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LSD Perfume and Exploding Seashells: The 40-Year History of CIA Plots to Kill Castro

A cache of recently declassified documents — a treasure trove of formerly top-secret information — detail these James Bond-worthy murder attempts

According to former head of Cuban intelligence Fabián Escalante, over the course of his long life, the CIA made 634 attempts to kill Fidel Castro. Escalante even tabulated how many attempts were made by each U.S. president:

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower (1959-1961): 38
  • John F. Kennedy (1961-1963): 42
  • Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969): 72
  • Richard Nixon (1969-1974): 184
  • Jimmy Carter (1977-1981): 64
  • Ronald Reagan (1981-1989): 197
  • George H.W. Bush (1989-1993): 16
  • Bill Clinton (1993-2001): 21

But you don’t have to take Escalante’s word for it. Nope, you can take the word of the CIA, the House of Representatives, the Senate, FBI and countless investigations conducted by the U.S. government, too. They’ve all concluded that not only did the CIA attempt to kill Castro numerous times in numerous well-documented ways, but that the Agency went to extreme lengths for its proposed kill. Much of this can be found within a cache of recently declassified documents pertaining to the JFK assassination that are also a treasure trove of formerly top-secret information about the CIA’s many attempts to assassinate Castro.

You can read it all here, but if you’re looking for the CliffsNotes, here’s an abridged version of all the truly strange, utterly bizarre, ridiculously flawed and ultimately failed ways the CIA tried to kill Castro…

Perfume Him in LSD

In the early days under Eisenhower, the CIA mostly focused on ways to shame and embarrass Castro. The Eisenhower administration — particularly, Vice President Richard Nixon, who met with Castro in Washington months after Castro took power — was skeptical of the Castro regime and felt it would quickly fail. As such, the CIA’s early attempts were non-lethal — e.g., an August 1960 “scheme to contaminate the air of the radio station where Castro broadcast his speeches with an aerosol spray of a chemical that produces reactions similar to those of lysergic acid (LSD),” per the formerly classified documents (which are the source of pretty much all of the quotes below). 

Nothing, though, ever came of the idea. 

Make His Beard Fall Off

Another idea centered on Castro’s iconic beard. The CIA believed it was central to his mythos and his power over his people. So they tried to remove it with a common depilatory. “The idea was to dust thallium powder into Castro’s shoes when they were put out to be shined. The scheme progressed as far as procuring the chemicals and testing it on animals.” 

Poisoned Cigars

In 1960, the head of the CIA R&D department was a man named Edward Gunn. “He has a notation that on August 16, 1960, he received a box of Cuban cigars to be treated with a lethal material. He understood them to be Fidel’s favorite brand.” 

For their poison, CIA chemists considered shellfish poison as well as a rare bacterial treatment. Eventually Gunn “did contaminate a full box of 50 cigars with botulinus toxin, a virulent poison that produces a fatal illness some hours after ingestion.” In fact, “the cigars were so heavily contaminated that merely putting one in the mouth would do the job, the intended victim would not actually have to smoke it.” 

The poisoned cigars, however, were never given to Castro. Instead, they wound up in the safe of a CIA deputy director.

A Poisoned Wetsuit

Castro was an avid scuba diver. And so, the CIA tried to create a lethal wetsuit. The idea was to have respected Cold War-era lawyer James Donovan — who’d been tasked with handling negotiations for the release of the Bay of Pigs prisoners — give Castro the wetsuit as a goodwill gift. “The technique involved dusting the inside of the suit with a fungus that would produce a disabling and chronic skin disease, Madura foot, and contaminating the breathing apparatus with tubercle bacilli.” But the plot was “abandoned because it was overtaken by events: Donovan had already given Castro a skin diving suit on his own initiative.”

It seems Donovan didn’t want to be a CIA stooge. Thus, he preemptively acted to nullify their plans. He knew it would be super weird if he gave Castro the same gift twice, so he gifted him an undoctored wetsuit first. Donovan was a cunning man who was quite familiar with the world of spies and double agents; he’d later be played by Tom Hanks in the 2015 Spielberg film Bridge of Spies

An Exploding Seashell

The more curious of the CIA’s underwater assassination attempts was the “explosive-rigged seashell.” “Some time in 1963, date uncertain but possibly early in the years, Desmond Fitzgerald, then Chief, SAS, originated a scheme for doing away with Castro by means of an explosive rigged seashell. The plan was to take an unusually spectacular sea shell that would be certain to catch Castro’s eye, load it with an explosive triggered to blow when the shell was lifted and submerge it in an area where Castro often went skin diving.”

Their plans went nowhere, though, once reality set in: “The scheme was soon found to be impracticable. None of the shells that might conceivably be found in the Caribbean area was both spectacular enough to be sure of attracting [Castro’s] attention and large enough to hold the needed volume of explosive.”

Poison Pills in the Cold Cream of His Mistress

By far one of the strangest and most cinematic of the CIA’s attempts was their effort to enlist one of Castro’s mistresses as an assassin. In a 2016 interview with Vanity Fair, the former mistress, Marita Lorenz, told her version of events: She was brought into the assassination plot by E. Howard Hunt, the same man who later plotted the Watergate break-ins that brought down Nixon. The CIA man would ensure that Lorenz was supplied with two poison pills laced with lethal doses of botulism. She was also given “gut pills” to grant her the confidence to go through with her secret mission. 

