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Fourth International, May 1942


Walter Rourke

The Murder of Robert Sheldon Harte

The Aftermath of the GPU Machine-Gun Attack on Trotsky


From Fourth International, vol.3 No.5, May 1942, pp.139-142.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.


Two years ago, on May 24, 1940, Stalin’s GPU sent a machine-gun band to kill Trotsky. By miraculous chance, Trotsky was not killed in this attack – three months later came the assassination – but the machine-gunners did not leave empty-handed. Robert Sheldon Harte was kidnapped and shortly thereafter killed – the first American Trotskyist to fall victim to Stalin.

Bob first came in contact with the Socialist Workers Party when it led the famous Madison Square Garden counter-demonstration against the Bundists and Coughlinites in February 1939. He had planned to be a writer, a playwright. Although he came from a wealthy family, he was deeply conscious of the crisis confronting modern society. He recognized the correctness of Trotskyism, joined its ranks, became one of its best soldiers and ... first martyrs. He was only 24 years old at his death. His short period in Coyoacan – a mere two months passed from the time he arrived to serve as a secretary-guard, until he was killed – speaks only in his favor. So completely did he throw himself into his new work, and adjust himself to his new surroundings that Trotsky was able to refute with conviction the foul Stalinist slander that Bob had disappeared because he was an accomplice in the attack. When a month later, on June 25th, Bob’s lime-covered body was found in a shallow grave, Trotsky wrote in the Mexican press: “The corpse of Bob Sheldon Harte is a tragic refutation of all the slanders and false denunciations made against him.”

But such is the justice of capitalist society that, though they are known, his murderers have gone free; Bob’s bullet-riddled body is covered with something more effective than lime – a successful conspiracy to free the guilty agents of the Kremlin.

The May 24th attack, the Mexican authorities established, was organized by David Alfaro Siqueiros, “former” member of the Communist Party of Mexico, GPU agent in Spain during the Civil War. For several months preceding the attack, he organized spying on the Trotsky house by sending two women, Julia Barrandas de Serrano and Ana Lopez, who seduced the police guard and closely watched the routine of the occupants of the house. These spies visited the house a couple of hours before the attack took place to make sure that nothing was suspected. Then Siqueiros and a band of twenty-odd men staged their blitzkrieg, armed with automatics, machine guns, incendiary bombs and destructive bombs, scaling ladders, electric saws, disguised in police and army uniforms and in possession of complete plans of the house and the location of its occupants. For several minutes they riddled Trotsky’s bedroom with machine-gun bullets and then sent one assailant into the bedroom to deliver a coup-de-grace into each of the beds where Trotsky and Natalia had been sleeping. After throwing a couple of incendiary bombs in an attempt to burn Trotsky’s archives, the GPU gang left, carrying Bob away with them.

During the days immediately following the attack, the Stalinists tried to turn the investigation away from themselves by taking advantage of Bob’s kidnapping and of the fact that the assailants failed to kill Trotsky. They concocted the “self-assault” theory, saying that Trotsky hinself arranged the attack in order to embarrass Mexico. Trotsky, however, soon gave the investigation a steer in the right direction by publicly declaring that Siqueiros and Bassols, prominent “non-party” Stalinists, had much to say.

The unsolved question of the attack has been how the gang gained entrance to the house. Apparently Bob, who was on duty at the time, opened the door for them; in order to do this, he must have been approached by someone in the gang whom he did not suspect. Undoubtedly it was precisely for this reason that it was necessary to kill him – to protect the gang member who deceived him. Believing his body to be safely buried, the Stalinists spread stories to the effect that he had gone to New York, that he was an accomplice of the assailants, that he was an accomplice of Trotsky in planning the “self-assault,” etc., etc. Later, when the body was found, the GPU suggested that Trotsky had ordered him killed. But the story of these slanders is well known by now.

