Political Assassinations: Defined Means for Uncertain Outcomes

Political assassination is “the murder of an important or famous person for political reasons”. The targets are usually the head of government or state, politicians, CEOs, members of a royal family, journalists, and activists.

These individuals are usually the victims due to what they represent in society, for what they fight for, for their role within the government, or for the ideals they bring forward.

An “assassin” or “hitman” is the person that carries out the assassination, with the difference that a hitman works for money.

With the development of technology, assassins can use different tools to commit this act, such as firearms, especially sniper rifles, car bombs, land mines, grenades, and poisons.

Political Assassinations in History

The act of assassination is not something new but it has existed since ancient times. From Julius Caesar, stabbed 23 times by other Senators in 44BC, to Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, whose death caused the outbreak of WWI on the 28th of June 1914.

Machiavelli as well mentioned the use of violence and the act of assassination in his book “The Prince”, written between 1513-1514. He wrote that violence is politically necessary and legitimate if used to repair and make things better. At the same time, if employed to worsen a political situation, the Prince cannot accept it.

From the early 1970s, the number of political assassinations increased. This is probably due to the emergence of many new terrorist groups and the spread of radical ideologies all over the world. Non-state actors and terrorist groups have been using assassinations as an effective and legitimate tool to reach their goals.

Richard Welch

Richard Skeffington Welch, born on the 14th of December 1929, was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer. After attending Harvard University, he joined the CIA. Due to his excellent knowledge of Greek, in 1952 the Agency decided to send him to Athens. In the next 15 years, the CIA moved him to Cyprus, Peru, and Central America, until 1975. In that year he went back to Athens as the Chief of Station (COS). Political instability and crisis due to the end of a military dictatorship characterised Greece in that period.

Political assassination
Richard Welch

On the night of the 23rd of December 1975, while he and his wife were coming back from a Christmas Party at the residence of the American Ambassador, Welch was assassinated. Three individuals, two men and a woman, approached them. While the woman and a man were holding Welch’s wife and his driver, the second man shot Welch three times at point-blank range.

Richard Welch was the first CIA victim in a targeted attack.

Five days after, the November 17 Organisation (17N) claimed responsibility for the political assassination. The 17N, created in 1975, was a Greek far-left urban guerrilla.

The Intelligence Identities Protection Act

Despite the confession of the 17N, the investigations found other entities responsible for Welch’s death.

In 1968, a small book called “Who’s Who in CIA” contained Welch’s name. Julius Mader, an East German journalist, published it with the help of KGB and he identified Welch as a US spy.

The blame fell also on a group called the Fifth Estate and, on its magazine, called “Counter-Spy”. One of its founders was Philip Agee, a former CIA agent who then left the Agency and turned against it. This magazine made public names and locations of CIA agents. An English publication in Athens followed. It contained a full list of names and members of the US embassy staff in Greece. This article was published in November 1975, a month before Welch’s death.

In 1982, as a consequence of Welch’s political assassination, the US government passed the Intelligence Identities Protection Act (IIPA). Disclosing and revealing the identity, status or location of a CIA officer was now a crime. The maximum penalty was 10 years in prison and a $50.000 fine.

Piersanti Mattarella

Piersanti Mattarella was born on the 24th of May 1935 in Castellammare del Golfo, in Trapani, Sicily. His father Bernardo, involved in politics since his youth, was part of the Democrazia Cristiana, a Christian democratic political party in Italy.

After moving to Rome with the family, Piersanti Mattarella moved back to Sicily. In 1967, he became deputy to the Regional Parliament of Sicily. Since his election, Mattarella stood out for his transparency and his fight against corruption. In 1978 he became the elected President of Sicily. During his mandate, Mattarella implemented a tough approach towards the Mafia, especially Cosa Nostra. He tried to fight the corruption within the political sphere and to identify the collusion between politicians and Cosa Nostra.

On the 6th of January 1980, Piersanti Mattarella was shot in front of his house while he was in a Fiat 132 with his wife, sons, and mother-in-law. Among the first to arrive on the scene was Piersanti’s brother, Sergio, the current President of the Italian Republic.

Political assassination
Sergio Mattarella while he holds the body of his brother, Piersanti.

In the beginning, the investigators hypothesised that the political assassination was a terrorist attack since a neo-fascist group claimed it. The investigations blamed various Mafia bosses, such as Salvatore Riina, Bernardo Brusca, and Nené Geraci.

