An encounter with Pancho Villa.
My time with Pancho was exhilarating and profound, right up to the moment he had me shot. Of course, I never dared call him Pancho to his face. No, in his presence he was simply ‘Jefe.’ When he was in good humor he accepted ‘General,’ but never ‘caudillo’; that reminded him of Creel and to Pancho that was akin to being called a snake. His given name was Doroteo Arango, but he changed it to Francisco Villa after discovering the identity of his father.
I first met him in Ciudad Chihuahua three days after he captured the capital from Huerta’s army. It was the beginning of his salad days, fresh from victory at Ciudad Juarez and soon to recapture Torreon, which he had already taken once. Pancho never held onto anything for long; land, money, women…he either lost interest or found some reason to move on. He was restless like that. I attributed it to his days on the run in Durango when he was an outlaw, robbing payrolls and stealing mules. Pancho always claimed he was driven to banditry, and the circumstances were described in a popular corrida:
On the royal road of Durango
full of nopales
is fleeing from the rurales.
They are pursuing him for a crime
and want to imprison him;
at the Gogojito ranch
he wounded the owner.
The boss wanted a woman
for his own vile purposes
and he thought he could pick one
from among Arango’s sisters.
Some said it was his younger sister; he claimed it was his older sister. Then again, he also claimed he killed the man when most agreed he had only wounded the man’s the foot. That’s how it was with Pancho. He never hesitated to grow his own legend, consciously or not, and after watching him personally execute a federal soldier, who was I to question him? He lived by his own peculiar code of honor. As he explained to me,
“Drink, but never get drunk; love without passion; steal, but only from the rich.”
He never forgot a favor and always returned it in kind. At the same time, he didn’t hesitate to order his men to their deaths charging against devastating machine gun fire, as he did at Celaya. And for what? The battle was lost many times, and still, he sent them to their deaths. It didn’t appear to bother him. He calmly gave his instructions and then munched on peanut brittle as artillery shells landed around him. Was it bravery or foolishness? We talked at length over ice cream in El Paso and over coffee in Guadalajara and he never show ed his hand. To me he remained a mystery, a man who didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, a man whose only vices were sweets and cockfights.
In the days following his victory at Ciudad Chihuahua he set up a government. His generals voted to have him become Governor. Carranza, however, desired Chao for the post, and after only a month in power Pancho relented. With that move he managed to relieve himself of the burdens of day to day administration and at the same time remain loyal to Carranza, the First Chief, whom he did not fully trust. It freed him up to drill his beloved Division del Norte for the upcoming campaign against Huerta. Pancho had a unique genius for public relations. In that month he had managed to do more for the lower and middle classes than Madero had done in two years. He exacted payment from the upper class and lowered food prices on the backs of the hacendados, especially the Spaniards. It wasn’t long after we met he said,
“They disrupted the Indian empire and enslaved the people. We did not ask them to mingle their blood with ours. Twice we drove them out of Mexico and allowed them to return with the rights of Mexicans and they used these rights to steal away our land to make our people slaves and to take up arms against the cause of liberty.”
That first meeting in Ciudad Chihuahua set the tone for our relationship. I waited outside the governor’s palace for a day and a half before he finally granted me an audience. But then, who was I? Just another reporter to him and there were many. He was already famous in the border towns, and journalists wrote of his exploits as if they were writing a magazine serial. Pancho the bandit, Pancho the revolutionary, Pancho the prisoner, the expatriate, the commander, the Jefe. Who exactly was he? What I found was that he was everything they said he was and more. As he claimed many times, he came from humble origins, was thrust into situations by fate and simply made the best of it. I can offer no better explanation.
When I was finally allowed into the palace I was taken to the grand ballroom where he sat in a throne-like chair, dressed in a sash and epaulets, looking like a drum major. It was quite comical, almost ripe for a Charlie Chaplin movie, which he adored. At the local theater he odered the projectionist to show all the Chaplin reels on hand, and no matter how many times he watched them he laughed just as hard as if he had never seen them. I watched his face as the light flickered on the screen; he seemed taken away by the staged reality of the movie. In fact, as I reported to the First Chief, Villa signed a movie deal with the Mutual Film Company of Hollywood. The producers wanted to film actual battle scenes, which they did at Torreon and Zacatecas. (And the ‘drum major’ uniform? It was provided by the wardrobe department.) I realized then that Pancho’s entire existence was on stage, played out in melodrama, churning along to whatever fate awaited him. Gonzalez was dead, shot and then cut in two by a train. Madero had been killed by le fuga; supposedly shot while trying to escape. Seemingly, it didn’t matter if you were a general or a private; in this revolution, sooner or later, your life would end in violence.
