Skip to Content
The Lunik heist

Lunik: Inside the CIA’s audacious plot to steal a Soviet satellite

How a team of spies in Mexico got their hands on Russia's space secrets—and tried to change the course of the Cold War.

Madison Ketcham
January 28, 2021

In late October 1959, a Mexican spy named Eduardo Diaz Silveti slipped into the US Embassy in Mexico City. Tall and well-spoken with slicked-back hair, Silveti, 30, descended from a family of bullfighters. He had learned spycraft at the Federal Security Directorate, or DFS, Mexico’s secret police. During the Cold War, the capital had become so overrun by Communist spies that the CIA had enlisted the help of the Mexican secret services in their fight against the Soviet Union. “I had to go ... to the seventh floor,” Silveti recalled during an interview with Tercer Milenio, a Mexican television program that aired in 2019. “And there was Scott.” 

Winston Scott, 49, was the first secretary of the US Embassy. That was his cover; he was also the CIA’s most revered spymaster in Latin America. Secrets were a stock-in-trade for the silver-haired Alabaman: a former FBI cryptographer, he had arrived in Mexico City in 1956 and turned the CIA station into one of the most successful counterespionage operations in the world. He tapped the phones of the Soviet and Cuban embassies, controlled the airport, and even recruited Mexico’s President López Mateos as a valuable informant, marshalling the cruel and corrupt spies of the DFS into foot soldiers in America’s war with Moscow. He had called Silveti to his office, according to the Mexican, to offer him a top-secret mission that was “tremendously necessary for the United States.”   

If they got things wrong, Scott warned that “World War III could begin,” Silveti said. 

High stakes

Weeks earlier, on October 4 of 1959, a pillar of fire lit up the sky above the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a remote Soviet space facility. That night, a Soviet Luna 8K72 rocket roared into the sky trailing a plume of white exhaust. As it reached the edge of the atmosphere and shed its booster rockets, the cone-shaped upper stage opened like a Russian doll, giving birth to a smaller space probe: Luna 3. The craft was the size of a large garbage can, and possibly the most sophisticated machine ever sent into space. Its four insect-like antennae received radio signals from the Soviets, who guided it on a journey to see what no human had ever set eyes on—the far side of the moon. 

For two days, the Luna sailed through space, until on October 7, it disappeared behind the moon for 40 minutes. Onboard, the Luna boasted a camera, automatic film processor, and a scanner, and when it boomeranged back past Earth, it transmitted 17 photographs of the moon’s hidden face. In Moscow, the Soviets celebrated their latest space victory over America.


It had been two years since the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the first manmade object in space. As it orbited over Kansas, Iowa, and New York, curious Americans tuned their car stereos to hear its electronic signal. People feared that if the Soviets could shoot probes around the Earth and Moon, they could easily drop a nuclear bomb onto Washington or Los Angeles. In response, the US built rockets and American children learned to cower under their school desks in atomic bomb drills. 

American newspapers suggested that the Luna was a hoax and called it, incorrectly, “Lunik,” like Sputnik. In response, the Russian news agency Tass released the Luna’s photographs, and a map of the moon’s far side with notes in Russian.

“President Eisenhower ... he is in a panic,” Scott said, according to Silveti’s Tercer Milenio interview. Eisenhower had spent $110 million—nearly a billion in today’s dollars—trying to launch his own Sputnik, but was losing patience: the CIA’s CORONA program was a secret embarrassment. Seven rockets had failed, misfired, or tumbled into the Pacific ocean without even reaching orbit: meanwhile a Soviet astronaut was already in training to walk on the moon. The Luna spacecraft contained the secrets to the Soviet’s success, and, Scott said, there was an opportunity on the horizon to steal them.

The boastful Soviets had sent their Luna rockets on a world tour. At one exhibition in New York, American spies had confirmed that a Luna on display was legit. The CIA plotted to kidnap the spacecraft, loot it, and put it back without the Soviets knowing. But they dared not tamper with it on American soil.

