Managing Mexico’s Cold War: Vicente Lombardo Toledano and the Uses of Political Intelligence

I have a short article in the Journal of Iberian and Latin American Research as part of a special dossier on the use of Mexican secret police archives for writing the contemporary history of Mexico, a project edited by Louise Walker and Tanalís Padilla. We were limited in our word count, and all of the authors were tasked with taking a document or two and explained their content for the audience. I was brought in to the project to talk about the ways that the documents shed light on international issues, and did my analysis on Vicente Lombardo Toledano, a Marxist labor leader with ties to multiple foreign intelligence agencies. I therefore tried to do my analysis in the context of a larger argument, namely, that,

Both before and after the creation of the [Dirección Federal de Seguridad], the Mexican government often tolerated the espionage games of rival foreign powers. Lombardo’s story alone has exhibited different forms of acceptance for the presence of U.S., Soviet, German, and British agents, operating with relative impunity. Someone like Lombardo could finance his political ambitions with dollars from the Mexican and Soviet governments, while at the same time the DFS could collaborate closely with its U.S. counterparts in pursuit of the neutralization of threats from the extreme left. In more general terms, the DFS could make itself valuable by sharing relevant information with U.S. agencies, at times even acting as a intelligence subcontractor reporting directly to them. But elsewhere, as with the Soviet Union, the DFS took a laissez faire attitude toward the actions of other intelligence services operating within the country. In later years, this was also true of Cuba:  the head of the DFS in the 1960s was a close associate of Fidel Castro’s. Like its subsidies to the domestic quasi-opposition that spanned the political spectrum from right to left without constituting endorsement, Mexican tolerance of foreign espionage constituted a kind of subsidy that left governments as diverse as the Soviet Union, the United States, and Cuba with an interest in the maintenance of Mexico’s government in power. Mexico’s secret police could be, without question, agents of repression for Mexico domestically. Yet in a different way, at the international level, they helped channel the nature of foreign intervention and manage the dangers of the Cold War to Mexico. Mexico ceded just enough sovereignty to foreign spies that it, in the end, lost very little.

The whole dossier is fully available online, for free, through the end of August 2013.

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