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SOLDIER OF FORTUNE -- ADVENTURING IN LATIN AMERICA AND MEXICO WITH EMIL LEWIS HOLMDAHL

Chapter 5:  Revolution in Mexico

"Companeros del arado Y de toda herramienta Nomas nos queda un camino: Agarrar un trienta-trienta!"

Comrades of the plough And all workman's tools, There's only one road now: To seize a .30-.30.!

-- Corrido of the .30-.30 carbine

In 1909 Mexico was a volcano about to erupt. For more than thirty years the people of that country had suffered under the iron fist of dictator Porfirio Diaz. Since Diaz seized power in 1876, he had done much to modernize the archaic economy of the country by encouraging foreign capital to develop its railroads, its petroleum and mining industries, and its primitive agriculture. But only a few political allies had prospered, and, as foreign interests controlled much of the economy, many Mexicans felt they were strangers in their own land.

Among the intellectual and educated classes this foreign domination set ablaze the embers of a dormant nationalism, and soon the cry of "Mexico for the Mexicans" began to be heard from provincial marketplaces to salons in Mexico City. Throughout the years of the "Porfiriato," the mass of the peasantry had lost much of their communal land to the rich hacendados, either from legal chicanery or from the weapons of hired pistoleros.

Small merchants and an embryonic middle-class smoldered with resentment, as opportunities for growth in a burgeoning economy were thwarted by the political and economic collusion of Diaz adherents which stifled their ambitions. Even among the well-to-do, some of the concepts of Jeffersonian democracy had filtered down from the northern border to offer the hope of political freedom and an escape from a dictatorship of brutal force.

There was a whiff of revolution in the air and soon it would be

A widespread revolution that would lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths, a revolution led by new caudillos, some modern and some archaic, divided ... between the ideals of the future and the roots of the past.

There would be factions of "nationalists, democrats, anarchists, socialists, Jacobins, devotees of the Virgin of Guadalupe," combining both with and against each other. [1] Into the eye of this growing political hurricane stepped a tough twenty-six-year-old soldier looking for trouble. It was not difficult to find.

In the Holmdahl Papers in the Bancroft Library there is a typed, unedited, eleven-page autobiographical manuscript that has never been published, entitled "As a Soldier of Fortune and Filibuster in Mexico." In it, Holmdahl describes his entry into the Mexican revolution, "In the year 1909, I answered an advertisement in a Los Angeles newspaper which read, 'Wanted: A man with military experience, who has nerve and is single'." [2]

Holmdahl answered the ad, listing his military experience, and was soon invited to a midnight rendezvous in a sleazy section of town. After several meetings and exhaustive interrogations, his mysterious questioners gave him an envelope containing a $100 bill and brought him before members of a revolutionary junta. They asked him if he, posing as a mining expert, "would purchase arms and ammunition and smuggle it into Mexico." [3]

If this is an improbable story, it is less improbable than many of the documented events in Holmdahl's hegiras and hair-breadth escapes in Mexico during the next twenty years. And, as will be seen, Holmdahl had reasons to conceal the origins of some of his early adventures and associations.

While Holmdahl later identifies the revolutionary junta members as part of the movement led by Francisco Madero, it is highly likely that he fell in with members of the radical Flores Magon faction. This group of plotters, led by Ricardo Flores Mag6n, were hard-core anarchists. They were supported in the United States by the equally radical International Workers of the World, known to Western lawmen as "Wobblies." They were the instigators of the bloody strike at an American-owned copper mine at Cananea, Sonora, in 1906, which many called the "Lexington and Concord" of Mexico. [4] In 1908 they launched an abortive attempt to topple Diaz, which was put down with much bloodshed. Operating out of California, they were bus), subverting the Diaz regime a decade before the liberal revolution led by Madero. As the most radical revolutionaries, they hated liberals and later went to war against the Madero government.

During 1909, their newspaper Regeneracion fanned the flames of hatred against the Diaz regime exhorting

Throw down the plough. Slaves, take the Winchester in hand ... Work the land, but only after you have taken it into your own possession ... [5] Forward comrades.  Soon you will hear the first shots; soon the shout of rebellion will thunder from the throats of the oppressed ... Land and Liberty. [6]

If Holmdahl joined this group, he undoubtedly wished to conceal it, particularly since he later sought a commission in the United States Army. The Magonistas were constantly harassed by American officials and Mag6n ultimately died in an American prison.

