New career for ex-Soviet spy


Politics: A Mexican who for 15 years spied on the United States for Moscow runs for a major Mexico City office.

June 20, 2000|By Sam Quinones | Sam Quinones,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

MEXICO CITY - Through the working-class neighborhood of Pueblo Quieto, a thin, tall man stops to talk with shop owners and housewives in doorways.

"Hi. I'm Lopez y Rivas," he says, handing a flier to an old woman in an apron. "I'm running for delegation chief. I hope you'll favor us with your vote."

Gilberto Lopez y Rivas is a congressman from the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution. He is running for chief of Mexico City's most expansive "delegation," or borough, Tlalpan, home to about 700,000 people.

Polls show him leading, though half the voters are undecided.

But for 15 years he led another life that only recently became fully public - as a Soviet spy. Beginning in 1963 when he was a high school senior, Gilberto Lopez y Rivas spied for the Soviet military.

He visited the Soviet Union several times - twice with his wife and assistant spy, anthropologist Alicia Castellanos - for training in Morse code, radio and clandestine communication, and military-base observation.

He became an expert on the Chicano movement in the United States and wrote two books on it in order to travel extensively through America. He gained a Ph.D in anthropology and taught at the University of Minnesota - all cover for his spy work.

In 1978 in Minneapolis, he and his wife were confronted by FBI agents who had been following his activities for several years. However, in making their case, agents illegally broke into the Lopez y Rivas home and installed wiretaps.

The Justice Department decided the case had to be dropped.

"What saved us was how scrupulously laws are observed in the U.S.," Lopez y Rivas says.

But all is not forgotten. Last year, as a congressman he applied for a visa to enter the United States and was turned down because of his espionage activities.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the Lopez y Rivases were active in left-wing politics and told their friends and relatives of their previous lives. But their story was not widely known until the publication this year of "Cassidy's Run," by journalist David Wise.

The book is about U.S. Army Sgt. Joe Cassidy, an FBI agent pretending to spy for the Soviets.

Lopez y Rivas enters the story in 1971, occasionally picking up fake rocks containing microfilm of military secrets Cassidy left for his Soviet handlers. "This was kind of a dead file that I've had in the past," he says. "Now it returns through this book.

"I don't want in any way to hurt anyone. The Soviet Union has disappeared. Socialism has disappeared. But you have to respect what you did, what you believed."

During the Cold War, Mexico was a prime entry point for Soviet infiltration of the United States. Its public schools frothed with radicalism and hatred for the United States and its interventions in Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

In high school, Lopez y Rivas was a committed revolutionary. He joined radical groups, including one advocating armed revolution that trained with weapons. Its leader taught him the basics of clandestine life: to enter a building or room looking first for an escape, to never fall asleep on buses.

While he studied anthropology, his life was revolution, the United States the clear enemy. The purges, show trials and other crimes of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin were U.S. propaganda, he was told; each side invented things about the other.

"We didn't have the Soviet Union next door," he says. "So if gringos said that Stalin was a criminal, we couldn't prove that empirically. But we could prove the U.S. invasions, the aggression against Cuba."

About 1963, he began doing reports for spies who would infiltrate the United States posing as Mexicans. He would write out cultural, political, social details - anything a Mexican of 25 or 30 ought to know - and pass the data to his handlers. He never met the people who adopted the identities.

He chose a thesis topic - Chicanos in the United States - that could justify U.S. travel, ostensibly to collect scholarly data.

"I was really observing military bases, seeing where there were troop concentrations," he says. "I think this was a way [the Soviets had] of training me."

He studied at the universities of Utah and Texas, spying as he earned his Ph.D, and traveling to Florida to make occasional pickups of Cassidy's material.

"There isn't a precise job you go to do," he explains. "It's to be in the country, and be useful when the time comes. The work isn't like they describe in movies and books.

"It's systematic work of research. A lot of what you needed was in magazines, official government publications. Discussions in Congress. You don't have to be involved in some specific operation. Rather you go to collect information, meet people, see places. All that is helpful."

In 1977, a teaching position opened in the Chicano Studies Department of the University of Minnesota. Lopez y Rivas applied and was accepted. He taught courses on Chicano and Mexican history. Meanwhile, he and his family traveled extensively, taking notes on military bases.

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