Then the CIA learned that on November 21 the Soviet exhibition was headed to the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City. An intercepted shipping manifest described “models of astronomic apparatus.” The dimensions of the crate matched the Luna rocket: 17 feet long and 8 feet wide. Jackpot. The CIA just needed several hours alone to disassemble, photograph, scrape the rocket for remnants of liquid fuel, and inspect the parts for factory markings that could give them intelligence on Soviet operations.

Silveti had reasons to turn down the assignment. According to his book, Secuestro (Hijack), published in Spanish with author Francisco Perea in 1987, Silveti’s wife was terminally ill. He now worked for the Presidential General Staff, and his brother Alberto was the private secretary to President Mateos. Political embarrassment would be a disaster, since the Mexican government tried to present itself as a friend to both the USSR and America. But in a way, Mexico City was the perfect place to steal a rocket the size of a school bus from beneath the noses of the Soviet secret police. 

“I asked myself, What do I do? What do I do?” Silveti recalled when talking to Tercer Milenio

He said he confided in the president’s chief of staff, José Gómez Huerta, who knotted his caterpillar eyebrows, and told him: 

“You do it. Be very careful and keep me apprised of what you are doing. Go ahead.”

Scott and the CIA had already been exploring other plans to steal the spacecraft. On November 19, six miles up the Panuco River from the Gulf of Mexico, two American spies watched the Soviet ship carrying the Luna arrive at the Port of Tampico. 

The first was Robert Zambernardi, an Italian-American CIA officer from Massachusetts. With tan skin and a droopy black mustache, he could pass for a local during covert operations, and was an expert in photography, secret writing, disguise, and womanizing. Zambernardi also controlled a team of mercenaries he called Rudos—“tough guys”—from Mexico’s corrupt and violent Federal Judicial Police. They made treasonous Americans “disappear,” according to Mexican journalist and TV personality Jaime Maussan, who interviewed Zambernardi for a 2017 book about the mission, Operación LightFire

The second man was Warren L. Dean, Winston Scott’s deputy chief of station. A tall and dashing martini man, Dean had joined the FBI and chased Nazis in Bolivia and Chile, before serving under Scott in London and then joining him in Mexico City. Dean watched workers load the cargo from the Soviet boat onto a train, and asked his colleague if they could somehow grab it during its journey to the auditorium.

“We can delay it a few hours,” said Zambernardi, but he dissuaded Dean from staging a Mexican great train robbery, according to Operación Lightfire. “Moving photos are always very blurry,” Zambernardi told him. “We need the train to stop.”

The freight cars were slowly loaded with objects from Russian life—everything from hammer and sickle postage stamps, to fur coats, and instruments that displayed the might of Soviet science: cutting-edge microscopes that revealed the invisible, and world-beating telescopes that scanned the great beyond. Under the unflinching stares of armed KGB agents, workers lifted the Luna onto the train. 

“There are too many loose ends here,” Dean conceded, according to Maussan’s account. “We will do the kidnapping with Silveti.” 

Left to right: Warren Dean, Winston Scott, Eduardo Diaz Silveti, Robert Zambernardi

The American and the Mexican made an odd pairing. Dean stood half a foot taller than Silveti, and, while his Mexican counterpart was something of a party animal, the American enjoyed coaching his son’s little league team and doted on Happy, his family’s miniature dachshund, who was heavily pregnant. 

Yet they needed to work together to ensure the Soviets wouldn’t notice a missing spacecraft. 

So Silveti gathered a team of trusted DFS agents and his secretary, Estela, to plan the heist. They plotted a crude distraction at the Soviet’s hotel. Silveti proposed filling the rooms with attractive Mexican and American girls, instructed to befriend the KGB agents. On the closing night of the exhibition, the women would lure the Soviet soldiers to a farewell party at the hotel bar, while Silveti would hijack the truck carrying the Luna back to the train station.

