Mexico has often been a dangerous place, particularly in the 1970s with the heightened activity of organized crime syndicates and extremist political factions. Terrence Leonhardy, who served as the Consul General in Guadalajara from 1972 to 1973, was kidnapped and held for ransom by a leftist Mexican guerrilla group for three days. A drive home alone led to his abduction. The U.S. Embassy, the State Department, and Leonhardy’s family all scrambled to get him out before it was too late. Upon his release, Leonhardy was able to identify the perpetrators.
He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in February 1996. You can also read about the 1974 kidnapping and murder of a vice consul in Hermosillo, the kidnapping of U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Diego Asencio, as well as about other attacks on embassies and American diplomats.
“Haven’t you been told about the possibility that something might happen to you or other consular officers in Mexico?”
LEONHARDY: When I’d been in Salvador, the Ambassador and I used to change cars all the time. We never had one that looked alike. But down in Guadalajara, we had two old black Plymouths, always giving us maintenance problems and you couldn’t switch from one car to another because they were both alike, you know. So we were easily singled-out, you know, going up and down the street…
The next day, in the afternoon, our DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] guys had been working with the local police on a demonstration project to show the locals what the dangers of drugs were…..
This was on the fourth of May; the next day, Friday, was a big Mexican holiday, Cinco de Mayo. I went down to the police station to participate and be there for the opening of this big exhibit. I went with the chauffeur and then he drove me back to the consulate and I said to myself, “I don’t want to drive anymore with him.” So I dismissed him for the day and I drove home. I’d invited these consular officers from the other areas of Mexico to a reception over at the house and I had it all set up….
About three or four days before I had my incident, we had a guy from Security in Mexico City come down and he was changing the locks in the consulate and doing some work. He said, “Haven’t you been told about the possibility that something might happen to you or other consular officers in Mexico?”
And I said, “No.” And I asked our administrative officer, he said, “No, no, I haven’t heard anything down here.”
I said, “Well, it must not have been very important if they didn’t feel that they had to call me and warn me, you know.” Which they didn’t.
So anyway, when I left the police station, left the consulate, started driving home, we always…varied our routes but in Guadalajara it was not easy because you had the main drag that went out right near our house and then I would cut over, once in a while, just before I got to the big intersection and go down a very narrow one-way street, across another big street, and into a narrow street that was one-way, went by the American school on one side and some kind of a church on the other. It even had trees in the middle of the street.
“I’d heard about incidents like this and now it’s happening to me”
I was waiting for this light to go across the second big thoroughfare and when I got into this narrow street, these guys were waiting. They knew I would come down there once in a while, they’d been chasing me, and so there was a guy drove right in front, he was coming the other way, and I said, “God, I’ve seen people driving down the street the wrong way a number of times.”
It was nothing unusual but then this guy swerved around and blocked my way, right in front of me. I got a good look at him and I thought, “What is this crazy guy doing?” and the next thing I knew there was a car behind me and these guys rushed me, came in, and one of them had an automatic pistol and they opened the door, they pointed the gun at me, opened the door and they came in. They pushed me over — there were three of them.
The one guy got into the driver’s seat and he couldn’t get the car started, which was par for the course and so they hauled me out and they threw me in the back seat of the car of the guy that was waiting there. They put a blindfold over me right away and muzzled my mouth and threw me down on the seat and took off. Of course, I’d heard about incidents like this and now it’s happening to me.
Anyway, it was still daylight and some people told me afterwards that they were having a party up in a big building and they looked down and saw this entire thing going on. But they took me — they didn’t drive very far….But they changed cars twice and then they brought me into this house which was a kind of a row house in a very decent area of the city.
Of course, I tried to engage them right away, but they were very incommunicative. They took all my clothes off, except my shorts, my underwear, and they had me in a room about as this big and it had some windows but the windows.
Of course, I couldn’t see, I was blindfolded, but I could tell there was no light coming in the windows. They had me on a hard bed. The first thing they asked me was, “Are you on any medicine or do you have any medical problems?”
