Monday, April 8, 2013

Who Killed Jorge Eliecer Gaitán?

People walk past the spot where Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was assassinated in 1948 in downtown Bogotá.
On April 9, 1948 a little bit after mid-day, charismatic politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitán walked out of his office on Carrera Septima near Jimenez and was fatally shot on the sidewalk.

In the 65 years since, Gaitán's assassination has been called one of the great mysteries of Colombian history, the subject of conspiracy theories involving rival politicians, the CIA, the USSR, Cuba and even Nazis.

Except that there's actually little mystery here.

Immediately after the assassination, the enraged crowd turned on the alleged gunman, Juan Roa Sierra, murdered him and dragged him thru the streets. No gun was ever recovered, nor, of course, any confession from Roa.

Adding to the sense of mystery in later years was the fact that that same afternoon Gaitan had had a meeting scheduled with a young leftist from Cuba named Fidel Castro.

In the decades since, some have suggested that it seemed too convenient to pin the murder on Roa, a mentally ill ne'er-do-well who was not around to defend himself.

But there is lots of circumstantial evidence connecting Roa to the crime. And, more significantly, no real evidence for any other theory.

Immediately after the shooting, police tried to protect Roa from the angry crowd by pushing him into an adjoining pharmacy. Before the terrified pharmacy owner pushed Roa back out, a customer reportedly asked Roa why he'd shot Gaitan - to which Roa gave some justication. That sounds like a sort of confession to me. Then there's the simple fact that the crowd went after Roa and not someone else. Witnesses to the assassination evidently believed they'd seen Roa shoot Gaitan.

After the shooting, the Colombian government hired Scotland Yard to investigate, apparently because they wanted the opinion of an unbiased, respected experts. The Scotland Yard investigators concluded that Roa, who had fantasies about his own grandeur, had visited Gaitan's office several times during the weeks before the killing. Supposedly, Roa had asked Gaitan for employment and been refused, giving him a motive for revenge. And Scotland Yard also documented that Roa had purchased a gun and ammunition during the days before the murder.

That's a long way from proving that Roa did it. But he did have the weapon and something of a motive, as well as a disturbed mind capable of carrying out the crime.

Gaitán's tomb at his home-museum.
(He is buried standing up.)
Others have argued that Roa might have killed Gaitan, but on the orders of a rival politician or other mysterious actor. This seems highly unlikely to me. After all, who, planning to kill someone, would hire an unstable, mentally ill man to do it?

The Roa-as-killer theory is far from proven. But, somebody shot Gaitan, and the competing theories have nothing to go on. In fact, the lack of evidence for them seems very telling. If a rival political party had really hired a policeman to shoot Gaitan, using Roa as a decoy, wouldn't you expect a deathbed confession made, a secret memo revealed, a tell-tale expense account discovered? If the CIA had been involved, wouldn't some old CIA official or a declassified document have spilled the beans by now? If the USSR had been behind the assassination, wouldn't some defector have spilled the beans, or a Western spy sent home some damning evidence? Why hasn't Wikileaks released a file describing the CIA's nefarious plotting?

But none of that's happened, suggesting to me that the truth about Gaitan's assassination is the boring one - a
Flags above La Septima near El Teatro Gaitán
carry his profile.
crazy man did it for his own unknowable motives.

That, of course, is a very unsatisfying version of events for a signal event in Colombian history, which changed the country's course. Gaitan's assassination triggered the Bogotazo riots, which killed thousands of people and destroyed much of the city, including its streetcar system. Soon after, came the decade of La violencia, a vicious civil war between the Liberal and Conservative political parties.

Gaitan had been a congressman, minister of education and mayor of Bogotá, always known for his fiery nationalist rhetoric denouncing the 'oligarchy'. If Gaitan had lived, he might very well have been elected president, and Colombia's history would have been different. But exactly how different, and in what ways, we'll never know.

Today's El Tiempo has a story suggesting rival politicians were behind Gaitán's assassination, supported by a supposed death bed confession, reported third-hand. And another detailing doubts about Roa's authorship.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Stuart Oswald said...

Such a pity and a truly missed opportunity that Juan Roa Sierra hadn't actually finished Fidel. The act would have saved a complete nation from total enslavement along with all the horrendous murders victimization of innocent young (and old) lives. Che would have been a complete no-known bum and nowhere near situations presiding him of the power to judge other peoples' worth. Such a missed opportunity. Juan could truely have been a hero.

