Rodolfo Fierro (1880- 1915) was a Mexican federal soldier, railway worker and an important officer in the División del Norte, the vaunted army of Pancho Villa
during the Mexican Revolution
. Ruthless, cunning and cruel, Fierro was Villa’s right hand and hatchet man, often carrying out executions and assassinations on Villa’s orders. He was also a skilled field commander, renowned for reckless bravery.
Life Before the Revolution:
Relatively little is known about Fierro before the Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910. Fierro worked in the booming railway business during the Porfirio Díaz
regime and as a soldier fighting the fierce Yaqui Indians.
The Battle of Tierra Blanca:
Fierro’s name first appears in the annals of the Revolution in November, 1913, when Pancho Villa’s legendary Division of the North crushed Victoriano Huerta
’s federal forces at the battle of Tierra Blanca. Fierro played a key role in the battle, sending a locomotive loaded with explosives at the federal army, which sent soldiers fleeing when it detonated. He is also credited with capturing a fleeing federal train by riding after it, jumping onto it from a horse, and shooting the conductor dead to stop it. The train yielded prisoners and valuable munitions.
Fierro had a well-deserved reputation for being a sociopathic hothead. There is any number of anecdotal legends about him. On one occasion, he allegedly got into an argument about whether or not a shot man will fall backwards or forwards: Fierro said forwards, the other man said backwards. Fierro solved the argument by shooting the man...who fell forwards.
The 200 Colorados:
On another occasion, Fierro was put in charge of a couple hundred captured “colorados,” or soldiers loyal to Pascual Orozco
. He asked the prisoners if they wanted to join Villa’s army or go home. Those who joined were given a rifle and three bullets. The 200 who said they wanted to go home were given a chance. Fierro set them free 10 at a time in a corral and if they could make it 100 yards and over a fence, they were free. Meanwhile, Fierro picked them off with pistols. Only one man escaped.
The Murder of William S. Benton:
William S. Benton was an English rancher who had been notorious in the Porfirio Díaz era for stealing land from local villagers. His crimes were too blatant for Villa to ignore, and he ordered much of the stolen land returned. On February 17, 1914, Benton stormed into Villa’s house in Ciudad Juarez, demanding his land back, and was shot dead in the ensuing argument. Some witnesses say Fierro shot him, while others say Villa did. Either way, it resulted in British hostility towards Villa from then on.
Fierro and Villa:
As the revolution wore on, Fierro was a loyal officer for Pancho Villa. Villa would occasionally entrust him with the taking of some strategic objective, but generally he kept Fierro close. Although Villa’s troops detested Fierro because they feared him, (with good reason), Villa himself relied on Fierro for dirty work he was unable or unwilling to do, and it cannot be doubted that the mere presence of “the Butcher” was enough to keep the troops in line. Fierro took part in the decisive battle of Celaya
, which was a devastating loss for Villa.
Death of Fierro:
By late 1915, Villa had been defeated soundly in major engagements and he took his Division of the North to Sonora to regroup. On October 14, Fierro was crossing some muddy water which turned out to be quicksand and he was soon stuck. He ordered his men to pull him out, but they “accidentally” kept tossing the rope short for a while before abandoning any pretense of helping him. He promised a fortune to anyone that would save him, but instead the men he had terrorized simply watched him drown. According to legend, his waistcoat was full of gold coins, which made him sink faster.
Rodolfo Fierro has become part of the Pancho Villa legend. Many historians like to see him as the manifestation of the “dark side” of Villa. This is a bit unfair to Villa. While it’s certainly true that Villa was not the Robin Hood that some have made him out to be, Fierro was capable of more cold-blooded murder and cruelty than Villa ever was.
It is difficult to calculate the effect of the loss of Fierro for Villa. The Butcher was one of the few men Villa trusted and he was a talented guerrilla fighter who died just when Villa was abandoning large battles for guerrilla warfare. Although morale undoubtedly improved in Villa’s army when Fierro died, the absence of his terrifying presence probably resulted in a more unruly army than before.
Villa died in 1923, treacherously gunned down on the orders of Alvaro Obregón. It is impossible to speculate about what might have been, but Villa certainly missed the watchful and cunning Fierro in his final years.
Source: McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution
. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.