Magonista guerrillas with the banner “Tierra y Libertad” in Tijuana, 1911
Baja California (Lower California ) is the long finger of land that stretches down into the Pacific south of the border with California in the USA. The border towns of Tijuana and Mexicali and the coastal town of Ensanada are its chief towns. Here for six months during 1911 a major insurrection took place. Organise! Looks at this little-known event, in which the famous Wobbly Joe Hill is rumoured to have been involved.
On 29th January 1911 twenty armed Magonista militants led by Jose Maria Leyva seized the town of Mexicali. Leyva called himself the General in Chief of the Insurgent Forces and was assisted by Simon Berthold. This act threatened the rich agricultural estates as well as the water resources used by the US farmers of Imperial Valley. The Magonistas were soon joined by many volunteers from the USA, boosting their numbers to 80. A column of soldiers was sent from Ensenada to drive them out.
At the same time in the US press an eccentric businessman Dick Ferris, with backing from important bankers, began to make announcements about creating an independent Baja California, and to recruit 1,000 men to carry this out. The US press began to falsely amalgamate the Magonista actions with Ferris’s plans.
The government troops were defeated and the insurgents increased their numbers to 200. The socialist John Kenneth Turner brought them a delivery of arms over the border . A few days later, thirty Americans led by ex-sergeant William Stanley seized a border post to the east of Mexicali. The following day Leyva and Berthold declared the foundation of a cooperative commonwealth in Baja California. The insurgents now numbered 300 at Mexicali, with two thirds of them from the USA. On 1st March another Magonista column led by Francisco Vasquez Salinas and Luis Rodriguez crossed the border into Baja California and started requisitioning the big estates near Tecate.
Indecision within the insurgent ranks at Mexicali led to serious disagreements with Stanley attempting to strip Leyva of his command, which was countered by Berthold. Stanley then crossed the border into the USA with the aim of convincing the Magonista leadership in Los Angeles that he should lead an independent expedition.
Luis Rodriguez seized Tecate on 12th March, whilst Stanley again seized the same border post and built up his forces to a hundred. Meanwhile the US government, affrighted by the perceived threat to its interests, massed 20,000 soldiers on the border. Fighting now broke out between the government troops and the insurgents , Tecate was retaken and Leyva and Berthold failed to retake it. Antagonisms between the Americans and the Mexicans within the insurgent ranks continued, with Leyva being blamed for the defeat. He was dismissed as commander and replaced by Salinas. Disobeying Salinas, Stanley launched an attack on government troops and was defeated dying a day later. He was replaced by Cary lap Rhys Pryce, a Welsh “soldier of fortune” who accused Salinas of having betrayed Stanley.
On 13th April Berthold died of an infection of a wound he had sustained in the previous month. The election of a new commander aggravated the conflicts between Mexicans and Americans and a group of Indians led by Emilio Guerrero quit the detachment. Meanwhile the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) delivered arms to the insurgents.
Salinas arrived in Los Angeles to meet with the Magonista leadership but was arrested by the US authorities. Francisco Quijadas replaces him. Meanwhile Mosby was wounded and replaced by Sam Wood, who was joined by Pryce at the retaken town of Tecate. They seized Tijuana after fierce fighting. Tijuana was and still is, a playground for Americans to come over the border to spend their money in saloons, casinos and brothels and at the racetrack. The capture of Tijuana led to great enthusiasm in radical circles with 30 deserters from the US Army crossing the border to join the insurgents.
However media attention went to Pryce’s head. He set up a system where for 25 cents American tourists could visit the sights of battle. He allowed the saloons and gambling dens to continue their activities, taxing them and sending 850 dollars to the Magonista leadership. Pryce became more and more out of control and started talking about uniting Baja California to the USA, in several interviews to US papers. He regularly crossed the border, dining at the best restaurants in San Diego and establishing contact with the businessman Dick Ferris.
The Madero regime had now come to power on 21st May. The Magonista leadership refused to cease hostilities, and Pryce, who was favourable to a ceasefire, went to L.A. to argue for this. He was dismissed. His place at Tijuana was taken by Louis James, also under the influence of Ferris. James called for an independent republic and the new regime used this as a pretext of accusing the Magonistas of serving US interests. Fortunately, James was ousted and forced to flee. Mosby attempted to control the situation and closed down the saloons and casinos. However he still looked for tourist revenue and set up a Wild West Show in the style of Buffalo Bill!
The Mexican government convened with the US authorities, which allowed 1500 Mexican troops to cross and re-cross the border and attack the insurgents. The detachment of Guerrero, who as we have seen, earlier separated from Leyva, was massacred. For their part the US authorities arrested the MAgonista leadership in Los Angeles. Leyva, who had gone over to the Madero regime, negotiated a surrender of the insurgents at Mexicali. Leyva later made a career in the Mexican army.
The forces led by Mosby at Tijuana refused to surrender and were attacked by government troops. The insurgents fled, Mexicans and Indians disappearing into the countryside and the Americans fleeing over the border where they were disarmed by the US Army.
The attempt at revolution in Baja California, had proved to be a fiasco, with the insurgents crippled by dissensions between Americans, Mexicans and Indians, and with opportunism and lack of political principle rife among some of its leading actors.
This article originally appeared in issue No 77 of Organise! the magazine of the Anarchist Federation.