Black Jack’s Mexican Goose Chase

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The last straw had been Wilson’s grudging recognition of Carranza’s government that October. By 1916 Pancho was financially squeezed, down to a few thousand ragged die-hards, terrorizing the north of Mexico, merciless in his treatment of while men—the victim, in short, of official U.S. policy.

At the time General Villa was thirty-eight years old, an inch or two under six feet, slightly obese, with a handlebar mustache and narrow, murderous eyes. His real name was Doroteo Arango, which at an early age he had changed to Francisco Villa (the “Pancho” came later), the name of a celebrated outlaw of former days. From birth he and his family were impoverished mestizo serfs who planted cotton at Hacienda Rio Grande under the godlike supervision of Don Arturo López Negrete and his degenerate son, Leonardo. Pancho was in and out of jail for years on minor offenses until Leonardo deflowered his sister, Mariana. An artist with la pistola , Villa killed him in a stately duel of the usual western type, fled, and joined up with various bandit gangs which infested northern Mexico. Though semiliterate, he gradually rose to high command among the anti-Huerta revolutionaries.

His appetite for women ran in odd directions; he was known to violate fourteen-year-old Mexican girls and respectable middle-aged women, sometimes American. At the same time he was devotedly married to a placid woman (she had to be placid) named María Luz Corral. He was at the mercy of children, whom he loved and for whom he would do anything. Mad for money wherewith to acquire women and power, he spent it uncaringly in any amount.

His political views were vaguely left-wing. Mainly they ran along the lines of redistributing the swollen estates. The masses loved him and considered him a kind of Robin Hood. A nurse in El Paso described him as a “nice-looking, fair-skinned and blue-eyed man … he plundered and robbed the wealthy, but he was a humanitarian and distributed the loot to the poor. People would line up in long queues and he would give them money and food.” He combined courage with cruelty. Once when being interviewed by a newspaperman, he was bothered by the shouting of a drunken soldier. Villa walked to the window, killed the man with a shot, and then resumed his talk.

Carranza he hated, not only because the First Chief was a conservative by Villa’s rough standards but because he was a pompous civilian who had achieved power without fighting Huerta. Concerning their first meeting, Villa later said,

I embraced him energetically, but with the first few words we spoke my blood turned to ice. I saw that I could not open my heart to him.… He never looked me in the eye and during our entire conversation emphasized our differences in origin … lectured me on things like decrees and laws which I could not understand … There was nothing in common between that man and me …

Sartorially Pancho was no prize. During the early years of the revolution he had been resplendent in a general’s gold-braided uniform, but after years of fighting he had tired of appearances. Usually he affected a brown turtle-neck sweater under a sweat-stained sombrero. Sometimes he wore an unpressed suit, a vest, and a shirt minus a tie.

Frequently he lived in El Paso in a hideout at Second and El Paso streets, visited the Juárez race track with such notables as General Scott, Colonel Matt Winn of Kentucky Derby fame, Tom Mix (later to be an actor), various gringo aerial pilots such as Mickey McGuire and Wild Bill Heath, Captain Sam Dreben (“the Fighting Jew”), and Colonel Giuseppe Garibaldi of the Italian liberator’s family. He was never without a bodyguard. He embraced no religion. Most officers caught by his men were killed. Once when overrunning Juárez, he personally supervised the execution of seventy-five Federalists. Another atrocity was described by a doctor in La Colorada:

Presently there appeared a group of men accompanied by soldiers on the opposite side of the arroyo … Villa arose and … spoke a few words, which I did not hear, to the soldiers, and the men were immediately lined up against the wall. Villa then personally shot and killed these eight men with his shooting iron, turned to us and said, “This is what happens to enemies of Pancho Villa. People are your friends or your enemies. There can be no neutrals …”

He walked in a slouch. On horseback he was grace personified. He spoke little. Usually he was expressionless, except for an occasional grin which became a sinister trademark in U.S. cartoons. He loved dancing; at one wedding he danced for thirty-six hours. “He is the most natural human being I ever saw, natural in the sense of being nearest to a wild animal,” wrote an observer; another said that “he was as unmoral as a wolf.” A journalist described his eyes as “never still and full of energy and brutality … intelligent as hell and as merciless.”

This was Francisco “Pancho” Villa—social revolutionary, rapist, commander of cavalry, megalomaniac—the unbalanced and almost brilliant idol of northern Mexico. It was Pershing’s job to get him dead or alive.