Bandido Chronicles: Heraclio Bernal, El Rayo de Sinaloa
Outlaws, bandits and desperadoes. What is it about them that attracts so many people? Some may say it's because people are always fascinated with the idea of hardened, gun-slinging riders that galloped through the vast deserts, and I can see the appeal in that. But I think there's a deeper reason for it. I think it's because they are the masters of their own destiny. The only law they follow is their own. They can choose to be a hero or a villain; it's all in their hands.
We, too, have the power to make the choices in our lives. But, don't we sometimes desire to just break free of social burdens, and do what we think is right? Don't we sometimes desire that kind of liberty? We'll talk about a man that used this liberty for good; he used it to fight for those that couldn't, and defend the ideals that he considered right. He's one of those few brave men that risked his life to help others. This man is Heraclio Bernal.
A bit of back-story
In the late 19th century, things weren't looking so good for Mexico. The country had gained its independence just a few decades back, and it had already suffered two foreign interventions, civil wars, and countless rebellions. Violence and political instability were major problems, and the government didn't have the power to solve them. Wanting to set things straight, Porfirio Díaz rose to power by overthrowing the government and appointing himself president.
I'm not very fond of the guy but I have to admit he had class.
He first set out to pacify the country, and by this I mean the government would incarcerate, exile, or kill anyone that was a threat to the regime. He also implemented an economic system that benefited the rich, but crushed the poor. After a few years, he had managed to enslave the lower class population in order to keep moving the industrial economic-driven machine. This new era was called El Porfiriato.
Then let them eat cak-oh they're beating them to death. Bummer.
But before this happened, Heraclio Faustino Petronila Bernal Zazueta was born in a small ranch in Sinaloa in 1855. All throughout his childhood, he saw how his father and other men were exploited by the mine and hacienda owners, and how the government turned a blind eye to all this injustice. They would work from sunrise to sunset for only a few pesos, and sometimes they wouldn't even get paid. Any complaint by the workers could end in flogging, or even death. By witnessing all of this at a young age, Bernal learned that a radical change was needed in order to end the injustice.
The legend begins
When he was old enough, he started to work in the silver mines. Because of his bold attitude, he would constantly quarrel with the foremen. It is unknown who did it, but someone framed Bernal by planting some stolen silver bars in his belongings. He was arrested by the authorities, but as he was lead to prison, he escaped. After some running, he encountered and robbed a corrupt mine owner. This is when he started his career as a bandit. He gathered some of his fellow inmates and friends and started a gang. He would rob greedy businessmen, raid American-owned mines, and then use the money to buy weapons and give some to the poor.
Presumably while looking like a badass.
General Cleofás Salmón was sent out to capture Heraclio, but this was very difficult, since the bandit would hide in the mountains. One time, Salmón was resting and playing cards in a cantina in the village of Cosalá. A man walked in, and after some talking, they started betting and playing cards. The man won several times and left with the money. A few minutes later, a boy walks in and hands a small note to Salmón. The note said "I hope we can play again some day, better luck next time. - Heraclio Bernal"
Look at him, he doesn't even care.
Sometime later, he was captured during one of his raids and sent to prison. He was incarcerated for about a month, until Díaz overthrew the government. He was released in the ensuing confusion, and went back to his bandit ways. This time, he set up his headquarters in the mountains between Sinaloa and Durango, and from there he would raid nearby mines. The people started calling him El Rayo de Sinaloa (The Thunderbolt of Sinaloa), because he and his gang would conduct raids by appearing out of nowhere, shooting people down in a quick but devastating gunfight, and rapidly disappearing with the stolen goods.
Sorry I blinked, what happ- OH SHIT they stole the whole bank.
His fame grew, and he was known as a social bandit that fought the regime. Because of that, he was invited to join a rebellion against Díaz, lead by Ramírez Terrón. Heraclio accepted, gathered his men, and prepared for war.
While waiting for the rebellion to start, Heraclio traveled to a village to meet up with his lover. On the way back, he and his lover nearly drowned in a river. He managed to save her, but he fell ill. He traveled to the nearest town for some medicine, but there he was recognized by the authorities and quickly arrested. General Salmón condemned him to be executed by a firing squad the next day. He was tied up and left in a cell overnight. But will this stop our hero? Of course not! He used his teeth to gnaw his way out of the ropes that bound him. He waited for the sentry to come check up on him, and knocked him out. He then stole a horse and rode off into the night.
Don't these people ever learn?
Shortly after that, Heraclio and his men joined the rebel forces and to attack the port city of Mazatlán. The attack started at three in the morning, and around nine, he and his men were basically trapped on the barracks they had captured earlier. They were outnumbered, and the men were quickly losing moral. The disheartened men left their posts and started retreating, heading for the back door. Heraclio stepped in between and locked the door, then he threw the key out the window in the direction of the Federales. He then yelled, "The exit is over there!". The men returned to their posts and kept on fighting, this time defeating the attackers.
