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The FBI in Latin America

The Project | Documents | Writings | Research Guide

A brief guide to research on FBI activity in Latin America in the 1940s

Through a program called the Special Intelligence Service (SIS), from 1940 to 1947 the FBI placed about 700 agents in Latin America. The original justification for the program was to combat German nazi influence in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and Argentina. The program quickly spread to other countries, and expanded to include domestic communists.

The best place to start a study is with the FBI’s own institutional history that it published in 1947 to justify the program: History of the Special Intelligence Service Division. The FBI has a partially redacted pdf of the book on their website http://vault.fbi.gov/special-intelligence-service. That website also includes pdfs of the FBI’s annual reports on the SIS program from 1941 to 1947.

The microfilm collection FBI Reports of the Franklin D. Roosevelt White House (Bethesda, MD: UPA collection from LexisNexis, 2007) includes FBI reports on different Latin American countries from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library (the one on Ecuador is on the earchivo ecuatoriano). See the guide at http://cisupa.proquest.com/ksc_assets/catalog/16478.pdf.

I conducted the bulk of my research in the Department of State Central Files (Record Group 59) at the National Archives Records Administration (NARA) in, College Park, Maryland. For an introduction to research in the national archives, see https://www.archives.gov/dc-metro/college-park/.

Interviews with some of the agents in Latin America are also available on the FBI Oral Histories page at the National Law Enforcement Museum website http://www.nleomf.org/museum/the-collection/oral-histories/. This list is in alphabetical order, and some searching is required to find those who worked in Latin America in the 1940s.

Most authors who examine FBI counterintelligence efforts in Latin America limit their attention to the perceived German nazi menace that originally justified the agency’s presence. Among the best of these works are:

Leslie B. Rout and John F. Bratzel, The Shadow War: German espionage and United States counterespionage in Latin America during World War II (Frederick, Md.: University Publications of America, 1986).

Max Paul Friedman, Nazis and Good Neighbors: The United States campaign against the Germans of Latin America in World War II (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

María Emilia Paz Salinas, Strategy, Security, and Spies: Mexico and the U.S. as allies in World War II (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997).

Even though little has been written about the FBI in Latin America in the 1940s, and a very large literature exists on the FBI that provides a solid basis for further study. The best known of these is an institutional history that Hoover authorized:

Don Whitehead, The FBI Story; A report to the people (New York: Random House, 1956).

Among the most significant recent books that create a broader context for this work are

Betty Medsger, The Burglary: The discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's secret FBI (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).

Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives: The FBI's war on student radicals, and Reagan's rise to power (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012).

Tim Weiner, Enemies: A history of the FBI (New York: Random House, 2012).

Updated June 14, 2016

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