Adolph Saenz, who ran New Mexico prisons during 1980 riot, dies at 93 - Albuquerque Journal

Adolph Saenz, who ran New Mexico prisons during 1980 riot, dies at 93

Before serving as secretary of the New Mexico Corrections Department, Adolph Saenz was a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Latin America, trying to contain the spread of communism. (Courtesy of Mary Ellen O. Saenz)

Copyright © 2023 Albuquerque Journal

The difference between government agent James Bond and government agent Adolph Saenz is that Saenz was the real deal.

Many people in New Mexico remember Saenz as the state Corrections secretary at the time of the 1980 riot at the Penitentiary of New Mexico, south of Santa Fe – still regarded as the country’s deadliest prison riot.

But for years prior to that, Saenz served as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Latin America, trying to contain the spread of communism, risking his own life during covert assignments and being afforded a ringside seat to history.

A resident of Albuquerque, Adolph Bernal Saenz was in hospice care when he died on Nov. 26 from cardiac failure and Parkinson’s disease. He was 93.

In the 1960s, Saenz was in El Salvador when a military coup removed the government, and he was in Panama when rioting broke out. In Colombia he helped break up a kidnapping ring, and in Bolivia he helped prepare security forces to capture Marxist revolutionary Ché Guevara.

In Uruguay he held a handgun on Tupamaro terrorists who tried to capture him – twice – and helped defuse bombs at a U.S. embassy residence where U.S. Marines lived. His replacement in Uruguay, Dan Mitrione, was kidnapped and killed.

He was again in Panama in 1970 when the country’s ruler, Gen. Omar Torrijos began negotiations for the return of the Panama Canal Zone. Torrijos was later killed in a helicopter crash, and there was widespread suspicion that his second-in-command, Col. Manuel Noriega, had a hand in that crash, said Saenz during a 2002 Journal interview. Saenz, who knew both men well, said of Noriega, “I trusted him about as far as I could throw him.”

Noriega later served time in prisons in the U.S., France and Panama for various crimes, including drug trafficking, money laundering, racketeering and murder.

From 1976 through 1980, Saenz was in Washington, D.C., as a special assistant with the U.S. Treasury Department and then as assistant director of the U.S. Customs Patrol Force.

He was still working in Washington when former Gov. Bruce King appointed him secretary of the New Mexico Corrections Department just two days before the prison riot. When informed of the riot, Saenz immediately returned to New Mexico, arriving the next day, said his daughter, Marie “Sisi” Miranda.

He helped negotiate the release of hostage prison guards and coordinated State Police and National Guard troops to retake the prison. Because he was the Corrections secretary, Saenz became something of a scapegoat and was unfairly blamed for the conditions that led to the riot, said Miranda, “even though the prison system had been underfunded and understaffed for decades.”

By mutual agreement with King, according to Journal stories at the time, Saenz left the position 133 days after accepting it, saying that systemic changes he wanted to implement were met with interference by the governor, members of his administration and some members of the state Legislature.

Miranda, a now-retired Albuquerque Police Department commander, said her father inspired her to work in law enforcement.

“Back in the 1950s, my dad was an Albuquerque police officer. He was a bilingual Hispanic man with a bachelor’s degree, and he couldn’t get promoted,” she said. He and other APD officers in the same situation were subsequently recruited by the FBI. “He was with the FBI for about four years before he went into the Foreign Service.”

Despite the deadly seriousness of her father’s work, “he had a sense of humor and was very generous with his time and money,” she said. “Because he’d seen lots of suffering overseas, he always instilled in us that we should help people when we can.”

Saenz was also an animal lover who always had dogs and would frequently pick up strays, Miranda said. Because she and her five siblings spent years growing up in Latin America, they also had exotic pets. “We had an ocelot when we lived in El Salvador, penguins in Uruguay and a capuchin monkey in Venezuela,” she said.

Still, Saenz was a strict disciplinarian. “If you’ve ever seen the movie, ‘The Great Santini,’ my dad would literally put on Reveille in the morning to wake us up. He was a former Marine, so he was all about discipline.”

Saenz grew up in Las Cruces, the fourth oldest of nine children, said his wife of 26 years, Mary Ellen O. Saenz. His father, Marcos, was deputy chief of police and a World War I veteran. His mother, Alice, was a homemaker.

Still in high school, Adolph got his parents permission to sign up for a stint with the Marine Corps just as World War II was ending. He was assigned to guard prisoners of war in Japan and to help secure an American air base in China.

Adolph Saenz as a young Marine in the waning days of World War II.

He later returned to New Mexico and attended the University of New Mexico where he earned an undergraduate degree in business administration and then a master’s degree in public administration, said his wife.

“Adolph was an intellectual, very cosmopolitan and polite. He’d open car doors and pull out and hold chairs for me,” she said. “When I met him, I think he was ready to retire from that world of travel, living in hotels and going from country to country. He was actually kind of shy and happy to stay home.”

He spent much of his time at home writing books and had completed his fourth book, “Notice of Betrayal: Memoirs of the Cold War,” just weeks before he died, she said.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Judith Nakamura said she met Saenz when she was a young woman getting interested in politics. Saenz, who ran for a couple of elected offices over the years, did not win those races. “He lost with a grace that people could learn from today,” Nakamura said. “He modeled how to conduct yourself in the political arena.”

The two kept in touch through the years, she said. “I think what surprised me about Adolph is that he was so accomplished, yet, he was unassuming and there was this graciousness about him. Most people have no idea about what he had done in his life and for our country.”

In addition to his wife and daughter, Saenz is survived by two sons, Kurt Saenz of Santa Fe, and Eric Saenz of Florida (three other children preceded him in death), stepsons David Ortega and Larry Ortega, both of Albuquerque, 14 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren, four brothers (four others preceded him in death), and his ex-wife, Marilyn Saenz of Albuquerque.

A rosary and funeral Mass will be held on Jan. 6, 11 a.m. at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, 131 Cathedral Place in Santa Fe; burial will follow at the Santa Fe National Cemetery at 1 p.m.

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