Roberto Lañas, the electric chair and the Carthusians…

We found this story on Revista Cronopio entitled Roberto Lañas & la silla elèctrica by Harold Alvarado Tenorio (see his short Bio at the end of the article) writer, poet, journalist, sometimes freedom fighter, academic and editor.  We originally felt the need to make some redactions to this story as some parts we deem inappropriate for the catholic reader and perhaps somewhat offensive to others, we therefore decided to err on the side of caution and have condensed the original article not as an act of revisionism but as an act of propriety and for relevance.

Screenshot 2019-03-11 at 14.59.09
Newspaper clipping from National Security Internet Archive

It was Amira de la Rosa who revealed the secrets of Roberto Lañas. According to his own story, Roberto, who had been born in Cali in 1908 and was one of the grandchildren of Policarpo Vallecilla and Josefa Salas, had done the primary with the Marist Brothers in a small school in the San Antonio neighbourhood, then a baccalaureate with the Franciscan brothers at The Seraphic College and as he wanted to be a priest began the novitiate at La Porciúncula in the capital. With a bursary, this …  half Franciscan went off to Rome to study at the Sapienza University where he would become a priest, one of the professions that the church holds for the children of the good but poor families. There he learned English, Greek, Latin, German, French and Italian until the day when, after a great deal of wandering through the streets of Rome, that this blond, blue eyed, wavy haired young man from the high Cauca valley fell in love with a Sicilian … and hung up his habit.

According to Ladislas Farago, who cites Gregorio Prieto, the “postista” painter who lived those years [1928-1931] in Rome at the hands of Ramón del Valle Inclán, Lañas, when he renounced his vocation and being pressured by the church to have broken his sacred vows returned to Cali … and worked as a receptionist at the Hotel Alferez Real but unexpectedly returned to Paris to study Political Science at the Sorbonne, when, in 1938 he moved to Geneva to work as a translator at the International Labour Office. It was there, … that he came into contact with the Nazi spy recruiters …

“The singular man of a sextet – says Farago in his famous book – was the Colombian linguist Roberto Lañas Vallecilla, who arrived in the United States in September 1940 under the auspices of the ‘Amt Ausland / Abwehr im Oberkommando der Wehrmacht’, the secret service German. He did very well as a linguist, as a spy and even as an attractive bachelor, combining the three vocations for the benefit of his employers.”

Luis Zalamea Borda has left a record within his memoirs of when he met Lañas in New York, whilst still a fully active Nazi spy:

“At the Consulate of Colombia, during a commemorative event on July 20 he states, I met Roberto Lañas, a fascinating Cali about 35 years old. Of Jesuit formation and easy to talk to, expounded a theses based on Aristotelian logic in defence of his openly pro-German position on the war, indoctrinating a small group of young people who emulated and surrounded him being enthralled with his ideas, among them the “playboys” criollos Abraham and Diego Domínguez Vázquez, wealthy grandchildren of General Alfredo Vásquez Cobo, The Minister of War for Colombia, one of the old leaders of conservatism in Valle del Cauca. As another gesture of rebellion and defiance toward the establishment, I soon joined that fraternity of Germanophiles. We met in Lañas’ affluent apartment … and there we listened to Berlin Radio….”

During his New York years, Lañas … wore beautiful dark suits of English cut and cloth that he combined with tailored shirts and loafers bought in the exclusive shops of Oxford Street in London. He drank little …, with a certain addiction to the Spanish brut [Cava Spanish wine], … who had a hypnotic personal charm that allowed him to make friends with very refined people, and opened the doors to the most exclusive… 

Nazis in US

Nobody knows for sure what type of espionage Lañas conducted. The accusations suggest that he reported on the production of arms and their structures through contacts he had in Lisbon and Barcelona, ​​but the truth is that he was only investigated by secret agencies because of the complaints from a beautiful model called Audrey Roncovieri, whom Lañas had hired as an assistant but whose amorous advances he had rejected, sold him out to the FBI saying that he was the organiser of a network of Nazi spies.

Lañas was pursued for more than two years by the authorities, from 1941 to 1943, until one of his girlfriends, the daughter of a US Navy rear admiral, spitefully alleging to have been a victim of his emotional deception, finding a letter written in invisible ink that her suitor wanted to leave for Lisbon, where he reported that between July 1940 and March 41, about 7,000 aircraft had been manufactured, 4000 of them dispatched to England. The letter, written in Spanish, was meant to be a friendly note where the confidant was told that the person who wrote had not been able to obtain a visa to visit the United States and it was signed with a “Yours until death”. It was then when the rear admiral’s daughter came to know that Gabriel Reyes was actually called Roberto Lañas, that he was a Colombian in the service of Nazism with a network that included Alberto González Acevedo, Juanito Boix and Gretna Berkowitz, … “Their activities first came tomeddoj_seal the attention of the federal authorities in the spring of 41, when they received information from a high-level European  source,” says the report of agent Edward Mooney of the US Department of Justice who caught up with him in 1943″.

He was captured in the same house as the girl to whom Lañas said goodbye each night with a ‘sweet dreams, my darling’ while listening to songs by Big Crosby and Edith Piaf that they liked so much. Lañas  under capital punishment was sentenced to death by electric chair.