L fairfax said...

Spencer Percival was killed in a similar way

PMAC said...

Hi Mike, about 6-8 years ago I was fishing around on the Poor But Happy web sight and came across this subject. A blogger claimed that he was ex CIA and stationed in Bogota at the time of the assassination,he claimed it to be a CIA hit and seemed to be very well informed on the matter. Could have been pure fabrication of course and a pity that sight was closed down some time ago.

Miguel said...


It'd be interesting to read the post, which is probably preserved somewhere on the net. But, like you say, the post could be fantasy or the guy's own misunderstanding. After all, if he really was CIA, he'd be recalling events from more than a half-century before.

In any case, I come back to my original thoughts: Why would the CIA or other organization have employed someone who was mentally imbalanced to carry out an assassination? And, if there was a conspiracy, wouldn't someone have made a death-bed confession? Wouldn't some incriminating CIA or Colombian government document have been uncovered? After all, the CIA's activities in Cuba, Iran, Chile, Guatemala and other places have all been revealed.



Greg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg said...

Hi Mike,

there is evidence of another shooter, and there was a confession. There is no doubt in my mind that Gaitan was killed after attempts to bribe him to live in exile failed.

Though the evidence is less, I'm also inclined to believe that Gabriel Turbay was murdered by the same people while living in exile.

Volume One of my ebook on the JFK assassination will be out very soon. Part One of the first volume sets out to investigate the Gaitan hit (as a precedent case study). In doing so, I included a lot of history on US interference in Colombia. It was also in the research phase that I came to believe that Turbay was murdered via overdose of Dramamine which made it look like natural causes. At the time of his death, he was making noises about returning to Colombia (though that is far from the sole reason for suspicion).

More info here

Just thought I'd give you the heads up after recalling your interest in this.


Miguel said...

Thanks for your comment Greg. I've read a fair amount about both the Gaitan and JFK assassinations, and have never seen any concrete evidence of conspiracies. which isn't to say they didn't happen. But with Gaitan's case it never made any sense that an enemy of his would use a mentally unbalanced to carry out an assassination.


Greg said...


I think that's a fair enough comment. But that is not what happened. He was not chosen to be an assassin. He was chosen and nurtured to be the fall-guy. A person who is, or might be construed as - mentally unbalanced - is ideal for that purpose.

The whole story will be available soon.

L fairfax said...

The problem with the idea that it is unlikely that a mentally unstable individual could kill an important politician is that it has happened twice in British history and no one thinks that they were conspiracies.
I.e the prime minister Spencer Percival and the Duke of Buckingham

Greg said...

Presumably you're talking about the 1st Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers - which is going all the way back to the 17th century. Villiers was so widely detested that it was almost inevitable SOMEONE or SOME GROUP would do him in. Nothing to see there because so many COULD have and WOULD LIKE TO HAVE done it.

You are wrong regarding Percival Spencer insofar as no one ever thought it was a conspiracy. Historian Andro Linklater disagrees

Also, Mike may correct me, but his argument was not that a mentally unstable person couldn't kill a politician - but that no one would hire such a person to carry out the deed.

That is another problem - you're calling people mentally unstable from an era well preceding any concepts of modern psychiatry. On Mike's side, he is presumably arguing mental problems for the alleged assassin based on Roa's belief in the occult. What that fails to take into account is that Colombia was a country steeped in superstition. In that regard, Roa was hardly too far removed from the cultural norm. It also fails to consider that a belief in the occult cuts across all socio-economic boundaries. No one I know for example, would argue that Jack Parsons was mentally unbalanced and could not be trusted with any important or complex tasks. Parsons was heavily involved in the Satanic cult OTO and was head of the Jet Propulsion Lab

Roa was manipulated into his role as fall-guy via the occult - and easily so given the superstitions permeating the barios he was born into.

L fairfax said...

Good points
I hadn't heard that about Spencer Percival before.
I still think that just because something is unlikely - a lone person killed a politician without help. Doesn't mean that it is impossible. Bearing in mind the number of politicians in the world and people who want to kill them.
After all as the IRA said (not their exact words) to kill a politician you only have to be lucky once - and less so if you don't care about yourself.

Miguel said...