“Yes, and why do you wish to see me?” he asked.
“Excellency, I am a correspondent for El Tiempo. I would like to …..”
“Do you have no name?”
“I am Esteben Jauregui, sir.”
“Do you know Carlos Jauregui?”
“He is a cousin.”
“He is a patriot. He helped me escape from Madera.”
“Yes, I know, but only from the reports. I have not seen him in many years.”
“I hear he is in the United States.”
“I have heard that, too.”
“Then when this fighting is over we will seek him out together. What do you want?”
“Well, I would like to, perhaps, speak to you about your plans…”
He chuckled. “My plans are my own, they are not for publication, especially in El Tiempo.”
“Perhaps you should accompany me on my rounds today. That may give you something to write about.”
While he finished his morning business I jotted down some notes. That’s the way it started and it never changed. During an interview, he provided both the questions and the answers. But it didn’t matter. My reports were only for Carranza. It’s not like I had an editor or a deadline. I was calm and certain no one suspected me. I can say with all honesty that, except for the sunken black eyes of the ever present Rodolfo Fierro, I never felt threatened, not until the very last day.
Pancho loved to drive. We loaded into his Dodge sedan, always a Dodge, him behind the wheel, me at his side and his bodyguards in the backseat and on the running boards. We were followed by a truck carrying several soldiers armed with rifles and grenades. I wondered at the security. He appeared to have no threats against him. Everywhere along the streets people cheered, “Viva Villa! May God shield and protect you!” He smiled, sometimes he waved. He recounted how his troops had suffered two days of intense fighting to no advantage in the battle for the city. Ammunition was running out, and the spirit of the men almost broken when he made a fateful decision: he would attack one last time with his infantry, followed by an all out cavalry assault.
“When the proper time arrived the men set out on at a gallop. They were ordered to hit Mercado’s lines,” he recalled, “and when they did the federals began to break and run.” To further terrorize the enemy he ordered a locomotive to be filled with dynamite and driven straight into the federal positions. There was no shortage of volunteers for this suicide mission, and the resulting explosion sent the federals into total chaos. We approached the huge crater created by the blast. It was several meters deep and the width of half a city block. The train was mangled and blown apart. It must have been a frightening scene.
At this point we exited the car and Pancho went to speak personally to the troops who were working to clear the debris and burn the dead. He was especially proud of the young boys in his Division del Norte, some barely in their teens. He told me they were his fiercest fighters, unaware of the danger and unafraid of death.
“The only problem is they are not good marksmen. They waste ammunition,” he said, chuckling. He moved among them asking if they had enough to eat, promising further victories as the struggle continued. The older men he reminded of their pension, the opportunity to become land owners. To the soldaderas, the female soldiers, he offered his personal thanks and encouragement. At the time it was not well known that many of the camp followers had taken up arms to fight alongside the men. Pancho loved the fact that he had beaten the federals with an “army of families,” and he pledged to pay each person fifty pesos as soon as he could exact forced loans from the city’s rich.
Our return trip to the palace took us past the Parque Rotario where the executions were taking place. It must be said that in this second revolution, prisoner executions occurred on both sides, following Huerta’s reenactment of the January 25, 1862 law, which mandated death to anyone who took up arms against the republic. But Pancho was different from the federal commanders in two ways. First, he executed only officers, giving the lower ranks opportunity to join him whereas Huerta’s men shot all prisoners. And second, he had no problem conducting executions in the light of day, while the federals preferred the darkness to cover their deeds. Pancho’s ‘director of security,’ Fierro, was in charge of the operation. I was told that he had once gathered 200 prisoners in a walled courtyard and offered them their freedom if they could climb over the walls before he shot them. None survived. Another story had him shooting an unlucky cantina patron to settle a bet on whether the wounded man would fall forward or backward. I knew it would be he who directed my firing squad.
My first reports contained information you might expect, troop strength, number of artillery pieces, movements, purely military details. But Carranza also wanted to know the command structure, specifically why all of these peasant warriors were willing to follow Pancho. He wanted a psychological profile to tell him how Villa might behave in certain situations. Although the two had met personally, Carranza had found Pancho to be impenetrable, much the same reaction I had upon meeting him the first time. There was the man in front of you, and also the legend that floated around him. I found, as I spent more time with him, that the boundary between fact and myth was hazy; after a while it was apparent that it didn’t matter which was which. I was able to offer the First Chief only my observations. I left the conclusions to him. However, some things were indisputable, and I will try to recount them here.