I thought, I’m going to give them a hard time. I said, “Yes, I’ve got a bad heart.”
“What are you taking for it?”
I said, “Right now I’m not on any medicine.” But there was not much conversation. I said, “What do you plan to do with me?” I kept asking questions in Spanish, of course, but I got no real responses.
They said, “We’ve made some demands on the government.” That’s all they’d say. They had loud, Mexican ranchero music going on in the building. They’d taken me upstairs; there was an upstairs room. I remember it had a circular staircase. They would bring me some food from time to time. They always had somebody in the room with me. One guy would answer a few questions once in a while.
I even engaged him in a little conversation. And there was a bathroom just off this room with one step up, I remember. I started playing detective from word one, when I got in there, to try and figure out where I was. Anyway, the food was not very good, of course, but they gave me some scrambled eggs or something and I wasn’t very hungry anyway.
But I did talk to this guy a little bit and I said, “You know, what do you have me here for?”
He said, “This is a protest against our government.”
I said, “Well, why don’t you try the democratic process?”
He said, “Oh, we’ve tried that and it doesn’t work. The PRI [the long-time ruling party in Mexico], they’re all a bunch of crooks.” And he went into all this business of how bad the government was, and I said, “I tend to agree with you.” I said, “I don’t like the way you want to resolve it.”
So I tried to find out what their demands were, what were they demanding of the government and they said, “We want to get some prisoners released and we want to get word to the government how we feel about them.” That was about it.
I said, “If you’re going to wait for prisoners to be released, I’m going to be here forever.” Then I kept thinking about the fact that the next day was Cinco de Mayo.
That’s a precious Mexican holiday, a Saturday, and then Sunday nothing gets done, so I said, “Nobody’s even going to do anything before Monday because they’re all off on holiday, at the beaches and taking their vacations.” So I just tried to think, imagine what was happening on the outside. My wife was up in the States.
What the kidnappers were doing, of course, I found out afterward. They were in contact. I had a very good friend who was with the telephone company there and he assisted in getting a new telephone line put in right away to handle separate communications, and so forth, and they sent some people down from the Embassy, one was from USIA [U.S. Information Agency], to deal with the press, and we had big jacaranda trees out in front and there were reporters up in those trees and the whole damn place was surrounded.
The kids, our two young daughters – they were three and five at the time, were home with the ninera [nanny]….
The kidnappers knew that my wife had come back. I didn’t know how she’d come back but she’d gotten back and they would call and make demands on my wife –…they’d tell her where to get messages. The Embassy and the State Department were trying to get her out of the act. They said, “Let them go to the Mexican Government. Don’t you get involved.” And she said, “Look, this is my husband and I’m getting involved when it’s his life and I’m standing right there.” Which I’m glad she did.
They’d say, “There’s a message behind the statue of the Virgin in such-and-such a church” and then we’d have to send a messenger from the Consulate down there — one of the Mexican boys who worked for USIA who did a beautiful job. They’d pick up these messages and say, “You’ve got to get in touch with the government to do this or you got to do this” or something.
The next day, after I was in there for a while, they were very ebullient, very happy, because they said the government was going to accede to their wishes. One of their demands was to publish their manifesto on the front page of the major newspapers of the country; the other one was to release a number of prisoners — I think there were 32 altogether and they were all over the country. They weren’t just in Guadalajara; some of them were clear up on the border.
“This guy had this sub-machine gun, I could hear him cocking and uncocking it”
I learned later they were operating out of another place. There was a lot of back-and-forth going on, cars coming in and out, in and out, and you could hear all these noises and chatter but nothing distinguishable.
After I was there, I think it was on the following day, sometime in the afternoon, they took my blindfold off but they all had hoods with little slits, and gloves. They wanted me to write some letters. They wanted me to write a letter to the Governor and write a letter to the head of the Consular Corps — the Consular Corps was all non-career people, except for us — and to my wife, saying that I was all right and that physically I hadn’t been bothered, and that I was being treated all right, and so forth. I think they had some other phrase in there they wanted me to put in and I refused to do it.