On display

On November 21, 1959, the Soviet exhibition opened to great fanfare. Thousands of Mexicans flocked to the National Auditorium, where they found the entrance guarded by massive Soviet road diggers and farm machinery. Inside, tourists loomed over scale models of nuclear power plants, particle accelerators, and the Lenin, the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker ship. Workers buffed the chrome bumpers of teal-colored Moskvitch automobiles, and Mexican children poked out their tongues at Soviet television cameras. But one exhibit truly captivated the crowds.

For weeks, hordes of Mexicans gawked at the giant rocket, listening on headphones to a badly translated recording about the “the boundless creative abilities of Socialism.” By the third and final week of the exhibition, more than one million people had filtered through the auditorium, where armed Soviet guards warned spectators not to stand too close to their spacecraft.

"We didn’t know exactly what fuel they were using. We didn’t even know the type of rocket. It wasn’t so much the spacecraft itself, it was the rocket the CIA was interested in."

Jonathan McDowell, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Meanwhile, Silveti pored over street maps, studied routes, and scoped out locations where he might spirit away the Luna and steal its secrets. Even the smallest degree of success could deliver vital information, explains Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist and satellite expert at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. At the time, the Soviet Union closely guarded its rocketry and the Americans couldn’t work out why their technology was proving so much more successful. “We didn’t know exactly what fuel they were using. We didn’t even know the type of rocket,” he says. “It wasn’t so much the spacecraft itself, it was the rocket the CIA was interested in.”

For good reason: The Luna connected to the same type of rocket that powered the Soviet missiles pointed at the US. Dwayne Day, an American space historian, agrees that the Americans were more concerned with national defense than the race to the moon. The Luna contained “data that they could use to understand the Soviet rocket that launched it,” he says. 

The man in charge of protecting the Luna, Silveti recalled, was Boris Kolomyakov, the Second Secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City. Kolomyakov, a balding World War II veteran, was a former ranking officer of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police that ran Stalin’s brutal labor camps, and now an agent of the KGB. If Kolomyakov caught Silveti red-handed, he feared he would be imprisoned, or worse. “We were all going to die,” Silveti said during an interview with Telemundo, that aired on KNBC in Los Angeles in 2005.

As they plotted the heist, Zambernardi tried to calculate how much time he needed with the Luna.

“I did some tests,” he told Dean, according to Operación Lightfire. “We need a very powerful flash to be able to capture the details in the dark. The problem is that the flash takes too long to charge. I managed to adapt the flash to 12V batteries. The camera can shoot every 30 seconds.”

To get what the CIA needed, they’d need access to the spacecraft overnight. 

Eventually, they settled on a plan. Silveti and his team of spies would need to hijack the truck carrying the spacecraft on the evening it left the exhibition. They would re-route it to a lumber yard owned by his brother-in-law, where CIA engineers would arrive in the dead of night to dismantle and inspect it. They would have to somehow return it to the Soviets by seven o’clock the next morning. Dean would carefully monitor Silveti, and Zambernardi would deliver the stolen secrets to the US.

With just 24 hours before the heist, Zambernardi opened the day’s second pack of Marlboro reds and watched the arrivals door at Mexico City’s international airport. “My obligation was to control five engineers who were sent from the United States to do the actual penetration of the rocket,” he recalled in the Tercer Milenio program. The CIA had sent four engineers on fake vacations to Acapulco, a five-hour drive away. A fifth, he said, had already arrived in Mexico from “Staff D.”

According to Bayard Stockton, a former CIA officer and Newsweek bureau chief in Bonn and London, Staff D was a squad of burglars and safe breakers known affectionately as “Second Story Men” for their ability to break into buildings via the second floor. These men with ties to the underworld were headquartered in a US Army compound in Virginia, Stockton wrote in his book Flawed Patriot, and only deployed outside of the US. Zambernardi’s Staff D man, he said, was “a mechanical engineer who was an expert in dismantling valves and what have you.”

Zambernardi made four trips to the airport, each in a different rental car. He delivered the engineers to different hotels, giving them information on a need-to-know basis. They knew only to be ready to snap photographs and steal samples of “delicate equipment.” His only other instruction was to avoid enchiladas and margaritas and consume only oatmeal and water. “You’ll be working in an extremely reduced space,” he said, and a bad case of gas could ruin the operation. “Don’t leave the hotel, don’t talk to anyone, and everything will be fine,” he added.

