May 20, 2011

Pancho Villa: Wild Roses, Tender Roses

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa was angry. Pancho Villa was really angry. He had the governor of the state of Chihuahua, but he should be President of Mexico. He knew it. The people knew it. He suspected that even the President of the USA knew it; but the Americans had not only sided with Carranza, but had also sabotaged his own cause. As far as Villa was concerned, his former allies, the USA, were now his enemies.

But he could also use them. The USA had already invaded Veracruz. If Villa could spark more hostilities from their Northern neighbour, then even the war-weary Mexicans might rise up again en masse. With Carranza out, then Villa would have to take the country. He would have the popular vote.

Pancho Villa
Villa's troops amass in Agua Prieta.

There were a few skirmishes, notably up in Agua Prieta, Sonora, right on the border with Arizona, on 1 November 1915. Though the Americans were not openly lured into combat, they did provide much of the equipment used to repel Villa's men, including searchlights powered with American electricity.

Then, three months later, a train carrying American employees of the Mexican mining company ASARCO was attacked near Santa Isabel, in Chihuahua. Villa admitted to ordering the attack, but he denied giving the command to kill the seventeen dead Americans. But worse was to come; and when it came, Villa did not deny a thing. He had invaded the USA.

Pancho Villa

On March 9th, 1916, Villa took 500 men on a raid into New Mexico, USA. The town of Columbus had a garrison of American cavalry attached to it and it was this which was targeted by Villa. In the early hours of the morning, the Villistas burst into the area, in a two-pronged attack on both town and garrison. Fierce fighting raged through the streets, with the Mexicans yelling, "¡Viva Villa!". It left the Americans in no doubt whatsoever as to who had arrived.

There are many twists and versions of this horrific event. Many chroniclers hailed it a defeat for Villa, as the Mexican dead far outstripped the American. But Columbus was practically razed to the ground and Villa escaped back into Mexico with the majority of his men. His objective had been to provoke the USA into invading Mexico and that was successful.


On March 14, 1916, the Mexican Expedition, or Pancho Villa Expedition, began, with American troops entering Mexico. Their sole objective was to find, capture and/or kill Pancho Villa. 4,800 ground troops took up the hunt, with military Curtiss "Jenny" airplanes providing aerial surveillance. But the countryside closed around Villa and the people hid him. For nearly a year, the American military searched before admitting defeat. On February 7, 1917, they finally withdrew empty-handed.

Pancho Villa
Contemporary cartoon depicting the Mexican Expedition

In the meantime, Villa had twice entered the US state of Texas and his raids had seen American dead.

Moreover, Carranza had not been happy about the American military wandering Mexico without his invitation. There were several battles between the Mexican Federal Army and the Americans. Diplomatic relations soured between Presidents Carranza and Wilson.

This reached a head, when one of Villa's officers sneaked a letter over the border, informing the Americans that Carranza was working with the German Empire. America had just been drawn into World War One, with Mexico nominally neutral. Villa's intelligence report stated that the Germans were going to use Mexico to attack the USA, thus keeping them from arming the Allied forces over in Europe.

The news was taken very seriously and, on August 27, 1918, violence erupted in the border split-town of Nogales. Half of this lies in Arizona, USA, and the other half in Sonara, Mexico. It was here that American troops met Mexican Federal troops, in the Battle of Ambos Nogales. By evening, Carranza's men surrendered and the fighting was over. The USA had won, but the humiliation was on both sides.

Nogales, showing the Mexican-American border through its center

Pancho Villa remained at large for the rest of his life. Despite substantion rewards offered by the American government and private individuals, he was never betrayed by the people of Mexico. There are unsubstantiated reports that he was also able to travel at will through some areas of the USA, especially California.

Nevertheless, his reputation was in tatters over the border. The 'Robin Hood' moniker was squashed under a wealth of new stories circulated about him. He was a mass rapist, who killed any woman who would not submit to him; he was nothing but a low-life leader of a criminal gang, akin to a Mafia Don; he was a murderer and a thief, with no value for human life; he had 26 wives and a score of illegimate children; he conspired with the Germans; he had no morals at all.

The American public turned against him, especially in the northern states, where he had never been personally known. Yet, even today, in the places where these attrocities were alleged to have taken place, Villa's name is uttered with respect. He appears, through the memories of the Mexican poor, as much a folk hero now, as he did then. Time has not tarnished the image and, as Hollywood prepares for another film about his, it has restored some of the gloss.

Pancho Villa Wanted

Carranza had never regained his lost credibility and so hadn't stood for re-election. However, the President had gone out of his way to try and discredit General Obregón, another popular revolutionary choice. Carranza's efforts including stripping Obregón of his rank and military honors, which only served to enhance the revolutionary's popularity.

Another uprising appeared imminient, but it ended quickly with a single battle between the forces of Obregón and Carranza. The President stepped down and fled towards Veracruz. He never made it, but was assassinated, in Puebla, by another revolutionary, Rodolfo Herrero. Obregón was elected and that signalled the end of the Mexican Revolution.

Obregón's cabinet
Obregón and his government

It was around this time that Pancho Villa announced his intention to retire from revolutionary life. There was no love lost between him and Obregón (the two had fought each other in battle a few times), but the signs were bright that Obregón was the president that Mexico needed.

There were a series of reforms passed which sought to finally realise some of the demands of the Revolution. He was even standing firm against the USA, over demands from their northern neighbour that article 27 of the Mexican Constitution; though other concessions were unpopular amongst his people, even while they salved US relations.

Villa knew that he couldn't become President of Mexico now. It would be like painting a giant bull's eye on his back, as that was a very public office for someone with such a bounty on his head. Instead, he disbanded his army, but for a small personal bodyguard, and withdrew with Sra. María Luz Corral de Villa and their children to a hacienda in Chihuahua. It had been awarded to him, as part of a peace agreement with the Mexican government, following the assassination of Carranza.

Pancho and Maria
Pancho Villa and his wife, Maria Luz Corral de Villa

On July 20, 1923, Pancho Villa drove to the local bank, with just two bodyguards, to take out the wages for his hacienda staff. His car was ambushed and Villa died instantly, peppered with bullets, along with one of his men. It has never conclusively proved who killed him.

Places to Visit

* There is a statue of Pancho Villa, on horseback, in the city of Chihuahua.

* Cerro de la Bufa, Zacatecas. There is an aerial tramway to the memorial and museum dedicated to Pancho Villa here. A telescope can be used to survey the actual, arduous terrain that Villa needed to traverse in order to take the silver town.

* The Historical Museum of the Mexican Revolution, in Chihuahua, has many artefacts belonging to Pancho Villa, including the bullet-ridden car, in which he was killed, and his death mask.

* Villa's grave is in Parral Cemetery, Hidalgo del Parral, in Chihuahua. However, his remains were removed from and buried under the Monumento a la Revolución (Monument of the Revolution), in Mexico City. He shares a mausoleum with other figures from this historical time, including Madero and Carranza.

* A Hollywood film, entitled 'Wild Roses, Tender Roses', is due to begin filming next year. It will tell the story of Pancho Villa.

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