The end result was that they, of course, got these letters to them, I got a letter to my wife, and all the letters were delivered, because she’d get calls saying pick up, come to this church, or somebody had to come to it. They did tell me that some of their people were getting out of jail, and so forth.
I think it was on a Sunday morning, they told me that that their people had been released from jail and that they were being sent out of the country. I said, “Where? Cuba?” and they didn’t respond to that but anyway I suspected that would be the place.
It’s just a miracle to think that this could happen on a holiday weekend. I’ve heard stories afterwards, of course, about how they brought these people in from long distances, and so forth, and somebody from the Foreign Office, I think, accompanied the plane to Cuba. They had 32 guys on there. One of them was the brother of the guy that blocked my way.
This was on a Sunday morning; they said, “We got our people out.”
I said, “What are we waiting for?”
And they said, “We got certain things to do.”
I said, “Are you waiting for nightfall?” And they sort of implied that might be the case. Then shortly thereafter, they came into the room with some recording equipment and they had some kind of a piece of paper they were reading from, written by one of their higher-ups somewhere that was not there — an interrogation.
They started off by asking me, “You did these horrible things over in Vietnam, killed all these people” and all this stuff. And then they mentioned the My Lai incident in Vietnam, and so forth. Then they said, “What do you think about that?”
And I said, “Well, both sides signed a peace treaty in Paris and I’m happy as a clam that they did it. I think it was just wonderful. As far as I’m concerned, it’s resolved.”
They didn’t have any follow-ups; see, all they do is ask the questions, somebody else had written this, you could hear him rattling this paper, and then they got into the Dominican Republic and our intervention there, which I could weasel around on those things pretty easily because I knew the background but they asked me a number of questions but no follow-through.
After they finished this, after about a half-hour of this interrogation,…I was pretty exhausted because it was a grueling thing to have to go through….I pretended my heart was bothering me. They had some woman there; several times there were women in the room and she immediately grabbed my pulse to see how my heart was doing.
They said, “We’ve got a few more questions to ask you,” and so they gave me a little rest and then they came back and that was when they got mostly on Latin America and stuff….Once in a while, I’d try to crack a joke or do something to see what the reaction was — nothing.
Then they brought a different guy in the room and he came up with a pair of pants for me to get on. I was always blindfolded and they had me gagged most of the time, but they’d take that off when they fed me and then I could converse with them. Near the end, they sort of left it off all the time. The pants were about a foot too long, you know.
I said, “I’ve been in here for three days, you couldn’t do a better job?” Then the guy sort of laughed, a little bit….
All the time I was in there I was trying to play a little detective and I knew just about where I was in location because I knew I wasn’t far away from home. I knew I was near the main highway going northwest because it’s Highway 15 and it goes under these underpasses and you could hear these trucks changing gears and then a train went by and I knew there had to be a sort of a vacant place in the area because you couldn’t hear the trains, the sound was muffled, until they got right near the place and then it was loud and then it would be muffled again.
I was trying to think of how we could catch these guys if I ever got out of this mess or how the Mexicans could catch them.
They finally started dressing me and this guy had this sub-machine gun, I could hear him cocking and uncocking it. Then it started getting almost dark; it was dark actually and they had me up at the top of this circular staircase and then they led me down the stairs and put me in the back seat of this car. There were two of them in front and the guy that I’d had some conversation with was in the back with me.
We waited for quite a while and I said, “What are we waiting for?”
They said, “We got some people coming.” Then the two of them, one of them in the back and one in the front, left. There was only one guy up front and he was trying to get the radio on, he kept kicking the dashboard. Finally, about a half-hour later, they returned. They laid me down on the back seat and they put a serape over me and then they put an ammunition case on top of my stomach. There was one guy in the back seat, two in the front and I listened for every sound as we were going along, wherever we were going.
