May 19, 2011

Pancho Villa: The Second Mexican Revolution

Pancho VillaIt seemed that Pancho Villa could do no wrong. On both sides of the Mexican-American border, he was proclaimed a hero.

Years later, chroniclers and reporters would travel through Chihuahua, Durango and Sonara, collecting stories of orphans delivered to safety and given treats; of the robbed having their possessions returned; of widows and the elderly given money and care; of wrongs righted and justice served.

In the USA, Hollywood moguls jostled for the rights to tell the story of Pancho Villa. From Washington to California, there were people singing his praises. Viewed as a modern-day Robin Hood, Villa could get a free meal anywhere. This was before we even got to revolution.

For Villa, the rise of Huerta to the presidency was a personal matter. Not only had the man once framed Villa for horse theft and almost had him shot, but he had undone the meagre gains of the Mexican Revolution. Huerta's policies were more than a return to those of Díaz. It was a full on dictatorship, forged in blood and heavy-handed responses to any who criticized him.

Moreover, Huerta arrested and executed Abraham González. This academic had been the brains behind the proposed reforms of the Revolution. He had written a far-reaching Constitution, which would have helped the Mexican poor out of poverty. He had advised Madero and recruited Villa to the cause. Now he was dead. Much later, Villa was to hunt down González's remains and give him a proper funeral. Villa probably would have rode out anyway, but the murder of González sealed the deal.

Villa crossed into El Paso, Texas, in the USA, to make his plans. He was well respected there. He funded his army on beef and cattle sold to the Texans, who willingly paid in arms or money. As Villa's prestige grew, and Huerta's correspondingly fell, Villa even started producing his own currency, which was readily accepted in Texas. His coinage was good and stable. He also had a contract with a studio in Hollywood. They would film his revolution and he would receive 50% of the door profits to fund it.

Pancho Villa currency

By the time Villa crossed back into Ciudad Juárez, the call had gone out. This Division of the North had never officially disbanded after the first Revolution and it quickly reassembled. Villa was in touch with other discontented leaders, such as Venustiano Carranza, and he was well stocked with American fire-arms. It didn't take long for practically the entire north of Mexico to fall under rebel control, with Pancho Villa's name attached to many of the major battles. (His military prowess and genius at battle strategies was impressive enough for the American army to start studying them; then using them in training exercises amongst their own personnel.)

Huerta hadn't quite been the puppet president that the USA had anticipated. In fact, he had acted with downright hostility towards American businesses in Mexico. The Americans were concerned enough to station navy ships in the Gulf of Mexico. The situation was to reach its zenith in the Tampico Affair.


Tampico, in Tamaulipas, was the site of a large American oil refinery. As Villa and Carranza closed upon it, President Woodrow Wilson sent messages to Huerta to ask what he was going to do about it. Meanwhile, US navy ships rushed into the area to evacuate their civilians from the town. Federal Mexican troops, controlled ultimately by Huerta, raised their guns on an American ship, the USS Dolphin. There was no-one amongst them who spoke both Spanish and English, on either side, thus the Americans on board were arrested and taken into custody.

They were eventually released, but not without bad feeling on each side. Rear Admiral Henry T. Mayo, of the US navy, demanded a written apology of Huerta and the placement of the Stars and Stripes to fly over Tampico. Huerta didn't respond, though the governor of Tampico did write the apology. All requests for the American flag to stand on Mexico soil were refused. President Woodrow Wilson ordered an invasion and American forces took Veracruz.

US in Veracruz

All the time, Villa and Carranza waited, not advancing, though it was obvious that they could have done. They were piling on the pressure in full knowledge of how the Americans would react. It forced Huerta to fight on too many fronts, without the backing of either his own people or their powerful northern neighbours. The people, en masse, were supporting Villa. It was his charisma and integrity which brought them from their fields; his strategy and generalship which won the battles; and the sheer presense of the man that foresaw a better future for Mexico. On 15 July 1914, Huerta bowed to the inevitable and fled the country.

It felt, at the time, that Villa was poised to become Mexico's next president. Wherever he went, the people would rush from their homes to cheer him. "¡Viva Villa! ¡Viva Villa! ¡Viva Villa!"

US in Veracruz

But there had already been some puzzling maneuvering along the chain of command. On the eve of Huerta's flight, Carranza had asked Villa to take his troops to attack Saltillo, a town which was still loyal to the president. Villa did so with his usual flair, winning the territory outright. In the meantime, Carranza had entered Mexico City in triumph.

Villa was outraged and immediately diverted his forces onto Zacatecas, the source of much of Mexico's silver wealth. It was a daring target, with easily defensible terrain to cross, but Villa did it. Carranza might have secured the capital city, but Villa had Mexico's economy.

It once again felt cut and dried. Villa would become president and he would ensure that all of the revolution's reforms would be applied. But there was one more sting in the tale. President Woodrow Wilson gave the order that the USA was siding with Carranza. The wily revolutionary politician had already done a deal with Standard Oil, the largest US oil company represented in Mexico. He would protect their interests first.

President Carranza (bearded with a stick) and his government

Villa continued to hold Zacatecas, but he ordered a half of his northern army to attack Carranza. They should have won. Villa's strategies were there and they had the strength and experience. But they were also fighting with ammunition, which had just arrived from Texas. The bullets were duds. 14,000 of Villa's men died on the field and the US president used that as justification for the fact that Carranza was the stronger candidate. From now on, no American arms would be supplied to Villa and no more financing was to come from north of the border.

Pancho Villa felt betrayed. He declared war upon the USA.

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