Jul/Aug 2015 Travel

The Forgotten Spy of Choroní

by William Reese Hamilton

Photography by William Reese Hamilton

Photography by William Reese Hamilton

The Search

My subject has been long dead, remembered by only a few in our valley and not very well by them, just a shadow who once passed through. Why do I find myself wishing for more?

My friend Fortunato plants the seed. "A spy lived here, you know," he mentions one day over a cold beer. "They say he's buried in our cemetery. We should look for his grave."

"It might be good if we at least knew his name," I answer. And that seems to be that. But the notion intrigues me, perhaps because of my own time in intelligence.

Then one day, passing through the old village, young Miguel mentions off-hand, "See the yellow house on the corner. It's different now, bigger, but when I was a kid we used to play chapitas there in the street."

"Chapitas? That's stickball with bottle caps?"

"Yes, broomstick and bottle caps. They called that house la casa del espia."

"Really, the spy's house. What spy?"

"Don't know, but he must have been important."

So I stop by to see Conchuo. He's been around longer than most, maybe he'll remember something. I find him lying across his hammock in a dark recess of Puerto Colombia.

"Espia? Sí, puede ser," he says, fishing for a memory. "I think maybe he worked with the Nazi."

"Really?" But he is far from sure.

I decide to talk to someone nearer the yellow house. At the upper end of Choroní, the piano player Ivan lives in a crumbling adobe. He is in his nineties, and living so near, he must have known this spy. I knock on the broken wooden door. No answer. I look through a hole that perhaps once held a lock. Within the ruins, seated in a broken plastic chair, the ancient Ivan, without a stitch of clothes, has dozed off into his private dreams. I knock again, louder, watch him stir, struggle slowly from his chair, wrestle on a pair of pants and an old, shredded shirt. He places a broad-brimmed straw hat on his head.

"Hóla, Ivan," I say. "Did I wake you?" He stares at me out of a wrinkled confusion.

"No, señor, I was merely contemplating Ochs."


"A great composer."

"Yes, I would certainly like to hear your thoughts on Ochs, but just now I wish to ask about an old neighbor of yours. Someone who once lived right here in Choroní."

"I studied piano in Switzerland, you know."

"Seguro, I have enjoyed hearing you play at the hotel. But do you perhaps recall a man who lived around the corner? They say he was a spy?"

"Un espia? Perhaps you mean the Catalán."

"Did you know him?"

"Very reserved."

"But you talked?"

"Not so much. The man kept to himself. And the others from Cataluña."

"Perhaps you remember something else about him?"

"Do you know the works of Ochs?"

I stare for a moment into vacant eyes peering out from the shadow of a broken straw hat, thank him, bid him, "Hasta luego," and move on.

Around the corner, a couple of houses up the street from the yellow house, lives a retired history professor named Carlos. I knock on his door and hear a deep voice rumble from within. He is glad for the company and gives me a rustic chair in a rustic room.

When I ask about the spy, he points to a picture on the wall, a sketch of a simple cottage.

"That is how the house was when he lived here. His son ruined that house. Turned it into a posada. It was different when the spy lived here. There was a fig tree in the garden and a bench outside in the street. He invited me one day to taste a liquor he learned to make in Portugal. Muy simpático. We sat on the bench in the sun drinking this very nice fig liquor and I got very drunk."

"That's all?"

"Until the 80s, no one knew much about him, except that he was a Spaniard from Barcelona who liked to give his opinions on Franco and the Civil War. Then later there was all that stuff about his working for the English. Who knows what is true? I find some of it difficult to believe."

"Working for the English? You sure?"

"Oh yes, quite sure."

"You recall his name?"


Armed with a name, I go to the cemetery, and on the left, just beyond the broken cement block wall, I find the tomb of Juan Pujol Garcia—a raised concrete slab, a metal cross, four empty vases on the corners, the bare fact that he was born February 14, 1912, died October 10, 1988, and was remembered by his wife, sons and grandsons. Family, I am thinking. Perhaps I can find some family here. Unfortunately, his wife, Carmen Cilia, is buried in a grave alongside. But hijos y nietos. I take heart.