Holmdahl recounted that he was given "plenty of money" by the group. He traveled to Nogales, Arizona, crossed the border, and boarded a Mexican train for a 500-mile southern journey to the end of the line at Culiacin, the capitol of Sinaloa. From there, he wrote, "I purchased a horse and saddle and lit out further south. ..over the tortilla trail ... [it got its name] as there was nothing to eat on the way except the tortillas you brought with you." [7]

After a 100-mile ride across the then sparsely populated coastal plain, he arrived at the west coast port city of Mazatlan. He spent several months there making contacts and improving the rudimentary Spanish he had picked up in the Philippines and during the Banana Wars. From Mazatlan he traveled to his revolutionary objective -- Tepic, the capital of the small coastal state of Nayarit.

Founded in 1530, Tepic was a sleepy colonial village hemmed in by mountains to the east and the Pacific Ocean to be west. It was noted only for its swaying palm trees, the Church of Santa Cruz, and near the beaches some of the most voracious stinging flies and mosquitoes in the Western Hemisphere. It is in Tepic that Holmdahl first demonstrated his full blown talents as a con artist/spy and all around dissembler.

Posing as a wealthy representative of a New York mining company, Holmdahl gained entree to the Governor's Palace by dangling the usual lure of the Diaz era. He told the governor he was interested in purchasing "good property" and promised "good money" would be available in exchange for official help. The governor, charmed by the suave manners and presumed wealth of the young gringo, invited him home for dinner. Soon, on warm evenings, they were seen strolling arm-in-arm around the town plaza as flirtatious senoritas batted their eyelashes above their fans as they passed the presentable young American. Tepic was a young man's romantic dream.

But as the revolutionary winds swept down from the mountains to Tepic, this idyll was to turn nightmarish. As Holmdahl wrote: "But now their hearts are chilled with fear, their souls are shrunken with their pain; for death is ever stalking near." [8] It was soon to come. But Holmdahl became less sentimental for there was a job to be done.

Winning the governor's confidence, Holmdahl soon learned the number of men and the amount of arms and ammunition at the disposal of the Diaz forces in the area. The governor, according to Holmdahl, actually showed him a hiding place where he had secreted rifles for use in an emergency. The young "entrepreneur" forwarded this information to the Los Angeles junta. Unsettling at this time, however, was the arrest in Tepic of several revolutionaries, who were speedily shot in a public execution in order, as the governor said, "to put fear in the people."

Using the pretext of surveying timberland on the coast, Holmdahl spent nine days searching for potential landing places where he could bring in smuggled arms. Returning to the capital, a man approached him and whispered that the governor had been informed he was a spy, his arrest was imminent, and he should run for his life. Apprehensive, Holmdahl went to his hotel room to gather his belongings, only to see from his window a number of rurales, the dreaded rural police, surrounding the building.

The former young-man-about-town slipped into the hotel patio, used his leather lariat to lasso an overhanging water spout and pulled himself up to the roof. Leaping onto the roofs of nearby buildings, he reached the end of the block where lowering himself, he bumped into a dozing policeman. The policeman awoke, began shouting, and pulled his gun from its holster. He got off one wild shot before Holmdahl, firing over his shoulder, made the policeman "eat dirt."

"I knew I was in for it," Holmdahl wrote, ''as I had killed this monkey." Running to the nearby stable where he kept his pride and joy, a blooded sorrel stallion which he believed could outrun any horse in the area, he swung into the saddle and rode out into the street. The rurales, now mounted, galloped in a frenzied pursuit as a crowd, attracted by the gunfire, filled the street leading into the plaza. Holmdahl rode into the crowd, figuring the rurales would not shoot into a mass of people. This was a mistake as rorales never gave a damn whom they shot, and immediately opened fire. "Bullets" Holmdahl wrote, "came uncomfortably close."