As Lorenz recalled, “It’s some kind of shit the CIA gives you, that makes you feel very strong, courageous, indifferent. Like speed.” She didn’t say whether she took them or not, but she did say, “I knew the minute I saw the outline of Havana I couldn’t do it. I hopped in a jeep and went to the Hilton. Just simply walked in, said hi to the personnel at the desk and went upstairs to the suite. Room 2408. I went in and waited.”

Castro arrived that evening. His first question was why she’d left abruptly the last time she was in Cuba. “I tried to play it cool,” Lorenz told Vanity Fair. “The most nervous I have ever been was in that room, because I had agents on standby and I had to watch my timing. I had enough hours to stay with him, order a meal, kill him and prevent him from making a speech that night, which was already pre-announced.”

But she couldn’t do it, not to her darling Castro: “He was very tired and wanted to sleep… He was chewing a cigar, and he laid down on the bed and said, ‘Did you come here to kill me?’ Just like that. I was standing at the edge of the bed. I said, ‘I wanted to see you.’ And he said, ‘That’s good. That’s good.’”

“Then he leaned over, pulled out his .45, and handed it to me,” she continued. “I flipped the chamber out and hit it back. He didn’t even flinch. And he said, ‘You can’t kill me. Nobody can kill me.’ And he kind of smiled and chewed on his cigar. I felt deflated. He was so sure of me. He just grabbed me. We made love. I contemplated staying — to try talking to him later, after his speech, but it would be too late, because he rambles on for 8, 10, 12 hours. That was the hardest part. I wanted him to beg me to stay, but he got dressed and left. I just sat there by myself awhile. I left him a note. I told him that I would be back.”

Outsourcing the Job to the Mob

One of the longest ongoing attempts to kill the Cuban leader was the CIA’s tag-team effort with the mafia. The interesting thing about their team-up isn’t that they joined forces but that each one wanted to act like the other — the government spies imagined how the mobsters might arrange for toothpick-chewing, tommy-gun-slinging assassins to take out El Presidente like he was a rival mob boss. Meanwhile, the gangsters wanted to play James Bond and asked for some real CIA spy gadgets.

Their scheme centered on three men: Sam Giancana, head of the Chicago crime family; Santo Trafficante, head of the Miami-Cuba crime family; and Johnny Roselli, an L.A.-based mobster who J. Edgar Hoover called a “hoodlum” after the CIA-mafia Castro murder plot was accidentally discovered by FBI agents surveilling the mob in Vegas. (In the CIA’s own words: “Can we plausibly deny that we plotted with gangster elements to assassinate Castro? No, we can not.”)

It took a few years, but finally, in 1963, the mob thought it had found the perfect moment and perfect assassin to do the job. Their inside man was a high-level Cuban bureaucrat who was willing to kill Castro for them. 

Cue Edward Gunn again.

The CIA research chief and poison pill maker was told on November 20, 1963, that the mafia had requested a ballpoint pen to be rigged with a hypodermic syringe — the mobsters’ idea — and that they needed it by noon the next day. Gunn and his staff worked ’round the clock fabricating the James Bond-style kill pen, and delivered it in time for the mob contact to make his flight. “Hector Sanchez arrived in Paris on the morning of November 22nd and met with [the flipped Cuban bureaucrat] Cubela late that afternoon. Sanchez states that he showed the pen/syringe to Cubela and explained how it worked. Sanchez distinctly recalls that Cubela didn’t think much of the device.” 

As an interesting side note: “Cubela was expected to supply his own poison, we merely suggested Black Leaf 40 as an effective poison for use in the syringe.”

But just as the CIA’s instrument of murder was delivered to the assassin, back in the U.S., another instrument of murder fired and struck its target, successfully killing a head of state. “As they were coming out of the meeting, Sanchez and Cubela were informed that President Kennedy had been assassinated. Cubela was visibly moved over the news. ‘Why do such things happen to good people?’ he asked.”

The irony is that many of the Americans who conspired together to kill Castro met their own violent ends. Beyond JFK, on June 19, 1975, Giancana was assassinated by mob hitmen. From the New York Times contemporaneous coverage, many believed it was due to his conspiracy with the CIA and his later plans to snitch to Congress about it: “When Sam Giancana was shot to death at his home outside Chicago last June 19th, there was wide speculation that his slaying was connected with his role in a 1960 Central Intelligence Agency plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. The speculation arose from the fact that Mr. Giancana was killed before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had a chance to call him to testify about his involvement in the plot.”

A year later, on April 23, 1976, Roselli was murdered by unknown assassins, after he did snitch to Congress. His body was shoved into an oil barrel that was then dumped in the Atlantic, miles from Miami and not terribly far from the shores of Cuba. 

At almost the same time, President Gerald Ford initiated the Church Committee Hearings, so the American public could openly examine the CIA’s many plots to kill heads of state — not just Castro. Based on the committee’s findings, Ford issued Executive Order 11905 that stated, “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” 

Not surprisingly then, there were no documented attempts to assassinate Castro while Ford was president. Yet according to Escalante’s count, Ford’s successor, Jimmy Carter, was responsible for 64 attempts on Castro’s life, and Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, was responsible for a staggering 197 attempts. In fact, as the Guardian has reported, “As recently as 2000, when Castro was due to visit Panama, a plot was hatched to put 200 pounds of high explosives under the podium where he was due to speak. Castro’s personal security team carried out their own checks before he arrived and foiled the plot.”

Ultimately, Castro died almost exactly four years ago — on November 25, 2016, at the age of 90. His cause of death was never officially disclosed. But given everything above, we can be pretty confident that the CIA had nothing to do with it.