… mounting his defence by proving that the information contained in the intercepted letter was a summary of the news that appeared in the newspapers… During the trial, one of his relatives even testified that the only thing the accused really did was to deceive the Germans by selling them lies to earn a few more dollars…

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris
Admiral W. Canaris

Other recent investigations into Lañas’ activities are beginning to indicate that he as his support group were indeed followers of Admiral Wilhelm Franz Canaris (1 January 1887 – † 9 April 1945) chief of the Abwehr (German military intelligence service), an avid anti-Nazi who planned several of the attacks upon Hitler’s life, including Operation Valkyrie on July 20, 1944 the assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler and intended military coup d’état, and what they did in New York was to collaborate with the expatriation from Europe of rich influential Jews who escaped through Germany, Spain and Portugal to America. It is also becoming evident that it was this group who persuaded the military dictator Francisco Franco Bahamonde in preventing German forces from passing through Spain to invade Gibraltar.

Lañas and his lawyers convinced the US Department of Justice that in his case he was more of a Colombian rogue than a spy for Nazism, and with the intervention of former

President Pumarejo

President Alfonso López Pumarejo he was deported, after receiving a pardon from the death penalty, to Colombia in 1948 where he started from scratch as deputy director of the municipal toilets office, then police inspector, secretary of movements and transit office and finally, for two decades, a trusted employee of the most uncooperative sectors of Universidad del Valle, where he was professor of philosophy, head of public relations and general secretary.

Nothing is known of the secret life of Roberto Lañas during the years he worked at the Universidad del Valle, but according to the confidences he made to an employee of the Cali curia, nicknamed El Gordo Roldán, he offered the Miracle of Buga the promise that if he was given a long life that he would be chaste. It is certain that Lañas appears at Universidad del Valle throughout the years that this institution of higher education was a satellite instrument for the implementation of the so-called Basic Plan, or “Plan Atcon” (1960 and 1970), “Karachi Plan” in Asia (1959-60), or “Addis Adeba Plan” in Africa (1960-61), designed by the US State Department by Rudolph Atcon to decommission the hypercritical university created in Rosario and turn it technocratic, submissive to the dictates of neoliberalism eliminating humanistic careers. In Colombia they destroyed history and erased partisan political debates from memory. When he retired, Lañas returned to Spain, where I met

Felicidad Blanc-Panero
Felicidad Blanc-Panero

him on that cold November morning, talking animatedly with  Spanish writer Felicidad Blanc-Panero (a second cousin of Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer) and the Spanish poet José Hierro del Real.  Lañas moved at ease among the elite of Colombians who enjoyed the privileges of the late Franco regime. And even when he detested entering the Chicote, he was a regular at cafés like Miami, Zahara and Manila, his favourite, because from the second floor he could watch the crowd until three or four in the morning…

Another of his passions was the cinema, which he saw in Coliseum, Luchana, Palafox or Cid Campeador. I accompanied him on several occasions to the premieres of some films of the time. After going to a small chapel near his house in the neighbourhood of Salamanca, where we prayed to the Virgen del Pilar, who is robed with gold and silver embroidery, Roberto Lañas invited me to see documentaries like “Canciones para después de una guerra – lit. trans.: Songs for after a war” by Basilio Martín Patino…

bruno jerez

The last years of his life he spent as the doorkeeper of Charterhouse of Santa María de la Defensión at Jerez de la Frontera, near Cádiz, where he invited on several occasions poets such as Eduardo Carranza or the future director of the Caro y Cuervo Institute, Doctor José Ignacio Chaves Cuevas, also Perpetual Secretary of the Royal Academy of the Colombian Language, who very much liked  the anisette and dishes prepared by the Carthusian brothers. … the Carthusians have as a motto the phrase ‘Stat crux dum volvitur orbis’, The Cross is steady while the world is turning, a … slogan according to which only contemplation, … ,  saves from the anguish of living and frees us from the greed for money and glory. To live isolated in a cell free from the loneliness of the world and reconcile with the multitude of beings, the thousands who are in us.

Jerez de la Frontera

On several occasions Lañas attempted to persuade me to take the vows of a hermit and travel with him to the Charterhouse. He even said that he had spent several seasons in the company of a couple of dipsomaniac poets, Jaime García Mafla and Germán Posada, getting up very early, praying and working the land, without any boss or predicted plan, reading some books, even the erotic novels of García Márquez or Carranza’s patriotic poems, which he could not share with anyone because the order prohibits them from talking and having dialogue with them.


Roberto Lañas died of a myocardial infarction on November 28, 1988, eighty years of age. When I learned of his death I saw again that little oil painting by Zurbarán that hung for years in his bachelor room in the Salamanca district and that joke, which he repeated, about two Carthusians who, at five in the morning, continue digging his grave while reciting the mantra “brother, brother, we all die, we already know” and suddenly a voice from on high responds to them: «sure Marrano’s, if you do not eat».

Harold Alvarado Tenorio
Harold Alvarado Tenorio

Harold Alvarado Tenorio is a Colombian writer born in Buga. He received a Doctor of Arts degree from the Complutense University of Madrid with one of the first theses were written in Spain on the works of Jorge Luis Borges, with the sponsorship of Alonso Zamora Vicente. Professor of the Chair of Literatures of Latin America and creator of the Career of Letters of the National University of Colombia. He was, for five years, director of the Spanish Department of ‘Marymount Manhattan College’ in New York, where he conducted ‘The Latin American & Spanish Series’. A decade ago he directed the poetry magazine Arquitrave, in honour and memory of Jaime Gil de Biedma. Author of several books of poetry, essays, chronicles, interviews and diatribes. He has received the Simón Bolívar National Journalism Award and the Arcipreste de Hita Poetry International. It has been translated into German, Arabic, Chinese, French, Greek, English, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian.

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