Jesús de Galíndez, c. 1939–1943. Photographer Kurt Schnitzer (Conrado), 1.5.6/1597.5, Archivo General de la Nación, Dominican Republic.

The Abduction of a Professor: A True Crime Story

Allen Wells—

On March 12, 1956, a Columbia University professor, Jesús de Galíndez, is abducted off the streets of Manhattan, forced into a private ambulance at gunpoint, drugged, and rushed to a small airport on Long Island, and from there flown to the Dominican Republic. The disappearance is front page news in the New York papers. Investigations by the New York Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation drag on but prove inconclusive, and the case is never solved.  

Complicating matters for authorities, a macabre coverup ensues; over the next nine months, six others are offed under equally mysterious circumstances—the pilot, the copilot, the nurse administering the sedative in the limo, two airport employees, and a colonel in the Dominican security services. Some are complicit, others, unfortunate bystanders. Three of those killed are Americans. The pilot, Gerry Murphy, in particular, draws national attention, because a young congressman, Charles Porter doggedly (and very publicly) pursues the twenty-three-old’s disappearance. No one is ever charged, but there is never a doubt who the architect of the murder spree is: the ruthless Dominican dictator General Rafael Trujillo.

Long before true crime stories took podcasts and streaming services by storm, the Galindez Affair,[1] as it came to be called, rocked the nation. The legendary Edward R. Murrow devoted an entire CBS radio program to the nightmarish story, his staff going to great lengths to protect the identities and voices of his informants who feared for their lives. In Latin America, where Galíndez was a known and appreciated commodity, owing to his syndicated newspaper columns, his disappearance created a firestorm. Fueled by the lurid details swirling around the regime’s clumsy efforts to cover its tracks, the forty-year-old academic’s 450-page doctoral dissertation became an overnight bestseller throughout the region, going through seven printings.[2]

General Rafael L. Trujillo, former President of the Dominican Republic, in Washington, D.C., July 6. By Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress.

Galíndez knew he was a dead man walking—in the weeks leading up to his abduction, he told his seminar that he was being targeted by the regime. He also left an unsigned will and testament in his Greenwich Village apartment with instructions that if something untoward were to happen, the authorities should look no further than the Dominican consulate in New York. Nor was this farfetched. Trujillo had a well-documented history of eliminating political enemies at home and abroad, going so far as to hire pistoleros (hitmen) to assassinate presidents of other countries.

A political refugee forced to flee his homeland in 1939 after General Francisco Franco came to power, the Basque-born Galíndez thought he had found a safe harbor in the Dominican Republic. A legal scholar by vocation, he first found employment during the war years at the Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic school and later at the Labor Ministry. But he was forced to flee in 1945 when he learned that his name was on a regime blacklist, because he supported sugar worker demands for higher wages. The increasingly outspoken Galíndez—a one-time insider now turned pugnacious outsider—was now squarely within the regime’s crosshairs. Disloyalty was an unpardonable capital offense. 

Trujillo could be very patient in doling out retribution, however. Why did he wait until 1956 to retaliate? Theories abound: one line of inquiry drills down on the doctoral thesis itself. Still, to this day, it is one of the most analytical accounts of the dictatorship. To paraphrase his Columbia thesis adviser, Frank Tannenbaum, the man simply knew more about the regime than anybody else. Trujillo was well aware of what Galindez was up to. In an attempt to make sure that the thesis never saw the light of day, a few months before Galíndez disappeared one of El Jefe’s representatives reputedly offered $50,000 (over $500,000 in today’s dollars). He stubbornly refused, leaving a copy of the dissertation with a Chilean publisher with instructions that should anything happen to him, he had his permission to publish it.

A spicier theory surmises that Trujillo was fit to be tied about a column that the Basque had contributed to the popular Cuban magazine Bohemia a few years earlier, exposing the paternity of the Generalíssimo’s son, Ramfis. The heir apparent to the proverbial throne was not, Galíndez claimed, the dictator’s offspring, but the result of his third wife’s prior marriage to a Cuban. The piece infuriated the strongman, striking at his manhood. This, the theory goes, explains why he did not just have Galíndez rubbed out in New York as he had two other dissidents in the past, but instead insisted that he be brought back to the Dominican Republic. Such a public humiliation necessitated a settling of scores—in person—so that the professor could be first tortured in the cruelest manner imaginable before he was finished off.

How did the despot get away with it, even after the clumsy coverup? Trujillo spent an estimated six million dollars to discredit his victim, rehabilitate his image abroad, buy off witnesses, call in favors from U.S. senators and congressmen who he had wined and dined in the past, and bribe members of the fourth estate.

On the face of it, Galíndez’s disappearance was just one more black mark in a long list of the dictator’s atrocities. The Affair may have been a public relations disaster, but it did not deter him from targeting his enemies abroad.  There is considerable circumstantial evidence tying him to the assassination of Guatemalan president Carlos Castillo Armas in 1957, and there is ample proof that he ordered the assassination of Venezuelan president Rómulo Betancourt in 1960. Betancourt was fortunate to survive the attempt with relatively minor injuries.

For its part, the Eisenhower administration initially was reluctant to press the dictator too forcefully, since he had been such a loyal ally and because his anticommunist credentials were impeccable. It was the Cuban Revolution, however, that finally changed its political calculus. Fearful that the Fidelista example would spread to the Dominican Republic, the CIA station chief in Ciudad Trujillo was instructed to cultivate dissidents on the island in an effort to facilitate Trujillo’s ouster. With the Agency lending a helping hand, the Dominican strongman was assassinated on May 31, 1961.

Interestingly, during Castro’s first visit to the United States as a head of state in April 1959, he gave a talk at Columbia’s School of Journalism. Fidel coyly noted that impunity was not just a Latin American failing. There was no need to mention Galíndez by name; he simply reminded those in attendance that one of their own had been kidnapped and murdered by Trujillo and not a thing was done about it.

In the words of his lieutenant, the Galíndez Affair was “the beginning of the end” for the dictator.[3] It also shed light on a decades-long fight against dictatorship in Latin America, while laying bare the consequences of Washington’s coddling of strongmen in its backyard during the Cold War. 

[1] Journalists, scholars, novelists, and film directors all have been attracted to the Galíndez Affair.  Works in English include, Stuart McKeever, Professor Galíndez: Disappearing from Earth: Governments, Complicity, and How a Kidnapping in the Midst of American De­mocracy Went Unsolved (New York: CUNY, Dominican Studies Institute, 2018); Alan Block, “Violence, Corruption, and Clientelism: The Assassination of Jesús Galíndez, 1956,” Social Justice 16:2 (Summer 1989): 64–88; Elizabeth Manley, “The Galíndez Case in the Dominican Republic,” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History, 7.; and Allen Wells, Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR and the Jews of Sosúa (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), chapter 15. For a postmodern fictional police procedural, see Manuel Vazquéz Montalbán, Galíndez, trans. Carol and Thomas Christensen(New York: Atheneum 1992 [1990]). The story also has also been the subject of a feature film, originally produced for Spanish television: El misterio Galíndez (The Galíndez File) directors, Gerardo Herrero and Leigh Romero (Barcelona: Magna Films, 2003).

[2] An abridged version of Galíndez’s thesis was translated into English. The Era of Trujillo: Dominican Dictator, ed., Russell Fitzgibbon (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1973).

[3] Joaquín Balaguer, La palabra encadenada (Mexico City: Fuentes Impresoras, 1975), 255.

Allen Wells is the Roger Howell, Jr. Professor of History, emeritus, at Bowdoin College. The author or coauthor of six previous books, he has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies. He lives in Bath, ME.

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