Consequently, after subsequent investigations, including the one of the magistrate Giovanni Falcone in 1991, the Mafia was held accountable. According to Falcone, Giuseppe Valerio Fioravanti and Gilberto Cavallini were the perpetrators of the assassination, but they were acting on behalf of the Mafia.

Luis Carlos Galán

Luis Carlos Galán, born on the 29th of September 1943 in Bucaramanga, Colombia, was a Colombian economist, journalist, and politician.

Galán started working for El Tiempo, a Colombian newspaper in 1965. In those years he became a very well-known journalist and he received the promotion to director’s assistant. Galán officially went into politics in 1970, and he became the Minister of National Education.

In 1977 he wrote an article focused on denouncing the role and the existence of narcotics trafficking in the country.

The year after, in 1978 he became Senator of Colombia representing the Santander Department. He then founded the Nuevo Liberalismo party, within the Liberal Party. He aimed to fight corruption, promote modernisation, and involve more of the population in politics.

After becoming councilman for Bogota in 1982, Galán ran for president, but Betancur, the conservative candidate, defeated him.

On the 6th of July 1989, the Liberal Party put forward Galán as their candidate for the 1990 presidential elections. During his campaign, Galán criticised the drug cartels and wanted to form an extradition treaty with the United States. During his campaign, he received many deaths threats, such as calls, and pamphlets left in his mailbox.

Political assassination
Luis Carlos Galán

The political assassination of Luis Carlos Galán

On the 18th of August 1989, Luis Carlos Galán was assassinated with a machine gun in Soacha, during a political rally. Behind his assassination, there is evidence that shows that the attack was premeditated.

Miguel Maza, the then head of Colombian intelligence services, was accused of taking bribes from Pablo Escobar, a boss of the Medellín drug cartel. On the day of the assassination, Escobar asked Maza to reduce Galán’s security detail.

The local authorities arrested John Jairo Velásquez, also called “Popeye”, for Galán’s political assassination. Popeye was Escobar’s most efficient killer, with more than 3000 planned murders and 300 accomplished between the 1980s and the 1990s.

After the arrest, Velásquez confessed that Pablo Escobar, Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, another boss of the Medellín cartel, and Alberto Santofimio Botero, the then Minister of Justice ordered Galán’s assassination.

In the same week as Galán’s death, two more politicians were killed. Colonel Valdemar Frankiln Quintero, police chief of Antioquia, and the Judge Carlos Ernesto Valencia Garcia.

The drug traffickers in Colombia also established a group, known as Extraditables. This group declared that they would kill opponents of the drug trade and supporters of the extradition treaty with the US.  

Daphne Caruana Galizia

Daphne Caruana Galizia was born on the 26th of August 1964 in Sliema, Malta. She was a journalist, editor, reporter, and blogger in Malta.  Her blog, called Running Commentary, was one of the most followed in Malta. She wrote about Maltese political events and on reporting on nepotism, corruption, and allegations of money laundering.

During her career, the Maltese journalists received many threats. Three of her dogs were killed, her house was set on fire twice, her assets were frozen more than once, and she was also accused of libel.

Political assassination
Daphne Caruana Galizia

On the 16th of October 2017, the detonation of an explosive device planted under her car killed Daphne Caruana Galizia. Her last post, written in the same morning, denounced an alleged system of bribes which involved, Konrad Mizzi, the then Minister of Tourism, and Keith Schembri, chief of staff of the then Maltese Prime Minster, Joseph Muscat, and Yorgen Fenech, a Maltese businessman.

Three men, Vincent Muscat and the brothers Alfred and George de Giorgio, were accused of placing and detonating the bomb. They had ties with the Libyan and Sicilian mafia. Caruana Galizia was actually investigating the contraband of hydrocarbon from Libya to Italy through Maltese dealers.

The alleged instigator of the political assassination of Caruana Galizia is Yorgen Fenech. The Maltese authorities arrested him on the 20th of November 2019, while he was trying to leave the country.

At the end of 2019, street protests related to his involvement in the assassination of the Maltese journalist forced the then Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, to step down.


Thanks to the development of technology, there are now various ways to commit a political assassination. Despite terrorist groups and non-state actors using this tool, it is rare to predict the outcome of assassinations. The reason why sometimes the costs do not match the benefits of this act.

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