On November 22, 1963, a Dallas police officer arrested Lee Harvey Oswald in connection to the public assassination of President John F. Kennedy that had taken place less than two hours before. Two days after his arrest, Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby fatally shot Oswald during a prison transfer, preventing the assassin from standing trial and triggering the start of conspiracy theories that would continue to grow in the decades since. Did Jack Ruby kill Oswald out of anger that he shared with the shocked nation or did he commit murder to cover up a larger conspiracy involving foreign powers and domestic malcontents? While Oswald’s death ensures that history will never know for certain what really happened, a clue to the truth might come from Oswald’s actions outside of Texas and the United States and from an 8 day trip that he took to Mexico City in the months before the events that took place in Dealey Plaza.
According to CIA records, Lee Harvey Oswald visited Mexico City between September 27 and October 3, 1963. He did so by way of an American passport, which, at the time, was not necessary for the visit, citing that he wished to visit other countries as part of a larger international trip. During his trip, he registered to the Hotel del Comercio, Calle Sahagun 19 in Mexico City citing that he was a photographer and citizen of the United States. The CIA confirmed the payment of his bill through the night of October 1st with hotel staff corroborating his attendance and room number. He was noted by the hotel clerk for the frequency of his returning to the hotel after trips out.
This detailed log of his stay and verification of his room and passport information came in the wake of the assassination as the CIA shared its records with the FBI and other investigating parties. However, as the citizens of the United States came to learn, the CIA had been monitoring him during his time in Mexico City and had already identified him as a person of interest. Part of this interest came from his time spent in the Soviet Union before returning home to the United States. During that time, Oswald applied for Soviet citizenship, but withdrew the application in favor of his American citizenship. His status as a former marine and radar operator made him a person of interest for Cold War espionage. Additionally, Oswald reportedly told others that he was making the trip to Mexico in order to travel to Cuba, which was prohibited in the United States at the time.
In the week that Oswald spent in Mexico City, he made contact with the Soviet Embassy and the Cuban Consulate. Some of this contact was made over the telephone and others were through in person visits. During his visits to the Cuban Consulate, Oswald made additional contact with the Soviet Embassy and discussed getting a Soviet visa. The CIA in Mexico City noted these calls and in-person visits and combined them with photographic evidence and transcripts of conversations. All evidence from this visit pointed towards ties with the Soviets and Communist party in Cuba. However, none of this information made it to the FBI in the intervening weeks between the end of his visit and the assassination.
The lack of communication between government agencies upset many citizens and officials as the investigation of the assassination proceeded. However, the substance of the CIA’s report was of more concern to those that argued against the lone gunman theory. Coverage of the investigation made the country aware of his previous ties with the Soviet Union. However, his decision to cancel his application for citizenship and subsequent marriage and return to the United States gave the appearance of someone who had grown tired with the Communist lifestyle, a revolutionary disillusioned from his cause. His time in Mexico City, though, was a startlingly recent show of affiliation with the Communist Party. His attempts to reach Cuba and obtain a Soviet visa indicated an individual with an active agenda that was Pro-Soviet if not necessarily anti-American. These ties also further validated the probability of a conspiracy surrounding the assassination, not just a singular individual.
The recent release of CIA documents gives further complexity to the matter. In a written defense of their lack of communication, the CIA officials in Mexico City cited a long train of procedure in determining threats and communicating them to other groups. The hang up with communication came not from incompetence or overt secrecy between agencies as many articulated, but rather because of the inability of the CIA agents to identify the man in Mexico City as Lee Harvey Oswald. Photographic evidence could not confirm it conclusively and they held the information until they could make confirmation.
In the weeks after the assassination, CIA agents in Mexico City attempted to rectify that matter with all due urgency. They approached the woman he was known to have spoken to at the Cuban Consulate for the longest period of time. With them, they brought the picture of Oswald from his arrest and asked her to verify that the man in the picture was the man that had been to the embassy. Surprisingly, she did not. Instead, she said that the men were not the same. Adding to speculation, CIA reports on Oswald from the time he spent at the Cuban Consulate, specifically his time speaking to the Russian Embassy via the telephone, indicated that Oswald spoke broken Russian. This was strange considering that he had lived in the Soviet Union for years and had previously been known to speak the language well.
The question then becomes did Oswald actually visit Mexico City? Testimony by Silvia Odio would indicate that he did not. In her statement, she says that Lee Harvey Oswald and two Cuban men visited her during the time that Oswald should have been in Mexico City. Other witnesses corroborate her story giving further credence to the likelihood of the “Oswald” in Mexico being an impersonator. However, Russians at the embassy argued against this and said that they remembered the real Oswald coming to the embassy on more than one occasion. Furthermore, the CIA admitted that the photos of “Oswald” were clearly mistaken and blamed their association with Oswald on a bureaucratic mistake. Given that the man in the image is clearly not the age or build of the former Marine, it is likely that it was a mix-up. However, the CIA did not ever come forward with alternate pictures from their surveillance.
While history always looks to provide concrete answers, in the case of Oswald’s trip to Mexico City, it is impossible to know for certain if it was Oswald himself or it was an impersonator. Both sides of the argument have their share of evidence that casts the opposition into question. Yet, both sides rely on firsthand accounts from people who might either be looking to avoid being associated with the spectacle or who might want to be included in so large a piece of history. Additionally, both sides of the debate might be right and a third option – that the real Oswald and an impersonator were both present in Mexico City at the time – could be true and add even further to the confusion of the events. Regardless, the lack of certainty leaves room for interpretation of the facts which in turn leaves the door open for conspiracy theorists to speculate on what really happened on that fateful day in Dallas.