The scandalous investigation that sought to imprison Tina Modotti

Even though the investigation indicated that it was a political assassination perpetrated by the Cuban government of Gerardo Machado, the Mexican authorities who carried out the investigation sought to classify it as a "crime of passion" and to frame Tina Modotti for the crime of cover-up.

The scandalous investigation that sought to imprison Tina Modotti
Tina Modotti during the interrogation for the investigations into the death of Julio Antonio Mella. Image and text by AGN, Enrique Díaz, Delgado y García, Box 30-1, Subject, Julio Antonio Mella, Funerals 1929.

On January 10, 1929, Cuban communist revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella was assassinated in Mexico City. Although the investigation indicated that it was a political assassination perpetrated by the Cuban government of Gerardo Machado, the Mexican authorities who carried out the investigation sought to classify it as a "crime of passion" and to frame Tina Modotti for the crime of cover-up.

The Italian Tina Modotti arrived in Mexico in 1923, where she continued her artistic career as a photographer, as well as her combative fight against fascism. As she held anarchist and communist ideas, she became close to other figures of the same ideological tendency. In 1928, she met Cuban exile Julio Antonio Mella, with whom she shared several ideals such as the fight against colonialism and imperialism of the United States.

However, Antonio Mella's situation in Mexico was not very safe, since he was fighting openly against Gerardo Machado's dictatorship with the publication of ¡Cuba Libre! and Tren Blindado, and he knew that at any moment he could be the victim of an assassination attempt, as he had confessed to Tina Modotti days before his assassination.

On the night of January 10, 1929, Antonio Mella was accompanying Tina Modotti, when he arrived at the corner of Abraham Gonzalez and Morelos streets he was attacked by Jose Agustin Lopez Valiñas, a gunman who had been hired by Santiago Trujillo, head of the Machadist secret police. The revolutionary received two lethal shots: one in the chest and the other in the belly; this last shot destroyed his stomach and caused his death in the early morning of January 11.

As expected, Tina Modotti had to testify as she was, up to that moment, the only witness who was with Antonio Mella. In her first statement, she said that when she turned the corner she heard the shots at the same moment that Mella fell to the ground, at the scene of the crime she could only see two individuals escaping after the shots.

Tina Modotti had managed to observe the two henchmen who had been hired by the government of Gerardo Machado, who were Miguel Francisco Sanabria and José Agustín López Valiñas, the latter being the one who had shot at Mella.

In addition to what she witnessed, she added that days before Mella had told her that he had been in communication with José Magrinat who had confessed that some thugs had come from Cuba expressly to assassinate him, also at the moment of being wounded Mella said "José Magrinat has to do with this crime and then he said to the passers-by that Machado had ordered him to be killed". This was the statement Modotti gave to the authorities.

Even though the main line of investigation pointed to a crime of political character, having been threatened with death by Machado's government as he had confessed to Modotti days before the attack, the Chief of the Security Commissions, Valente Quintana, was determined to reinforce the line of investigation which pointed out that the causes of the crime had been of a passionate character. As part of his hypothesis, he added to the investigation three more witnesses to the case, as well as the denial of José Magrinat of not having warned the deceased Meller about the arrival of two Machado's henchmen.

The three new witnesses assured that Antonio Mella and Tina Modotti had been intercepted head-on by a single gunman, for which they assured that Tina Modotti had been able to recognize Mella's murderer, which gave more weight to the accusation of Valente Quintana who pointed out that it was a crime of passion in which Modotti was implicated for covering up for the criminal.

The interrogation lasted for hours as the investigation became a vicious circle, as Valente Quintana's questions were determined to get Tina Modotti to confess the name of a murderer which she did not know. In the end, the testimony of the three people who were supposedly present at the time of the attack was discarded by the authorities, since it could not be guaranteed that in the middle of the night they could have seen the crime. Furthermore, the autopsy carried out by the medical-legal experts, Rojo de la Vega and Erasmo Marín, showed that the bullet impacts received by the deceased Mella had been from behind, which supported Tina Modotti's testimony.

The investigations failed to give a better result on the culprits involved in Mella's murder and even José Magriñat, who was one of the main suspects, was released due to the lack of evidence. The crime gradually piled up along with other unsolved cases, also Tina Modotti, who was the only witness, had to leave the country in 1930, due to the policies that the Mexican government had taken against foreigners with communist affiliation.

It was not until 1933 when Guadalupe Gil Oceguera, wife of José Agustín López Valiñas, denounced before the Mexican authorities that her husband had been the material author of Julio Antonio Mella's murder. During this second investigation, it was discovered that the assassin had received the amount of 60 dollars from Santiago Trujillo, which proved that Mella's murder had been forged by the Machado government. López Valiñas was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison; however, in 1938 he was released after the amnesty granted by the government of Lázaro Cárdenas.

About how the investigation of Julio Antonio Mella's assassination was carried out by the Mexican authorities, Tina Modotti would express the following:

For several weeks the Mexican government received protests from all over the world and hypocritically declared, through the mouth of the police, that Mexico would not rest until the matter was cleared up.
However, what happened? The only Cuban arrested by the police, the technical organizer of the crime, was released after a few weeks for lack of evidence. Valente Quintana was not fired but was appointed Chief of the Central Police of Mexico and all the protest demonstrations of the Mexican masses were sabotaged and attacked by the police.
... hypocrisy of bourgeois "justice".

The documents kept in the General Archive of the Nation, allow us to know more about the case of the assassination of Antonio Mella.