Assassins at Large. Hugo Dewar 1951

Chapter VIII: Murder in Mexico

Late one afternoon in June 1940, a number of cars left police headquarters in Mexico City and set off in the direction of the Desert of the Lions. About thirteen miles from the city, near the village of Santa Rosa, the party came to a halt. Fifteen hundred yards or so off the roadway lay the object of their journey, a small brick-built house with white-washed walls. Dusk was falling as the group of police officers made towards the isolated dwelling, behind which thick-foliaged trees rose, accentuating its air of desolation and gloom under the rain-heavy sky.

The house was deserted but still furnished in a rough and ready manner. In one of the rooms painting materials were ranged on a table. On an easel stood an untouched canvas – whoever had placed it there had evidently found no inspiration in his surroundings. In one corner was a number of .22-calibre cartridges and a rolled-up mattress, one end of which had been slashed and cut as though with a sharp knife or razor. In another room stood a camp bed, also cut at the head. A white powdery substance had been scattered on one part of the floor and everywhere it was littered with the butt-ends of American cigarettes.

This evidence confirmed the information given to the police. The men they were seeking had at one time occupied this house. But it brought them no nearer to a solution of the disappearance of the American they were anxious to question, and who was undoubtedly either a key member of the gang or a key witness against it. Had this man been held prisoner here, or had he remained of his own free will? The police were about to leave when one of them noticed that the floor of the kitchen had been disturbed at one spot. They had not come prepared for this... But it was a possibility that could not be overlooked. The aid of a worker from the nearby village was called in. Night was falling as he carefully excavated the soil with his mattock and as there was no lighting the police shone their pocket torches on the spot. Each man knew in his heart that this was the hasty grave of a murdered man.

Not far below the surface they came upon the lime-covered corpse. The lime had helped to preserve the body and had bleached the face, which, although peaceful and uncontorted, gleamed horrible and unearthly in the torchlight. Outside, a torrential rain began to fall, and its fierce drumming and hissing added to the silence within as they stood for a moment looking at the murdered man and crossing themselves.

They need search no more for the American. Accomplice or victim, he could no longer accuse, confess or deny. But this dead man told a tale.

At four o’clock on the morning of 24 May 1940, a gang of heavily-armed men attacked the strongly-guarded home of Leon Trotsky, last surviving representative of the Bolshevik ‘Old Guard’, who was then living in exile in Coyoacán, a suburb of Mexico City.

This was no spontaneous action, but had evidently been prepared long beforehand. First the guard outside the twenty-foot-high walls surrounding the villa had to be overpowered and disarmed; then an entry to the patio effected and the internal guards held off from interference by some of the gang while others proceeded directly to the room in which Trotsky was sleeping to assassinate him; finally the assailants had to make a rapid retreat and go to safe cover. Speed was essential to the success of the attack. The manner in which the entire operation was carried out showed that it had been planned down to the last detail; that the attackers possessed considerable technical resources; were men with military experience, and had inside information as to layout of the miniature fortress and its defences.

A simple stratagem deceived the external Mexican police guard. Two men dressed as policemen, together with another in the uniform of an army lieutenant, approached the guard point while the rest waited in the surrounding darkness. In this way the attackers were able to come close to the guard without arousing suspicion and being challenged. Once within striking distance the fake policemen drew their revolvers and the ‘lieutenant’ rapped out: ‘Hands up, you sons of bitches!’

The guards were quickly disarmed and tied up. The next problem was to gain entry to the house. The gang had come equipped with an electric saw and a rope scaling-ladder but neither was needed. The gates were opened from within and the attackers stormed through. Leaving some of their number to hold off interference of the internal bodyguard by machine-gun fire, the remainder rushed directly to the room in which Trotsky and his wife were sleeping. Through the doors and windows of the bedroom they poured a hail of machine-gun bullets across and into the beds. Throwing incendiary bombs into the study where lay Trotsky’s unfinished biography of Stalin, the gang then retreated rapidly and in good order, taking with them the two cars belonging to the household in order to prevent pursuit. And with them went, or was forcibly taken, Robert Sheldon Harte, one of Trotsky’s bodyguard, and the man on duty at the gates that morning.

