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Red Flags in the Desert Heat

The Baja California Revolution of 1911: Part 2
-- D.L. Nevin

Part 1 Part 2

[In the last issue, Mr. Nevin recounted the events, people, and forces that led to the 1911 insurrection at Mexicali, spawning the short-lived Baja California Revolution. Ricardo Flores Magon, an anarchist, publisher of the bilingual Regeneracion, and major intellect behind the Partido Liberal Mexicano (Mexican Liberal Party), was instrumental in organizing and planning that revolt, as well as the battles that followed in February...]

Battle Brewing

The democratic nature of the Partido Liberal forces meant that they voted on everything, did not salute and had only elected commanders, not appointed officers. The egalitarianism sometimes lead to factionalism. Another factor that bred factionalism was the multi-faceted representation within the troops. At the victory of Tijuana the force was comprised of one third Mexican PLM supporters, one third Wobblies, and one third soldiers of fortune, adventure seekers, and fugitives from the law.

The next major battle, the battle of Little's Ranch, was not long in coming. On February 3, U.S. Cavalry troops were moved to the border town of Calexico, the twin U.S. town of Mexicali. (A month later, President Taft was to increase the troops to 30,000.) On March 13, Mexican Dictator Diaz sent a detachment of 400 men and four mounted machine guns to the port of Ensenada. They were ordered to guard the Algodones dam from the rebels. This waterworks, located southwest of Mexicali, provided water for North American land holdings in Mexico. The federal forces were also supposed to liberate the town from "rabble rousing" raiders' control.

"Revolution Watching"

The rooftops of Calexico were weighted down with hordes of gawking spectators engaged in "revolution watching" and buying postcard momentos.
The insurgents began the conflict by blowing up one bridge and setting fire to a second, effectively creating a natural barrier of the Rio Nuevo. They entrenched themselves in "fox holes," putting their hats on sticks which they waved above their heads to draw Federal troop fire. After two and a half hours of gunfire exchanges, the Federal bugles acknowledged futility by trumpeting the signal for retreat. The Federal troops ravaged the countryside in their retreat, stealing horses, cattle and wagons from local farmers. They then fled along the U.S. side of the border for protection.

The Red flag still flew in Mexicali, but the Federal forces' new machine guns had done their damage. Stanley Williams, a natural leader, Canadian Indian, and valuable PLM strategist, was killed in the onslaught. The PLM forces lost 25% of their men to desertion. At least 35 men in their ranks still did not have guns.


A New Face: Ceryl Ap Rhys Pryce

Late in April a new face arrived on the scene. Ceryl Ap Rhys Pryce, from Wales, was an experienced soldier, having fought in the South African "Boer War" on the side of British imperialism. He had read John Turner's influential book, Barbarous Mexico, which illustrated the conditions of poverty and debt peonage in Diaz's Mexico. Pryce's curiosity and his attraction to the battlefield prompted him to leave his fiancé in Vancouver, and join the rebel forces in Mexicali.
Because of his battlefield experiences and skills as a military strategist, Pryce was elected leader of the local PLM forces as soon as he arrived on the scene; other important leaders were no longer in the field, either under arrest in the U.S. or killed in battle.

In vain Pryce tried to contact another PLM regiment in El Alamo in order to coordinate a joint attack to Tijuana. Pryce would have to go alone and against the orders of the Los Angeles junta, which wanted him to finish off the Federal troops protecting the dikes near the Colorado river at Algodones.

Tijuana Under Siege

Afraid that a move to the east would precipitate a North American armed intervention, justified on the grounds of protecting the irrigation works, Pryce headed in the opposite direction. Capturing Tijuana would help recruitment of American volunteers and provide a base to launch an attack on the port of Ensenada. The battle for Tijuana would be the most bitterly fought of the entire five-month campaign. Pryce was in command of 220 men, who were desperately low on ammunition because the junta in Los Angeles had been unable to coordinate a supply drop to them. The treasurer for the PLM, Enrique Magon, also had serious financial strategy problems. As soon as he received donated money, literally in the form of bags of coins and dollar bills, he spent it on propaganda, saving none of it for critically needed arms and ammunition. In order to replenish his depleted treasury, Pryce charged the tourists from San Diego a 25-cent fee to get into Tijuana, and opened up gambling establishments from which he received a 25 percent tax on the receipts.