The heist begins

The mission started one evening in late December 1959, just after the exhibition closed. According to a government report, the Soviets believed the show was “a great success,” and were celebrating positive reviews in the Mexican press. Havana, Cuba, was the next stop, but as soon as the Soviets crated the Luna and lifted her onto the truck, it was time for the first distraction.


According to Silveti’s book, the Soviet guards poured out of the auditorium bar at four o’clock, and were furious to discover that the Luna had not departed on time. The driver, who was in on the operation, claimed there was a mechanical problem. The Soviets fiddled with the spark plugs, the generator, and the voltage regulator, but nothing could start the engine—Silveti’s men had filed down the distributor rotor.

It was five o’clock by the time a new rotor arrived and the truck roared to life. The delay worked perfectly. The Luna rolled straight into a rush-hour traffic jam, tailed by a truck full of Soviet soldiers. Dean and Silveti followed behind.

The Luna came to a halt at a railway crossing, where Silveti’s men had created a construction problem on the track. A chorus of car horns drew commuters from their cars to protest, as the Soviets decided to peel away. “Thank God the Russians stopped following the truck,” Silveti said on Telemundo. In the confusion, a Mexican agent replaced the truck driver, who was spirited away. Meanwhile, Soviet guards at the train station had been lured from their positions to join the leaving party at their hotel.

It was 5.30 p.m., and the Luna spacecraft had been successfully kidnapped. Now they had thirteen and a half hours to take it away, dismantle it, steal some important pieces, photograph and document the rest, then reassemble the whole thing and return the spacecraft, all before the sun came up.

The driver steered the truck to a lumber yard at the junction of Camarones and Norte 73 streets in the northwest of Mexico City. Silveti had paid his brother-in-law to send his workers on vacation and broke a hole in an exterior wall large enough for a truck to pass through. CIA station vehicles idled outside, their drivers studying their mirrors for agents of the KGB. 

Meanwhile, the farewell party was underway at the hotel. According to Silveti, the Soviet soldiers “let loose with the American prostitutes, and with the drinks.” Zambernardi’s son Paul told me that his father bought LSD to “put a Mickey on them all.” With every shot of tequila, thoughts of shipping manifests and cargo evaporated.

At 7.30 p.m., the CIA’s engineers arrived at the lumber yard and grabbed their nail pullers, wrenches, and screwdrivers. Zambernardi instructed them to start work. “They had to study the hydraulics. They had to study the valves. They had to study the electrical systems,” he recalled.

Among the crew was a quiet CIA officer named Sydney Wesley Finer. The agency had recruited Finer during his senior year at Yale: he was now 29. “He studied Russian linguistics, and he was fluent in Russian,” his daughter, Debbie Remillard, told me. “He was a very, very, very intelligent man ... but in today’s terms, he would look like a geek,” she said, describing his thick, black-rimmed glasses.

As the sun set, Finer and his colleagues crowbarred off the crate’s roof, pulling out five-inch spikes. It was hot work. “This was when we were in control. I left the engineers in place,” Zambernardi recalled. “I immediately went back to the [US] Embassy to monitor the Soviet Embassy.” 

As two CIA men stood atop the crate prying up the planks, streetlights suddenly illuminated the scene. The agents feared the KGB had arrived, and froze to the spot holding their tools. “We had a few anxious moments until we learned this was not an ambush but the normal lamp-lighting scheduled for this hour,” Finer later wrote in a declassified paper in the CIA journal Studies in Intelligence

Removing their shoes to prevent leaving boot prints, the engineers climbed in through the truck’s roof in their stocking feet, carrying a drop light and photographic equipment. The men draped a tarp over the roof to prevent the camera flash lighting up the sky. The space was so tight it became clear why Zambernardi had ensured they ate only oatmeal. 

