intimate relationship with Oswald while he was in Mexico. This allegation deserves further investigation. In the mid- 1960s, when rumors initiated or perpetuated by Elena Garro began to swirl around Mexico City, Garro was already being discredited as a reliable source for information. She didn’t like the Cubans and she didn’t like her cousin’s sister-in-law, Silvia Duran. After the assassination of Kennedy, Elena Garro had her own personal reasons for connecting the alleged assassin to Duran and the Cubans. CIA station chief Winston Scott was aware of Elena Garro’s allegations and dismissed her as being “nuts.”
A very interesting figure connected to Lee Harvey Oswald’s time in Mexico City and who keeps popping up in the research was Silvia Duran, the attractive 26-year-old Mexican employee at the Cuban Consulate who helped Oswald and was accused by the rumor mill of having an affair with him. Perhaps Silvia was an easy target to victimize because it was well known around the diplomatic circles in Mexico City that a few years before she had had an affair with the then Cuban ambassador to Mexico. At some point after the Kennedy assassination, Silvia Duran was picked up for questioning by the Mexican police, and possibly tortured. While the full contents of the Duran interrogation were not made available to the Americans, it was made public that Duran confessed to having had intimate relations with Oswald. This piece of information was also reported in the Mexican newspapers. The House Select Committee on Assassinations could not verify the veracity of Duran’s testimony and in its final report speculated that Silvia Duran could have been a penetration agent placed in the Cuban Embassy either by the American CIA or by the Mexicans, hence the reason why the Mexicans apprehended her and coerced a statement out of her. Silvia Duran’s role in all of this could be pivotal, especially in light of the great doubt that later researchers have placed on the possibility that the real Lee Harvey Oswald was never even in Mexico.
Researchers who allege that the real Lee Harvey Oswald was never in Mexico City cite several anomalous pieces of information to strengthen their case. As previously mentioned, the House Select Committee believed that 3 calls allegedly made by Oswald were fake, including the last call from the Cuban Consulate to the Soviet Consulate, which supposedly involved Silvia Duran. The man calling himself Oswald spoke incomprehensible Russian while the real Oswald was fluent in that language. But what do we know of the other visits and calls? What tangible proof exists that Oswald was really there? It was well known that the Cuban and Soviet embassies in Mexico City were under heavy scrutiny. The CIA as well as intelligence agencies from other governments closely monitored the comings and goings of the people there. In all the photographs that were taken during the highly scrutinized time of Oswald’s visit, not a single photograph of Lee Harvey Oswald has surfaced even after two government investigations.
During a trip taken to Havana, Cuba to investigate this case, investigators of the House Select Committee on Assassinations met with Castro representatives who shared their own surveillance materials from the Cuban Embassy and Consulate from late September and early October of 1963. The Cubans had books of photographs taken outside their own diplomatic compound and those photos showed everyone coming and going. Oswald was not to be seen among the pictures. In addition to this lack of photographic evidence we also have conflicting statements made by eyewitnesses who were in the presence of the man claiming to be Oswald at the Cuban Consulate. These witnesses reported that he was blond, muscular and about 30 years old. The real Oswald was 24, skinny and no more than five foot six. Wiretapping and recording device evidence of Oswald’s time in Mexico is also non-existent. Either tapes were erased, misfiled or destroyed. All we have left are transcripts.
Speaking of transcripts, a curious transcript of a phone conversation between President Lyndon Johnson and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was uncovered by intrepid JFK assassination researchers. It starts with President Johnson asking, “Have you established any more about the (Oswald) visit to the Soviet Embassy in Mexico in September?” The FBI director replies, “No, that’s one angle that’s very confusing for this reason. We have up here the tape and the photograph of the man who was at the Soviet Embassy using Oswald’s name. The picture and the tape do not correspond to the man’s voice, nor to his appearance. In other words, it appears that there is a second person who was at the Soviet Embassy.”
So, was Oswald even in Mexico? Some researchers believe that the real Oswald had information about plots to kill Cuban president Fidel Castro and that he was really working for the CIA. Castro stated publicly that he felt like he was being set up to take the fall for the Kennedy assassination. Did some sort of “blame the Cubans” plot get thwarted and Oswald was sacrificed? Could missing photos and conflicting reports of various Oswalds in Mexico City be part of what Dan Hardaway from the Select Committee said about conspiracies? Has all of this been part of the red herrings, false trails and disinformation that Hardaway was talking about? There are many JFK-related documents that still have not been released to the public, but even after their release we may never know the full story of Lee Harvey Oswald’s 5 days in Mexico.
REFERENCES (This is not a formal bibliography)
Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA by Jefferson Morley
Assignment: Oswald by James P. Hosty
Oswald’s Game by Jean Davison
Oswald and the CIA by John Newman
American Spy: My Secret History in the CIA, Watergate and Beyond by E. Howard Hunt
Oswald Talked by Ray and Mary Fontaine
The House Select Committee on Assassinations Report
The Warren Commission Report