Above all else, it is important to understand Pancho’s personal appeal, especially in the culture of machismo. He was tall, about five feet ten inches, and lean, around 170 pounds. But the most striking part of his physical appearance was his eyes, the darkest brown, heavy-lidded almost to a squint and utterly alive. When he caught my gaze he did not release it, and I felt he was communicating with me on two distinct levels, one I understood, which was the subject at hand, and the other being totally his, an underlying calculation that he did not reveal. His temper was well-known. I had seen it first-hand when the trains arrived late to Torreon. While in the back of my mind I waited for him to unleash this anger on me, I was certain that my demeanor remained relaxed in my dealings with him, at least until that very last day. But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps he knew from the beginning.
His skills as a horseman and gunfighter were beyond dispute. He rode stiff-legged, sitting up straight in the saddle like a vaquero, which you could say he was, at least in his rustling days. An afternoon ride was his favorite activity, and I accompanied him many times. He assured me that as a younger man he could ride over a hundred miles in a day and a night, and I did not doubt it. During these rides he handled his mount as if he were showing in a charreada, tight-reigning and trotting. And he loved his horses. Siete Leguas, his favorite stallion, had a rail car to himself, was fed only grain, and received frequent massages from the two grooms who attended him. I heard corridas sung around the campfires praising the virtues of that horse. (About those campfires; Villa often showed up, inquired about the meal, and ate with his men. This not only raised morale, it lessened his chances of being poisoned, since no one knew exactly where he would take dinner.)
As far as handling a gun, I never saw Pancho without a revolver, even on social occasions. To him, a pistol was more important than eating or sleeping, and he was a crack shot. Silvestre Terrazas, the journalist and Pancho’s highest placed civilian advisor, recalled to me an episode that occurred during a morning walk with the Jefe. Terrazas spotted a branch floating in a puddle over 100 meters away. He pointed it out to Pancho and asked Jefe to demonstrate his marksmanship. Villa drew his Colt, raised it high over his head, then lowered it, and with a firm hand, took aim. He fired and split the wood into two equal sections.
Adding to his macho mystique were his romantic exploits. Several weeks after I arrived in Ciudad Chihuahua, Pancho’s wife, Luz Corral, came from El Paso. I met her at a reception in her honor, and it was obvious she and Villa had much mutual affection. Then, Terrazas told me that Pancho had postponed her arrival several times. He had taken up with another woman in the city and had, in fact, fathered a child with her. This was common knowledge among the upper command as well as the Dorados, Pancho’s elite personal unit. I also heard rumors of his romantic conquests from the lower ranks. As one junior officer related to me, “Jefe takes care of his family- all of them.” This trait only enhanced his stature as a man’s man.
Villa often referred to the ordinary soldiers as “my boys,” and it is true he felt loyalty to them as they did for him. With the general staff it was not so simple. Most had organized their own divisions, placing them under the overall command of Pancho. That did not mean they were blindly following Jefe. Each had his own idea of how the revolution should be fought, and Villa did a masterful job of balancing egos and settling disputes. He was fortunate to have several commanders who were exceptional leaders in their own right, including Ortega, Contreras, Pereyra and of course Angeles. These men proved to be honorable, creating an atmosphere of discipline, treating prisioners with respect, and taking no spoils. Angeles was the only ‘professional’ soldier among the generals, and he represented the Villistas at the Convention of Aguascalientes. On the other hand there was Urbina, whom no one would mistake as honorable. I found him to be a drunkard of bad character who fought for one thing; profit. I once overheard the American journalist John Reed ask Urbina why he had joined the fight. Urbina replied, “This revolution. Do not mistake. It is the fight of the poor against the rich. I was very poor before the revolution, and now I am very rich.” He was a pure bandit who allowed his men to loot and pillage in the territory they won. Terrazas feared his behavior would discredit the cause.
There is no doubt the audacity of Pancho’s tactics drew respect from the ranks. He led from the front, and his prowess with horse and gun inspired his men to follow him into the very gates of hell. The Villistas won many battles by capitalizing on Pancho’s intimate knowledge of the territory and his penchant for surprising the enemy, often ordering night raids and full frontal assaults which unnerved the more conventional federals. He was an instinctual guerilla fighter who never retreated, only regrouped. The American observer General Hugh Scott was particularly impressed by Villa’s tactical acumen, saying he had never met a more naturally gifted leader. Of course, this was before Celaya.