It was Harte’s body that the police had discovered in the house near the village of Santa Rosa.

The attackers, however, failed in their objective. Both Trotsky and his wife were miraculously unharmed. They had awakened at the first sound of shooting in the patio and had flung themselves on the floor. The bullets had swept over and around them, stabbing into the mattresses and walls but hitting neither of them. Only their little grandson, asleep in an adjoining room, had been slightly wounded in the foot by a splinter of flying glass or a ricocheting bullet.

General Sánchez Salazar, then Chief of the Mexican Police, could not at first believe the charge immediately made by Trotsky that this was the work of his political enemies, organised and directed by the GPU. He had no previous knowledge or experience of the GPU. The ease with which the gang had gained entry and the smoothness of the entire operation appeared to him suspicious. Moreover it did not seem possible that Trotsky and his wife could have come through such a ferocious attack unscathed. Again, he could not understand how Trotsky himself, and his entourage, could appear so calm and unruffled after such an experience. He jumped to the conclusion that this was an ‘inside job’, that is, he believed, fantastic as it may sound, that Trotsky himself had organised the attack in order to discredit those whose campaign of calumny had, with the signing of the Stalin-Hitler Pact, been conducted with mounting intensity month after month. Trotsky felt his right of asylum threatened by this campaign of slander and vilification and had therefore adopted this drastic way of exposing his enemies. Absurd as it sounds, this theory was not Salazar’s alone; it was publicised by Stalinist or Stalinist-controlled Mexican newspapers, either openly or in a concealed form. Salazar himself, it hardly need be said, did not reach this first opinion of his on the basis of political considerations; it was rather precisely because he had little or no understanding of the political struggle of which the attack was an expression that he could entertain the idea of ‘self-assault’ on the basis of such flimsy evidence as the Trotsky household’s composure and so forth. Salazar had no conception of the true magnitude and the vast ramifications of the international gang, one aspect of whose activities he was called upon to unravel. Acting upon the theory of ‘self-assault’ he arrested two of Trotsky’s bodyguard on suspicion, thereby evoking from Trotsky, in an open letter to the press, the following sharp protest:

If I took all those precautions, it is because I expected an attentat on the part of the GPU. Now that this attentat is a fait accompli, my friends and defenders are arrested, my friends of yesterday are suspected, but not my real enemies, well known to all the world. [1]

In this letter he points out that the classic rule of the GPU is – ‘Kill an enemy and lay the blame on others.’ The eagerness with which the Communist press, open and covert, seized upon the theory of ‘self-assault’ in the days immediately following the attack, demonstrated once again the role of the Communist Party and its fellow-travellers as the aiders and abetters of the GPU. Indeed, it is probable that the very idea of ‘self-assault’ would not have arisen but for the ‘inspiration’ of the Communists. In any case, both El Popular and El Nacional,left’ newspapers of notoriously anti-Trotsky views, carried in their issues of 27 May identical stories calculated to advance this theory. The arrest of Trotsky’s two secretary-guards was regarded by Trotsky as the result of this campaign; in his view the ‘self-assault’ theory was artificially inspired by the Stalinists with the object of diverting the police investigation on to a false trail. If the official Communist paper La Voz de México and the other papers, influenced by the Communists, had not conducted this campaign in favour of the manifestly absurd ‘self-assault’ theory, then the police could hardly have taken it seriously. But with this ‘popular’ support behind them they felt justified in proceeding to action. But while the police may be excused on the ground of their lack of political understanding, the same cannot be said for the controllers of these newspapers. The aim of this campaign was clearly to lay a false trail; to draw the investigation away from the real perpetrators of the crime, whose connection with the Communist Party of Mexico must have been known to leading personalities of that party. Trotsky demanded:

What aim could I pursue in venturing on so monstrous, repugnant and dangerous an enterprise? No one has explained it to this day. It is hinted that I wanted to blacken Stalin and his GPU. But would this assault add anything at all to the reputation of a man who has destroyed an entire old generation of the Bolshevik party? It is said that I want to prove the existence of a ‘Fifth Column’. Why? What for? Besides, GPU agents are quite sufficient for the perpetration of an assault, there is no need of the mysterious Fifth Column. It is said that I wanted to create difficulties for the Mexican Government. What possible motives could I have for creating difficulties for the only government that has been hospitable to me? It is said that I wanted to provoke a war between the United States and Mexico. But this explanation completely belongs to the domain of delirium. In order to provoke such a war it would have been in any case much more expedient to have organised an assault on an American ambassador or on oil magnates and not on a revolutionist-Bolshevik, alien and hateful to imperialist circles...

But even if one were to allow the impossible... there still remains the following questions: Where and how did I obtain twenty executors? How did I supply them with police uniforms? How did I arm them? How did I equip them with all the necessary things, etc, etc. In other words, just how did a man, who lives almost completely isolated from the outside world, contrive to fulfil an enterprise conceivable only for a powerful apparatus? Let me confess that I feel awkward in subjecting to criticism an idea that is beneath all criticism.

The response to Trotsky’s protest against the arrest of his secretary-guards was rapid. Through General Núñez, the President of the Republic ordered Salazar immediately to release them. That Salazar had been influenced in his action by the Stalinist press is indicated by his admission, after receiving the President’s order, that: ‘Far from aiding me in my task, the press, with its sensational articles, its news and its deductions, has only succeeded in complicating it!’

In the meanwhile, valuable time had been lost. Now aware that the solution to the affair was not so simple as he had imagined, acutely conscious of the limelight into which this historic event had thrust him, and anxious to make good his initial errors, Salazar nevertheless found himself at a dead end. There appeared to be not the slightest clue as to the identity of the attackers or to the mystery of Robert Sheldon Harte’s disappearance. However, his reputation, perhaps even his career, was at stake, and he devoted all his energies and undoubted detective skill to a solution of the problem.

Luck favoured him. He had almost given up hope of finding a trail when, by pure chance, he overheard a criticism of the police made by a tipsy man in a bar. The man alleged that the police were preparing to hush up the whole business and that he himself had heard a certain police official declare in his cups that he had loaned the two police uniforms used in the attack.

It may appear surprising that the complicity of such a police official, apparently so liable to give himself away when drinking, had not sooner come to the ears of the Police Chief. But let that pass. At any rate, here is evidence that the Communists had their contacts among the police, a fact which is perhaps not without a bearing on their general readiness to accept the ‘self-assault’ theory. When the final results of the investigation, and the extent of the juridical action taken against the chief criminal, are known to the reader, he will realise that Communist influence in Mexico at that time went far beyond a few individual members of the police force.

Here, then, was the clue for which General Salazar had been searching. From this point on he was able to uncover one by one nearly all the principal participants in the crime. And all of them had more or less close connections with the Mexican Communist Party.

Marteo Martínez, member of that party, had procured the uniforms at the request of David Serrano Andonegui, a Central Committee member and at one time commandant in the Spanish Civil War. Another of those who took part in the assault, Néstor Sánchez Hernández, ex-captain of the Stalinist ‘International Brigade’ in the Spanish Civil War, denied membership of the Communist Party, stating that he joined in the plot only out of friendship for David Alfaro Siqueiros, the ‘organiser and principal leader’. Siqueiros had been a member of the Communist Party from 1922 to 1929 and on its Central Committee for six years of this time. In 1929 he had been expelled for ‘disciplinary reasons and for differences of procedure’ but continued to be, in his own words, ‘a sympathiser of confidence, as a man incapable of following a fundamentally contrary political line’ and had consequently, he asserted, been permitted to take part in ‘many of its private or public meetings’. This Siqueiros was beyond question the recognised leader of the gang. It was he who had paid Ana Chávez López and Julia Barradas Hernández, two women members of the Communist Party, to spy on all movements into and out of Trotsky’s home, and also to try and seduce members of the police guard. It was Siqueiros car, a large La Salle, in which the machine guns, revolvers, ammunition and bombs were transported to the scene of the attack. He it was who collected the gang together, laid down the plan of operation and gave the orders. His wife and her two brothers also took part in the affair.