Before his capture, Siqueiros, in hiding, wrote two letters to the chief of police of Mexico City as well as articles that were published in Hay, a weekly. In these letters and articles, he promised that at the proper moment he would clarify “the very justified assault on Trotsky’s house, showing the grave political responsibilities that made it possible and inevitable.”

After his capture, he struck the pose of a persecuted revolutionist, insisting that “this crime is of a political order and not a common one.” El Popular reported Siqueiros as saying that “the assault of the 24th of May on Trotsky’s house was a revolutionary crime against the general headquarters of reactionaries.”

In the early days of the investigation both El Popular and the Communist Party organ La Voz de Mexico, condemned the assault and asked for the punishment of its perpetrators. A few months later, however, the Toledano-Stalinist machine (which runs El Popular) pushed a resolution through the CTM (Mexican Labor Federation) congress of March 1941 in defense of Siqueiros: “The Congress pronounced itself also in favor of liberty for the revolutionary painter, David Alfaro Siqueiros” (El Popular, March 2, 1941). At the same time a committee of Stalinist agents in the CTM was formed to aid in achieving his release.

Two weeks earlier on February 14th, El Popular had published an appeal headlined “Independent Intellectuals and Artists Ask the President That David Alfaro Siqueiros Be Dealt with justly.” Nicely avoiding the question of Siqueiros’ crime, these Stalinized artists and dupes recalled at great length “the artistic antecedents and the transcendency for Mexican culture of this great painter.” They asked that he be judged remembering that “the artists and the men of science are considered as the bulwarks of culture and progress.” A GPU murderer – bulwark of culture!

Judges in Stalin’s Service

Siqueiros refused to make any statements in court until he had read all the preceding testimony by the other assailants who had been captured. This right was granted him. It was then that he developed the theory of being merely chief of “exterior operations.” He tried to disclaim all responsibility for what happened during the actual attack. That he directed the preliminary spying together with his brother, Jesus Alfaro Siqueiros, David Serrano and Antonio Pujol, was established beyond denial. Siqueiros, however, was too anxious to disprove his responsibility – he also stated that he had given the order not to shoot to kill! He was then echoed by other defendants concerning this “order.” It is clear, however, that if Siqueiros was in a position to give the order “not to shoot to kill,” he was chief of more than the “exterior operations” and bear responsibility for the entire attack.

Nevertheless, Siqueiros’ release was secured. There is a Mexican legal instrument known as “amparo” which means protection or prohibition by a judge against unjustified prosecution for certain crimes. Siqueiros obtained two “amparos”: one by appealing to a higher court and a second granted by a trial judge; both were directed against an earlier decision of judge Raul Carranca Trujillo – the judge who was originally in charge of the case.

Siqueiros was accused on several counts in addition to those of homicide and attempted homicide. District Judge Gonzalez Bustamante freed him from the attempted homicide charge as well as from the charges of use of firearms, usurpation of official functions (of police officers) and criminal association.

The trial judge, Emilio Cesar, freed him of the charge of homicide of Harte and agreed with the superior judge’s decision on criminal association and usurpation of official functions.

By means of these two decisions, the judges reduced the machine-gun attack of May 24th to a question of housebreaking, unlawful use of uniforms, robbery (of the two cars in the house to prevent pursuit) and damaging another’s property (with machine-gun volleys!).

The sleight-of-hand used by the court to reach these decisions is truly unbelievable. More than 300 shots were fired within the house – riddling the bedrooms and beds of Trotsky. For what purpose? For “psychological purposes” answered the judges. Therefore there was no attempted homicide. Yet Siqueiros’ chauffeur testified that when they heard that Trotsky had lived through the hail of machine gun bullets, Siqueiros exclaimed: “All the work in vain.”