I asked them; they said, “Oh, we’re going to release you somewhere.”…But one doesn’t really know whether they were going to take you out and shoot you. But I had a feeling — they’d gotten their demands met….
But I didn’t know that they then added an additional demand and that was a million pesos they wanted. And they made that on the government and the government called the Governor and told him to get the money out. This was on a Sunday and it had to be in certain denominations.
He sent his top aide to make this payment and they told him he had to wear a straw hat and a red handkerchief around his neck. I happened to have an old red bandanna — a handkerchief — around the house and my wife got it to the Governor. He went down to the bank, he and his people, and got this money out. This guy paid the million pesos, which was about eighty thousand bucks in those days; it wouldn’t be that much today….
“So I had these oversize shoes and oversize pants on and I walked down the street”
That night when we took off, I knew that we’d crossed a railroad track and I knew that we were getting into the center of the city because the lights were brighter, and so forth. Finally they got to a place on a street and they just said, “You can get out here. Don’t take the blindfold off until after we get away.”
And I said, “There’s a place to sit down?” And the place to sit down was the curbstone, of course. So I had these oversize shoes and oversize pants on and I walked down the street.
I got in front of a house that was just flush with the street and there was a stairway going up into the house from the street. Servants of this household were sitting out on the front steps and one of the ladies of the house…was just unlocking her door to go in the house and I came up and I told them who I was, and they said, “Oooh!”
Of course it was all headlines in the paper. So she said, “Come on in.” So I went in and the first thing they did was get a bottle of whiskey out and they said, “You need a drink, don’t you?” and I said, “I could use one.” It was one of these bottles that had a hard cap to get off, so I went over to help her. “Oh, no, no, you don’t do that. We do that. You’re too weak to be doing that.”
From there I called home and my wife, of course, was excited. So they sent three people over from the Consulate — one was my good friend in DEA, another one was the young USIA fellow that carried all my messages, and the other one was our Consul General from Monterrey [Edward P. Dobyns]. They came over and got me.
Now my wife knew these news hawks were out in front of the house, she had to figure a way to get me in past the press. …Everybody in the press…wanted to find out what was going on, how I fared and all that stuff….Then they immediately put police around my house and the Governor came over….
One of the things I wanted to do afterwards was to try to put the finger on these guys and give as much information as I could to their police authorities and I was interviewed at least by eight different groups: there was the military, and the federal police, and the local police, and other groups, and I told them the same story….
The other thing I should say, within a day afterwards, one of the CIA guys from Mexico City came down who was working with the federal police and they had me in a hooded type car with no windows except right in the front, and took me around in the area where I thought I’d been stashed….The police effort was not very good and I was very, very upset with the fact that, with the information I gave them, that they couldn’t find these guys….
Identifying the perpetrators
After I’m there for four months, I leave in September and there were a number of farewell parties given for us before we left and I was over at one of these big receptions one night and the highest official in the Mexican Government next to the President, the Secretary of Interior, who is in charge of all the police, called me at this party…and he says, “I want you to be the first to know that we captured two of the people who were involved in your kidnapping….Would you be willing to come to the federal building tomorrow…to help identify them?” I said, “I’d be very happy to.”
So my wife and I went over to this new federal building and you’d think [this] being a new building, they’d have an area where you could look at people in a one-way glass. But instead they had me peeking through cracks in doors and they brought these two guys out separately….
Then they had a line-up and they had about twelve guys and they had these two guys interspersed. Under Mexican jurisprudence, you got to go up and put your hand on their shoulder, a Judas touch, and I had to do that with both of these guys.
I must say, before they ever brought these guys in, they had me read all of their confessions — copies of the interrogations — so that helped a lot to make me feel a little better. I still was uncertain and I agonized the whole night.
The next day they took me out to the place where they had me stashed and then I knew that they had to be the people because they took me up the circular staircase and the room….I could see the step up into the bathroom but everything jived as to how I remembered it. So I felt better about my putting the finger on these guys.