David Alfaro Siqueiros became an adherent of revolutionary doctrines and an ardent supporter of the Russian Revolution at an early age. By profession a painter, he belonged to what Marxists call the petit-bourgeoisie. Throughout all the shifts and changes of Russian policy Siqueiros, as his above-quoted statement shows, remained a staunch follower of the ‘line’, swallowing hook, line and sinker everything and anything broadcast to the faithful by the Kremlin. It does not appear that he had any particular gifts as a politician and it is therefore possible that he was an honest supporter of revolution and reform, sincerely confident that he was supporting the aspirations of the Mexican people for freedom and economic betterment. Whatever his motives, however, the fact remains that he became a hidebound fanatic of the Stalin faith. What the psychological motive was that caused him to turn to political assassination – whether an over-developed perverted exhibitionism, a desire to compensate for the mediocrity of his artistic talent – does not lie within our competence. The fact remains that he carried out the work of the GPU, for which the whole of his previous training, including his period of service in the International Brigade where he quite possibly took part in the ‘liquidation’ of political opponents, had prepared him.

After the second and successful attempt upon the life of Trotsky, the Central Committee of the Mexican Communist Party issued the following statement in its official organ, La Voz de México:

If investigations prove that one or more members or sympathisers of the Communist Party intervened in the preparation of execution of the attacks against Leon Trotsky, violating our fundamental principles, they will be expelled from the party as elements very dangerous to the working class.

It must have already been known to the authors of this statement at the time of its drafting and publication that the investigation had already proved that the assailants were either members or closely connected sympathisers of their party. Naturally they would repudiate the actions of these people. But one would have to be naive indeed – after reading the tale unfolded in our previous chapter – to believe that the Stalinists are guided by any ‘fundamental principles’. In this instance the plainly revealed link between the gang and the Mexican Communist Party cannot have been accidental; and the above-quoted statement merely serves as additional evidence against that party. In view of the extremes of incitement against Trotsky to which the Communist press had gone, this statement cannot even absolve them from the least heinous charge of moral responsibility. The denial that individual terrorism forms part of Communist Party methods and policy appears in the light of all the known facts as the very acme of hypocrisy.

The fact that some of the participants in the assault on Trotsky’s home had ceased to be members of the Communist Party ought to deceive no one. After the 24 May attempt on his life Trotsky wrote some revealing paragraphs on the subject of expulsions from the Communist Party which, coming from a man of his intimate knowledge of the subject, are worth quoting at some length:

Among the many possible participants in the assault, those who are well acquainted with the internal life of the Communist Party have mentioned an individual who was in his day expelled from the party, and was later, in return for some kind of services, reinstated. The question of the category of the ‘expelled’ is generally of great interest from the standpoint of investigating the criminal methods of the GPU. In the first period of the struggle against the opposition in the USSR, Stalin’s clique used intentionally to expel from the party the least stable oppositionists, placing them in extremely difficult material circumstances and thus giving the GPU the opportunity for recruiting among them agents for work among the opposition. Later on this method was perfected and extended to all the parties of the Third International.

The expelled may be divided into two categories; some leave the party because of principled differences and turn their backs to the Kremlin and seek new roads. Others are expelled for careless handling of funds or other actual or alleged crimes of a moral nature. The majority of the expelled in this second category have become closely attached to the party apparatus, are incapable of any other work, and have grown too accustomed to a privileged position. The expelled of this type constitute valuable material for the GPU which transforms them into obedient tools for the most dangerous and criminal undertakings.

