Fanáticos, Exiles, and Spies: Revolutionary Failures on the US–Mexico Border, 1923–1930 by Julian F. Dodson
In this exceptional new monograph, Julian Dodson presents “the story of the postrevolutionary Mexican government’s attempts to protect its northern border from various plots hatched among Mexican exile groups in the United States” (p. 2). In the immediate aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, the governments of Álvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles struggled to establish a functioning central government while fending off irredentist movements of all political stripes. Dodson focuses our attention on the Mexican exile communities in the United States, particularly in cities such as El Paso, San Antonio, Tucson, and Los Angeles. He argues that the composition of those right-leaning, more stridently Catholic, and politically aggrieved communities made them a fertile and auspicious space for counterrevolutionary movements that developed through the decade of the 1920s.
The study focuses on the rebellion of the one-time Sonoran Dynasty member, Adolfo de la Huerta, in 1923 and the Cristero War that stretched from 1926 to 1929. Dodson considers several smaller plots of rebellion that never quite got off the ground and some larger ones that did, such as the Francisco Serrano and Arnulfo Gómez military revolt of 1927 and José Gonzalo Escobar’s failed putsch of 1929. Dodson argues that the possibilities for cross-border rebellious alliances diminished sharply after the failure of Escobar’s revolt in 1929, as Mexican and U.S. interests converged around a less-porous border for weapons and rebels. The book offers tremendous new detail concerning the serial rebellions that confronted Calles in the 1920s. In a critical advance, Dodson also relates this history of armed conflict through a parallel lens, as a “borderland battle [that] was fought in the field of espionage between the undercover agents of the Confidential Department and groups of political exiles temporarily residing in cities such as Los Angeles, Tucson, San Antonio, and Brownsville” (p. 2).
The treatment of “Catholic Exiles and Conspiratorial Networks” in chapter four was perhaps the most interesting development for this reader. Dodson makes the case that “just as the revolution produced its own set of exiles, so too did the Cristero Rebellion” (p. 115). He argues further that “the Cristero Rebellion initiated a new stage of American Catholic activism” in which conservatives north of the border were forced to judge exactly how much they could support violence in the name of the faith (p. 137). The Knights of Columbus, for example, operated “a network of arms smuggling that spanned the United [End Page 188] States, Canada, and Mexico” thereby “actively supporting the Cristeros in battle” (p. 131). Other groups focused on relief efforts for arriving refugees or political activism that stuck to peaceful means. Chapter five deepens the analysis of these activists by examining the linkage between “fanáticos” and the Mexican military.
One of the major sources for this work is the archive of the Dirección General de Investigaciones Políticas y Sociales (DGIPS), the main Mexican intelligence bureaucracy until 1947, which operated in Dodson’s period as the Departamento Confidencial. These files have been open for twenty years now and have greatly enriched our understanding of numerous facets of Mexican history in the twentieth century. Indeed, practically every quality book or dissertation in the past ten years has the DGIPS as a key source. Dodson has offered something new and very useful in this book as he has excavated the personal lives of a group of Mexican agents. These insights were hard-won, deriving from hours upon hours of close reading of intelligence reports, but they help us better understand the worldview of agents on the front line. The result is “a borderlands story that places Mexican agents in an active rather than a passive role” (p. 4). The actions of U.S. and Mexican agents in the 1920s stand as a telling predicate to the protocols that developed around intelligence sharing during World War II and the Cold War.
Mexican agents did not have any legal authority over Mexican exiles in the United States and thus attempted to enforce “effective sovereignty” over them through surveillance, harassment and, sometimes, legal action through U.S. proxy forces (local police, border agents, and the like) (p. 14). Dodson makes a fascinating case that the extraterritoriality of the U.S. borderlands offered a specific kind of sanctuary for exiles as well as a base of support for actions designed to undermine the Calles government. It is an argument for continuity considering that this pattern of coup plotting in the near abroad was a commonplace in Mexican politics in the nineteenth century, such as Benito Juarez’s reliance on U.S. weapons and funds, and into the twentieth: Francisco I. Madero’s Plan of San Luis Potosí was written, after all, in San Antonio. Thus, Dodson illuminates the ways in which this pattern of political life extended past the Revolution to nurture the counterrevolutionary movements of de la Huerta, the Cristeros, Enrique Estrada, Serrano and Gómez, and Escobar.
Dodson has advanced our understanding of the calculus of dissent among Mexican exile communities in the United States while sharing the fruits of his painstaking research in some deep corners of the Mexican intelligence bureaucracy. This book is a superb example [End Page 189] of the historical method and a major contribution to our knowledge of postrevolutionary Mexico.
AARON W. NAVARRO is an associate professor of history at Texas Christian University. He is the author of Political Intelligence and the Creation of Modern Mexico, 1938–1954 and is currently writing a history of intelligence sharing between Mexico and the United States.