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041 Pancho Villa and the lead role in his own film

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

Americans have a problem in Mexico

It is Sunday 4 April 1915. It is the 41st week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Field Marshal Karl von Bülow, commanding officer of the Second Army of the Germans, has to leave the battlefield after a heart attack.

Also Alexander von Kluck has to step back as commander of the First Army as a result of injuries by a French grenade.

Russian general Aleksei Brusilov enters Austria-Hungary, but the Germans come to the rescue of the Austrians in the Carpathians.

Anzac troops, Australians and New Zealanders, leave for the Dardanelles from Egypt.

The Turkish government focuses its anger on two million Armenians and starts their deportations.

After a bitter mine battle, which started in February, the French finally succeed in conquering the ridge near the village of Les Éparges.

Italy declares to remain neutral, provided that Austria-Hungary gives up a number of territories.

Erich von Falkenhayn, chief of the German general staff, transfers troops from the western to the eastern front.

Albanian forces, under German-Turkish command, are preparing for an attack on the town of Durrës and after that on Serbia. 

And in the Battle of Celaya heavy blows are dealt to Mexican revolutionary and popular hero Pancho Villa.

Well, Pancho Villa. What are we expected to believe of this man? That he married 24 women? That he invented the tactics of the mad locomotive, stuffing a hijacked train carriage with  explosives and then setting it in motion towards the enemy? That he once ceased a pursuit when he suddenly perceived an ice cream van in the streets of Chihuahua? That his right-hand man Rodolfo Fierro shot dead a random passer-by because he had a current bet with Pancho Villa: does a dying man fall forward or backward? That in 1926 Prescott Bush, father and grandfather of two American presidents, paid 25,000 dollars for Pancho Villa’s skull? And that since then this skull has been in the possession of a secret society called Skull and Bones?

One story is juicier than the other. Pancho Villa is therefore larger than life. In Mexico he is still lauded in corridos, ballad-like songs that do not always reveal whether a hero or a villain is praised.

Our question should be what Pancho Villa has to do with the First World War. We have to look for the answer with the Americans. In the middle of the Great War, when the United States are still neutral, Pancho Villa plays the game of cat and mouse with the American army under the command of general John Pershing. The country that is to put an end to a world war has not been able to collar a confounded rogue like Pancho Villa in their own backyard.

The United States’ descent into the European cesspit also had to do with Mexico. When the Zimmermann telegram, named after the German state secretary for Foreign Affairs, made public in January 1917 that the Germans were stirring up Mexico against the United States, president Woodrow Wilson was forced to resort to military means. America entered the European war.

The biggest country of Latin America, Brazil, also actually declared war on Germany in 1917, in response to the recommencement of the German U-boat campaign. Smaller countries like Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador contented themselves with the severance of diplomatic relations with Germany.

At the outbreak of the war in 1914 Latin America still bore a European stamp. In preceding decades the continent had been swamped with European emigrants. But the increasing United States inspection of the activities of Central and South America was equally unmistakable. The First World War would irreversibly speed up this process. After 1918 the almost a century-old Monroe doctrine had become practice: ‘America for the Americans’. The game of a Europe that had bled to death was definitely over in Latin America.

The omnipotence of the Spaniards and the Portuguese had already ended in the first decades of the nineteenth century. The French had remained just barely visible in Latin America thanks to a few Caribbean islands and French Guyana. The German influence was primarily military. Latin American governments preferred to professionalize their armies after the Prussian model, spiked helmets included.

But it was particularly the British who had represented Europe on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. In the three decades before the First World War British businessmen increased their investments in Latin America fivefold.

Though there had no longer been any political dependence in Latin American countries for a century, economic and cultural independence was a completely different story. In fact the continent had kept its colonial structure. English and increasingly American bankers and industrialists pulled the strings.

Uncle Sam himself also played his part. It was especially under president Theodore Roosevelt that foreign politics in the United States began to exhibit imperialist features. The Spanish-American war of 1898 had been a walk in the park, a ‘splendid little war’. Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and also the Philippines, the last vestiges of the Spanish Empire had been taken under the wings of the American Eagle on a nod and a wink.

Another project of Roosevelt was a canal that would connect the two oceans. Panama was taken away from Colombia, after which the digging could start. Roosevelt stretched the Monroe doctrine a little more. Countries in Latin America that economically or politically made a mess of things, had to take into account intervention of the United States. In 1905 the Dominican Republic was the first country visited by the policeman of the western hemisphere, Teddy Roosevelt.