And the murder of Robert Sheldon Harte? Harte’s body was found buried beside a house that Siqueiros himself had visited. His wife Angelica Arenal had bought a cot and other furniture found in the house. The man guarding the house – Mariano Herrera Vazquez – testified that he was paid to act under the orders of Siqueiros, and that Siqueiros and his wife had come to the house on various occasions; while drunk Herrera Vazquez told his girl friend that he was “guarding a gringo for Siqueiros.” All this would certainly seem to demand some pretty conclusive disproving of Siqueiros’ responsibility in the Harte murder. But not for these judges. The same Herrera Vazquez also said that the last persons he saw with Harte were Leopoldo and Luis Arenal, brothers of Siqueiros’ wife. Both, of course, had long since disappeared – according to rumor they were in the United States. With all blame for Harte’s murder placed on their shoulders, it can be assumed that they are safely out of the way. Considering this testimony plus the “judicial confessions” (sic) of the other accused and of Siqueiros himself that they knew nothing of Harte’s murder, the judges blandly concluded that he had nothing to do with the murder.

On the day of his client’s release, Federico Sodi (Siqueiros’ lawyer) made a statement which only an understanding of the GPU’s contempt toward bought justice can explain. He said that there were three possible explanations for Harte’s murder. 1. He was murdered in order to rob him. This, he observed, was the most “simple” explanation. 2. That Bob was an accomplice of the assailants and they killed him to still his tongue. 3. That Trotsky – who was “author of many deaths during his period of power in Russia” – had organized a “Fifth Column” to track down and kill Harte for vengeance. Such a statement completely characterizes the court in which it was made.

The question of criminal association was closely linked with the homicide since it is clear that all members of a criminal band are responsible for acts carried out in common. But the courts decided that a gang of GPU assassins is not a criminal association. Why? Because interpreting the law in a “technical and doctrinaire way” the band must be organized to commit crimes “in general terms.” That is, it must be characterized by its “organization, stability, and above all permanency” to cause a “public unrest” and not just be directed against “one person or family.” It must commit several crimes, not just one. If in all the world there is a band that can be justly called a “criminal association,” it is the GPU. But for the servile judges this band is not permanent enough in its activities and does not commit enough crimes to be so classified!

Another example of the judges’ logic is their explanation of why unlawful impersonation of a police officer is not unlawful impersonation of a police officer. It is true, they say, that the assailants disguised themselves as police and army officers. But: “It is not to be deduced or proven that the assailants of Trotsky’s house had exercised or tried to exercise some one of the corresponding functions of a public officer without being one, but rather that they simply [!] presented themselves for the assault using uniforms of the Army or of the Police, for whose use they had no right.” (Underlined in the orginal – W.R.) They were disguised as officers, but not with any intent of impersonation. Now you see it, now you don’t!

Then, since housebreaking and damaging another’s property are not serious enough crimes to reject an appeal for liberty on bail, the judges granted Siqueiros’ application. In less than a month after being freed, he skipped bail. The intervening weeks were necessary to arrange his documents which were all in perfect order when he left Mexico. The Secretariat of Gobernacion (State Department) pretended not to know that he was under bail and therefore forbidden to even leave the Federal District, much less Mexico. Through the kind intervention of the Chilean Consul (a Stalinist), he was admitted to that country where he has been residing ever since, busy on some murals for a school that the Mexican Government is constructing there!

Due to some error of the Chilean police who had read that he was legally a fugitive from Mexican justice, he was arrested shortly after his arrival in Chile. However, the Mexican Ambassador proffered his services and obtained his immediate release. On that occasion, Siqueiros stated that he had been cleared of all charges in connection with the May assault. To refute this point it suffices to quote the words of the District Attorney in his conclusions, presented, of course, long after Siqueiros was safely out of Mexico, and by a different District Attorney from the one who agreed to his release: “From the record it appears that the accused David Alfaro Siqueiros has withdrawn from the action of justice, leaving the country by taking advantage of the freedom under bail which he enjoyed. For the foregoing reason, this trial should remain open until the reapprehension of the aforementioned David Alfaro Siqueiros.” Legally then, as well as morally, Siqueiros is a fugitive from justice and is still to answer for his crimes.

