Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Retired Brig. Gen. Gilbert S. Baca, who found himself on the front lines of civil unrest in New Mexico several times during his career, died May 20 at age 84 in his Santa Fe home.
A native of Santa Fe, Baca was a 1954 graduate of Santa Fe High School, where he lettered in football, baseball and basketball. He went on to study and play basketball at New Mexico State University but left without graduating to become a professional soldier.
Baca enlisted at age 16 in the U.S. Army National Guard and became an officer in the National Guard in 1956.
As a lieutenant, Baca was part of a National Guard unit that ended the occupation of the Rio Arriba County Courthouse in Tierra Amarilla on June 5, 1967. Chicano activist Reies López Tijerina led an armed raid on the courthouse to free members of the Alianza Federal de Mercedes, who were imprisoned for violating the law during their high-profile fight for the restoration of land grants in New Mexico.
Later, Baca was in a National Guard group that helped quell the Albuquerque Roosevelt Park riot in 1971, when attempts by members of the Albuquerque Police Department to arrest park visitors for illegally drinking beer sparked protests across the city, resulting in $3 million worth of damage and 41 injuries.
Baca’s role in confronting high-profile uprisings by the public wasn’t over yet. He served as the lead commander for the National Guard during the 1980 New Mexico Penitentiary riot, a lethal battle that left 33 inmates dead and made headlines across the country.
Author Ray John de Aragón said his father-in-law, Adolfo Calles, a World War II veteran from outside Belen, always mentioned Gen. Baca to him over the years.
“He said Baca was considered humble, sociable, generous and protective of his native people. Gen. Baca rose up through the ranks through hard work and effort but always maintained his connection to his roots, according to my father-in-law,” de Aragón said.
Baca’s military career led him to active duty status within the U.S. Army, where he served as chief of exercises for the Southern Command and the U.S. Army South in Panama and Latin America, and helped redesign the Army as chief of force development at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Following Baca’s retirement from the Army, he became assistant general manager for training and curriculum at the Department of Energy to train couriers of nuclear materials.
He also served as administrator, finance director and program manager at the New Mexico Department of Health. Baca’s post-Army career included establishing the International Law Enforcement Academy in Roswell.
During his military career, Baca resumed his education. He finished his bachelor’s degree at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and earned a master’s degree from the prestigious U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Family members say he was proud of his Ranger status, which he earned by finishing the U.S. Infantry School.
Baca was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve on the board of visitors at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York.
He also served on the boards of the New Mexico Community Foundation, Hands Across Culture and Court Appointed Special Advocates.
Baca is survived by his wife of 63 years, Alice Christine Sánchez y Medina de Baca, six children, numerous grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held for Baca when it is safe for people to gather, the family said in a statement.