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Antonio Joseph Mendez (November 15, 1940 – January 19, 2019) was an American technical operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who specialized in support of clandestine and covert CIA operations. He wrote three memoirs about his CIA experiences.

Tony Mendez
Antonio Joseph Mendez and Jimmy Carter (cropped).gif
Mendez (left) with Jimmy Carter
after the Canadian Caper
Birth nameAntonio Joseph Mendez
Born(1940-11-15)November 15, 1940
Eureka, Nevada, U.S.
DiedJanuary 19, 2019(2019-01-19) (aged 78)
Frederick, Maryland, U.S.
Allegiance United States
Service/branchCentral Intelligence Agency
Years of service1963–1990
UnitGraphics and Authentication Division
Battles/warsIran hostage crisis, Cold War
AwardsIntelligence Star (1980)
CIA Trailblazer Award (1997)
Order of the Sphinx (2000)

Mendez was decorated, and is now widely known, for his on-the-scene management of the "Canadian Caper" during the Iran hostage crisis. He exfiltrated six American diplomats from Iran in January 1980 by arranging to have them pose as a Canadian film crew. As part of their cover, the diplomats carried passports issued by the Canadian government to document them as Canadian citizens.

After declassification of records, the full details of the operation were reported in a 2007 article by Joshuah Bearman in Wired magazine.[1] This was loosely adapted for the screenplay and development of the 2012 Academy Award-winning film Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, who also starred as Mendez. Mendez attended the 70th Golden Globe Awards to give a speech about the film, where it was nominated (and later won) for Best Motion Picture – Drama.[2]


Early life and educationEdit

Mendez was born in Eureka, Nevada, in 1940 to John George Mendez (1917–1943)[3][4] and Neva June Tognoni (1919–1995).[5][6][7][8] He attended local public schools. His father was of Mexican descent, and his mother had Italian, French, and Irish ancestry.[9][10][11][12][13] In an interview by Open Your Eyes magazine, Mendez said that his father died when he was quite young. As he never learned to speak Spanish and was cut off from his father's Mexican-American culture, he did not identify as Hispanic.[14]

Still, he was Hispanic of Mexican descent following his father’s ancestral line.

When Mendez was a teen, his family moved to Colorado. After graduating from Englewood high school, he studied art at the University of Colorado.[15]


Mendez continued to work as an artist after college. He first worked as an illustrator and tool designer for Martin Marietta, a large aerospace firm.[15]

In 1965, Mendez answered a blind advertisement for a graphic artist. He was hired by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where he became an espionage artist for the Technical Services Division.[13][15] Mendez worked as a CIA officer in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. His work in the agency frequently required him to forge documents, create disguises, and handle other graphical work related to espionage. He served in the CIA for 25 years.[13][15]

Mendez was awarded the Intelligence Star on March 12, 1980, for his work on the "Canadian Caper".[13][15] That year Mendez had gone to Iran in order to rescue six American diplomats who had taken refuge at the Canadian embassy, after the United States embassy was overrun in the disruption related to the overthrow of the government. He managed on the scene in what became known as the Canadian Caper: Mendez was part of a strategy to exfiltrate the diplomats by passing them off as Canadians working on a science-fiction film crew. He had gained Canadian passports and supporting documents from that government to identify them as citizens.[13]

Marriage and familyEdit

Mendez and his first wife, Karen, had three children together. Karen Mendez died of cancer in 1986.[16] Their son Ian died in 2010. Their son Antonio Tobias Mendez became a sculptor.[17]

In the mid-1980s, Mendez worked with Jonna Hiestand Goeser, also a CIA officer, on rebuilding the U.S. security organization in the Soviet Union and later Russia. Following Mendez's retirement in 1990, they married in 1991. They had a son together.[16]

Later years and deathEdit

After retiring from the CIA in 1990, Mendez and his wife Jonna, herself a 27-year veteran of the CIA,[15] served on the Board of Directors of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. He also worked as an artist.[15]

Mendez wrote three non-fiction memoirs, one with his wife:

  • Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA (1999), with Malcolm McConnell, a memoir of his CIA experiences[18]
  • Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations that Helped Win the Cold War (2003), with Jonna Mendez and Bruce Henderson. [19]
  • Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History (2012), with Matt Baglio, a more lengthy account of the Canadian Caper.[20]

His first book was lauded in 2002 by John Hollister Hedley, former Chairman of the CIA's Publications Review Board, as one of three "landmark memoirs" by former CIA officers.[18][21]

Mendez was interviewed by film director Errol Morris for the First Person TV series. He appeared in the season one episode, "The Little Gray Man." [22][23]

