Book Review: ‘Murder in Mexico – The Assassination of Leon Trotsky’
On August 20th, 1940, in the suburb of Coyoacan on the outskirts of Mexico City, in a house he had transformed into a veritable armed fortress in the vain attempt to escape the long arm of Stalin, Leon Trotsky was assassinated—by a man he had trusted as a friend, and who played the part patiently for three months awaiting an opportunity to be alone with his victim just long enough to drive an ice-pick into his head.
So perished Trotsky, the man who believed that all and every means—lying, treachery, intimidation, violence, and murder—were justified to attain the end. He died, treacherously and horribly, the victim finally of his own violent creed.
So also, after many unsuccessful attempts, did Stalin finally settle accounts with his last and most dangerous enemy—and henceforth could sleep in peace.
“Murder in Mexico” (published by Secker and Warburg, 236p., 9s. 6d.) is the straight and unassuming account of the events that led up to Trotsky’s assassination and of the investigations that followed. The names of two authors appear on the jacket, but the main part of the book, and the most interesting and informative, is that contributed by General Sanchez Salazar, ex-Chief of the Mexican Secret Police and the one responsible for Trotsky’s safety whilst he was in Mexico, as well as being the official called upon to investigate the first and unsuccessful attempt on his life in May, 1940, and the second and successful attempt three months later.
The remainder, consisting of an introduction and three or four other chapters, is the work of Julian Gorkin, Spanish ex-Communist turned anti-Stalinist. Apart from some observations on the machinations of the O.G.P.U., later N.K.V.D., now M.V.D., and a few speculations on some of the things mentioned elsewhere by Salazar, his contributions add little to the book. Except, perhaps, one thing. This is when he calmly tells us in his introduction that the reason why many of the important documents that should have been used at the murderer’s trial are missing is because he, Gorkin, has taken personal charge of them, has hidden them in a secret place where Soviet agents will not be able to lay hands on them, and is holding on to them as guarantees for the statements contained in the book! Nor is this the only strange sidelight on the ways of Mexican law and politics revealed by this somewhat unusual book.
It is Salazar’s story, however, interesting, and the one with which we are most concerned.
Trotsky came to Mexico from Norway, after the authorities there had become so nervous of his presence in their territory and the trouble it might cause that they finally compelled him to leave. This was in 1937.
By May, 1940, he had established himself in a house on the outskirts of the capital, Mexico City, and turned it into an armed camp. The former iron railings had been replaced by high concrete walls with towers, from which machine-guns covered the streets outside and the open spaces inside. The only door was of thick steel through the grille of which callers were first of all identified under a strong electric light. For it to be opened, the agreement of two guards was necessary. The whole house and walls were interlaced with electric wires which automatically set off alarms, warning the guards and occupants inside, and a special armed police guard outside. Trotsky himself always worked with a loaded revolver by his side.
Yet in spite of all these elaborate precautions, Trotsky only escaped by a hairsbreadth when an attempt was made on his life in May, 1940. Early in the morning of the 24th, about twenty men succeeded in getting into the building and riddled his bedroom with machine-gun bullets, from which he only managed to escape by hiding under the bed and relying on the bad and hasty marksmanship of his attackers. It was discovered afterwards by Salazar that Trotsky had in fact been betrayed by one of his own secretaries, an American called Sheldon, who had opened the door to his assailants and later gone off with them. Salazar then conducted an intensive hunt for Sheldon and actually found him a month later—buried in quick-lime in the garden of a lonely house some miles away from the city. Sheldon had been killed to ensure that he remained quiet.
Salazar was still working on this case three months later when he heard that what the G.P.D. had failed to do the first time they had succeeded in doing the next—by means of one man, and not twenty. This time, Jacques Mornard, a man of many aliases, and with high recommendations from some Trotskyists in the United States, had wormed his way into Trotsky’s confidence, using the additional bait that he was engaged in writing an article dealing with the splits between the various Trotskyist factions in America. Trotsky promised to look at it and give him his advice. On two occasions they went into his study to consider it. The first time was a rehearsal—the second time, Jacques Mornard, alias Jacson, alias Mercader, alias Torkof, etc., killed him.
Although Mornard was plainly determined to kill Trotsky whatever the consequences, (when arrested be was found with a knife and loaded revolver as well as the ice-axe), he was not such a fanatic as to disregard his own life completely. That is why he left a car outside the house with the engine running, and why he used the ice-axe instead of the noisy revolver. When, however, he hit Trotsky, the latter uttered such a terrible scream that his secretaries were on the scene in a few moments, and would have battered Mornard to death had not Trotsky, though gravely injured, still possessed sufficient acuteness to tell them to keep him alive.
After this, the rest of the book inevitably becomes something of an anti-climax, but is nevertheless extremely interesting for the light it throws on Mornard himself, his confederates, and the methods they used to achieve their aim. Mornard, for example, when arrested, had a prepared “confession” in his pocket in which, of all things, he posed as a disillusioned Trotskyist!
The two other main conspirators succeeded in getting away. One was never found. The other, a well-known Mexican artist called Siqueiros, was arrested by Salazar, but eventually escaped as a result of some strange, and not wholly explained jiggery-pokery in Mexican high circles. As for Mornard, he is still serving his twenty-year sentence (the maximum penalty under Mexican law). Until 1947, his was a life of luxury. He wanted for nothing, and everything possible was done to make him comfortable. No expense was spared—good food, wines, the best cigarettes, radio, an excellent library—all were his. So scandalous did the abuses become that the Mexican Government was eventually compelled to take action. When they did so, they found that the Prison Secretary was a Communist, and the Chief of the Prison Delegation, to whom be was responsible, was another. These were both dismissed, and some of Mornard’s privileges taken away from him, but from all accounts he is still enjoying a fairly easy time.
When be comes out of prison—what then? Perhaps, as he has kept his mouth shut so far, nothing will happen to him. Perhaps, on the other band, just to be on the safe side, somebody will put a bullet through his head as happened to Sheldon. We wonder. No doubt Mornard, locked away in his cell in Mexico City, sometimes wonders too.
The above, briefly, is the bare bones of Salazar’s story. For the flesh and blood you will have to read the book. It is well worth reading, not, be it remembered, because it is a work of monumental importance to the Socialist movement, but simply because it is a light, readable, well-authenticated account of an event which, although of little importance in itself to the struggle for Socialism, is nevertheless something upon which Socialists may find it useful to be informed. And if, in addition, it reads as easily and as interestingly as any good detective novel, well—who would complain about that?