Tuesday, August 30, 2011

a friend of Pancho

Being a time traveler, I look for old things and a few blocks off Plaza Abasolo in Oaxaca I found a shop full of old things.  A second-hand store, where among the dust and debris, the old magazines and household detritus and occasional item that I did not believe was quite what it appeared to be, I found a bundle of Revolutionary-era Mexican banknotes, from that period after 1911 when old don Porfirio had been forced to retire to Paris to end his days drinking champagne from chorusgirls’ slippers, and Mexico was torn apart by contending armies and bandit gangs vying for the honor of dragging whoever was still alive into the glories of the modern age of freedom, democracy and agrarian reform, all of which apparently required a lot of banknotes (I counted twenty different issuers in the bundle I bought) whose acceptance  --  if perhaps not their value  --  had probably been guaranteed by fiercely-mustachioed men draped in bandoleers and bristling with rifles.

This was the age of Pancho Villa, whose base was in the North, in Chihuahua, and three of my Chihuahuan notes recite that they were issued under the authority of GRAL. FRANCISCO VILLA, Gobernador Provisional del Estado.

Villa’s photos show him smiling robustly or galloping about or otherwise being the Man of Action and it is my impression that he is considered by such Northamericans as have ever thought about him as a romantic character.  He even appears this way in the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, where he graciously decides not to have young Indy shot.  But in fact, deciding otherwise would have been more in his character, as Villa seemed disposed to kill people on general principles, as illustrated in an appalling incident when, to humor his bloodthirsty henchman Rodolfo Fierro, Villa let him with two pistols kill 500 Federal soldiers they had captured.  Fierro complained that the pistols got too hot to handle.  Only one of the 500 escaped.
    What is peculiarly appalling to me in that story is not that men who had surrendered were shot, as there seemed to be a lot of that happening in those days, but that one man was making his way through this mass of human beings killing them one by one with a pistol.  Not a faceless mass of men sprayed from a distance with machine gun fire, but 500 separate pulls of the trigger, 500 separate murders.  And this must have taken some time to accomplish and we are left to imagine what must have gone through the mind of the men awaiting their turn as Fierro moved down the line, a single shot at close range, stopping every twelve shots to reload his pistol, the process slowing as the steel chambers and barrel grew too hot to touch, even through a gloved hand.  Did he stop to rest?  His hand might have ached from a stiff trigger pull or his thumb from drawing back the hammer.  Did he call for water to pour down the barrel to cool it off?  Did he stop for a smoke?  Did he joke with the men watching him or with some of those he was killing?  How long would that take?  How long would the last victims have to wait?  And what were they thinking as they faced death not as soldiers in battle, but slaughtered like sheep?
    Oddly enough, I have read a number of historical accounts of this sort of butchery and the victims never seem to struggle.  Is it a cultural mindset?  Or is there a psychological explanation: a peace that comes over a person in the face of certain death?  Or is it just that these stories are almost always reported by the victors, usually for the purpose of terrifying future enemies, so there would be no reason to include mention of gallant resistance by the victims.

Is the story true?  It’s the version Simpson gives in Many Mexicos.  Another version says it was only 300 prisoners and they were given a chance to run past a wall while Fierro shot at them, though even then only one got away.  A variation of that story said that Fierro first asked each man if they wanted to return home to their family or join Villa.  Those who said they wanted to return to their family were not believed and were shot; those who said they wanted to join Villa were given a horse and a gun, but only three cartridges.  Fierro was no fool.  It probably wasn’t a very fast horse, either.
    There are a number of stories about Fierro, none of them uplifting.  Once in Chihuahua he got into an argument with a fellow over whether a man shot sitting in a chair would fall forward or back.  As they were sitting across the table from each other, Fierro drew his pistol and resolved the question in the most straightforward manner. 
    In the movie “Villa Rides”, Fierro was played by Charles Bronson.

Post Script: I was later told that the fellow I bought the banknotes from was known locally as the Butcher of Zaachila.  I was disappointed to learn that this was not on account of his murderous past, but because, before he took up his present business, he had had a butcher shop in the town of Zaachila.

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