Read about Roa Sierra, the alleged assassin: . He certainly sounds mentally unbalanced. Apparently, he believed himself to be the reencarnation of Jimenez. And, according to the Scotland Yard investigation done after the assassination, Roa Sierra had repeatedly visited Gaitan's office. I can't imagine that someone hired by Gaitan's enemies acting that way. Also, Scotland Yard documented that Gaitan had bought a gun and bullets the days before the killing. It seems pretty clear to me that Roa Sierra shot Gaitan. It's always possible that a conspiracy pushed him to do it - but I've never seen any substantial evidence. But, if there was, why hasn't it ever come out, in a deathbed confession, an old letter, a CIA document, etc etc?



Greg said...

Thanks Mike, but I've already read the archives of Paul Wolf on the case.

Dr Jimenez was head of the government investigation. I think you mean Santander?

The thing about the allegation that Roa believed he was the reincarnation of anybody is that Roa himself is never quoted as using the word "reincarnation". That is someone else trying to paraphrase Roa. I believe he was actually describing something to do with a ritual he had been ordered to perform by AMORC.

Does he sound "mentally unbalanced"? Maybe. But it's clear from the records, he only started sounding that way after joining the above-mentioned cult group.

A correction: Scotland Yard did not conduct an investigation - in fact, they were strictly forbidden by the terms of reference from doing so. They were engaged simply to conduct a review of the Jimenez investigation. This frustrated them because it prevented them from pursuing leads Jimenez had overlooked. They were particularly frustrated that they were denied government records simply because Jimenez had not produced them himself.

Your insistence as to what plotters would or wouldn't do is okay for a parlor game, but it proves nothing. You keep referencing Roa being hired - but that's not my claim. Sorry if I failed to make that clear enough.

My claim is that Roa was lured via the occult into being the fall guy. If I was a plotter using a fall guy, I would want the fall guy seen hanging around the office of the assassination target so that he is immediately associated with that target. I would also want my fall guy to buy a gun and bullets in the days leading up to the hit.

There was another man with Roa at Gaitain's office on two or three occasions. A man fitting the same description was seen with Roa just before the assassination. There were 3 shots fired in quick succession which all found their mark, then a short break before a fourth shot. Roa's was that fourth shot. It missed. I don't think he'd ever fired a weapon before in his life.

A deathbed confession? Mike, c'mon. Hollywood stuff. It is the exception, not the rule in real life. CIA documents? Sorry - the CIA leaves no paper trail with it's extra-legal activities.

However, as I've already said - there was a confession. It was made by a known CIA operative named John Espirito.

Miguel said...

Your theory is certainly possible. I'm no expert, but from what I've read your idea lacks one element: concrete evidence.

Lots of stuff has come out about the CIA, by the way. We know about the US gov's attempts to kill or embarrass Fidel Castro, for example. And their dirty work in places like Iran and Guatemala.


Miguel said...

Take a look at El Tiempo's story about assassin Roa Sierra's efforts to buy a revolver and bullets. To me, that sounds like someone determined to shoot someone, and also tells me that Roa Sierra didn't have a conspiracy behind him, or else wouldn't they have provided him a weapon (and a better gun)?


Greg said...

Thanks Mike, if I can find it, I'll take a look. I do know another paper, Sabado, in an editorial on July 27, 1956, called for a new inquiry, citing a number of reasons, including question marks over the murder weapon. There were also 4 witnesses who stated that Roa had told them of needing a revolver in order to protect 2 foreigners who had hired him to act as a servant on a trip to "wild country".

I honestly can't follow your reasoning in saying that if conspirators existed, they would have given him a weapon.

If I were a conspirator, I would not be supplying anything that could potentially be traced back to me. Makes much more sense to trick the patsy into buying a weapon that can easily be traced to just him. One way to trick him into it may be to ask him to act as a servant on a trip to "wild country" in which you'll need a gun to help protect those who hired you.

Here is a link to my book - a third of which is devoted to Colombia and the Gaitan assassination:

Miguel said...

Ooops...I forgot to include the link to the story about Roa Sierra and the revolver:

It seems to me that if someone powerful had been using Roa Sierra to kill Gaitan they could have gotten him a good gun and made sure he got it easily, without revealing the conspirators' identities. The El Tiempo article also quotes Roa Sierra as hating Gaitan, so he apparently had a motive for the killing.