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Homeland Security "Between the Wars"


Not a Campaign Stop

An odd assortment of cars and an armored truck converged at Engineer Springs in southern California on the evening of August 16, 1926. Each vehicle bore a campaign sticker for Charles C. Crail, Los Angeles County candidate for judge. The twelve dozen or so men each had a new canteen, weapons, and an assortment of tobacco products. Their purpose, though, was not electioneering; it was revolutioneering. Led by former Mexican General and politico Enrique Estrada, the band intended to spark yet another revolt in Mexico and so topple the government of President Callas. In what was one of the Bureau’s largest cases that decade, the Bureau thwarted Enrique’s insurrection and earned the gratitude of the Mexican government.

Although we get along well with Mexico today, stepping back to the 1920's we see that this friendship is of recent vintage. Especially in the years following the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the political situation along our border was volatile. Turmoil in Mexico often led to problems in the US, like the raids in which Mexican strongman Pancho Villa and his banditos killed several US citizens. For this reason, the US held to a policy of neutrality towards the competing parties in Mexican politics. It was the job of the FBI (known at that time as the Bureau of Investigation) to enforce this neutrality and many Agent case hours were spent following up the latest rumors of revolution.

Photograph of General Estrada
General Estrada

In 1925, General Estrada became the center of many of these rumors. That year he had been on the losing side of political/military battle and had to flee to the United States. By March 1926 Estrada rumors had become so strong that Los Angeles SAC Lucian Wheeler directly asked him whether or not he was plotting revolution. Estrada denied any interest in insurrection, but he was lying. He had been laying the groundwork for his return to Mexico for more than a year, having contacted the Parker Hardware Co. of Los Angeles about the purchase of weapons almost as soon as he settled in California. At that time, Estrada had no money; his interest was purely speculative. 

Within two months of meeting with SAC Wheeler that March 1926, though, Estrada’s financial resources improved. Friends unknown transferred $20,000 to his bank account and Estrada immediately began placing orders with the Parker Co. to purchase 400 Springfield rifles from a New York supplier as well as other implements for war. New York Agent John Haas learned of the unusually large purchase order almost immediately and alerted the Los Angeles Division that the Parker Co. was amassing a sizeable collection of war material. At that time no evidence connected the purchase to Estrada.

Unaware of Federal interest in Parker Co. rifle order, Estrada and his coconspirators combed the Mexican communities in the LA area for recruits. They promised money and future positions in the government to potential revolutionaries and assured their supporters that everything was fixed with the Department of Justice; some were even given papers “documenting” this claim and each recruit received a new canteen, money, and tobacco, and was told he would get a rifle at the appropriate time.

On August 4, the rifles arrived in California and were immediately moved to a Los Angeles warehouse. The Parker Company also bought two machine guns, several trucks, four planes, and a quantity of nickel/steel armor plate for Estrada. Company salesmen tested the plates’ durability by firing rifles into it. When it passed this test, they arranged for it to be attached to the sides of Estrada’s trucks. And when the machine guns arrived, a Parker Co. representative set each up in his hotel room to measure its height so that the armorer could cut holes in the trucks’ sides for the guns. 

The Bureau did not learn of many of these details at first, but an old informant’s help quickly revealed the major outlines of the case. On August 9, Francisco LaMadrid contacted Agent Edwin Atherton. LaMadrid was an old friend of the Bureau and worked for the Auto Theft Bureau of the Automobile Club of California. He had provided crucial information about Marty Durkin after Durkin, an auto thief, murdered SA Shanahan in October 1925. LaMadrid had continued to work closely with LA agents on Dyer Act cases, but it was his connections with the Mexican community and government of Mexico that brought him to the Bureau in August 1926. He took Atherton to Lower California (a part of Mexico) to meet with a Mexican official who told Atherton about Estrada’s plot. 

Within hours, the entire Los Angeles Field Office was brought in on the investigation. Agents were assigned to keep Estrada’s rifles under constant surveillance. Agents Manuel Sorola (one of our earliest Hispanic Agents) and Emilio Kosterlitzky (a polyglot of Russian birth) tapped their sources in the Mexican community for information. Other Agents followed Estrada’s men as they recruited revolutionaries throughout the area. 

Meanwhile, SA Edwin Atherton was assigned to lay the groundwork for patrolling the border and over the next several days he and LaMadrid familiarized themselves with the roads and geography between San Diego and Mexico. As there were few roads over which Estrada could lead his small army to Mexico, Atherton could quickly build a net of federal, state, local law enforcement to cover the land.

Road Trip

Staking out the rifles paid off. The Bureau knew immediately when Estrada was ready to launch his plot and as the trucks were loaded on Saturday August 14, the Bureau was ready. With canvass hiding their armor plating, one of Estrada’s trucks pulled out accompanied by a carload of conspirators; the armor on the second truck wasn’t finished so it had to follow later. LA Agents Daly, Hopkins, and Findlay closely monitored the truck’s progress. From other sources it was known that the other members of the conspiracy would meet the truck near the border to receive their rifles and orders. 