The "2nd Division of the Liberal Army" set out to route the 200-man strong Federal force from Tijuana. First, Pryce asked for the Federal forces to surrender. When this request was denied, Pryce's soldiers encircled the town in a siege-like manner, using only occasional gunshots to verify their presence. Colonel Guerrero, leading some Federal troops from the south, attempted a counterattack. This failed to force the rebels to retreat, and Guerrero was slightly wounded and fled to the U.S. for refuge. The battle for Tijuana lasted the morning of May 8 'til the next evening. Federal forces were dug in at the breastworks inside the bullfighting ring in the center of town. The Liberals first gained control of the customs house on the edge of town, and then of the whole town.

That night, in the light from fires of several burning buildings, the Red Flag bearing the new PLM slogan of "Tierra y Libertdad" (Land and Liberty) rippled in the breeze above the Tijuana Post Office. The Federales had all fled, some going south to Ensenada while others went north across the border. The exhausted rebels, in their makeshift khaki uniforms, cowboy outfits, sombreros, and empty ammunition belts, sank into a deep satisfied sleep, knowing that they were safely in control.

Meanwhile other very important developments were taking place in other parts of Mexico. On May 10, a day after the PLM captured Tijuana, Madero's forces captured the city of Juarez under the command of General Pascual Orozco and his soon-to-be infamous Lieutenant Pancho Villa. In the southern state of Morales, forces lead by Emiliano Zapata took control of several areas. Soon most of Mexico was in the hands of various revolutionary forces.

Magon was left in a position of alienation from former comrades, who deserted en masse to join "Madero's winning team." Magon, as an anarchist, felt that the social problems of Mexico could not be solves by changing the men in power. Regeneracion loudly proclaimed, "The fall of the tyrant will not hold back the revolution." His goal was to support the peasants in seizing the land and promoting the destruction of political or governmental power. Madero, who came from a wealthy family, was not about to hand over the lands and the means of production into the hands of the peasants and workers.

In the following weeks, the L.A. junta sent their support only in the form of paper telegrams congratulating the Liberals on their victory at Tijuana. The Los Angeles Times launched a print crusade against the Liberals referring to them as "filibusters." ("Filibuster" was a derogatory term referring to a group of soldiers who would take control of foreign territory in order to set up a puppet government to enrich themselves or even with the goal of annexing the territories to the United States for their economical benefit.)

In fact. there was a prank filibuster plot spawned by the publicity seeking clown, Dick Ferris. Ferris publicly offered to buy Baja California from President Diaz and to raise an army to go occupy Tijuana. Ferris had at first suggested "Republic of Diaz" as the potential name for his new possession, in honor of the Dictator. He later revised that potential name to "Republic of Madero" after Diaz fled Mexico and Madero, the "Apostle of Democracy," had taken the position of provisional president in the newly formed government in Mexico City. Ferris made up a flag for this new republic with a white star, red bars and a blue field as a gag joke. When the chauffeured limousine bearing the flag drove into Tijuana, the rebels were so infuriated that they promptly tore the flag from the hood of the limousine and burned it publicly in the town square.

Ferris soon capitalized on all the free press he had been receiving for his stunts. Together with his actress wife he played the role of himself in a farcical play entitled "The Man from Mexico." Performing in front of sold-out crowds up and down the West coast, one of his big punch lines was "There are bars all around me but I can't get a drink" (a reference to his brief detention in jail).

Pryce crossed the border to seek the council of the L.A. junta, leaving a General Jack Mosby in charge of the Tijuana forces. Mosby was reported as stating, "No new republic will be started in lower California by the Liberals." "Dick Ferris has absolutely nothing to do with the revolutionary movement and his presence is not desired." "The fight is not being waged in the interest of Dick Ferris and the American capitalists but solely in the interest of the working class." These words are important for they stand in sharp contrast to the accusations of filibustering made by the Los Angeles Times.

Additional information reveals the sad truth that Ferris had been in contact with the apparently dodgy Pryce, and had been playing around with the idea that some shady deal might be arranged. It was also revealed that when Pryce left, some of the PLM money disappeared with him. In his contacts with Ferris, Pryce underestimated the will and political consciousness of the Liberal troops and was taken by surprise at their angry response to Ferris' flag. Pryce disengaged himself from all PLM involvement in the battle for Baja California and took a curious "screen play" detour, playing the part of a cowboy in several Hollywood films, before returning to the trenches on the newest front, World War I.

