COMMUNISTS: Death in the Afternoon

  • Share
  • Read Later

On a summer afternoon in 1940, a gaunt young man entered the suburban Mexico City villa of Leon Trotsky, and asked for criticism of a manuscript. Trotsky invited him into his study, where the young man smashed an Alpine pickax down on Trotsky's skull. The dying man's screams brought two bodyguards on the run; they knocked the assassin down, kicked him nearly unconscious. Cried Trotsky: "Don't kill him. This man has a story to tell."

Last week the assassin went free, his story still untold. During his trial he insisted that his name was Jacques Mornard, and claimed to be a Belgian Communist who had supported Trotsky in his bitter feud with Stalin. Why, then, had he killed him? Because he had become disillusioned with his onetime idol. Sentenced to 20 years, the prisoner clung stubbornly to his story, even though Mexican authorities were able to prove he was actually a Spaniard named Ramón Mercader, a convinced Communist who fought on the Loyalists' side in the Spanish Civil War, was later enrolled in the Soviet NKVD, and eventually reached Mexico on the passport of a Canadian who had been killed in Spain while fighting with the International Brigade.

Mercader proved a model prisoner, was soon managing the prison radio shop and teaching illiterate prisoners to read and write. Some mysterious source kept him well supplied with money and under Mexico's lenient laws, he enjoyed such comforts as books, special food, carpets on his cell floor, and the weekly visits of his common-law wife, a nightclub entertainer named Rogelia Mendoza. Last week, some three months before his term expired, Mercader was hustled out of prison and aboard an airliner to Cuba, a procedure that enabled the Mexican government to get rid of an undesirable character and also to avoid demonstrations. The final proof, if any were needed, that Mercader —now greying, beefy and 46—had always been a Stalinist agent was supplied by his traveling companions: two husky "diplomats" from Communist Czechoslovakia.

At week's end Mercader vanished from Cuba, was presumably enroute for Czechoslovakia. Still living in the Mexico City villa where her husband was brutally murdered, Widow Natalia Trotsky, 80, said softly: "Mornard is now going to his reward—or his elimination."