I continue asking randomly among the village people, usually getting blank stares or curious, extraneous bits of information, like, "I think he did not wish to associate with the Germans." Or, "He liked to stroll down to the beach. I remember him walking there alone." Then one day, when I least expect it, while working on the fence in front of our house with the young blacksmith Rodolfo, I make my lucky strike.

I mention the name, Pujol, and he answers, "El fue mi tío."

"Your uncle?"

"He was married to my father's sister, mi tía Carmen Cilia."

"So you knew him."

"Sí, but I was pretty young when he died."

"You can tell me about him?"

"Better, I can lend you a book."


The Book

The book (Operation Garbo) is the story of the most successful double-spy of the Second World War, the man British MI5 code-named Garbo, and the German Abwehr called Arabel. After the war, Garbo's true identity was so well guarded that he was able to live incognito in Venezuela for forty years. Even most members of British intelligence believed a cover story that the spy had traveled to Angola and died there of malaria. And those who claimed to know who Garbo really was were inevitably proved wrong. It took Nigel West, a British parliamentarian with a fascination for World War II intelligence, months of digging, at first armed with only the possibility that the spy was named Garcia. West was finally able to add the second Catalán name, Pujol, and by telephoning hundreds with that name in the Barcelona area, contact a boy whose uncle had emigrated to South America. He finally tracked Juan Pujol Garcia down in Caracas in 1984 and persuaded him to tell his story to the world. Up until that moment, no one in Venezuela, not even his wife Carmen Cilia and their three children, knew the role he had played.

His amazing story hinges on four elements—imagination, naïveté, luck, and pure gumption.

Had the Spanish Civil War not come along, Pujol might very well have ended up a chicken farmer, based on the agriculture courses he had taken as a young student. He certainly had no taste for battle. His father had taught him that wars were a stupid waste of human life and resources. And as a young man, he did everything he could to stay out of the fighting between the Republicans and the Nationalists. When he was finally discovered hiding in a girlfriend's house, forced into uniform and dragged onto the front lines by the Republicans, he waited for nightfall and escaped across no man's land, with people on both sides firing at him, to give himself over as a prisoner to the Nationalists. He took pride in the fact that he had never fired a single shot against another Spaniard.

Pujol hated the Fascists—Hitler and Mussolini—who supplied Franco and the Nationalists with their war machinery. And he wasn't very fond of the Republicans and their Bolshevic allies either. But it was after the Civil War, when he was stuck managing a rundown hotel in Madrid, that he hatched his wild plan.

He went to the British Embassy to offer his services in their fight against the Third Reich. But without even listening to his plan, the embassy officials turned him away. What possible help could this young Spaniard be to them? Undaunted, Pujol then offered his services to the Germans, telling them he had friends in England and could live there and provide them with valuable information. His presentation, delivered over several clandestine meetings in various Madrid cafes, must have been persuasive, because the Abwehr in Madrid liked his idea well enough to give him money, a codebook, invisible ink, a passport and passage over the border into Portugal.

In fact, Pujol had no friends in England and spoke very little English. When he settled in Lisbon, he used the local libraries, picking up information about Britain from guidebooks, maps and railroad schedules. From there, he sent regular reports to Madrid, describing his fictitious trips throughout England, Wales and Scotland, claiming his reports were being brought back to Lisbon and posted in the German's post office box by a KLM steward who traveled regularly from London. That steward was just the first in a whole galaxy of fictitious sources he created. Some of his early reports from Lisbon were strange enough to make you wonder about the gullibility of the Germans. For instance, in one message Pujol reported that the extended rainy season in Wales had created serious problems with their wine production. British intelligence, intercepting his reports, scratched their heads, wondering who this informant could be. But even armed with this valuable link to German intelligence, it took the Spaniard a long time to persuade the British of his value. Lisbon was a dangerous place during the war, with agents on both sides turning up dead or missing every week. Pujol probably had little time left when he was finally taken on by the British and flown up to London. What apparently persuaded MI5 of his value was the German Navy's wasting time and resources chasing phantom British convoys Pujol had created out of whole cloth.

