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Secret Agent Man: Sherburne Hopkins

22 February 2009

The best secret agents have the best covers. Who would ever believe that Mexico’s “Agent #1” was a WASP attorney at a Washington law firm?

Sherburne Gillette Hopkins was born (1869) into the Washington establishment, and grew up being groomed for his eventual role as partner in the top-shoe law firm of Hopkins and Hopkins. Despite enjoying a more than adequate income for not particularly daunting tasks — or as Mexican historian Alejandro Rojas (“Dólares y armas” Relatos e historías en México, February 2009) or because he found the political and social stability of the United States stupefyingly dull — Sherburne Hopkins nurtured a special fondness for rebellion.

His 1891 involvement in gun-running to Chilean rebels might have been chalked up to “youthful indiscretion”, but following his service in Cuba as a Marine Corps officer during the Spanish-American War of 1898, Sherburne developed a serious interest in Latin American politics and – for an establishment lawyer – a strange affinity for overthrowing the establishment….in other countries.

While today, law firms representing foreign interests are required to register as such, then – as now – such work is bread and butter for Washington firms. There was nothing particularly unusual in Hopkins and Hopkins work for clients in Guatemala and Honduras… other than usually representing groups trying to overthrow whatever government was in place at the time. Otherwise, it was fairly routine work – arranging meetings with financial lenders and exporters (although most exports handled by Hopkins were munitions), hunting up sympathetic media contacts and the like. In 1910, when the very establishment MEXICAN Madero family went shopping for agents for brother Francisco’s scheduled November Revolution, the family’s Wall Street broker recommended Hopkins and his firm.

Gustavo Madero – less ethereal than brother Francisco – recognized Sherburne’s talents, but was careful to note some shortcomings. Hopkins was not a particularly brilliant lawyer (he tended to lose in court), was a poor business administrator and had no particular ideological commitment to the Revolution. However, when it came to organizing a Latin American revolution, he had the right contacts, and – having trouble managing his own finances – was willing to convince those contacts to work with the Maderos… if the price was right.

The agreed-upon retainer, 50,000 dollars (a huge fortune in those days), was contingent upon the Revolution’s success. Hopkins did excellent work, finding reliable arms suppliers, friendly reporters to spin the Madero story in the national media and lobbying Congress and judges to go easy on Madero supporters who were technically violating the Neutrality Act.

He did good work, and earned his fees. With the success of the Madero Revolution, Hopkins work, for the Madero family and for the Mexican government would have been routine, if U.S. Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson had not decided – on his own authority – to back the Huerta coup that led to Madero’s murder, and took the Revolution in a new direction.

Certainly, he was paid for his work for Madero’s avengers, especially Pancho Villa, but it was not just business as usual. Hopkins and Gustavo Madero were good friends. Gustavo’s particularly brutal murder (The body was unrecognizable after Gustavo’s one good eye was gouged out with a bayonet and he was literally beaten to a pulp) made it personal.

Having backed Villa, the Mexican agent was not particularly supportive of Venustiano Carrenza. It didn’t take much for Adolfo de la Huerta, the small town banker turned Constitutionalist Secretary of Treasury (and underground Obregon supporter) to “turn” they informal agent. Under Obregon, the Mexican government had the stability to regularize the government operations that had been run “ad hoc” for the previous ten years. That included the intelligence services. During the 1920s, with the United States government openly hostile to Mexico, it was critical for the Mexicans to have good information on Washington establishment thinking. It wasn’t so much a matter of breaking and entering, or the spycraft of James Bond, but what today is called “open source intelligence”…not so much spying, as keeping tabs on what the thinking was among the power elites, a “heads up” on what the economic and foreign policy decision makers were saying about Mexico.

There was nothing illegal about any of that, although today, Hopkins would have faced charges for not registering as a foreign agent. And, at the time, with the very bad relations between Mexico and the United States, he would have been viewed as an agent for a country like Venezuela or Syria. It was highly confidential work, and impossible for a Mexican or person identified as working for the Mexican government to do. One couldn’t just go to a cocktail party or button-hole a Senator considering an oil bill and say “Hi, my friends in Mexico want to know…”

Maybe because he also recruited artists, intellectuals and teachers for service to the Revolutionary government, Education Secretary José Vasconcellos also ran the foreign intelligence service. He was an unlikely control, but until Hopkins death in July 1932, confidential instructions, and payments, were sent in care of Vasconcellos, addressed simply to “Agent #1.”

Hopkins’ obituary made no mention – nor could it – of his “real” job. It says only that “He practiced law for more than 40 years, and on several occasions, his name appeared in connection to several internationally important foreign affairs.”

Death took away his number, and gave him back a name worth some mention in Mexican history.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 23 February 2009 8:45 am

    Great post! I’m doing the Mexican Revolution next term and this was great inspiration for me to change things up a little bit. Great fun, thanks.

  2. 23 February 2009 7:22 pm

    Nice, really an inspiring article

  3. Legacy permalink
    23 June 2012 11:28 pm

    I believe that it is inspiring, what he did is created trouble, so USA could have control. just the same way USA is doing nowadays, creates war conflicts wherever oil is, to have an excuse for getting its fat ass into.

  4. 18 September 2012 12:49 am

    The article about Hopkins is not quite factual and misses the main points of his career. He was a brilliant lobbyist and acted on behalf of American businessmen such as Henry Clay Pierce and Charles R. Flint. Check out the Wikipedia page on Hopkins to get some better, less biased facts.

    • Jacques permalink
      12 March 2013 8:54 am

      telling to go in wikipedia to get some less biased facts… ??? good joke Harry… good joke…

  5. Carlos permalink
    24 November 2015 9:45 am

    S.G.M The link to understand the thousands of death mexicans in the revolution that gave México nothing but more poverty and misery, a true criminal doing this job very well to protect the interests of his nation´s rich criminals.

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