The FBI in Ecuador

Against the Current, No. 198, January/February 2019

Kenneth Kincaid

The FBI in Latin America:
The Ecuador Files
By Marc Becker
Duke University Press, 2017, 336 pages, paper $26.95

MARC BECKER’S THE FBI in Latin America: The Ecuador Files is a fascinating account of U.S. involvement in Ecuador during the World War II years. It adds an important dimension to our understanding of U.S. interventions in Latin America, which are so much better known in the cases of coups and destabilization efforts of the Central Intelligence Agency (Guatemala, Brazil, Chile etc.). Further, it shows the strong historical continuity in U.S. actions in Latin America, going back well before the onset of the Cold War.

In 2013, while conducting research at the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland on social movements in Ecuador, Becker chanced upon a box of files titled “FBI in Ecuador.” What he found was a historian’s dream: A little known chapter in the history of U.S.-Latin American relations was at his fingertips. Moreover, the documents corresponded to one of the most important political developments of 20th century Ecuador, the Glorious Revolution.

This indeed was the discovery of a lifetime. What makes The FBI in Latin America an extraordinary work, additionally, is that it draws from Becker’s extensive knowledge of Ecuador’s social movements and political left, accrued through decades of research, meshed with the new material gleaned from boxes of FBI documents. The result is a carefully written study of U.S. efforts to stay abreast of political and economic developments in the smallest republic of the Andes.

This book does not yield big surprises when it comes to U.S. intervention in Ecuadorian politics. There are no cloak and dagger accounts reminiscent of CIA operations. However, the book does make clear what the U.S. concerns were, and how Ecuadorian leftists were aware of an FBI presence that might be working in tandem with the repressive government of Carlos Alberto Arroyo del Río. Thus leftists were forced to measure their activism.

Another aspect of the book, which one cannot help but notice, is the FBI ineptness in carrying out field work. When trying to understand the shades of the Latin American left, the agents were ideologically blinded.

Convoluted History

The history of the FBI in Latin America dates back to 1917 when the then Bureau of Investigation (BOI) was one of five U.S. institutions maintaining surveillance in Mexico.

In 1940, against the backdrop of World War II, the FBI inaugurated the Special Intelligence Service (SIS). This agency’s mission was to “engage in foreign intelligence surveillance in the Western Hemisphere and ‘other specially designated areas’” and to share that information with the State Department, military and FBI. (20)

While the SIS began modestly with 12 agents in nine countries, by 1942 there were as many as 360 agents throughout Latin America. Ecuador had 10 agents: two undercover agents in Guayaquil, three in Quito, two undercover special agents in Quito, two representatives at the U.S. Embassy in Quito and a radio operator in Quito. (34-5)

The decision to station FBI agents in Ecuador originally stemmed from U.S. concerns over the spread of fascism in the Western Hemisphere. When the fascist threat in Ecuador failed to materialize, FBI agents recalibrated their surveillance practices to report on the activities of the Ecuadorian left. (35)

Here Becker shines as his expertise on this Andean country’s political left allows him to critically examine the FBI’s reports.

One observation that Becker makes early on, calling into question the quality and veracity of the field reports, is that most agents had minimal language skills or understanding of South American politics and culture. Indeed, many of their early reports were simply reproduced from Ecuadorian newspapers.

Along with the agents’ limited cultural and linguistic skills were their political arrogance and short-sightedness. For Becker, the Bureau’s propensity for misreporting events reflected either lack of knowledge or bias and most certainly demonstrates a limited utility of these documents.

Just as revealing as who the FBI investigated was who it failed to investigate.  Not only did the company ignore Indigenous people and Afro-Ecuadorians, its surveillance of Ecuadorian women reflected a bias that permeated the Bureau.

Becker points out of the prominent female leaders of the Communist Party, a group that included Nela Martínez, María Luisa Gómez de la Torre, Dolores Cacuango and Tránsito Amaguaña, only Martínez, who was also a suplente (or alternate) deputy in Ecuador’s National Assembly, “received any significant attention” from the FBI.

Even the Bureau’s reporting on her was “partial and problematic.” When Martínez became the first woman ever to be seated as a deputy in Ecuador’s Congress, the FBI failed to acknowledge the feat, and even stated that she “did not participate in the Assembly.” (78)

Much of the FBI surveillance took place during World War II. As such, the pendulum of U.S. concern swung from fascism to different shades of communism.

Becker’s section on Trotskyism is particularly illuminating — not because of what the FBI discovered, but rather because of the bureau’s efforts to brand Trotskyists as close kin to fascists. The FBI’s wrong-headed logic was based on the Ecuadorian Communist Party’s willingness to support the Allies and the Soviet Union during World War II. The Trotskyists rejected such an alliance, holding steadfast to their conviction that the allies were capitalist and imperialist and only global revolution would bring about worker liberation. For the FBI, the label “Trotskyist” held a derogatory connotation, reserved for a factional opposition. (92)

With the FBI in the field, the Ecuadorian left often found itself measuring its actions in response to U.S. policy and, more specifically, FBI surveillance. On the one hand, as part of the global Popular Front, Ecuador’s Communist Party sought alliance with Allied powers during the WWII years; on the other, the party emerged as a nationalist force leading criticism against the government’s resolution in 1943 of a border dispute with Peru. It also asserted its strong opposition to U.S. bases at Salinas and the Galápagos Islands.

