Last updateFri, 19 Oct 2018 7am

Meet Lake Chapala’s most famous bandit: Was Martín Toscano actually a patriotic hero?

In 2011, bat researcher Leonel Ayala told me about a cave at the eastern end of Lake Chapala near Jamay.

pg8cSince all the caves I’d ever seen near the lake were barely big enough to take shelter in, I didn’t expect to see much, but Leonel had brought along special equipment for observing bats in the dark and that, at least, seemed interesting.

To my surprise, a climb up a steeply inclined natural fissure led us to a big room in total darkness, eight meters high, with tunnels heading off left and right. By the time we left what was probably a combination cave and mine, we had found 118 meters of passages which took us hours to survey.

Although I am probably the first person to publish a detailed map of La Cueva de Toscano, I had no idea who the cave was named for until a few days ago, when I was contacted by Ignacio Moreno Nava, a researcher whose doctoral thesis is about Martín Toscano. Moreno explained to me that Toscano was the leader of a gang of bandits who were active between 1785 and 1795, principally along the southern shore of Lake Chapala. Although many legends focus on Toscano’s treasure and where it’s hidden, Moreno’s ten years of research suggested that Toscano was something more than just another bandido. Previously, other researchers have written on the subject, such as Ernesto Méndez Ruiz and Alvaro Ochoa Serrano.

Toscano was born in Atoyac, Jalisco on November 13, 1754, Moreno told me. “When he was around 30 he began to dabble in banditry. In time he became the captain of a gavilla, a group of men that carried out attacks and robberies, usually against Spaniards. Most typically, they would rob the Spaniards’ haciendas and, it is said, would then share their spoils with the poor, like Robin Hood. This is mentioned in some versions of the legend and lives on in oral versions to this very day, but so far has not been documented. On the other hand, from our research, it doesn’t look like Toscano’s gavilla was your typical ragtag band of ne’er-do-wells, but was well organized along military lines with officers and enlisted men. The documents we’ve uncovered suggest they were, in fact, a team training for a war they knew was coming: Mexico’s War of Independence.”

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