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Friday, July 13, 2018

A MOB HIT Part One

I am certain Robert Harte died knowing he had made a terrible mistake. But by then it was too late to fix.  He should have acted before the man came around the corner from Morelos Street, and approached the two Mexico Police officers guarding the single story hacienda at 19 Avenida Viena (below). It was just after four on Friday morning, 24 May, 1940, in the quiet farming suburb of Carranza, at the edge of the arroyo of the Churubusco River.  The man raised an arm in greeting. The officers were deceived for a moment by his large military looking overcoat.  And then, as he came closer, his huge, almost comical mustache.  But before they could say anything, the man suddenly shouted “Viva Almazan!”, and pulled his pistol.  The right wing revolutionary Juan Almazan was one of the richest and most famous men in Mexico, and currently an unpopular candidate for the Presidency.  The use of his name kept the two officers bewildered just long enough to be disarmed.
A half dozen men appeared out of the darkness and shoved the officers through the front door of the villa (above).  In the reception hall were three more police officers, sleeping.  At the same time the telephone lines into the villa were cut. All five prisoners were quickly gagged and tied up, and left on the floor, under guard, while another score of armed men filed silently into the dimly lit foray. The mustached man knocked heavily on the left hand inside door.  After a moment, a voice was heard from inside the villa, asking “Qué es ?” The mustached man demanded, “Abra la puerta! La policía de la ciudad de México.” There was a hesitation, and then the voice said, “Un momento”, followed by the sound of a bolt being lifted, and a lock being turned.
The second it began to move the door was violently shoved fully open, bowling over the young man with his hand on the inside door knob.  Instantly, eager hands lifted him up and spun him around. Without pause he was hustled across the Villa's 100 yard long garden (above) There was a seven foot wall to the left (above, left), topped by barbed wire, and a series of doors to the villa's separate rooms to the right (above, right).  At the end of the garden stood a small, two story red brick guest house, painted white (below). 
With military precision the men divided. Several spread out in front of the guest house (above), while others filtered to the gate beyond, which opened on Churubusco street. Still  more men ran to a Ford pickup and a Dodge passenger car, parked against the back gate.  At that moment, the electrical power to the villa was cut off.  At the same time  a new handful of armed men men raced through the front door, turned left in the hall and out into the garden, where they split up, one man stopping in front of each of the villa's doors.  Just as they did so, a voice called out from the guest house, “Es que usted , Roberto?. Lo que está mal?” A loud blasts of automatic gunfire ripped the suburban night apart.  Over the next two minutes, the only exit from the guest house was blocked by a continuous hail of lead.
As soon as they heard the gunfire, the figure outside the farthest door bent down and crashed through the five foot high door and into the study beyond (above). As he did so the man in front of the middle room, stood and pulled the bolt of his MP 35 German made machine gun, and the third man bent over and crashed through the remaining door into a bedroom. (below) 
 Immediately all three men opened fire, blasting the adobe and plaster walls separating them, filling the bedroom sandwiched between with 200 deadly 9mm lead missiles. The firing went on for less than fifteen seconds, while over 70 bullets thudding into the wall and the bed's headboard. Then the middle gunman dropped his weapon, pulled a pistol and burst through the french doors, emptying a clip directly into the lumps on the bed (below).
As he did so the men in the foray silently filtered toward the back gate, followed in their turn by the kill squad, who dropped incendiary grenades behind them, and then the squad assigned to suppress the guards in the guest house. The raiding party then piled into the two stolen vehicles and disappeared into the night. Within five minutes of the two police officers being surprised at the front door, the raid was over.  It would be some hours before the raiders realized they had failed.
The target had survived. His wife Natalia had been awakened by the crash of the inner door. She shook her husband and then pulled him onto the floor beside her. The hail of bullets, when it came, passed over their heads, and the pistol fire punctured the mattress they had been sleeping on, but the two elderly intended victims were safe, unseen, on the floor of their dark bedroom.
As soon as he was certain the raiders had left, the intended target, the old man man (above, center), asked Natalia (above left) to check on their 14 year old grandson Seva (above, right) , who was sleeping in the bedroom next to theirs. Even after pushing aside a burning chest of drawers, Natalia could not find her grandson. Her first panic was that he had been kidnapped. But then she heard his voice from the library at the end of the house, beyond, calling out in Russian, “Ded?” - grandfather? She found Seva clutching his bleeding foot. He had been awakened when the gunfire at the guest house erupted, and had hidden under his bed.  A ricochet had clipped his toe. And that was the only blood spilled that night at 19 Avenida Viena.
Meanwhile, the bearded old man retrieved his wire rimmed glasses, and then ran into his study, next to the bedroom. Inside he found two small fires, which he quickly extinguished. That saved the secondary target of the would-be assassins – the biography he was writing of his old rival. Then he joined his wife and grandson in the library. He warmly hugged them both, and told his wife, “Natalia, they have given us one more day of life.” It was a phrase the old man, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein, more popularly known as Leon Trotsky, would repeat every morning for the rest of his life.
There was one resident of the villa missing after the raid,  25 year old New Yorker, Robert Harte (above).  But had he left with his fellow conspirators , or was he the victim of a kidnapping?   The day after the raid the Communist newspaper in Mexico City reported the shooting had been staged to garner public sympathy for Trotsky.  The next day the police brought in   “The Old Man's” bodyguards for two grueling days of questioning.  But at the same time they began taking a hard look at the communist members of the International Brigade,  veterans of the Spanish Civil War.  First step in this line was to interview the chauffeurs for the Mexican Communist Party. And the name that kept popping up here was the then famous Mexican painter, David Alfaro Siqueiros. 
Siqueiros had recently been paying visits to an isolated farm a few miles south of Carranza, rented by Siqueiros' sister. And the morning after the attack, not far from the farm, the stolen pickup truck had been found abandoned and burned. A week after the assault, the farm house and property were searched by the Mexican government. On the property, beside the road from Carranza, recently disturbed earth was spotted. A month after the attack, in a shallow grave, the police found the disfigured corpse of Robert Harte (above).  He had been shot twice, and then quick lime had been poured over the body.  It burned some his features, but it also preserved most of the flesh and bones.
A warrant for Siqueiros' arrest was issued. But rather than surrender, Siqueiros (above) began issuing written statements to the communist newspaper, at first protesting his innocence, and condemning police incompetence. But as member after communist member of the International Brigade was arrested, until the number reached 27, and their confessions and connections to Siqueiros appeared in the general press,  Siqueiros' statements to the Communist press began to shift to defiant and arrogant,  justifying the attempted murder of Leon Trotsky. And then, finally, when Sisqueiros turned himself in.  He was immediately released without bail. And then promptly disappeared.
Trotsky was not surprised by the ease with which his attempted assassin escaped justice. Nor was he in any doubt that Sisqueiros was the actor but not the author of the murderous attack on his home and family. As “Bugs” Moran had insisted after the Chicago St. Valentines Day Massacre that “Only Al Capone kills like that”,  four years before the May 1940 attack on his own life,  Leon Trotsky had prophetically written, "(Joseph) Stalin...seeks to strike not at the ideas of the opponent,  but at his skull.”
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