“The payload orb was held in a central basket, with its main antenna probe extended more than halfway to the tip of the cone,” Finer recalled. For hours the men quietly snapped photographs. “They filled one roll of film with close-ups of markings on it and sent this out via one of the patrolling cars for processing, to be sure that the camera was working properly.” The car raced back to a darkroom hidden in the US Embassy.

As Friday night turned into Saturday morning, Zambernardi checked the negatives. They were good.

Meanwhile, Finer and the other half of the team worked on the tail section, trying to break into the engine compartment. After a long hour of turning wrenches and removing 130 square-headed bolts, the crew set up a rope sling to move the heavy metal cap aside. 

Everything that was removable from the craft was removed. Parts of motors, interior components, scraping from the rocket fins, liquids they thought might have been leftover fuel… anything and everything that was of any consequence was stripped and taken.

The engine had been removed, “but its mounting brackets, as well as the fuel and oxidizer tanks, were still in place,” recalled Finer. That was when they hit a problem. The only way to see inside the machinery was to remove a four-way electrical outlet, but it was encased behind a plastic seal bearing a Soviet stamp. The team needed to leave the spacecraft exactly as they found it. But if the Soviets noticed a missing seal, the game would be up. Could they make a replacement in the middle of the night?

The engineers pried off the seal and passed it through the window of a waiting car, which screeched away at top speed. Meanwhile, “the pair in the nose section photographed or hand-copied all markings in the basket area while we did those in the engine compartment,” Finer wrote. 

By three o’clock the Americans had gutted the Soviet spacecraft. “Everything that was removable from the craft was removed,” Silveti told the  Austin-American Statesman newspaper in 1987. “Parts of motors, interior components, scraping from the rocket fins, liquids they thought might have been leftover fuel, anything and everything that was of any consequence was stripped and taken.”

“My technicians were working all that night,” Zambernardi recalled. “That night we developed 280 photographs. We also had 60 samples of valves. We had samples of the fluid, rocketry fluid, or what have you.” 

As they put the assembly back together, the CIA car returned: inside was a perfect counterfeit Soviet seal. They could now reseal the panel and conceal their theft. 


Then just before 4 a.m., the yard was plunged into darkness. In the men’s imaginations, armed KGB agents were fanning in to steal back what was theirs. A few tense moments later, the lights came on again. There were no KGB agents, and no machine guns. It was just a typical Mexico City blackout, Silveti reassured them.

In two hours, the Soviets would wake with sore heads and start to count their crates at the train station. Finer double-checked the spacecraft for discarded matches, pencils, or scraps of paper: one tiny trace of their mission would let the Russians know they’d been compromised and spark an international incident. With the scene clear, they bolted the base cap back into position. In a darkened Mexican side street the Americans had peered into the heart of the Soviet arsenal. Zambernardi recalled: “It was all in my hands.” 

Now it was time to escape. 

But reversing a truck carrying a trailer requires skill, training, and space that the agents didn’t have in the cramped lumber yard. In desperation, they had to break their way out. It took nearly an hour for the men to smash a larger hole in the yard’s wall, but by 5 a.m., the truck was back on the street. It arrived in front of the train station as the sun rose above the empty streets. The original driver was placed back in the truck, where he took a nap.

“Approximately five minutes to six, the operation was terminated,” recalled Zambernardi.

At seven o’clock, the gates rattled open. Soviet soldiers barraged the driver with questions. He fed them the story he’d been coached to give: he’d arrived shortly after the station closed—just after the soldiers decamped to their hotel to celebrate—and spent the night dutifully waiting with the cargo. From their car, Silveti and Dean watched as the Soviets waved the truck into the station, unchecked. 

Back in the US embassy, Zambernardi listened to the wires and confirmed that the Soviets knew nothing about the hijack. He stuffed the stolen parts and photos inside a diplomatic pouch and handed it to a driver, who raced to a small airfield. There, according to Zambernardi, US ambassador Robert Hill carried the loot onto a private jet headed for Texas. Silveti said he telephoned Winston Scott with the good news.

