The FBI in Latin America: The Ecuador Files

The FBI in Latin America: The Ecuador Files

by Marc Becker

NOOK Book(eBook)

$20.99 $27.95 Save 25% Current price is $20.99, Original price is $27.95. You Save 25%.
View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now


During the Second World War, the FDR administration placed the FBI in charge of political surveillance in Latin America. Through a program called the Special Intelligence Service (SIS), 700 agents were assigned to combat Nazi influence in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. The SIS’s mission, however, extended beyond countries with significant German populations or Nazi spy rings. As evidence of the SIS’s overreach, forty-five agents were dispatched to Ecuador, a country without any German espionage networks. Furthermore, by 1943, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover shifted the SIS’s focus from Nazism to communism. Marc Becker interrogates a trove of FBI documents from its Ecuador mission to uncover the history and purpose of the SIS’s intervention in Latin America and for the light they shed on leftist organizing efforts in Latin America. Ultimately, the FBI’s activities reveal the sustained nature of US imperial ambitions in the Americas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822372783
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/17/2017
Series: Radical Perspectives
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Marc Becker is Professor of History at Truman State University and the author of Indians and Leftists in the Making of Ecuador’s Modern Indigenous Movements, also published by Duke University Press, Twentieth-Century Latin American Revolutions, and Pachakutik: Indigenous Movements and Electoral Politics in Ecuador.

Read an Excerpt



The agents Thomas Finnegan Hannigan and Richard Crow received a teletype that they were to return immediately from their post in San Francisco to FBI headquarters in Washington, DC. Three days later, they were on a plane with all of their clothes and equipment, wondering what kind of trouble they were facing. In Washington, an FBI supervisor asked the two agents whether they were willing to serve in a foreign assignment. Both immediately responded that they would, not so much out of interest, but from a fear of being exiled to an undesirable assignment in Butte, Montana, if they refused. Hannigan and Crow formally resigned their positions in the FBI and were immediately sworn in as agents of the Special Intelligence Service (SIS). "They explained a little bit about what SIS was but not a lot," Crow later recalled. "They really didn't want us to know too much."

After a crash course in Spanish, the FBI sent Hannigan and Crow, together with about twenty other agents, to Latin America, Hannigan to Chile and Crow to Bolivia. About half were assigned to Legal Attaché Offices in embassies, with the others traveling undercover as purported employees of a U.S. firm. The agents received very limited training in counterintelligence and counterespionage. Harold Judell, who arrived in Venezuela with the first group of twelve FBI agents, commented, "We were basically on our own." James Kraus, who later followed as a stenographer, said he received no training, not even Spanish language instruction. Agents were under the impression that they were "sent into a particular area just to nose around" and see what they could find. The FBI transferred many to another country after only a few months, further limiting their ability to become experts on a specific situation.

Many of the agents arrived in Latin America with limited conversancy in Spanish and even more limited knowledge of the country to which they were assigned. In December 1944, Ronald Sundberg applied to the SIS. A week later, the agency asked whether he wanted to go to El Salvador, and he responded, "Fine — where is it?" As Sundberg noted, he "was green as grass." He knew little about the SIS and even less about what it was doing in El Salvador. "They stripped me of my credentials," he remembered, "told me not to tell anybody what I was doing in San Salvador. Well, that was easy, because I didn't really know what I was doing anyway." He concluded, "I went out there pretty much blindfolded." The agents were outsiders to a reality they did not fully comprehend. That remained the modus operandi of the FBI in Latin America.