Stalinist Guilt Proved – But Unpunished

Not only does Siqueiros stand condemned, but so also stands the Communist Party and its international chieftainStalin. The day following the attack, the Communist Party said. “The assault on Trotsky’s house has been organized and executed by provocateur elements disguised as police and army officials.” On June 20, 1940, after the GPU’s and Siqueiros’ role had been proven, the Communist Party declared: “The Communist Party of Mexico categorically declares that none of the participants in the provocation is a member of the Party; that all of them are uncontrollable elements and agents provocateurs; that an act like that realized on Trotsky’s house, contrary to the genuine forms of proletarian struggle, has nothing to do with us.” But these words apply to Siqueiros’ accomplices, the Stalinists Serrano, Martinez, etc., of whom the conclusions of the District Attorney, now forming part of the off ical court record, have this to say: “David Serrano in the period of the crimes referred to in this trial against the person of Leon Trotsky and his associates had the character of General Secretary of the Communist Party of Mexico. It has been proven perfectly in the court record that the totality of persons who intervened in the commission of the aforementioned crimes are or have been active members of said Communist Party, according to what they have confessed in their respective statements.” The District Attorney refers also to the fact that Serrano was in Spain during the Civil War as was Siqueiros and that it was there that it was first decided necessary to “eliminate by any means ‘the headquarters of the reaction that Trotsky had in this capital.’”

Again in the case of Mateos Martinez, the District Attorney says: “In the period in which took place the attempt against Leon Trotsky, Luis Mateos Martinez was an important member of the Communist Party having ... an intimate friendship with David Serrano, a person for whom in addition he had special esteem.”

Mateos Martinez defends himself by denying that the uniforms he procured during the week preceding the attack were intended for this occasion. Rather the Commrtnist Party needed them for a raid on a center of Alrnazanistas, says Martinez. (Trotsky was also called a supporter of the reactionary Almazan by the Stalinists.)

Formally, Siqueiros and his brother are being “hunted” by the police; likewise in the case of Leopoldo and Luis Arenal – blamed by the judge and by the testimony of other defendants as the ones last seen with Harte and therefore wanted as his murderers.

All the guilty members of the gang and the women spies have gone free. It is true, of course, that the trial remains open against them. But since the original order for prosecution handed down by judge Trujillo has been revoked, a new order must be formulated by the present trial judge, Emilo Cesar. The quotations cited above concerning criminal association and usurpation of official functions are typical of his point of view and indicate that nothing better can be expected in the future.

It is interesting to note that two prominent Stalinists involved in the May assault and its legal defense have since been “expelled” from the Communist Party. Rafael Carrillo was the Communist Party leader charged with representing the party’s central committee in the Siqueiros band. He now works under Toledano in the CTM. Needless to add that he follows the Stalinist line and orders in doing so.

Pavon Flores was the lawyer who defended Serrano and Mateos Martinez. He was a member of the Communist Party Central Committee at the time and came as the official representative of the Communist Party in the trial. Trotsky characterized him as the “GPU’s lawyer.” He continues to serve in his professional capacity for various unions that the Stalinists control. Although formally “expelled” he also has not broken with Stalinism.

After the case left the hands of judge Raul Carranca Trujillo of Coyoacan, no further effort was made to investigate the connection of Siqueiros with Stalinism; no attempt to discover the GPU source of the funds which financed the expensive assault. The statement by Siqueiros that he financed it himself by selling his paintings at 2,000 pesos apiece was never questioned by the court. The connection between Siqueiros and Jacson who killed Trotsky three months later was ignored although they both had offices in the same “Ermita” building.

“Justice” has shut its eyes to these details – following the exigencies of the “democratic” cause with which Stalin is allied. It remains for a different justice in the future to call the arch-assassins of the GPU to account. In honoring the memory of Robert Sheldon Harte we pledge ourselves that the day of this accounting to the working class will come.

Mexico, D.F.
April 25, 1942

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Last updated on 20.8.2008