19 | MAY | 2019
The Mexican who spied for the USSR during the Cold War
Gilberto López y Rivas - Photo: EL UNIVERSAL

The Mexican who spied for the USSR during the Cold War

Octavio Rivera López
Mexico City
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Convinced that the socialist utopia was possible, Gilberto López y Rivas and his wife spent a decade as spies for the Soviet Union, moving between Canada, USA, and Europe

The decade was the 70’s. The Cold War was at its peak, sparking tensions everywhere in the world. The United States and the Soviet Union wanted to impose on humanity their own visions of the world and turned it into their battlefield.

And in the midst of it all, Gilberto López y Rivas and his wife, Alicia Castellanos.

Both were Mexican citizens in their twenties, spying for the Soviet military intelligence, the GRU, in the heart of the capitalist empire.

Gilberto and Alicia, who have been married for 50 years, met at the National School of Anthropology and History.

Both survived the Tlatelolco massacre on October 2, 1968, in Mexico City, which left a permanent mark on them, just as the Cuban revolution of 1959 did and their conviction that the socialist utopia was possible.

The couple spied for the Soviet Union between 1969 and 1978, moving between Canada, The United States, and other European countries, according to David Wise, a U.S. journalist specializing in espionage topics.

In 2000, Wise published “Cassidy’s Run, The Secret Spy War Over Nerve Gas,” a book which tells the story of Joseph Cassidy, an elite member of the U.S. military who acted as a double agent for 20 years of his life.

Cassidy was a Soviet spy – or at least he made them think that.

In reality, according to Wise, he used secret information to mislead the Soviets, who thought they were stealing valuable secrets to develop toxic weapons.

López y Rivas and Castellanos, who were recruited by the GRU in the 60’s, were two of the informants with whom Cassidy exchanged information.

The couple’s activities were discovered by the FBI in 1972, ironically, in a suburb close to Tampa, Florida, named Saint Petersburg.

Cassidy alerted the federal agents that one of the informants of the Soviet government would show at a specific time to retrieve a package at the base of a palm tree. The informant would be retrieving a microfilm containing military secrets from a hollowed rock.

The man who showed up at the scene at the appointed hour was López y Rivas. The FBI agents took photos and, because of the palm tree, they codenamed the Mexican spy “Palmeto.”

(López y Rivas with his wife, Alicia Castellanos appeared at the scene of the exchange, carrying their son – Photo: Courtesy)

They confirmed his identity thanks to the photograph of the license plate of his vehicle. They tracked him to a car rental. The moment they contacted him, López y Rivas showed them a Canadian driver’s license with his true name.

Since that moment, the house of the “Palmeto’s” in Salt Lake City, Utah, was wired with microphones and hidden cameras which allowed the FBI agents to follow them closely for the next couple of years.

All this time, López y Rivas combined espionage with his studies, focusing on the study of the abuse of the Chicano community in the United States.

In 1978, FBI agents finally confronted him and exposed him. López y Rivas thought he was going to be sent to prison, according to Wise.

The agents told him he was free to go but he had to abandon the country immediately. López y Rivas thought he was being tricked and that his life and that of his family were in danger.

In reality, the Justice Department refused to press charges.

Soon after the publication of Wise’s book, López y Rivas, now in Mexico, said during an interview with the Associated Press that he had acted pursuant to his convictions.

“We regret nothing, given the times we lived in. It was an alternative. We did nothing of we could be ashamed of,” he said.

After he was forced to leave the United States, López y Rivas spent the rest of his life focusing on politics and education. He was a federal deputy twice, and he became the first head of the Tlalpan borough in 2000.

In 2003, he resigned to the left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), a party he helped found and of which he was thoroughly disappointed, as with the rest of traditional politics.

He has kept himself close to the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and has collaborated with the project of the Indigenous Council, whose spokeswoman, María de Jesús Patricio, tried without success to gather the signatures required to become an independent presidential candidate.


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