Few people, within the FBI or outside, knew of the intelligence-gathering operations in Latin America. When the FBI told William Bradley that he was being considered for the SIS program, he "did not, at that time, know of its existence or what it was" or even for what the letters stood. Similarly, Thomas Gaquin was confused when he was recruited into the SIS in June 1942 because he believed that the FBI worked only within the boundaries of the United States. Decades later, the SIS program remained such a secret that even FBI historians had difficulty finding information about it or tracking down former agents. Crow observed, "You know it really is hard to believe it was such a well-kept secret during World War II. Even within the field offices." The former agent claimed he learned more about the SIS reading Leslie Rout and John Bratzel's book The Shadow War, but even that book did not have much detail. Sundberg did not know that the SIS for which he worked was a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). That lack of awareness of the nature of the FBI's operations in Latin America is also reflected in the scholarly literature. María Emilia Paz Salinas's masterful study of U.S. intelligence-gathering operations confuses the SIS with the ONI's Special Activities Branch or Special Intelligence Section.

From humble beginning and with little public attention, the FBI's political surveillance in Latin America quickly grew to an impressive size in a short period of time. Broadly, the agents' activities fell into three categories: police trainers, undercover assignments with U.S. corporations, and legal attachés in embassies. Of the three, the police trainers had the most possibility to intervene directly in the internal affairs of another country, but it is also the realm for which the least amount of documentation remains. An assignment with a corporation inadvertently highlights the underlying economic motivation for the diplomatic presence, including blacklisting German firms that would allow them to be taken over by others friendly to U.S. economic interests. The legal attachés, and more generally the generation of extensive surveillance documentation, inadvertently creates a rich source on which scholars can draw. Seven hundred agents sent countless reports from across the hemisphere back to Washington that probed the depths of the local political landscape. While many agents arrived without much training or a clear sense of their duties, by just observing and reporting on what they saw they documented internal debates in Latin America that serve to reconstruct a history of the political left. An understanding of who the agents were and the roles they played facilitate an interpretation of the intelligence they produced, which contributes to a more complete and accurate analysis of theFBI's operatives in Latin America.


The FBI launched the Special Intelligence Service on July 1, 1940, to engage in foreign intelligence surveillance in the Western Hemisphere and "other specially designated areas." The SIS was to be a service agency that provided the U.S. State Department, military, and FBI with information on financial, economic, and political activities that were detrimental to U.S. security concerns. Dallas Johnson later recalled that his fellow FBI agents did not call the agency the Special Intelligence Services but the Special Intelligence Section, possibly confusing it with the similarly named branch of theONI. "I don't know where the services idea came," Johnson stated. The term "services" may have formed part of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's branding effort to extend the reach of the bureau. Or perhaps the terminology the agency used to refer to the informal and clandestine operation was never entirely fixed. A collection of biographies of former FBI agents refers to the SIS as the Special Investigative Services, the Secret Intelligence Service (a name for the British foreign intelligence service M16), or simply the SIS, as if readers would understand the reference. In fact, Roy Britton, the longest-serving agent in Latin America, claimed that the FBI sent officials to London to study the British system and modeled the FBI program after it. The agent Woodrow Lipscomb quipped, "There was always a constant discussion as to what SIS meant," and offered as alternatives "Security Intelligence Service," "Secret Intelligence Service," "and Security Investigative Service," none of which was its formal name. In Lipscomb's mind, theSIS was an undercover operation. If an agent worked openly with an embassy or consulate, that person returned to the status of FBI agent.

Johnson recalled that Hoover sent the FBI agents Gus Jones and William Buys to Mexico and Cuba, respectively, even before President Franklin Roosevelt had formally approved the creation of the SIS. By 1939, Jones was sending reports from Mexico. The following year, the agency dedicated significant resources to investigating Leon Trotsky's assassination, not to solve the crime, but to discover the extent of Soviet penetration in the hemisphere. Jones's activities formed part of the bureau's international intelligence gathering that had existed since the Mexican Revolution. As W. Dirk Raat notes, "The new organization was a dream come true for Hoover, who had been preoccupied with Mexico since the early 1920s." Roosevelt's authorization allowed Hoover to expand his operations significantly. At the end of 1940, after six months of operation, the FBI had twelve undercover special agents in nine countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and Venezuela), with one "special employee" traveling throughout South America. In 1941, this number grew rapidly. By July, the FBI had posted twenty-two undercover agents in twelve countries. Within two years, the SIS had 137 agents stationed throughout Latin America, a number that later peaked at 360 agents. Over the course of the entire program, the FBI placed about seven hundred agents in Latin America.