Seriously, this guy deserves a video game or something.
After the victory, he conquered small villages, recruiting hundreds of men and breaking open the warehouses to distribute the food amongst the people. The federales would tremble at the bandits' war cry: "¡Aquí está Heraclio Bernal!" (Heraclio Bernal is here!). By this time, he was very respected and loved by the people. The villages would welcome him with dances and parties. He also had a very particular way of robbing. He would apologize to women when he robbed them, and ask blessings from the priests he stole from.
Down, but not out
The rebellion failed shortly after, but this didn't keep him from fighting the government. The villagers helped him in any they could; they spied on the government, fed Heraclio's men, and even help them with certain missions. One time, the rurales received notice that Heraclio was roaming around the village of San Ignacio. They arrived to the town and hired a local to guide them to the bandit's supposed hideout. The man lead them to what seemed to be a deserted camp. With the trail having gone cold, the rurales accepted the man's invitation to bathe in the river. As they were bathing, Bernal and his men stole their clothes and weapons. The bandits led the captured and naked rurales back to San Ignacio, midst a crowd of cheering and laughing villagers.
He will scare you pantless.
And just like every good Mexican, he enjoyed big fiestas. The new governor of Sinaloa, Francisco Cañedo, started his government with a big party for the elite. Women wore the latest fashion from Paris, fine wine and elegant dishes were served, and the string quartet played while the wealthy of Sinaloa talked about wealthy people things. At a first glance, the whole thing may have looked like a wannabe European court, of sorts.
Heraclio was in the nearby village of Abuya when he heard of the party, so he decided to make a party for the common folk. A true fiesta. The musicians strummed their guitars and fiddled their violins, while the people danced and ate delicious carne asada and tacos. It's funny how two completely different worlds were just some miles apart.
This is my kind of party.
Governor Cañedo summoned all the military leaders of Sinaloa and requested reinforcements from the capital. Artillery and reinforcements were sent from the surrounding states; battalions occupied villages and towns that sympathized with Bernal. The men joined the bandit's guerrillas and the women prayed to their saints, but the soldiers said it was no use, since it was said that Bernal had a pact with the Devil. But did this scare Bernal away? You tell me. In the village of Quilá, Bernal arrived and hired a band to cheer the people up. As everybody was dancing, Bernal headed for the telegraph office saying that he wanted to invite someone that was missing the party. The letter went something like this: "To Gral. don Francisco Ceñedo, Governor of the State. The people of Quilá and myself would like to invite you to a dance in your honor. With great respect -Heraclio Bernal"
In 1885, Bernal is again invited to join a rebellion against Díaz, this time led by General Trinidad García de la Cadena. He accepts and once again readies for war.
The Thunderbolt fades away
Díaz had already heard of the bandit's exploits, so he wanted for him to be captured alive and be brought before him. Bernal had made enough impact to anger the dictator; how many people can claim to have done something like that? The rebellion started in 1887, and under the motto of "Justice and Liberty", the people of Sinaloa rose up in arms.
But de la Cadena's rebellion turned sour after a long losing streak. The Federales were now using scorched earth tactics, terrorizing the population. Bernal couldn't stand seeing his people suffer, so after de la Cadena's capture and execution, he sent a letter to the authorities declaring his defeat. He only wanted the people to be left alone. He planned to hide in the U.S., but first he went to the mountains to dig up some silver bars he had hidden there. A sudden blizzard, however, caused him to get sick of pneumonia, so he took refuge in a nearby cave. The local chief of the rurales, Octavio Meras, found out that Bernal was nearby. He wanted to take revenge on the man that had humiliated the rurales for many years. So he and his men headed for the mountains.
They found Bernal holed up in a small cave. They spread out and fired on the cave's mouth. Bernal fought back with the little energy he had. He fired and fired as the rurales closed in on him. He killed 22 rurales before they reached Bernal. And there, in a desolated cave on the desert mountains of the North, Heraclio Bernal was killed.
He's remembered as a social bandit and revolutionary that cared for the people. Brave and bold, fierce but kind, fast and strong. These traits will always be present in his legend and legacy. He's seen as a precursor to Pancho Villa, as he was also a bandit that became a revolutionary. And even though they never met, you could say it's true. One of Bernal's men, Ignacio Parra, went on to become a bandit with his own gang. At one point, Pancho Villa joined in and galloped through the deserts of Mexico with him.
Mexico's history is a bittersweet tale, but one thing is certain: heroes will always rise when needed the most. It's a nice thing to look forward to, nowadays.
El Rayo de Sinaloa
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