The Nazis had made a great effort to infiltrate Britain with spies, landing agents by boat and parachute, but these had been captured and either executed or turned into double agents. Pujol was the first to actually volunteer for the assignment and MI5 was so impressed with his imagination that they gave him the codename of the famous actress, Garbo. But because his English was so limited, he was partnered with Tommy Harris, a British agent who had grown up in Andalucía with a Spanish mother. Together they created an intricate network of fictitious sources, each with a distinct biography and location to provide the Abwehr with specially tailored information.

By 1943, that network had reached 27 fictitious sources, including a Swiss-German businessman in Bootle, two Venezuelan brothers (one studying in Glasgow, the other based in Ottawa, Canada), the original KLM steward and a KLM pilot, a Welch fascist, a soldier in the British 9th Armored Division, an Indian fanatic, a deserter from the Greek Navy, a member of the World Aryan Order and a Secretary in the British Cabinet Office. Operating under British Intelligence Double Cross (XX), they wrote 315 letters in code to the Lisbon post office box—a mixture of pure fiction, genuine information of little military value, and valuable military information artificially delayed. This often took quick thinking and precise timing.

When a large convoy was departing from Liverpool, Pujol's agent, William Gerbers, the Swiss-German in Bootle, was in a perfect position to witness and report on it. Unfortunately, he fell suddenly seriously ill. And when he died, an obituary ran in the Manchester paper to prove it. Even though it was unfortunate that such an important event couldn't be relayed to the Abwehr on time, the Germans found it commendable that Garbo was able to persuade Gerber's widow to fill his vacant post.

But the spy's major contributions came late in the European Campaign, during Operation Fortitude and the Normandy Invasion. Because Pujol's reports to the Abwehr in Madrid were limited to the KLM flight schedule from London to Lisbon, the Germans asked for a quicker, more dependable delivery system. So Pujol and Harris created a disaffected radio operator to transmit directly to Madrid. The Germans supplied Pujol with a sophisticated code for these broadcasts. His messages were then decoded in Madrid and re-encrypted with an Enigma machine for transmission to Berlin. Intercepting these transmissions gave the British a crucial tool for breaking the mythic Enigma Code.

Operation Fortitude was a giant shell game designed by Britain to confuse the Germans about the size of the Allied Invasion Force and the location of their landing site. In the north, a fictitious British Fourth Army swelled, leading Hitler to fear an invasion of Norway. By late spring 1944 he had expanded his defending force there to thirteen divisions. In the south, the job was to convince the Germans that the major landing site would be Pas de Calais, the closest part of France to England, and that the landings on the beaches of Normandy to the south were a diversion. Although it was not possible to hide the massive buildup for the Normandy invasion, Operation Fortitude and the many Garbo transmissions were able to persuade the Nazis that a much larger First US Army Group of 150,000 men, commanded by General George Patton, was poised to strike at Calais.

Garbo's agents were busy in both Scotland and the south of England. His work was so trusted by the Nazis that more than 60 of his reports during Operation Fortitude were found in the intelligence files of the German high command after the war. Without his role in the grand deception, Normandy could have been a disaster. Under orders from high command, General Rommel had been forced to hold back a large part of his force for defense against the expected attack on Calais.

For his important service, Pujol was one of a very select few to be awarded both the Iron Cross by Germany and the Order of the British Empire by Britain. When he visited his two Abwehr handlers in Spain after the war, they praised his work, still believing his service to the Reich had been invaluable.

War creates odd heroes, and I find myself thinking about Pujol's decision to take on the Third Reich in such an off-beat, imaginative way. Most young men presented with such an enemy, rush to enlist and take up arms on the front lines. That's what we call bravery. But the Spaniard's game, particularly in its early stages, was courageous to the point of foolhardy. Danger didn't just come from the Nazis. The British hanged a number of spies as well. And when Pujol was working in London, he was surrounded by the Apostles, a secret society of Soviet spies recruited out of Cambridge, among them Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald MacLean and Anthony Blunt. Several of them were close friends of Tommy Harris, men whose later defections would shake the core of British Intelligence.

