The day Pancho Villa gave as good as he got
Friday 11th March 2016
At the time when a US presidential candidate denigrates Mexicans PETER FROST recalls how 100 years ago the legendary rebel gave the US a taste of its own medicine
Racist US presidential hopeful Donald Trump has hit on a richly sympathetic seam of historical US bigotry with his attack on Mexico and Mexicans.
Trump is happy to tell his public that Mexicans are all drug dealers, criminals and rapists. Sadly, far too many US citizens seem only too happy to believe him.
Trump’s main policy promise is to build a wall along the US-Mexico border and to make the Mexicans pay the cost of the wall.
It is all bullshit and bollocks of course but Trump won’t be the first US president to ride to success on a tidal wave of that particular malodorous mixture.
Political tensions between Mexico and its northern neighbour have a very long history. Indeed, exactly 100 years ago this week, March 9 1916, a group of Mexicans led by the revolutionary leader Pancho Villa actually invaded the US.
At that time Mexico was run by an unelected dictator Porfirio Diaz and the rich landowners were transforming the agriculture of the country by industrialising sugar production. Their profits rocketed while peasant farmers — treated little better than slaves — found themselves with no land to grow food. Poverty and starvation stalked the land.
Pancho Villa was a classic example of what communist historian Eric Hobsbawm called a social bandit. He became a folk hero despite, or perhaps because of, the way he used crime to finance his revolution and equip the men who flocked to join his rebel band.
He was born in 1878 as Doroteo Arango only later in life would he take the name Francisco “Pancho” Villa (Pancho is the nickname for Francisco).
When Villa was 15, his father died. The boy began to work as a sharecropper to help support his mother and four siblings.
One day in 1894, Villa came home from the fields to find that the owner of the hacienda was about to rape his 12-year-old sister. He grabbed a pistol and shot the man dead. He was 16. To escape retribution he headed for the mountains of Sierra Madre Occidental in the region of Durango.
From 1894 to 1910, Villa spent most of his time there as an outlaw. By 1896, he had joined other bandits and soon became their leader. This band would steal cattle, rob shipments of money and rob the wealthy to give to the poor. It was during this time that he began using the name Pancho Villa.
In 1910 revolution was in the Mexican air. Francisco Madero set out to remove the dictator Diaz and aware of Villa’s growing reputation and popularity recruited him to lead a cavalry force in the revolutionary war.
Villa and his well trained and motivated band crushed Diaz’s undisciplined conscript troops in battle after battle.
Each victory brought more men into Villa’s ever-growing army. He realised the value of the media and signed a contract with a Hollywood company to make live action films of his battle victories.
After only a few months, Madero’s forces emerged triumphant and Diaz was removed from power. But democracy in Mexico wasn’t going to be that easy. Almost immediately following the revolution one of Madero’s top generals, Victoriano Huerta, murdered Madero, threw Villa in prison and declared himself president of Mexico.
In 1913 Pancho escaped and crossed the Rio Grande with just eight men. He marched towards Mexico City, gathering supporters along the way. His force became known as The Division of the North.
His army consisted entirely of cavalry, and he was one of the first military commanders in history to use railways as a means of moving men and artillery across long distances so they could join battle more quickly.
Villa purchased supplies and equipment from the US, raising money by robbing trains and rich landowners and won battle after battle against Huerta’s men. In only a few months he had liberated the state of Chihuahua and became its governor.
Villa’s campaign of revenge against Huerta was quick and efficient, often using unorthodox guerrilla tactics. At the battle of Tierra Blanca he hijacked an enemy locomotive, loaded it up with explosives and crashed it into an enemy train depot, destroying tons of critical supplies.
Perhaps his greatest victory came when his troops captured the the mountain-top fortress of Zacatecas. This was the home of Mexico’s silver reserve. This daring raid essentially broke the back of Huerta’s war machine and filled the revolution’s coffers.
Just weeks later Villa marched into Mexico City to link up with fellow revolutionary Emiliano Zapata — in the city, however, they met resistance from another revolutionary leader, the conservative Venustiano Carranza.
Carranza had the support of the US government who had supplied him with heavy machine guns. This superior firepower allowed him to drive Villa and Zapata from the city.
Upset by the US taking Carranza’s side in the revolution, in March 1916 Villa took his cavalry and mounted the only successful foreign invasion of US soil in the 20th century, riding into the town of Columbus, New Mexico.
Despite the best efforts of the US 13th Cavalry, Villa’s men captured a large quantity of guns and ammunition before escaping back across the border.
Just like Trump today the US government was not happy. A few days after the raid 6,000 US cavalrymen under General John J Pershing crossed the border to search out Villa and his men.
The search techniques they used were a strange mixture of old and new and included traditional bloodhounds and one of the first ever uses of aerial reconnaissance.
Finally after 10 months of searching, they returned home empty-handed.
By 1920 Carranza had been deposed and replaced by new leadership under Alvaro Obregon and Villa, now aged 42, declared his retirement. Three years later he was assassinated.
Pancho Villa is still remembered and honoured. His tactics and strategies shaped the way that guerilla war would be fought in years to come. His memory inspired other revolutionaries around the globe not least in South and Central America.