With his characteristic ironic sense of humor, he recounted,

A fat priest came out of the church and waved his hands at me. I fired, not at him, but at a large stained glass window just above his head, and shattered the glass. If you ever saw a scared fat priest make a quick retreat that 'toad' made grand time. I bet he called me a few things not in the Good Book.

Laughing, Holmdahl doffed his sombrero as he galloped down the cobbled street. Soon, he wrote, his sorrel outdistanced his pursuers; they, however, fired a final volley, and he felt his horse stagger. The sorrel, running full out, began to weaken after several miles, and Holmdahl pulled up to a corral owned by a local rancher.

Dismounting and tugging off the saddle, he spotted a bullet hole in the horse's flank, "a few inches above the tail." Saddling one horse and leading another, he opened the corral gate and stampeded all the other horses, as he galloped down the roadway. Behind him an infuriated rancher screamed curses at the gringo ladrone. "It was," Holmdahl admitted, "the first horse I ever stole." After a long ride he lost his pursuers in a heavily wooded area.

After four days of hard riding, stealing horses, eating on the run, and sleeping in the saddle, he reached a hot spring near the village of Tuxpin, and, feeling drowsy, decided it was safe to take a nap. Dismounting, he hobbled his horse and fell into a deep sleep. He was torn from uneasy dreams by a sudden intense pain in his foot.

Jerking awake he saw the butt of a Mauser carbine coming down on his other foot with great force. As he looked up he was con- fronted by the barrels of more than a dozen rifles pointed at various parts of his body. Managing a wan smile, Holmdahl said, "Some race, huh?" The rurale commander responded with a hard jab to his ribs with a carbine barrel, hissing, "Your gringo sense of humor is misplaced."

Pulled to his feet, his hands were tied behind him so tightly that he complained. Annoyed, his guard stabbed him in the leg with a knife -- a most effective way of quieting complaining prisoners. His captors put a rope around his neck, and for a terrified moment Holmdahl believed his career as a spy was to end with him dancing on air, suspended from the limb of a nearby tree. It was with a small sense of relief that he saw that the rope was tossed to a sergeant, who hitched it to his saddle-horn and then spurred his mount.

Half-dragged along ten miles of hot, dusty, rough road, Holmdahl was taken to the small town of Rosamorada. As he was pulled through the town, its poor inhabitants crowding the street were lectured by the rurale leader about the consequences of plotting against Porfirio Diaz. Holmdahl noted, however, that while the men stared blank-faced at his dust-covered, bloody body, many of the women had tears in their eyes. Exhausted, beaten, and half- strangled, he was almost glad when he was thrown into the town's foul-smelling jail.

That night a Diaz agent, "a tall, lean, mean-looking man," accompanied by a priest, entered Holmdahl's cell. A written confession was shoved in his face, and he was ordered to sign it and give them the names of his fellow traitors or he would be immediately shot. A young jailer, with a face badly scarred from smallpox, standing behind the two, caught Holmdahl's eye; he was shaking his head from side to side.

When Holmdahl refused to sign, he received stinging slaps in the face until the Diaz agent nodded to the priest to give this stub- born gringo the last rites. The priest asked, "What is your religion?" Holmdahl replied, "I have none and you can go to hell." The agent leaned down and slugged the prostrate man, screaming, "Respect the church." The priest, however, made the mistake of not retreating out of range, for while Holmdahl's hands were tied, his feet were free and he lashed out, kicking the clergyman in the belly. For that rather foolish act of bravado, Holmdahl got the hard steel of a carbine butt slammed against his head.

Shaken awake hours later, his head feeling like a smashed melon, Holmdahl found the guard laying a plate of frijoles and a tamale in front of him. Hands still tied, he gulped the food "hog style." Whispering, the guard said; "If you had signed they would have shot you. Now, sleep, you will need the rest."

In the early hours of the morning the guard came again. He untied Holmdahl's hands, held his finger to his lips, and motioned for the prisoner to remove his boots. Tip-toeing out of the cell, down the jail corridor they deftly stepped over a sleeping guard. They climbed the stairs and headed for the door, but as Holmdahl eased around another sleeping guard, the man stirred, opened his eyes, and reached out grabbing his ankle. His reward for his alertness was the hard heel of Holmdahl's boot slammed into his face. The prisoner and his friendly guard ran out the door into the night where two tethered horses awaited them. They leaped into the saddles and rode off into the darkness. It was to be the first but not the last time Holmdahl escaped from jail and dodged a firing squad.

