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Sheriff Frank Bojorquez, who held forth in Sierra County after 1916, was a good man with his fists and his gun, but nobody can remember him using either.
“Frank always spoke slowly and gave everyone a long time to understand what he had to say,” according to those who knew him. One memorable act was his arrest of two Germans involved in a plot to blow up Elephant Butte dam during World War I.
Archeologist Karl Laumbach, who’s spent years documenting the life of Bojorquez, told the lawman’s story during the annual meeting of the Historical Society of New Mexico last weekend in Las Cruces.
Inundated with news from Boston, where police and the FBI emerged from their manhunt as heroes, it was an interesting time to reflect on law enforcement then and now. Usually in such comparisons, we like to say it was a simpler time, but it wasn’t. Economic downturns were severe, hardship was widespread, and criminals – who were often as young as the Tsarnaev brothers – were ruthless.
Not every county had a Sheriff Bojorquez, and New Mexico had an abundance of bad guys. Texas and Arizona had their rangers, and Mexico had its Rurales, all so efficient they drove criminals into New Mexico. Even then, this place was the Wild West. Rustlers brazenly made off with herds in broad daylight and killed anyone trying to interfere. Robbery — trains, Wells Fargo offices and banks – were too common. Local sheriffs seemed unable to contain them.
Legislators finally responded by creating the New Mexico Mounted Police, so named because some of our bad guys had called themselves “rangers,” so the term was unacceptable here. Their uniforms were copies of the Canadian Mounted Police, but the jackets were grey instead of red. They were authorized to patrol the territory (New Mexico wasn’t yet a state), make arrests and “capture suspects local law enforcement couldn’t or wouldn’t capture,” said historian Chuck Hornung, author of four books on the subject.
Our version of the rangers formed in 1905 with 11 men, headquartered in Socorro, to patrol 121,000 square miles. Because it takes a crook to catch a crook sometimes, some of the men were former outlaws. Using their own horses and pack animals, they began by cleaning up the Animas Mountains, in the state’s southwest corner, which had become a nest of outlaws. Eastern New Mexico was the last section to feel their authority, Hornung said.
They also operated alone. Sgt. Bob Lewis was so diligent, he trailed a desperado for months. When he finally returned with his subject in custody, he learned that his young daughter had died in his absence.
Arizona Rangers and the New Mexico Mounted Police “became unpopular because they were doing things sheriffs didn’t do,” Hornung said. “Two governors unwisely used each one as strike breakers — in Morenci, Ariz., and in Gallup. They became unpopular with working people.”
The mounted police once entered the state Senate chamber and arrested two senators for taking bribes.
These lawmen had a political side — their creation was an effort to calm eastern fears about lawlessness in New Mexico during the years leading to statehood, wrote historian Don Bullis. Once New Mexico achieved statehood, the Legislature reduced funding and finally abolished the Mounties in 1921.
Hornung became friends with Fred Lambert, the last of the New Mexico Mounties. “He never thought of himself as a hero — he was just doing what needed to be done.” The mounted police were hard men with a hard job, he said.
Today we celebrate a different kind of peace officer trying to contain bad guys capable of inflicting harm only imaginable in war a century ago. And it still comes down to the wits of a Frank Bojorquez, the persistence of a Bob Lewis and the toughness of a Fred Lambert.