Meanwhile, across town, Dean returned to his family. They were worried when he didn’t come home that night, which was unusual. Overnight his dog, Happy, had given birth to a litter of six puppies: Dean and his children fussed over the tiny creatures, and lovingly named each one.

Shortly afterward, according to Silveti, he and Dean visited Gómez Huerta, the Mexican general who had blessed the mission. They presented him with a detailed report of the operation, a scale model of the Luna, and some souvenir photographs.

Later, when he was safely back in Washington, the CIA’s Wesley Finer typed up a report on the night’s events. “There has been no indication that the Soviets ever discovered that the Lunik was borrowed for the night,” he wrote. For decades, Finer’s family had no idea he had ever visited Mexico, let alone been pivotal in an operation there to steal what the Russians called an “automatic interplanetary station.” 

Documented evidence

In October 2019, the CIA responded to a Freedom of Information Act request for more evidence about the “Kidnapping of the Lunik,” and declassified several documents that uncovered more details about the mission. However, during a telephone conversation, the agency refused to confirm the mission took place in Mexico—citing the protection of “sources and methods.” One CIA historian told me they prefer to describe the heist as a “borrowing.” 

The documents contained some detail about the secrets gleaned from the mission: “Covertly, we were able to acquire detailed data about the upper-stage rocket vehicle … the Lunik stage which mates directly to the Soviet ICBM.” After discovering the weights of the propellant tanks and payload, the US could reverse-engineer the vehicle’s performance capability.

Exactly what space probe sat in the lumber yard that night is still unclear. Silveti assumed he had stolen Luna 3, the exact spacecraft that photographed the far side of the moon. But that is physically impossible: the craft was not built to withstand reentry. According to Gunter Krebs, a spaceflight historian and physicist, at the time of the heist, Luna 3 was likely spinning around the Earth at a distance of 310,000 miles, being gradually drawn into the Earth’s atmosphere. According to Jonathan McDowell, the Harvard astrophysicist, what they had most likely stolen was one of the Luna 2 craft which had not been part of a successful launch. 

The stolen information came at just the right time. Just months after the Luna caper, the US successfully orbited a CORONA spy satellite 17 times around the Earth. “Finally, after many, many failures, they got it working,” McDowell says. “It was a very, very big advance ... and it completely transformed the arms race.” On August 19, 1960, another CORONA satellite sent a capsule back to Earth, where a US Air Force plane grabbed it in a mid-flight maneuver called an air snatch.

Inside the probe was a 20-pound reel of Kodak film capturing 1.65 million square miles of Soviet territory, including images of Soviet air bases. The CORONA images were low resolution, McDowell says, so having accessed the Luna helped the CIA know exactly what rockets they were looking down at. “Because you had actually seen the damn thing and held it in your hands,” he says. 

"The Air Force said 'we need tens of thousands of missiles.' And the CIA came along and went, ‘We’ve counted the Russians' missiles and it’s not as bad as we thought.’"

“We’re used to thinking of the CIA as the bad guys, right?” said McDowell. “But, you know, the Air Force was like, ‘Oh, we need tens of thousands of missiles.’ And the CIA came along and went, ‘We’ve counted the Russians’ missiles and it’s not as bad as we thought.’” Knowing that the Soviets had far less rocket power than the CIA imagined took the edge off American paranoia. School children no longer hid under their desks, as the duck-and-cover program was slowly stepped down.

The Cold War rumbled on for decades, sometimes taking America to the brink of nuclear war. But the US quickly took the lead in the race to the moon. On May 5, 1961, NASA launched its Freedom 7 spacecraft, sending the first American astronaut into space, Alan Shepard. Winston Scott’s adopted son, Michael, told me he had always been puzzled by a signed photograph of Shepard he found in his father’s papers.

As for Luna 3, the actual probe that photographed the far side of the moon, its whereabouts are “not quite clear,” Krebs, the space historian, wrote in an email to me. Sometime before 1962, he added, it would have reentered Earth’s atmosphere and melted into an enormous fireball.

