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From Zorro to Chapo

13 May 2010

Zorro is a Mexican folk hero in the same way that Taco Bell is a Mexican restaurant.  Johnston McCulley‘s “Old California” hero perhaps bears a passing resemblance to the real thing, but with the piquancy and  incongruity of the original blanched out into a simple, smooth and uncomplicated figure.

Several historical Mexican “social bandits” (and the quasi-mythical Californian, Joaquin Murietta) have been proposed by scholars as THE source of McCulley’s masked hero, but none more than Heraclicio Bernal.  Born in San Ignacio, Sinaloa in 1855, Bernal’s managed to learn to read and write, and to absorb the history of the guerrilla war against the French, before he was forced to cut his education short at the age of 13 to go to work in the Cosalá mines.  At the age of 16, he was accused of robbery (falsely, it turns out) and unable to defend himself, fled into the wild Sinola-Durango border country.

From the hills, the former miner became an astute student of labor and management in the extractive industries.  His research methodology was simple — extract from management and build a network of associates and contacts throughout the labor sector through directed financial assistance.  Or, to put it in crude terms, rob from the rich and give (after deductions for overhead, expenses and executive compensation) to the poor.

Captured in 1876, Bernal  was transported to Mazatlán where — Juarez having died the previous year, and the unpopular Sebastían Lerdo de Tejada having ascended to the Presidency, a coup in support of Porfirio Díaz was being organized.  In search of good guerrilla fighters for what was expected to be a hard campaign, Bernal was offered a Lieutenant’s commission.  Like Pancho Villa a generation later, Bernal’s criminal activities did not interfere with ability to analyze political and social trends.  Recognizing that the Díaz regime would mean more dependence on foreign economic intervention, and serious in his support for Mexican miners, he spurned the offer, headed back into the Sierras and spent the next several years targeting specifically foreign owned mines.

As the Ejército Renovador, Bernal’s forces — to those who were paying for the movement — were bandits.  To the workers and peons, they were an army in revolt.  In 1880 the Ejército Renovador managed to briefly capture Mazatlán, but mostly operated as a guerrilla unit, staging hit and run raids on foreign owned mines and businesses.  By 1885, the federal army had ceded control of large swaths of the Sierras to Bernal’s forces, and in July of that year, he was powerful enough to call a convention, which united with forces led by Trinidad García de la Cadena, the Governor of Zacatecas, proposed launching a popular revolution against the Díaz regime.

The revolt was short-lived. García de la Cadena was captured and executed in October 1886.  Bernal fought on, unsuccessfully attempting a raid on Culiacán with a force of 400 cavalrymen.  The result was a 100,000 pesos offer for Bernal’s head and his brother (who had nothing really to do with all this) was arrested and shot.  Retreating back into the hills, Bernal’s forces were continually harassed, and he kept retreating.  His heath deteriorated, and he died 4 January 1888.

And here is where the story gets weird.  Recognizing that his rebellion had failed, but wanted to turn it to some profit, he suggested his men cut off his head when he died, and turn it in for the reward, then distribute the money to the miners.  Depending on what story you believe, either his compadre Crispín García carried out Heraclio’s dying wish, or — surrounded by the Federales — Crispín convinced the Federales to finish off the dying Heraclio and take a cut of the reward money, with the bulk going to the miners.

Although the “mainstream media” of the time made Heraclio Bernal out to be a criminal and threat to the national state (both of which he certainly was), he was celebrated in Sinaloa’s hill country as a folk hero, a wily enemy of the gringos and a friend of the poor.  Corridos celebrated his real and imagined exploits and the pulp fiction of his time — celebrating the deeds of a backwoods Sinaloan hillbilly — were reworked by Johnston McCulley when he created the Californian hidalgo Don Diego de la Vega.

In the 1880s, when Heraclio Bernal was fighting for the workers in one Sinaloan industry serving foreign interests, another industry was just getting started. Because of declining opportunities for small-time Mexican capitalists to compete against the foreign mining operators, and in opportunities for small hill farmers, the  poppy cultivation and opium processing became an important part of the Sinaloan economy.

UNAM’s Institute of Social Research professor (and Sinaloa native) Luis Astorga , writes (Drug Trafficking in Mexico: A First General Assessment) of the early Sinaloa narcotics business:

Articulated since the end of the nineteenth century to the economy of California and Arizona in the U.S.A., the opium produced in that state followed the same route as certain agricultural products that were exported via the Pacific railroad. Chinese immigrants and local producers and traders, mostly but not exclusively from the mountains of Badiraguato (a municipal division of the state of Sinaloa) transported their merchandise to the border cities of Nogales, Mexicali and Tijuana. Criminals by law, they were merchants, some of them from wealthy families, peasants, adventurers, and middle class people, living in cities and towns where everybody knew each other, who decided to tempt the devil and tried to make quick money to get rich, to capitalise their legal business, or to earn a living living. Those who persisted and specialised in drug trafficking, those who became professionals, were, most of the time, people from the mountains where poppy fields bloomed. They created dynasties, transmitted their know-how to the successive generations and succeeded in founding a source of permanent drug trafficking leaders to manage the business nation-wide. In the long term, they appear as a kind of oligopoly: they have been leading the most important drug trafficking groups since the beginning of prohibition; the power of the groups has not followed the six-year political cycles; and they have never shown any interest in organizing themselves in politics

The emphasis in the last sentence is mine… and illustrates the key difference between Heraclio Bernal and Chapo Guzmán.  While both Heraclio Bernal and Chapo Guzmán are portrayed in the “mainstream media” of their respective times as crimnals, pure and simple, in the hills and hollers of backwoods Sinaloa nothing is ever pure, or simple.

Like hill country people the world over — whether in Afganistan, Appalachia, Chiapas or Sinaloa — these are people living in isolated communities who resist any outside interference in their way of life for good or ill.   Both Heraclio and Chapo are folk heroes to these people (and many others) for similar reasons:  they are, in one way or another, redistributing the wealth, economically defending their community from foreign dominance and defying the larger forces of the state.  And… of course… respected, admired or feared as outlaw kings in their own untouched dominions.

But Heraclio had a political agenda… the overthrow of the exploitive state.  So far, the Sinaloan narcotics exporters have not needed a political agenda.  After all, within Sinaloa, they have been part of the establishment since the 1880s.

The state, though, by defining the “cartels” as an “enemy” run the risk of uniting the bandits those with a social agenda… much as the Ejército Renovador grew out of a gang of robbers and became a guerrilla army.

Heraclio was eventually defeated.  But… consider the next generation of “social bandits”.  With Porfirio’s state becoming more repressive, and controlling the technology that permitted control (in his day railroads and telegraph), opposition had to make common cause with those bandits to achieve social change.  And did.  Will Chapo in a hundred years be seen as a precursor to the next Pancho Villa?  I can’t say, but — just from one small slice of Sinaloan history — I can suggest that the present Federal response to the narcotics distribution business is creating more resistance to the government than it is gaining support in this one over-emphasized state action… and more likely to drive those who do not necessarily support the narcos to see them as allies against the state.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Maggie Drake permalink
    13 May 2010 8:14 pm

    Um, does the State Department know about this ?

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