Mexican Revolutionary soldiers detained in Fort Bliss.

Mexican Revolutionary soldiers detained in Fort Bliss.

Holding prisoners in an open ended war situation without trial or proper judicial process is not new. Currently the U.S. government is holding over seventy prisoners in Guantanamo, Cuba, who have been cleared for release. However, freeing them would create the likely possibility that these former prisoners joined the forces the U.S. is fighting.

The exact same situation on an even bigger scale played out in the Mexican Revolution. In the spring of 1912, Felix A. Sommerfeld’s agents arrested or caused the arrest of anyone engaged in the Orozco uprising against President Francisco Madero. The uprising threatened not only the Mexican government but also the American owner properties in Northern Mexico. Within weeks of declaring against the Madero government, Pascual Orozco’s forces, the “Colorados” or “Red Flaggers, overran important garrisons such as Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City, causing the Governor of Chihuahua, Abraham Gonzalez to flee. Orozco’s main nemesis became Francisco Pancho Villa on the Mexican side of the border, and Felix A. Sommerfeld on the American side.

Most of the weapons and ammunition that supported Orozco’s uprising came from the United States and were financed by the exiled billionaire Luis Terrazas as well as an influential group of American politicians who sought military intervention as a solution to Mexico’s troubles. Sommerfeld’s task was to prevent munitions and men to reach Orozco. Sherburne G. Hopkins, who was best friends with President Taft’s Secretary of State Philander Knox, managed to have a weapons embargo declared against any forces not attached to the official government of Mexico. Madero put Sommerfeld in charge of implementing the embargo. In close cooperation with the American Justice Department scores of smugglers and would-be foot soldiers ended in the prison camp of Fort Bliss, Texas. The confiscated arms and ammunition were sold to Sommerfeld for Pancho Villa’s forces assembled against Orozco in Northern Mexico. The men who the Mexican Secret service, local law enforcement and federal agents had arrested entered a legal limbo similar to the Guantanamo conundrum.

Some of the several hundred prisoners were tried or released, but, as an investigative report in the Washington Post on August 11th 1913 revealed, most remained locked up for years. Significant about the Washington Post piece is the fact that the detention of Mexican revolutionaries extended beyond the Orozco uprising and the Taft administration. At the behest of Hopkins and Sommerfeld, the military authorities at Fort Bliss held two hundred and thirty persons without trial beyond the forty-day-limit allowed for extradition papers to be filed. Since Orozco had declared for Huerta, the prisoners in Fort Bliss remained incarcerated indefinitely without legal cause. When a local judge tried to order their release, U.S. military authorities simply moved the prisoners to San Diego where the Texas judge had no authority. There are no sources detailing the final fate of the political prisoners of Fort Bliss, but undoubtedly the U.S. military and Sommerfeld made sure they would not become combatants against the Constitutionalist forces. To this day, no one has written about the fate of these revolutionaries who, for all we know, remained in prison throughout World War I, or maybe were released only to be executed in Mexico.