Photograph of Special Agent Findlay Photograph of Special Agent Hopkins  
Special Agent Findlay
Special Agent Hopkins

By telephone, SAC Wheeler informed Atherton that the truck was leaving Los Angeles around dusk. Atherton immediately began to assemble his net. His first move was to arrange his lines of communications at the San Diego Hotel where he had been staying. He made “special arrangements … with the telephone operators …to transmit all phone calls promptly [to Atherton’s hotel room];” “…a few boxes of candy were distributed to insure this service.” Unobtrusive cover was also assigned to the hotel switchboard to ensure that “interested persons” did not approach the switchboard operators. Cell phones, of course, were decades away and mobile, two-way radios would not be in use until the late 1930’s so investigators had to rely on land-line telephones to coordinate an operation that stretched from Los Angeles to the Mexican border.

Over the next several hours, Estrada’s truck meandered south towards San Diego. The General and his closest advisors monitored the progress from a hotel in La Mesa, California, with a map on his bed. As his trucks checked in, Estrada told the drivers where to go next. Problems, though, arose almost immediately. That night, the truck only made it as far as Santa Ana before it had to stop due to engine trouble.

Graphic of CaliforniaNow repaired, the truck started up again the next morning and proceeded South followed by its Federal shadow. Just before leaving, the Agents tailing the truck alerted Atherton that they were on the move again. Atherton called together his man and told them to report to his hotel wearing civilian clothes. Later that day, as the truck got closer to the border, Atherton ordered his group to move out in two cars to check potential border crossings. Mrs. Atherton – who was not a Bureau employee - remained at the hotel to act as contact point between her husband, his fellow agents on the road, and SAC Wheeler in Los Angeles. 

For several hours Atherton’s men checked the border for signs of the truck or those who would meet it. They found nothing all afternoon. Putting their heads together, Atherton and LaMadrid figured that Estrada would most likely use a point near the town of Dulzura. They had remembered a minor road to Mexico Dulzura and the town of Engineer Springs and Atherton concluded that it was the likely route for Estrada’s expeditionary force to use.

Arriving at the Dulzura Creek Bridge, Atherton learned his hunch had been correct. Immigration Inspectors their told Agent Atherton that a canvas covered truck reportedly containing building materials had recently passed. Atherton reported to Mrs. Atherton what he had learned and told her that he would attempt to find the truck. Failing that, the group would return to the hotel to await word from other Agents. 

Success, though, was immediate. Driving towards Engineer Springs, Atherton noticed a canvas covered truck parked on the side of the road. At first they passed the truck to see if there were other vehicles further down the road. Finding none, they turned around and returned. At the truck, they arrested Juan Estrada, a relative of Enrique’s, and several other Mexicans who had hidden in the brush near by. Atherton and the other law enforcement officials then settled in to await the rest of the conspirators.

The Trap at Engineer Springs is sprung

A trickle of recruits began to arrive, converging on the location alone or in small groups. Atherton questioned each recruit upon arrest, but had to stop almost immediately as they “began to arrive so rapidly and in such large numbers” that individual questioning was impossible. To avoid blocking traffic on the road with prisoners and cars, Atherton had the vehicles parked in a large circle nearby, headlights on, prisoners in the center. 

By 10:30 that night, 104 insurrectionists were sitting on the grass under arrest. As few new revolutionaries were then coming in, Atherton decided it was time to take the group to jail. Leaving a border patrol inspector behind, he and the other officers packed the prisoners into the cars they arrived in and formed them into a long line on the road. The convoy set off for San Diego. Law Enforcement vehicles and men were on either end of the line and the prisoners drove in the middle. The inspector arrested another six plotters that night after the long line of prisoners left to drive themselves to jail.

Nor was SA Atherton finished arresting plotters. While en route, a Maxwell touring car with seven Mexicans passed the line of prisoners and finally passed Atherton’s lead car. The Agent pulled the car over and called out in Spanish “Do you have any instructions?” Taking the agent for a fellow insurrectionist, the driver handed him a sheet of paper with directions on how to get from Los Angeles to Dulzura. The Mexican also provided Atherton with a name and number to contact if problems arose in getting to the rendezvous. Under arrest, the Maxwell and its occupants joined the line.

At Spring Valley, Atherton pulled over another car. The driver, Frank Talamantes, claimed to be a Special Deputy Sheriff of Los Angeles. The Crail sticker on his car suggested something else. Two more arrests were made and Talamantes Studebaker joined the line of prisoners too. Upon Arriving in San Diego very early Monday morning, August 17, Atherton found the county jail was too small to accommodate his catch of 110 or so prisoners and dozens of cars. The convoy, therefore, proceeded to the nearby Marine Base where the prisoners were put up while they awaited trial and sentencing. 

The General Did Not Escape

Many hours before Atherton arrived with his prisoners, the ring leaders of the conspiracy were arrested. Agent Hopkins had arranged for this to occur just after Estrada’s truck arrived in Dulzura. With several local law enforcement officials, Hopkins confronted Estrada and the small group of his closest advisors who had gathered in a San Diego hotel room to oversee the expedition’s progress. Dressed in military clothing under a civilian outfit, Estrada awaited word that his army had gathered. Although he was invited to join his men, Estrada was not taken to Dulzura, but to the Marine Base where his army was imprisoned

In February 1927, Enrique Estrada was convicted and sentenced to 21 months in jail and a $10,000 fine; the other leaders received similar, but lighter, sentences. The rank and file defendants received little or no punishment. After serving his sentence, General Estrada returned to the Los Angeles area and ran a language school for a time before returning to Mexico to live; he died in 1940. As a sign of its gratitude, the Mexican Government presented engraved pocket watches to the primary case Agents. Each SA gave his watch to SAC Wheeler to be returned to the Mexican government; then as now, they could not accept such gifts.