Childhood & Early Life
Jaime (or Jaume) Ramón Mercader del Río Hernández was born on February 7, 1913, in Barcelona, Spain, to Eustaquia María (or Eustacia Maria) Caridad del Río Hernández and Pau (or Don Pablo) Mercader i Marina. Mercader’s parents got married when her mother was just 16.
His mother was the daughter of an affluent Cantabrian merchant of Spanish Cuba. His father was the son of a Catalan textile tycoon from Badalona.
After his parents’ divorce, Mercader grew up in France, where he stayed with his mother. She was a staunch communist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and had worked for the Soviet intelligence.
Mercader had three brothers and one sister: Jorge, Montserrat, Pablo, and Luis. His half-sister, Maria, was an actor and later became popular Italian film director Vittorio De Sica’s second wife.
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Mercader ventured into communism quite early in life, partly influenced by his mother. He began working for leftist organizations in Spain in the mid-1930s.
He was also sent to prison for a brief while for his activities. He was released from prison in 1936, when the left-wing electoral coalition named ‘Popular Front’ won in the elections that year.
Mercader was inducted into the ‘NKVD’ (or the ‘People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs’) by officer Nahum Eitingon during the Spanish Civil War. He then received training as a Soviet agent in Moscow.
He taught surveillance methods in Albacete, and his students included English communist David Crook.
In 1938, while studying at the ‘Sorbonne,’ in France, Mercader got acquainted with Jewish American intellectual Sylvia Ageloff, who was one of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s trusted people in Paris. Mercader was then in the guise of “Jacques Mornard” and introduced himself as the son of a Belgian diplomat.
The following year, a representative of the ‘Bureau of the Fourth International’ got in touch with him. In September that year, Ageloff went back to Brooklyn in New York (her native place).
Mercader soon joined her, in the guise of a Canadian named “Frank Jacson.” He acquired a passport that had previously belonged to a Canadian citizen named Tony Babich. Babich was a ‘Spanish Republican Army’ member during the civil war in Spain. Babich's photograph was skillfully replaced by Mercader's.
Mercader then told Ageloff that he had managed to buy forged documents to avoid military service. In October 1939, Mercader shifted to Mexico City. Apparently, Trotsky and his family lived in Coyoacán, a village on the southern outskirts of Mexico City. Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union after Stalin's rise. The reason Mercader cited for his move was that he was required to look into his business affairs. Eitingon helped him with his plan.
Trotsky was earlier attacked by Soviet-recruited locals, including Marxist-Leninist David Alfaro Siqueiros. The attack was planned by Pavel Sudoplatov, who was the deputy director of the foreign department of the ‘NKVD.’
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The attack was unsuccessful. Soon, another team, led by Eitingon (who was the former deputy ‘GPU ‘agent in Spain), was sent to kill Trotsky. They planned to send a single assassin to murder him. Mercader and his mother, Caridad, were part of the team.
Mercader convinced Ageloff to join him in his mission and began to meet Trotsky personally through her. Trotsky and Mercader were introduced to each other on May 28, 1940. All the while, he pretended to be a supporter of Trotsky and his ideas.
Soon, Joseph Hansen, who was the leader of the primary American Trotskyist party, was accused by Trotsky's supporters for being "a double agent of the FBI and the GPU" and also of helping Mercader get into Trotsky's inner circle. Hansen, however, denied such allegations.
On August 20, 1940, Mercader attacked Trotsky with an ice axe, while Trotsky was in exile in the study of his house in Coyoacán. He failed to kill Trotsky but wounded him fatally. Trotsky's guards heard noises of the scuffle and ran in. They almost killed Mercader. However, Trotsky, who was badly wounded but still conscious, asked them to spare Mercader’s life. Reportedly, Trotsky shouted to his guards, "Do not kill him! This man has a story to tell."
Caridad and Eitingon were waiting in separate cars outside Trotsky’s home, to help Mercader escape. However, when Mercader did not return, they escaped without him and left the country.
Trotsky was admitted to a hospital in Mexico City and underwent an operation. However, he died the following day, as a result of serious brain damage.
Mercader was then handed over to the Mexican authorities, by Trotsky's guards. He refused to reveal his true identity and continued to claim he was "Jacques Mornard.”
Mercader also claimed that he had wished to marry Ageloff but Trotsky had not allowed the marriage. He also claimed that an altercation with Trotsky regarding this issue had made him plan Trotsky’s murder.
In the early 1950s, fingerprint evidence proved the killer’s true identity. A US initiative known as the ‘Venona Project,’ following the fall of the Soviet Union, helped in confirming that the assassin was Mercader. However, Mercader was convicted of the murder much before that, in 1940. He had also received a 20-year prison sentence back then.
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Mexican police had arrested Ageloff initially, for being Mercader’s accomplice in the crime. She had lived with Mercader for about 2 years, till the murder. However, the charges were dropped soon after.
Soon after Trotsky’s murder, Joseph Stalin presented Mercader’s mother, Caridad, with the ‘Order of Lenin’ for her contribution to the operation. Mercader received the ‘Order of the Lenin’ in absentia (1940).
After spending some years in prison, Mercader requested to be granted parole. His parole was denied by Dr. Jesús Siordia and criminologist Alfonso Quiroz Cuarón.
On May 6, 1960, after spending almost 20 years in prison, Mercader was released from the ‘Palacio de Lecumberri’ prison in Mexico City. He was then given a diplomatic passport, under the name “Jacques Vendendreschd,” by Czech diplomats. Following this, he moved to Havana and was welcomed by Fidel Castro's government.
Mercader went to the USSR in 1961. There, he received the ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ medal, which was the country's highest award. He thus became one of 21 non-Soviet citizens to have ever received the award.
Family & Personal Life
In 1947, Mercader began courting a Mexican woman Roquelia Mendoza, whom he later married. They had three children, Arturo, Laura, and Jorge Mercader Mendoza.
In his final years, he divided his time between Cuba and the USSR. On October 18, 1978, he breathed his last in Havana, Cuba.
He is buried (as “Ramon Ivanovich Lopez”) in the ‘Kuntsevo Cemetery’ in Moscow, Russia. He has also been honored in the KGB museum in Moscow.
The 1972 film ‘The Assassination of Trotsky’ featured Alain Delon as Mercader.
David Ives's play ‘Variations on the Death of Trotsky’ was a comedy based on Trotsky’s murder.
The 1996 Spanish documentary ‘Storm the Skies’ revolved around Mercader. The 2006 documentary ‘El Asesinato de Trotsky’ (co-produced by ‘The History Channel’ and ‘Anima Films’) was about Mercader and Trotsky.
The 2002 film ‘Frida’ showcased Trotsky’s murder, with Antonio Zava as Mercader.
‘The Man Who Loved Dogs,’ a 2009 novel by Cuban author Leonardo Padura Fuentes, depicted the lives of Trotsky and Mercader.
The name “Mercader” was adopted by a ‘World of Warcraft’ player who also has a ‘YouTube’ account named ‘MercaderGaming.’