In 2009, Mendez was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.[24] Tony Mendez died on January 19, 2019 from complications of Parkinson's disease. He was 78.[25]

Representation in other mediaEdit

In the first decade of the 21st century, records related to the Canadian Caper were declassified. Journalist Joshuah Bearman wrote a full article about this in the April 2007 issue of Wired magazine.[1]

Bearman's account was loosely adapted for the screenplay and development of the feature film Argo (2012). It was directed by Ben Affleck, who also starred as Mendez. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture. When interviewed in 2013 by, Mendez was asked how he felt about being portrayed by Ben Affleck, who is non-Hispanic. Mendez noted that losing his father when he was young meant he did not learn Spanish nor much of his father's culture. He said, "I don’t think of myself as a Hispanic. I think of myself as a person who grew up in the desert."[9][10]


  1. ^ a b Bearman, Joshuah (April 24, 2007). "How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran". Archived from the original on February 25, 2013. Retrieved February 26, 2013.
  2. ^ Rosenwald, Michael S. (January 14, 2013). "Golden Globes: A big night for the real Tony Mendez". Washington Post. Archived from the original on January 21, 2013. Retrieved February 25, 2013.
  3. ^ "John George Mendez". Archived from the original on April 2, 2015. Retrieved January 27, 2015.
  4. ^ John G. Mendez's Death Certificate
  5. ^ "Neva June Tognoni". Archived from the original on April 18, 2018. Retrieved January 27, 2015.
  6. ^ Tony Mendez's Birth Certificate
  7. ^ "Antonio J. Mendez". The Best Reviews. September 17, 2002. Retrieved October 6, 2012.
  8. ^ Neva June Tognoni's Birth Certificate
  9. ^ a b Rico, Jack. "Exclusive! Argo's real Tony Mendez: "I'm not Hispanic"". Archived from the original on April 6, 2013. Retrieved March 15, 2013.
  10. ^ a b Rico, Jack. "Argo's real Tony Mendez: "I'm not Hispanic"". NBC Latino. Retrieved March 15, 2013.
  11. ^ Esparza, Moctesuma. "Ben Affleck's Argo and the whitewashing of the Mexican-American". Al Día (Philadelphia). Archived from the original on January 30, 2013. Retrieved March 15, 2013.
  12. ^ Esparza, Moctezuma. "Ben Affleck's Argo and Whitewashing Mexican-Americans". Al Día (Philadelphia). News Taco. Archived from the original on January 24, 2013. Retrieved February 26, 2013.
  13. ^ a b c d e Carswell, Simon. "The agent behind the 'Argo' mask". The Irish Times. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved March 15, 2013.
  14. ^ Melendez, Victor. "Tony Mendez: The Real Life James Bond". Open Your Eyes. Archived from the original on February 10, 2013. Retrieved March 15, 2013.
  15. ^ a b c d e f g "Antonio Mendez: Author of the Master of Disguise and Spy Dust". Archived from the original on September 25, 2012. Retrieved October 6, 2012.
  16. ^ a b Gardner, Karen (December 11, 2011). "Undercover no more". Frederick News-Post. Retrieved December 5, 2012.
  17. ^ "A Tribute to the Oyster Tonger, A Chesapeake Waterman". Annmarie Garden. 1994. Archived from the original on 2010-08-27.
  18. ^ a b "Three Memoirs from Former CIA Officers". CIA. Archived from the original on September 27, 2012. Retrieved October 6, 2012.
  19. ^ "Nonfiction Book Review: SPY DUST: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations That Helped Win the Cold War, as Authorized by the CIA by Antonio J. Mendez, Author, Antonio, Author, Jonna Mendez, Joint Author , with Bruce Henderson. Atria $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-7434-2852-1". Retrieved 2019-01-21.
  20. ^ Reporter, Jenifer B. McKim-. "Book review:'Argo:How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History' by Antonio Mendex and Matt Baglio - The Boston Globe". Retrieved 2019-01-21.
  21. ^ "John Hollister Hedley". Missouri Southern State University. Archived from the original on October 31, 2012. Retrieved October 6, 2012.
  22. ^ "Errol Morris' First Person: The Complete Series". DVD Talk. Retrieved 2019-01-20.
  23. ^ The Little Grey Man, retrieved 2019-01-20
  24. ^ Owens, Donna M. ""Argo" subject now battling Parkinson's". Archived from the original on October 26, 2018. Retrieved October 25, 2018.
  25. ^ Kilkenny, Kate (January 19, 2019). "Tony Mendez, Former CIA Officer Portrayed in 'Argo,' Dies at 78". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved January 19, 2019.

External linksEdit