In December 1962, Dean left Mexico City to become the CIA’s Chief of Station in Ecuador. He arrived in Quito on a plane with his dog, Happy, and one of her puppies, Honey. Over time, the CIA’s work in Mexico slowed. In a review of the agency’s operations in the country a few years after the Luna mission, John Whitten, the new chief of the CIA’s Mexico desk, complained: “The agents are paid too much and their activities are not adequately monitored.” 

At some point the Soviets did discover what had happened to their precious rocket. Perhaps they spotted the counterfeit seal, or opened the engine to find all their valves missing. Or maybe there was a double agent working for the DFS, or even the CIA. 

In 1964, the presidency of Mexico passed from López Mateos to Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, who labeled Silveti a traitor for selling out to the CIA, according to the Austin American-Statesman. The spy fled Mexico with his secretary, Estela. According to Silveti’s book, they had fallen in love after his wife passed away, and moved to Texas, not far from NASA’s space center in Houston. 

Winston Scott died in 1971, having received one of the agency’s highest honors, the Distinguished Intelligence Medal. Michael Scott told me that his father conquered Mexico mainly using his Southern charm. “It wasn’t like he was bilingual or that he had actually spent time down there … [he] dropped into Mexico City completely cold. It’s remarkable.” Zambernardi, meanwhile, enjoyed a long career in the CIA. “He was very, very involved in the Chilean coup,” his son Paul told me, adding that his father knew the notorious drug trafficker Barry Seal. He also claimed that Zambernardi took photographs of Lee Harvey Oswald entering the Cuban embassy in Mexico City before the assassination of JFK.

Mexico dissolved the DFS in 1985, following accusations involving drug trafficking, torture, and a multimillion-dollar US-Mexico car theft ring. Two years later, Silveti published his book, because he wanted “the people of the United States and Mexico [to] realize the boost the American space program got from this hijacking.” By their nature spies are unreliable sources, but Silveti’s account was apparently confirmed by Albert Wheelon, the CIA’s former deputy director for science and technology. In 2005, Wheelon spoke to Telemundo, saying of the Mexican spy: “He gets my thanks.” When the footage was shown to Silveti, his eyes filled with tears. 

But not everyone was happy with his retelling: When Warren Dean saw Silveti on television, he was upset, his son told me. Dean felt Silveti overstated his role. “He was one of the hired hands the station hired from Mexico,” Dean Jr. told me. “It was their job to essentially get the truck into the hands of the station. And that’s all they did.” Dean’s father died in 2007, having received the CIA’s Career Intelligence medal. Zambernardi died in 2010.

To my surprise, I discovered that Silveti, now 91, was living quietly in northern California. I spoke with him by phone twice, in October 2019 and December 2020, asking him to verify aspects of his life and exploits from over 60 years ago. Estela picked up the line when I called. She told me they had just got back from the pharmacy: Silveti was in poor health.

Speaking in Spanish, Silveti refused to talk about the mission, and disavowed his own book, Secuestro, over issues with his ghostwriter, but reiterated the claim that he saved the United States. Silveti seemed to delight in fooling the Soviets. “They were caught so unaware, that when they finally discovered what happened, they didn’t even know which country to protest to,” he boasted in his interview with the Austin American-Statesman. (The Russian and Mexican governments did not respond to requests for comment.) In the end, he thought the Soviets eventually discovered he was involved. 

“At the end of ‘63, as I was walking in the airport, we bumped into Boris Kolomyakov,” he told Tercer Milenio. “And he told me: ‘You son of a this-and-that. I don’t lose the hopes of seeing you hanging in the main plaza in Moscow.’” 

Silveti said he gave an ironic salute and grinned in response: “Thank you, sir!”

Deep Dive


How to safely watch and photograph the total solar eclipse

The solar eclipse this Monday, April 8, will be visible to millions. Here’s how to make the most of your experience.

The great commercial takeover of low Earth orbit

Axiom Space and other companies are betting they can build private structures to replace the International Space Station.

The race to fix space-weather forecasting before next big solar storm hits

Solar activity can knock satellites off track, raising the risk of collisions. Scientists are hoping improved atmospheric models will help.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.