The leader of the Mexican Communist Party for many years, Laborde, was recently expelled on the most monstrous charges... The most astonishing thing, however, is that despite the extremely opprobrious nature of the charges, Laborde did not attempt even to justify himself. He showed thereby that the expulsion was necessary for some mysterious aims which he, Laborde, dared not oppose. Still more, he utilised the first opportunity in order to declare in the press his immutable loyalty to the party even after his expulsion. Simultaneously with him a number of others were expelled who follow the self-same tactic. These people are capable of anything. They will carry out any order, perpetrate any crime, so as not to lose favour with the party. It is even possible that some of them were expelled in order to remove beforehand from the party any responsibility for their participation in the assault that was being prepared. The instructions whom to expel and under what pretext come in such cases from the most trusted representatives of the GPU who hide behind the scenes. (From ‘Stalin Seeks My Death’, Fourth International, August 1941, pp 206-07)

Of course, Trotsky had an axe to grind. But he knew what he was talking about here.

It is perhaps not sufficiently taken into account that long years of service in the Communist Party apparatus not only nearly always render a man or woman incapable of any other work, but, even if he or she should be so capable, make it extremely difficult if not impossible to obtain. Certain exceptional circumstances may make a break with this machine possible, but in general, and particularly for minor functionaries, it is far more difficult for a ‘professional’ Stalinist to make a new career than it is for an old lag to go straight.

So one by one the political criminals were ferreted from their hide-outs. Meantime, the mystery of Harte’s disappearance remained unsolved. Was he a traitor to Trotsky? Had he now himself gone to earth with the other undiscovered members of the gang? Or had he, like the police guards, been deceived into thinking that the attackers were friends?

A police guard affirmed that he had seen Harte go off with the band ‘of his own free will’. Siqueiros had boasted on the way to the attack that he had bought someone inside Trotsky’s fortress-home and that they would have no difficulty in getting in. Was it Harte? But he came from a wealthy family and had no lack of means. He had arrived in Mexico by air on 7 April of that year to take up duties as one of the exile’s secretary-bodyguards. He had been strongly recommended by the organisation in New York. Yet on learning of his disappearance his father, Jesse Sheldon Harte, was said to have stated that he had always regarded his son as a supporter of Stalin. Later, however, on Trotsky’s demand for confirmation of this statement, he denied having made it, although the Mexican police claimed to have a signed copy of this statement. Yet Harte’s father, believing his son in the hands of the Stalinist assassins and fearing for his safety, may have made this declaration of his son’s loyalty to Stalin in order to save him. Or he may simply have been mistaken in his judgement of his son’s political views. On the other hand, why did he open the gates to the attackers if he was not in league with them? As the sergeant in charge of the police guard pointed out, these gates were not opened ‘even to the police guard’. Yet here, too, there was a possible explanation. Suppose one of the attackers had been known to Harte as a friend. Suppose such a man, pretending to have come with an urgent message of impending danger to Trotsky, had demanded admittance while the rest of the gang kept in the background? But in that case why should Harte have gone with the retreating gang of his own free will? – that is, if the statement of the police guard can be accepted.

A sharp division of opinion naturally arose over the question of Harte’s role in the affair, but Trotsky and his associates refused resolutely to entertain the slightest thought that he could have betrayed them. And they took the discovery of Harte’s body in the hide-out used by the attackers as conclusive proof that their faith was justified. Trotsky was a hard man; in the political struggle he waged all his adult life he neither asked for nor gave quarter. He would not have spared Harte had the evidence convinced him of his guilt.

It was one of the arrested Stalinists who told the police of the hide-out near Santa Rosa. The house had been rented by Siqueiros and it was he who had taken the painting materials and the camp bed there, which had been brought to Mexico City by his wife Angélica Arenal. Besides Siqueiros, there had been present in the house, according to the informant, his two brothers-in-law, Luis and Leopoldo Arenal, a painter colleague Antonio Pujol and other members of the gang. At eight o’clock on the morning of 24 May, the day of the attack, Luis Arenal came to the house accompanied by a tall, red-haired American who had spoken Spanish badly. This had undoubtedly been Harte.

Two bullet holes in the right side of the head showed how Harte had met his death. The cut bed and mattress indicated that he had been shot while sleeping.

Who had placed the gun to his head and pulled the trigger – twice, just to make sure? Suspicion pointed to the two brothers Leopoldo and Luis Arenal, believed to have been the last in Harte’s company. Both these men had disappeared from the soil of Mexico shortly after the attack. Luis had been reported in New York, where he visited a political journalist before the fact of his involvement in the attack became known. It is known that he fled from there to the USSR, whither his wife and children later followed him. The choice of refuge speaks volumes. No trace of the other brother appears to have been uncovered by the police.