The junta in Los Angeles, at the height of its military strength in the midst of abundant opportunities, made several ill-fated decisions. The first was not supporting the troops in Mexico more consistently with ammunition and guns. The second was to not personally go Mexico to confer and deliver support. That would have saved many of their leaders from being arrested by U.S. officials on charges of breaking neutrality laws when they crossed the border to confer with the junta.

The consequences of these poorly devised strategies eventually opened the way for the retaking of Tijuana by Diaz's former Federal troops, now lead by Madero on June 17, and the final dissolution of the PLM forces by defeat and desertion.

During the mayham of the battle to retake Tijuana, many Wobblies snuck back across the border, including the famous Wobbly, songwriter Joe Hill. Commander Mosby, head of the infamous Magonista "Foreign Legion," was arrested and then shot when he refused to incriminate Magon in court via the infamous ley de fuega (law of fire), which is a deceitful way of covering up a police murder by alleging that the prisoner was attempting to escape.

When Madero began forcibly disarming the PLM troops in his area if they refused to join him, Magon retorted in the February 25 edition of Regeneracion, "Madero is a traitor to the cause of Liberty." This created much confusion on both sides of the border and alienated potential socialist supporters who thought the fight against the ousted Diaz was all that mattered. They now worried that Magon would just use their donations to foment factionalism.

As Ricardo Flores Magon's power began its serious decline, someone told him, "It would take a forest of trees to hang all the Judases." Indeed, his very own brother, Jesus, ended up joining Madero's governmental forces that Magon was fighting against.

The Magonista forces languished in Mexicali for lack of ongoing support, and finally surrendered peacefully on June 17. Each man was given $10, with the American ex-soldiers receiving their first meal in several days at a Chinese restaurant in Calexico. Many Wobblies caught the next freight train out of town, riding the brake beams into an uncertain future. The remaining Mexican PLM soldiers dispersed themselves as best they could back into the rural pueblos.
Magon had hoped that Baja California would become the launching ground of an International Anarchist revolution, as he wrote on the PLM's September 1911 Program. The junta didn't move fast enough to dismiss the intriguing Pryce and seize the initiative offered by the Tijuana victory to also take Ensenada. These, along with the failure to powerfully confront the charges of filibustering in a timely manner, were among PLM's biggest shortcomings.

Historians all too often overlook the fact that the Liberal party had small groups of exclusively Mexican supporters all over Mexico who rose up in rebellion but were crushed or co-opted (i.e. in Veracruz and Oaxaca). The Baja Campaign had the largest number of foreigners due to its proximity to the border. The neutrality laws were constantly flaunted by the U.S. officials with regard to Diaz's troops, and later with Madero. The laws were then used selectively against the rebels, making it hard to purchase food or weapons on the U.S. side shortly after the uprising began. Communication between the Los Angeles junta and the bases of Mexicali and Tijuana became almost impossible.

Writers of Mexican history such as Knight and Crocroft have assigned the title "precursor of the revolution" to Magon. Without the seeds of discontent Regeneracion sowed, and the agitation of Liberal activists, the revolution would have been much slower in coming. Magon's economic program was incorporated by Zapata, heavily influencing the sections of the 1917 constitution which dealt with workers' and peasants' rights.

Magon did win a moral victory by refusing to accept money from the Mexican government that might have helped make his last days in jail more comfortable through purchasing a few personal comfort items. Magon's final legacy was that he became a symbol of someone who never sold out his ideals. His response in rejecting the money from the Mexican government is worth quoting in full as an expression of his stand:

"I do not believe in the State. I fight for the universal brotherhood of man. I consider the State an institution created by capitalism to guarantee the subjugation and exploitation of the masses All money from the State represents the sweat, anguish and sacrifice of the workers. If the moneys came directly from the workers, I would accept it with pleasure and pride because they are my brothers. "When I die my friends will perhaps inscribe upon my tomb, 'Here lies a dreamer,' and my enemies might write, 'Here lies a madman,' but no one will be able to stamp the inscription, 'Here lies a coward and a traitor to his ideals.'"

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