After riding all night, at dawn they were camping in the mountains beside the Acaponeta River, when Holmdahl spotted a gang of laborers repairing a bridge. From the American foreman he borrowed a gun, some flour and sugar, and headed back to the security of the mountains. From several conflicting stories, as can best be determined, Holmdahl fled to the American border. He reentered Mexico in the summer of 1909. [9]

In an interview with southwestern historian Bill McGaw, in October 1962, Holmdahl said he went to work on a railroad laying track near Mazatlin, Sonora, on Mexico's west coast. [10] In a letter to the Adjutant General of the United States Army written on December 24, 1913, Holmdahl stated, "Entered Mexico on South\vest coast nine months before Madero outbreak, as spy in employ of revolutionary Junta." [11]

During that time, somehow, he obtained a commission as a captain in the Sonoran Rural Police, the dreaded rurales, commanded by Colonel Erniliano Kosterlitzky. [12] Frightened peasants called the colonel "The Iron Fist of Dictator Porfirio Diaz." Kosterlitzky's main assignment was to search out revolutionaries -- and kill them.

All three accounts may not be in conflict, because during 1909, uprisings led by Ricardo and Enrique Flores Magon erupted in June and the disgruntled peasantry in the northern states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Sonora were spreading rumors of revolt. Unrest spread by the Flores Magons was to burst into flames of revolt the following year. As one of Diaz's most trusted officers, Kosterlitzky acted as the eyes and ears of the dictator, sending reports directly to the presidential palace in Mexico City. He had developed a network of informants in every bar, bordello, and village in northwestern Mexico. These informants funneled to his headquarters any conversations, movements, or rumors that could be construed as hostile to Diaz.

Considering that Holmdahl arrived in Mexico during this critical and suspicious time, it would be surprising if he was not approached by one of Kosterlitzky's agents. With a key job on a strategic railroad, the mercenary probably became one of Kosterlitzky's spies called zorros or foxes, by a fearful people. Playing a double game with Kosterlitzky must have been a nerve-wracking experience for the colonel was one of the most feared men in Mexico and a sinister legend along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Born in Moscow, the son of a Cossack calvary officer, Kosterlitzky became a naval officer candidate as a teenager. Bored with navy discipline, he jumped ship in Venezuela and fought his way north to Mexico, where he joined the Mexican army and fought Apaches, Yaquis, and Mayo warriors. In 1880, he was commissioned an officer and rose quickly through the ranks. When Diaz needed a band of cutthroats to control his northern border, Kosterlitzky was put in command of the rurales. Composed of "reformed" bandits and murderers, the rurales and their commander were the law of the North. The Cossack reported only to Diaz whose standing orders were "Catch in the act; kill on the spot."

During 1909, the anarchist newspaper Regeneracion was urging peasants and workers to rise up and defeat Diaz. Hundreds of copies were distributed clandestinely by smuggling them on board the Mexican railway system and then dropping them off at remote locations. They were then picked up by revolutionary agents and funneled to the Mexican public. Holmdahl probably was commissioned by Kosterlitzky to report these illegal operations from his vantage point on the railroad. He was playing a double game from the start, ostensibly spying for Kosterlitzky, while continuing to work for the regime's revolutionary enemies. Double and triple agents were not a rare commodity during the Mexican revolu tion.

In October 1910, Francisco Madero, a competing revolutionary and a well-meaning, but ineffective idealist, raised the banner of revolt against the Porfirian regime. Mexico exploded from the Baja in the north to Morelos in the south. Soon ill-trained, but brave recruits, marched to rebel encampments singing:

"Mucho trabajo, 
(Much work Nunca dinero 
Never any money  No hay frijoles, 
No beans Que viva Madero." [13]    
Long live Madero.)