The initial dispatches from FBI agents were concerned primarily with threats from Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and imperial Japan. The Germans established their major espionage networks in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina, and at first the FBI focused its work mainly on Nazi encroachment into those countries. The bureau worked without the knowledge or agreement of host governments, especially those that were sympathetic to the Axis powers, and only joined the Allies once it was clear that they would emerge victorious in the war against Germany and Japan. FBI agents paid for information on Nazis, which motivated informants to invent threats that greatly inflated U.S. perceptions of German activity. Despite the FBI's fears, the Nazis never came close to achieving their ambitions in the region, largely because of the Germans' lack of understanding of Latin America.

Despite the original justification for the SIS program, many former agents deny that they were sent to Latin America to collect information on German or other Axis activities. Particularly after 1943, when the FBI had already rounded up and deported most Axis nationals and the SIS had reached its peak of activity, little surveillance activity in that realm remained for the agents. Mostly, what the agents did was collect information on the economic, financial, and political functioning of the country, which by its very nature involved a certain amount of duplication with State Department officials. Because of his French-language skills, the FBI planned to send Fred Ayer to Haiti in 1943 but canceled the assignment because the State Department "did not feel that espionage, or even counter-espionage, was other than somewhat Un-American." Ayer reports that the FBI eventually sent another agent to Haiti, but in thirteen months "he had never seen a recognizable Nazi or a periscope." All the agent had to report was rumors of local intrigues. Eventually that agent resigned from the bureau and joined the military instead.

The FBI sent agents to Latin America with minimal training. The most important consideration seemed to be that the agents were young and unmarried. In fact, agents were not allowed to take their families with them or have family visit them. Hoover assumed that older agents would face more difficulties in learning another language and adjusting to a different environment than those who had recently graduated from college, which to a certain extent may have been true. That decision also meant that the program suffered from a lack of administrative and technical knowledge that older agents would have brought. The FBI operated without previous experience in the region and thus had little advice or training it could offer to agents. As the program ramped up, the FBI provided first four, then six, then twelve weeks of intensive Spanish instruction (and later, training in Portuguese for Brazil), with the agents studying twelve hours a day from Monday through Saturday and half a day on Sunday. Before the FBI sent William Bradley to South America, the bureau provided him with Spanish lessons but then sent him to Brazil instead and he had to start over with Portuguese. One agent claimed that the FBIput agents of Greek descent in the Portuguese class under the rationale that their heritage meant they "were smart and good linguists." Often the FBIsent support staff with no language training at all. "They didn't even ask me whether I knew any foreign languages," Ronald Sundberg, who was stationed as a clerk in the Legal Attaché's Office in El Salvador, remembered, "and I didn't. I had absolutely no foreign languages." He arrived alone by plane and had to find his way to the U.S. Embassy. Once there, he took Berlitz lessons but in four months learned little. Later he was posted to Brazil for a year, during which time he learned more Portuguese.

Initially, the bureau sent only men, but in 1944 the FBI began to assign female clerical support staff to Latin American posts. Hoover had arranged draft deferments for his agents, but the Selective Service put pressure on him to send men of draft age into the military and replace them with women. The FBI describes the contributions of female stenographers and clerical employees as enormously beneficial to the program. For safety, the FBI sent women to their posts in pairs.

Nor did the FBI routinely debrief agents when they returned from the field. The agent James Kraus did have an exit interview with Kit Carson, head of the SIS, but it focused on his feelings and whether he would be willing to return, not on the intelligence he had compiled. The agents appeared to collect information without a clear understanding of its purpose or relation to a larger political environment. If the interviews and available documentation are to be believed, the agents did not engage in covert activity — nor would they have been particularly capable of doing so. Most merely functioned as the eyes and ears of a larger project that they probably never understood.