My relationship with Pancho was always personally cordial. He was actually very soft spoken most of the time, not given to profanity or grand pronouncements. Journalists were treated with respect, and we even had our own car on the troop train, and a dedicated telegraph operator who, fortunately for me, accepted bribes. While I submitted legitimate news articles for El Tiempo two or three times a week, I sent reports to Carranza daily. The two leaders corresponded officially as need be, and the operator would save the copy for me. Surprisingly, most of the time there was scant difference between my reports and the official versions. At first there was little intrigue in Pancho’s dispatches. He honestly and deliberately related the information Carranza requested. In fact, the biggest discrepancies took place following the episode that marked the beginning of the end for me, the Benton Affair. It began with an invitation from Pancho. He had arranged to meet with a gun runner in Juarez and asked if I would like to accompany him. I readily accepted. We rode the overnight train, me, Pancho, Fierro, and three Dorados.
The following morning we crossed the river into El Paso to visit Pancho’s favorite ice cream parlor. Villa bought us all sundaes and we stayed for well over an hour discussing many things. We returned to the house and Pancho went into his office to tend to some paperwork while the rest of us dozed in the parlor. A little after four a man burst through the front door. Fierro confronted him and they exchanged heated words. Pancho came out to investigate the disturbance and greeted the man with great hospitality. They disappeared into the office, sharp words were exchanged, then a gunshot. We rushed in to find the visitor slumped in a chair, a wound in his chest, a handkerchief half out of his right hip pocket. Pancho explained the man’s name was Benton and he had come for restitution. During the Madero revolution, Pancho had appropriated the man’s rancho. During the argument Pancho, thinking Benton was going for his gun, had shot him through the heart.
This was serious business. Benton was an Englishman who had lived in Mexico for nearly thirty years. His death under these circumstances was certain to cause uproar from the British as well as the Americans. Pancho decided on a cover story, that Benton had drawn first and been shot by Fierro, who was willing to take the blame. That was the official account that was given to the press and to Carranza. I related the true sequence of events to the First Chief, who nonetheless took full responsibility as leader of the Constitutionalists. I didn’t know it then but word soon got back to Pancho that Carranza knew the truth. This was where I was found out, although Villa kept it to himself for several months.
When Huerta resigned I made it clear to Carranza that Villa had no political ambitions. It was also clear that Pancho would not surrender command of the Division del Norte, then the most potent fighting force in Mexico, an army of more than 60,000 men. It was unclear with whom the federal army would align. I warned Carranza of Villa’s growing confidence in light of his victories at Torreon and Zacatecas. World opinion declared him the next de facto dictator. Although Pancho had no such aspirations he began to let the press assume that it was a possibility.
“Who can say what will take place?” he asked during an interview with me and John Reed. “I am not an educated man. I only know horses and women,” he chuckled. “But once we are in Mexico City anything can happen.”
“And that includes assuming the Presidency?” Reed inquired. Pancho laughed and said, “First, I must try out the presidential chair. I am a man who likes comfort.” In perhaps the most famous photograph from the revolution, Pancho is seen sitting in the chair flanked on the left by Zapata. ‘President’ Guitierrez, the choice of the Convention of Aguascalientes, could only look on. If there was ever a time for Pancho to seize power it was then. Instead, he met somewhat uncomfortably with Zapata, agreeing in principal to general land reforms, and then headed back to his beloved Chihuahua. It was during the time when Carranza broke with Pancho that I met my fate.
I first sensed that Villa knew about my duplicity at Guadalajara. After being received as a conquering hero, he summoned the city’s rich to the Palacio Municipal. There, in front of the assembled newsmen, he ordered them to provide ‘loans’ to him to finance the revolution. It was a tactic he had used from the beginning, demanding money, goods, and services by extortion, and his persuasive powers were great in light of his reputation. However, at Guadalajara the oligarchy balked. They claimed approval was needed from the First Chief . Villa became almost blue in the face, his anger boiling over. For several minutes he threatened them with imprisonment or execution and in the end they complied. When the elite had left he turned to the press and said to one in particular,
“There, let’s see how long it takes for Carranza’s ears to hear about this.” It was an innocuous comment, even humorous, to everyone in the room except me.
When they came for me I was ready. I had been ready. I cannot say why it never occurred to me to flee. In some ways I felt I had betrayed Pancho, even though I was never a supporter; that is exactly why Carranza had chosen me. I could have easily declined the assignment but I decided that, being too old to fight on the front lines, I must nevertheless do my part for my country. I honestly felt Carranza offered the best chance of forming an American-style democracy. For all his bravado, Pancho was a man of limited abilities, as he himself said, and as he proved at Celaya. In his greatest defeat he was unable to learn from his mistakes because he was unable to admit them.
It was Fierro, of course, who led me to the wall. He laughed maniacally as he blindfolded me, saying, “It is a gift for me, killing you.” I did not reply. I did not want to give him the satisfaction of knowing how terrified I was. I had learned that much from Pancho.