But irrespective of who had actually pulled the trigger of the murder weapon, Siqueiros was unquestionably a major accomplice in the crime. From his place of hiding he wrote an article for an independent review, attempting to justify the 24 May attack: that is, himself and those behind him.

The Cárdenas Government [he wrote] does not take into account the fact that the authors of the attentat gave way to an act of revolutionary despair, condemnable certainly, but politically and humanly justifiable, against one of the greatest renegades of the cause of world revolution, to whom the President, in contradiction to his political thought and work, had given asylum in Mexico.

So writes the man who before the attempted assassination posed in front of his accomplices in false moustache, glasses and the purloined uniform of an army officer, and joined in the light-minded laughter. This representative of ‘revolutionary despair’ who did not forget always to carry with him in his flight, in addition to a considerable roll of notes, a bottle of brilliantine! What then was it that drove him and his associates to the point of ‘desperation’? Was it the sufferings of the Mexican people, the persecution and imprisonment of his comrades under the iron dictatorship of Trotsky?

But the very men for whom Siqueiros acted proclaimed that Trotsky was forever discredited in the eyes of the working people; that he had not the slightest political influence; that he was the leader of a pitiful handful of people devoid of any influence whatever and impotent to affect the course of history.

Was it really the desire to sacrifice themselves for a noble cause that led Siqueiros and his friends into this criminal adventure? The behaviour of those apprehended gave an unequivocal answer. They did not stand on any revolutionary principles to justify themselves; they did not even refuse to betray one another. And does the cold-blooded murder of Harte come under the category of ‘politically and humanly justifiable’ acts? He who on this occasion became the victim of the GPU was a young man of twenty-four. His death cannot by the greatest stretch of perverted imagination be regarded as resulting from an act of ‘revolutionary despair’. It was quite simply a callous effort to cover up the trail. He was removed because he knew too much.

What stands out sharply in the above-quoted statement of Siqueiros is his blind acceptance of the views of the Kremlin. The justification of his actions is in effect based upon the verdict of the Moscow Trials. This is so undisguised that it makes his political affiliation obvious. The carrying out of the verdict is ‘politically and humanly justifiable’. There speaks the voice, the unmistakable voice of Vyshinsky.

Siqueiros proved to be no lone unfriended individual on the run and rejected by his political co-thinkers as ‘very dangerous to the working class’. On the contrary, events demonstrated that behind him stood powerful interests, highly influential in Mexican society. Finally traced and arrested, held on a charge of nine counts, including one of murder, he succeeded in securing his release on bail, because the judges, although all agreeing that he had directed the attack on Trotsky, could not agree that he had actually pulled the trigger of the weapon that killed Harte. Less than a month after his release he jumped bail and flew to Cuba, in spite of the fact that his preparations for flight, including the securing of a passport, had been reported in the Mexican press well beforehand. Arrested again in Chile as a fugitive from justice, he was again released on the intervention of the Mexican ambassador. Later he returned to Mexico of his own free will, only too confident that he could ‘beat the rap’. He was received with acclamation by the Stalinists, further proof, if any is needed, of the worthlessness of their previous statements, and to date, although the charges against him still stand, no trial has taken place; nor has he, up to the time of writing these lines, been re-arrested. He probably never will be. The resources of the GPU are very great; its tentacles reach out in all directions, into the least suspected places, and some of those who serve it are not even fully aware of the fact themselves. And the art of utilising disagreements among one’s enemies, although not invented by the GPU, has been brought by it to a point of high perfection.


1. This is a reference to Diego de Riviera, the painter of revolutionary subjects. At one time a supporter of Trotsky, he was then a follower of General Almazán, whose name was regarded by the labour movement in general as synonymous with reaction. Riviera has recently been reported as having unsuccessfully applied to return to the Communist Party. [Author’s note] The word attentat is a French word meaning an assassination attempt – MIA.