Edgar K. Thompson

On June 26, 1940, the FBI'S special agent Edgar K. Thompson arrived by plane in Ecuador, several days before the formal launch of the SIS program. The FBI reported that although Thompson "was traveling on an official passport, his identity as an FBI Agent was not generally known in Quito." A year before his arrival in Ecuador, the State Department, with Roosevelt's support, had sent Thompson to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to set up a "secret police system of a type similar to that considered necessary in the United States for dealing with espionage cases." Martha Huggins surmises that in Ecuador he collaborated with the carabineros, a militarized police force modeled after their counterparts in Chile that the government employed as a bulwark against a potential military coup in the 1940 elections. The U.S. government was eager to supplant the fascist Italian government's military mission that provided training of police forces throughout Latin America and turned to undercover FBI agents such as Thompson to achieve that goal.

Hoover selected Thompson for this first foray into South America because he was a young bachelor with previous experience in Puerto Rico, and he spoke Spanish. (The bureau apparently had no one who spoke Portuguese.) In this highly confidential assignment, Thompson assisted in the establishment of a Brazilian security service and provided the FBI with counterintelligence instruction. The undercover nature of Thompson's assignment created difficulties for making the appropriate financial arrangements, including confusion as to whether the Brazilian government or the State Department would cover his expenses, although in the end he was reimbursed quite lucratively out of Roosevelt's special appropriations fund. For five months, Thompson traveled extensively in Brazil as a visiting entrepreneur and succeeded in collecting extensive intelligence for the FBI.

Following Brazil, the FBI assigned Thompson to Colombia, where the government had requested his expertise "in advising in the organization of anoffice similar to the Bureau" that would include "surveillance over the activities of aliens in Colombia." From his position, Thompson provided a steady stream of political intelligence back to Washington. Hoover subsequently pointed to Thompson's success in establishing important contacts with the police and gathering "a great deal of most interesting information" to justify an extension of this type of surveillance program to the rest of the Americas. Hoover was eager to maintain tight control over his agents, as well as to build his own global intelligence-gathering empire. U.S. Ambassador Spruille Braden, however, complained that Thompson did little more than copy intelligence reports from embassy files and distribute them as his own to the State, War, and Navy departments. FBI agents were aware that ambassadors did not like the idea of the bureau operating undercover in their country of assignment without their knowledge. Interagency disputes over budgets and political control of intelligence operations led to constant conflicts, which contributed to Roosevelt's concern that the competing intelligence services "were often following the same matter at the same time and constantly crossing each other's tracks." At one point, an embassy official in Colombia who resented the FBI's incursion into his territory had the local police department investigate an agent.


Excerpted from "The FBI in Latin America"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press.
Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface  vii
Acknowledgments  ix
Abbreviations  xi
Introduction. FBI  1
1. SIS  17
2. Communism  53
3. Labor  95
4. La Gloriosa  125
5. Constitution  157
6. Coup  193
7. Departures  223
Conclusion. Cold War  249
Notes   259
Bibliography   299
Index  311

What People are Saying About This

The Cuba Reader: History, Culture, Politics - Barry Carr

"The FBI in Latin America is an absolutely fascinating and pathbreaking introduction to the work of US intelligence and of political intervention and surveillance in Ecuador and Latin America more generally. Only a scholar with Marc Becker's impressive knowledge of Ecuador could undertake a project that opens up the volume of data, factual information, and internal disputes and private conversations as found in the FBI's wartime files as a vital new source for historians of leftist and communist movements in Latin America."

The Enduring Legacy: Oil, Culture, and Society in Venezuela - Miguel Tinker Salas

“Written by a leading historian of Ecuador and social movements in Latin America, The FBI in Latin America draws on an impressive and far-reaching body of surveillance documents produced by the FBI and the US State Department. Reconstructing the history of Latin American left-wing organizations, Marc Becker provides a new perspective on events in twentieth-century Ecuador and the activities of communist, labor, women's, Indigenous, and broad-based social movements.”

Customer Reviews