Repression and Intimidation

One of the book’s more illuminating sections appears in the “Labor” chapter, where Becker provides an in-depth account of a labor conference that never took place.

Following a visit to Ecuador by Mexico’s prominent labor leader Vicente Lombardo Toledano in October 1942, plans for a national labor congress in March 1943 began to take shape. The goal was to create a regional chapter of the Confederation of Latin American Workers.

Originally the conference had the support of the Ecuadorian President Carlos Arroyo del Río, but quickly lost it. At first Conservatives and the President billed the congress as an opportunity for manual workers to have their concerns heard. Labor leaders, however, saw this more idealistically as a way to unify various sectors of the country’s working society. The President, sensing danger in that, withdrew his support and, even worse for labor’s interests, authorized police repression.

International labor leaders such as Lombardo Toledano and Rodriguez from Bolivia were denied permission to enter or were detained and later deported. Ecuadorian leftist leaders, such as Pedro Saad, had their speeches canceled and were arrested.

In this chapter the FBI documents demonstrate their value. Reporting on Pedro Saad’s release from prison after serving almost three months for supporting the unauthorized and unrealized convention, an FBI agent discloses Saad’s communications with other Communist Party members. In particular the agent reported on Saad’s desire to discontinue celebrations on his behalf because they ran the risk of exposing other party members to intelligence operatives or other authorities.

Becker cannot help but mention the irony of having FBI documents report that a central concern of one of Ecuador’s leading leftists was being the target of surveillance. The FBI’s intimate knowledge of the Ecuadorian Communist Party’s concerns leads Becker to comment, “The FBI seemingly had access to precisely the information that the communists did not want either the Ecuadorian government or the U.S. government to have. How, then, did FBI agents gain access to this information?” (119)

Becker finds the answer, in part, in the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI website. Here he finds a heavily redacted report that nonetheless reveals how the FBI was able to keep such a sharp eye on Saad and other Ecuadorian Communist Party activists. It is clear that the U.S. Legal Attaché had a mole. For the reader, this section is particularly rewarding as Becker publishes the redacted report.

What did the FBI do with the information they gathered? The author makes clear that neither the historical or archival record is helpful in providing clues. Did they act on it in some extrajudicial way? Did they share the information with the Ecuadorian government?

More to Come?

Though this account represents a sampling of what Becker has unearthed in his study, it is significant in revealing the extent to which the FBI was gathering information in Ecuador. Yet not all of the questions have been answered.

Another area where FBI documentation provided Becker with added insight into Ecuador’s leftist politics had to do with debates within the Communist Party. Should it join the democratic process in the 1944 presidential election and, if so, who should it support?

The decision made by Ecuador’s leftist organizations was to coalesce into the Alianza Demócratica Ecuatoriana and present a candidate of their liking. The breadth and depth of the FBI’s information about the motives for leftist support of the ADE candidate José María Velasco Ibarra is reflected in their conclusion that he was a “tool to advance a common agenda.” (133)

The events that unfolded in May of 1944, leading to La Gloriosa revolution, draws on Becker’s considerable expertise. He deftly analyzes the flurry of letters submitted by J. Edgar Hoover to the State Department. Some of the information was “neither new nor complete” (141) and by Hoover’s own admission had not been verified. Becker points out that actually the same information had been reported months earlier by the U.S. Embassy.

Here the author takes the director of the FBI to task by pointing out how little he knew of Ecuador’s (or Latin America’s) political history. Not only was Hoover’s intel wrong about who the leaders of the revolutionary movement were, but despite the fact that both the U.S. Embassy and FBI field agents assessed that the roots of the uprising were domestic, Washington maintained suspicions that the rebellion had international origins.

In the aftermath of those chaotic days, Hoover issued a letter to the State Department revising his previous analysis. Central to this narrative was the important role that the FBI’s radio played in being able to transmit accurate information quickly within Ecuador as well as to the FBI’s central offices.
Again, the irony does not escape Becker, who reminds the reader that the radio did not necessarily aid Hoover in the accuracy of his statements.  Nevertheless, Hoover’s FBI was positioning itself “as a key information broker for U.S. concerns that extended well beyond the original antifascist justification for the agency’s presence in the region.” (148)

Becker’s work is an important contribution to the historiography of U.S.-Latin American relations,  groundbreaking in the sense that it puts the FBI (not the CIA) at the heart of the earliest intelligence gathering by an agency of the U.S. government. It also adds another chapter to the history of J. Edgar Hoover’s hubris and hunger for power.

The FBI in Latin America provides extraordinary insight into the U.S. concerns about Ecuador (economically and politically) but also raises many more questions, especially regarding FBI’s endgame. What was the purpose of acquiring intel?

The answers are not clear. Moreover, there are many incomplete accounts due to redacted material and incomplete archival records. Still, the book provides a framework for future scholarship. Its title suggests hopes that this is only the first of a series of monographs exposing the FBI in other Latin American countries.

January-February 2019, ATC 198