Cuban Diplomats

U.S. Knowledge of the Kidnapping, Execution of Cuban Diplomats

by Emily Jackson

Crescencio Galañena Hernández and Jesús Cejas Arias were young Cuban diplomats trained in hand-to-hand combat and hired as drivers and bodyguards to protect Ambassador Emilio Aragones. On August 9, 1976, they were enjoying a day off when a team of roughly 40 Argentine officials attacked and detained them. Witnesses told American journalist John Dinges that the men put up a fight, but Argentine officials never fired their weapons, presumably under orders to keep the Cubans alive. News of the kidnapping appeared in the Argentine press on the 12th, and on the 16th the men’s diplomatic carnets arrived at an Associated Press office alongside a handwritten note indicating the men had defected. In reality, the men had been transferred to the clandestine detention center Automores Orletti. Witnesses from Orletti reported that they remembered hearing the distinct accents of two Cubans being tortured, possibly by U.S. citizen and DINA agent Michael Townley, who entered the country on August 12. 35 years later, Galañena’s body was discovered in a large barrel filled with cement floating near Buenos Aires. The following year, Arias’s body was found in another cement-filled barrel nearby.


This technique for disposing of bodies was distinct to Orletti, proving years later that witness reports of the Cubans’ presence were correct. But declassified documents suggest that U.S. officials may have already known that; State Department and FBI correspondence shows knowledge of actions taken out against Arias and Galañena and the cover-up. Further, the documents show differing levels of awareness on the issue between different governmental agencies, suggesting a greater level of involvement by the FBI and a lack of transparency. The documents are heavily excised and merit further attention after the upcoming declassification, but they shed light on a timeline of the Cuban diplomats’ last days.


  1. NARA 1976BUENOS05350


This August 16 telegram sent to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger from the American Embassy in Buenos Aires describes diplomatic carnets and handwritten note sent to the Associated Press the week after the Cubans’ kidnapping “under mysterious circumstances.” It reports that the note indicated the Cubans had deserted to live in the “free west” and that the Embassy “had private opportunity to examine carnets and note carnets appear to be genuine Argentine foreign office diplomatic documents appropriately worn and signatures on letter match signatures in carnets.”


  1. NARA 1976STATE205473:


In this August 18 reply telegram from Kissinger’s State Department to the Embassy in Buenos Aires, State responds, “We are unable to evaluate this development until and unless the two Cubans appear and make it clear that they are indeed defecting. Fact that documents turned up with American news agency could increase Cuban suspicions of US involvement.” This suggests that Kissinger and the State Department were unaware of the status of the Cubans at this time.


  1. FBI F14N2390753


In this telegram, the FBI cites a source who reported on September 1 that “To cover the disappearance of Cejas and Galanena, their Argentine diplomatic credentials were mailed to the AP office in Buenos Aires on 8/16/1976, with a note written by them under duress before they were executed, indicating that they were defecting.” This telegram proves that the U.S. knew that the Cubans had been executed by September 1. It also proves that the U.S. knew that the carnets were in fact a cover-up and that the Cubans had been forced to write the note “under duress,” though it provides no insight into who the perpetrators were.


  1. FBI F14N2390747


This telegram from the FBI headquarters in Buenos Aires to the FBI Director on September 3, 1976 is almost entirely excised except for a telling paragraph on the fourth and final page: “From the foregoing information, it is apparent that CORU had nothing to do with Cejas’ and Galanena’s abduction and execution.” This sentence proves two things: first, it confirms that the FBI knew that Cejas and Galañena had been executed; and second, since the “foregoing information” proved CORU was not involved, it suggests the Bureau must have had intelligence regarding the actual perpetrators.


  1. FBI F14N2389673


An FBI telegram regarding Arias and Galañena from October 19 of 1976 is fully excised, but the  following document is an alarming newspaper clipping with the headline, “Nine bodies found.” The clipping describes the discovery of nine bodies stuffed into metal barrels in a river near Buenos Aires. None of these individuals were Arias and Galañena, but the conspicuous placement of this clipping in the FBI files suggests that the Bureau connected the Cubans’ disappearance to the Orletti practice of using metal barrels to dispose of bodies. Even if this connection is tenuous, it shows U.S. awareness of this distinctive practice.


  1. 0000A95C and 0000A95E


This list of political prisoners and addendum from December 31, 1976 was compiled by the U.S. State Department (there is no indication of for whom it was intended). They list both Arias and Galañena not as “arrested” or “kidnapped,” as some other detainees are listed, but as “disappeared on 8/9/1976.” They also note their membership to the Cuban embassy. Though the term “disappeared” is intentionally vague in nature, this classification shows that the State Department knew that Arias and Galañena had not in fact defected.


  1. State Declassification Project 0000A289


This list of political detainees was compiled by the Carter administration in July of 1977 and sent to the American Embassy in Buenos Aires from the State Department. It starts: “President Carter noted that the accuracy of the list could not be determined by the US, but it was of concern to the US. He further said that the State Department would make the list available to the Argentine government.” It is missing several pages of names between F and L, so Galañena is not listed. However, it does list Arias as “kidnapped” rather than “disappeared.” This shows a lack of transparency between the FBI, who knew that the diplomats had been executed and had an idea of who was responsible, and Carter’s State Department.


  1. State Declassification Project 0000A95C and 0000A95E


These documents are parts 1 and 2 of reports compiled in June of 1979 for the U.S. Embassy’s Human Rights Case file and the State Department’s permanent records. Both Arias and Galañena are included and listed as members of the Cuban embassy. Arias’s file has no date but includes the word “Cordoba” handwritten. Galañena’s file notes “disappeared 8-9-76” and has “PAHR” handwritten, indicating that the Argentine Permanent Assembly of Human Rights was pursuing his case. Both files show a handwritten letter “D,” which stands for “disappeared.”


Outside sources


Devanna, Cecilia. “La CIA torturaba cubanos en Argentina.” Infojus Noticias. 29 July 2013.

Dinges, John. The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents. The New Press, 2005.

Ginzberg, Victoria. “En un barril de metal lleno de cemento.” Página 12. 2 August 2012.

Méndez Méndez, José Luis. Bajo las Alas del Condor. Corporativo V y T, 2006.