Because of the young ex-sergeant's military experience, Holmdahl was given the job of guarding the railroad's gold shipments. Since Mexican paper currency was distrusted by almost everyone, workers on the line and, more importantly, landowners selling rights-of-way, insisted on payment in gold bullion or coin. Holmdahl recruited a "brigade" of 200 mounted men who, while escorting the railroad's gold wagons through bandit-infested country, fought off numerous attempts to "liberate" the shipments. Using the same ruthless tactics he had learned in the islands, he hunted down bandidos and "never left a live enemy." Soon the route of the railroad track was littered with bodies left to rot in the desert, and the Holmdahl legend was born.

One night in late October 1910, his camp was raided and more than a hundred horses were stolen. Mounting a large posse, Holmdahl tracked the stolen horses across the desert, finally managing to surround the herd and its inept wranglers. The horse thieves didn't put up a fight and surrendered. These men, Holmdahl realized, were not typical bandidos. When the men were brought before him, Holmdahl looked at them in the thin cotton pants and shirts of the peasantry and demanded, "Why did you fools steal my horses and why should I not hang you"?

In an excited gabble, the peons explained that Francisco Madero had started a revolution to liberate them, and they wanted the horses, not for themselves, but for the cause of liberty. To the surprise of his brigade, who were already tying hangmen's knots and searching for suitable trees, Holmdahl not only listened to the tales of injustice and terror perpetrated under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, but he actually sympathized with the men. "Not only will I pardon you, I will join you," he told them. Returning to the railroad offices, he resigned his job and took his pay in horses. Now openly a revolutionary, he recruited a motley band of peons to fight against his former boss, Kosterlitzky, and Diaz.

Underneath the hard visage of the professional soldier, perhaps there was a faint ember of the idealist that was touched by the tales of the ragged revolutionists. Typical was the story of Encarnacion Acosta, who in later years related

I joined the Revolution on November 20, 1910, when I was only thirteen years old ... I joined more by ... outrage, and revenge than patriotism. The landlord ... would often taunt and debase my father ... The unfair landlord hit my father ... and hit me too ... Officials under Diaz ... took our ranch along with the newborn harvest. [14]

Nineteen-year-old Francisco Zamora Arce complained,

The English and North Americans were the Owners and administrators of the railroads, mining camps, oil sea, fruit and lumber products. The Frenchmen controlled the clothing industry and the Spanish oversaw the marketed goods. The rich and powerful Mexicans owned the ... land. We, the poor citizens, owned nothing. [15]

From the impoverished villages enraged peasants shouted "Venga a la presa" ("come join the fight") and "Muerte a Porfirio" ("death to Porfirio"). Some who knew the exciting young Americano yelled, "Vimonos a Holmdahl" ("Let's go with Holmdahl") and the revolution was on.

In early 1911, his rag-tag band attacked and captured a number of West Coast villages held by small garrisons of federal troops. [16] Whether his men were loyal to the Flores Magon anarchists or to the Madero liberals is not known. Probably, at that time, neither Holmdahl or his men gave a damn. They were fighting the federals and the ricos and suddenly there was hope and a chance for glory.

After instigating a failed jailbreak in his old stomping grounds of Tepic, which resulted in the execution of more than 300 prisoners by the Diaz forces, Holmdahl again fled to the hills. A few weeks later with a band of twenty-two men, he raided the Buena Noche mine near Rosario and made off with twenty-seven cases of dynamite, with which he started a bomb factory at his mountain hideout.

After a sufficient number of bombs were constructed, Holmdahl was ready to attack Rosario. It was during this time that Holmdahl joined the forces of Martin Espinosa, who was elected "general" by the swarms of peasants flocking to join the revolt. Espinosa's men quickly captured Rosario and then moved toward Rosamorada, where Holmdahl earlier had been imprisoned.

By now their army numbered more than 3,000 men; many were bandits and some were armed only with machetes. After a few days of hard fighting they took the town, but Holmdahl was disappointed to find that the priest who had visited his cell had fled in terror to Tepic. After the customary executions of captured troops some semblance of order was restored. That night Holmdahl wrote that the revolutionary army got roaring drunk on tequila. The bandit element, he said, decided to liberate the almost 700 prisoners held in the city jail.