After the Allied victory, MI5 tried to recruit Pujol to continue his relationship with the Abwehr and find out what he could about Nazis who might have infiltrated the Soviet Union. But the Spaniard had had enough. He traveled to Latin American and gradually disappeared into the fabric of Venezuelan society.


The Rest

I visit the posada Costa Brava, a block from the malecón in Puerto Colombia. The place is neither luxurious nor particularly handsome. The owner, Francisco, is broad-shouldered, with a black beard and a shock of black hair over a broad forehead, a wide mouth and a strong jaw. It's a work day and he is wearing a frayed T-shirt and shorts. He doesn't look like he wants to waste much time, but he knows I have come to talk about Pujol and has me sit on a bench across from him in the narrow entryway.

"I bought the posada in the mid-eighties, some thirty years ago," he tells me. "When Pujol was here, the house was pretty much as it is now—the entrance here, the patio just beyond. He added more rooms for the guests."

"How many?"

"Six to eight. That was in the sixties. No need for more. There was nothing behind us then. All those buildings have been built since. You could stand on the corner and look right down to the river. Nobody was thinking of tourism. All that was there was a pit for cockfights and a court for bolas criollas."

"What do you think he wished to accomplish?"

"He loved Choroní. It was his remote paradise, isolated from the world. He could invite people from Caracas, have them picked up and brought over the mountain. Remember, the road was dirt then. Coming here through the jungle was an adventure."

"So he lived up in the old village and had this posada down here in Puerto Colombia."

"He called it Maricel. Sea and sky in Catalán. That's the name of a dream."

"Caracas," I think out loud. "That was quite a trip back then, especially with the narrow dirt road over the mountain."

"There were country clubs with nice beaches much closer to the city. He was ahead of his time."

"I've heard there was also a theater," I say.

"Oh, yes." He takes me back toward an enclosed garage. "This was the projection booth." He points out a small raised room. "I still have the projectors." He shows me two huge professional Zeis Ikon models rusted by years of sea air. "This great space had only been used to store building materials. Materials they brought down by mule from Santa Barbara." It is at least thirty meters from the projection booth to the far wall, and wide enough for a sizeable audience. "He put in a raised platform here in the back and a rail in front of the screen. Two seating areas—un real for chairs, venti centimos for benches."

"What kind of movies did he show?"

"Mostly Mexican. And Charlie Chaplin. Travel. Diving off the cliffs of Acapulco." Francisco smiles with a remembrance. "I came to the theater as a boy. No television here in those days. This was the only show in town."

"Señor Pujol would be surprised to see his village today, full of posadas with Direct TV dishes," I say.

A few days later, on my walk up the mountain, I stop by the cemetery to pay the spy a visit. The midday sun beats down on his concrete slab. Maricel, I'm thinking. Sea and sky. A pursuer of dreams. Spies aren't in it for the fame. Garbo played his game of deception in the shadows, hidden from his adversary. But he had his moment in 1984, when he was invited to Europe for the fortieth anniversary of the Invasion of Normandy. The Queen, President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher were there. The Duke of Edinburgh had him over to Buckingham Palace to thank him for all he had done. He was interviewed on radio and television. But those events of the Second World War seem very distant to the people of our valley. And about as relevant as last year's movies.

The old gravedigger, Cara'e palo, ambles down the hill toward me.

"No esta allí," he tells me. "He isn't there."


"They stole his bones."


"For santeria," he says.

"Why his bones?"

"They say he was special. Those bones get more money."



Juan Pujol with Nigel West, Operation Garbo, Random House, 1985

Javier Juárez, Juan Pujol, El Espia Que Derroto a Hitler, Ediciones Temas de Hoy, 2004


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