Nextdoor neighbour Mexico, however, was a much more complicated story, and an old story to boot. Before the Americans began to fight each other in a bloody civil war, the United States and Mexico had known a history of border conflicts.

Napoleon III’s grotesque attempt to turn Mexico into a puppet empire also lay buried in time. The staff duty puppet, Maximilian of Habsburg, had been killed by a Mexican firing squad in 1867. Nine years later one Porfirio Díaz took firm control of the situation. He allowed the economic power of the United States in Mexico to increase spectacularly, but at a certain moment it became a bit too much for Diaz. ‘Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States!’, he exclaimed. As a counterweight Díaz decided to attract European investors, notably British. To the Americans this was the sign again to start looking around for new rulers in Mexico.

Díaz’s dictatorship, the Porfiriato, was double-faced. Economic progress went hand in hand with social oppression. Liberal forces therefore rose up in 1910 with the support of America. Díaz fled and drew his last breath in Paris in the year of the war 1915.

The fall of the Porfiriato leads to a turbulence in which also the Americans lose their balance. In April 1914 there is the Tampico Affair. The Mexicans have arrested an American officer, to which the Yankees react by occupying the port of Veracruz for a short while. There is the threat of war, but Argentine, Brazil and Chile manage to mediate.

In October 1915 president Wilson decides to acknowledge a new government, led by Venustiano Carranza. In doing so he incurs the wrath of one of Carranza’s opponents, Francisco Villa, better known as Pancho Villa, since he fled into the mountains after killing the rapist of his sister, so the story goes.

In April 1915 Pancho Villa had suffered a grim defeat in the Battle of Celaya. With French fervour Villa attacked, but his opponent proved a beter student of the war on the European continent. Pancho Villa’s men got hopelessly entangled in the defensive positions of Carranza’s troops.

It seemed that Villa had played out his role, but he did not admit defeat. Was it pure revenge or an attempt to pit Carranza against Wilson?  Whatever the case, in May 1916 Pancho Villa crosses the border with more than 400 men. The Villistas are targeting the sleepy border town of Columbus, New Mexico. The raid has to be paid for with the lives of eighteen Americans and about seventy Villistas.

America’s answer soon follows. Columns of soldiers, commanded by general John J. ‘Black Jack’ Pershing, invade Mexico. America now has its own little war. But the hunt for Pancho Villa, El Centauro del Norte, remains without success. After eleven months the punitive expedition is abandoned. American soldiers have not only battled with followers of Pancho Villa, but also with Mexican government troops. This was because Carranza did not tolerate American interference. Which then to the Germans was a reason to start intriguing, with the familiar result.

Pancho Villa has also been called the Mexican Robin Hood. He divided the land of conquered haciendas among farmers and soldiers. He imposed taxes on landowners. He robbed trains. He proclaimed himself governor of Chihuahua. He printed his own money. He even created his own legend.

What is true in any case is that he played the leading role in his own films. In 1912 an American production, ‘Life of Villa’, appears. And another two years later a Hollywood crew travels to Mexico again. The title of the new film is somewhat longer: ‘The Life of General Villa’. The contract, in which Villa promises the crew that they can film him during the Battle of Ojinaga, has been fully preserved, but unfortunately the film itself has not, apart from one or two scenes. In 2003 Antonio Banderas plays the star role in a film about the curious collaboration between Hollywood and the Mexican caudillo. The title of the film is really a nice one: ‘And starring Pancho Villa as himself’.

There is also a bestseller about him. American journalist John Reed associated with Pancho Villa for a while. Reed became known as the writer of ‘Ten Days that shook the world’, an eyewitness account of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. He published his adventures with Pancho Villa under the title ‘Insurgent Mexico’.

Pancho Villa continued his guerilla war until 1920 with a small army of peasants, cowboys and unemployed miners. His reputation is marked by cruelties. Especially the Chinese suffer under his hands. In 1920 Pancho Villa makes peace with the Mexican government, but by doing so he does not save his own skin. In 1923 hired murderers killed him by pumping an enormous quantity of lead into his body. They leave him in his car, a Dodge, American make, riddled with bullets.

Next week: Fritz Haber

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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