Since only a few inmates were political prisoners and the rest were murderers, rapists, and thieves, Holmdahl turned back the mob, telling them the prisoners were to be freed in the morning as soon as new clothing and funds could be accumulated to give them a new start in life. Then he went to General Espinosa with the dilemma -- if they released most of the hardened criminals, they would let loose a terror of rapine, murder, and theft; if they didn't release them in the morning, many of their troops might revolt against their leaders and attack the jail.

As Espinosa and his staff pondered, Holmdahl, always the practical man, came up with a solution. "Why not," he said, "look at the prison books, find out who are the worst murderers, take them out at midnight and shoot them. We won't use regular soldiers for the firing squad, we'll use officers." Espinosa agreed. After studying prison records, 112 of the worst killers were selected for execution, and six officers were chosen for the firing squad. In small groups, those selected for shooting were told they were to march to the little town of Acaponeta, where, if they joined the ranks of the revolutionary army, their sentences would be commuted.

The happy thugs were then marched out of the prison with an officer escort, On the road to Acaponeta they passed the local cemetery. There they were halted and promptly shot. "This kept us busy the whole night," Holmdahl wrote.

The next morning more than 500 of the least noxious prisoners were released as the army cheered. They were given new clothes looted from the town and five pesos to start a new and honest life. When it was noticed that not a few prisoners were missing, Espinosa casually remarked they been transferred to an army unit at Acaponeta. One can presume as a result of the previous fighting there were enough unburied bodies at the cemetery so that the slain prisoners attracted no notice. Then again, probably no one gave a damn. "Many of the freed turned out to be fine citizens but others later had to be executed after a military court martial," Holmdahl wrote.

After several months spent in cleaning up coastal towns that were still loyal to Diaz, the revolutionaries entered Tepic, and General Espinosa ensconced himself and a growing entourage in the Governor's Palace. As things quieted down, Holmdahl became aware that Espinosa was beginning to plot against Madero's army. One night, he and seven other officers were brought before the general who asked them to join his junta. They refused and that night they wisely fled to the mountains, where they joined a band of 280 Cora Indians loyal to Madero. Shortly thereafter, Holmdahl, the seven officers, and the Indians, armed with bows and arrows and an old brass cannon, attacked Tepic. They had presumed that Espinosa's men would defect and join their cause. They didn't.

After thirty-six hours of hard fighting, the Madero loyalists were soundly beaten, and Holmdahl and his compadres again fled to the mountains "leaving more than two-thirds of our men lying dead on the streets of the city." [17] It was probably during this fight that Holmdahl was wounded by a shell that burst near him, killing the man standing next to him. The wound was not serious and within a few weeks he was back at the forefront of the fighting.

By this time, the decisive battle of the revolution against Diaz was building in the northeast, where Madero had his fledgling army camped near Casas Grandes, Chihuahua. In the spring of 1911, Holmdahl joined Madero's army of peasants, former bandits and a smattering of American volunteers near Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas.

In May 1911, Madero troops led by Pascual Orozco, a Sonoran mule-skinner, with additional help from bandits commanded by Pancho Villa and a brigade of American volunteers, attacked the Federal stronghold at Juarez. By this time, Holmdahl, whether from ideology, a sense of adventure, or for cold, hard cash, was commit- ted to Madero's cause.

After a hard fought, three-day battle, the Federal forces surrendered, breaking the back of the regime and sending Porfirio Diaz into permanent exile. As the old dictator boarded the ship taking him to Spain, he remarked, "Madero has unleashed tigers. Let us see if he can control them."

Following the surrender of Juarez, a biographical sketch obtained from the Mexican Consulate in El Paso, Texas, states that Holmdahl was named a "Captain of the rural garrison of that city." The sketch further states that during 1911, probably in the latter part of May and June, he fought alongside troops loyal to Madero in the states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Jalisco, and Tepic on Mexico's western coast. These were military operations against the Flores Magon anarchists who had rebelled against Madero's forces. [18] It all became a little confusing to the outsider and American journalists often remarked, "You needed a scorecard to keep the teams and players straight." They might have added you needed an update regularly as the players changed sides with dizzying speed.

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