Viva Pancho Villa!


The life and times of Pancho Villa
By Friedrich Katz
Stanford University Press, 1998
985 pp., $53.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

"From my earliest days, I saw that millions had to suffer for the few who became rich and lived luxuriously. I solemnly swore that I would escape, attack that system, and punish it severely, as severely as I could." Thus did Pancho Villa explain why he became a revolutionary, this bandit turned leader of the famous Division del Norte (the Army of the North), the largest revolutionary army in the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920. The air thundered with shouts of "Viva Villa!" as Villa punished the Mexican oligarchy with loss of their property, wealth and, often enough, their lives.

Though typically exaggerated, the fearsome propaganda that his victims whipped up about Villa as ferocious bandit and murderer has blackened Villa's legacy, helped to some extent by Villa's quite real volcanic rages and spontaneous "rough justice".

Friedrich Katz has written a Herculean epic documenting the life of Pancho Villa, who, with Emiliano Zapata, was one of the two most popular leaders of the Mexican peasants in their decade of political struggle, insurrection and civil war.

Villa was born Doroteo Arango in 1878 to a sharecropper family, at the beginning of the long dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz under which the wealthy estate (hacienda) owners held despotic power.

As the Villa legend goes, Doroteo, the teenage peasant labourer, was driven to the life of an outlaw after he shot his hacienda boss to avenge the rape of his sister, though poverty and conscription into the hated federal army, from which Villa deserted, also played a part. He became a hunted fugitive and bandit (changing his name to Francisco Villa) in the northern states of Durango and Chihuahua where, true to the Robin Hood tradition of the "social bandit", Villa, as he later said, "returned to the poor the money that the rich had taken from them".

Social revolution

While Villa was rustling cattle and holding up trains, Diaz "won" yet another fraudulent election victory in 1910, but the routine revolt by the defeated candidate (Madero) turned into a social revolution under the impact of severe economic crisis. Unlike the many other violent changes of government in Latin America, the Mexican affair in 1910 was the first in which the rural and industrial poor played a major, decisive and enduring role.

Villa, until then not involved in political protest, was recruited by the revolutionaries, rising to prominence because of his inexhaustible energy, military boldness, personal courage and incorruptibility, which inspired the loyalty and discipline of his peasant soldiers. He was also, less glowingly, favoured by the conservative Madero, who used the politically untutored Villa to disarm Madero's rival revolutionaries, who had close links to the working class and the socialist politics of the IWW.

With a renewed upsurge of peasant uprisings against Madero, who left the revolution at the mercy of the unreformed army and who back-pedalled on land reform, Villa returned to the fray against Madero. He was captured and faced a firing squad, but was then reprieved and imprisoned.

No Hollywood screenplay could have bettered Villa's escape from jail. He sawed through the window bars under cover of loud folk songs being played outside the jail and escaped to a seedy hotel in El Paso, Texas, from where, to avoid spies, he kept in touch with his contacts through the use of homing pigeons.

After Madero had been overthrown in a coup by the army commander, Huerta, Villa re-entered Mexico, recruiting an 8000-strong army which stormed through the northern states with creative fury (crashing locomotives into troop trains) and liberating villages and cities. Villa in the north, Zapata in the south and revolutionary leaders in other regions defeated Huerta in 1913.

Villa held power in Chihuahua for two years. He confiscated many large estates but, from fear of provoking US intervention, did not redistribute the land to the peasants, nor did he touch US property. He pegged food prices but did not allow IWW organisers near the US-owned mines and oil fields.

Villa had a mixed reception on the left. John Reed, the radical journalist and socialist, did much to counter the conservative and racist clichés which have portrayed Villa and the Mexican revolutionaries as drunken, uncivilised comic-opera bandits. The IWW were less enthusiastic and foretold problems from Villa's hesitancy on land reform and his restrictions on trade unions.

Judgment, however, was postponed when the victory of 1913 erupted into vicious civil war. Villa and Zapata fought against Carranza and Obregon, who represented the nationalist bourgeoisie among the revolution's leaders, and were temporarily successful, occupying the capital, Mexico City.

Downward spiral

Villa, however, was defeated in 1915 as a result of strategic military errors and the collapse of his currency, which the US had in the past honoured in expectation of Villa being a victorious but not too radical "strongman" of the revolution. Villa could not pay his soldiers, and the buying power of the Villista peso plummeted, paralysing the economy and leading to a loss of popular support for Villa.

Thus began a downward spiral of support, leading Villa to take from and conduct reprisals against the poor, further eroding his social base. As his once great army surrendered to Carranza, Villa and a few hundred of his most loyal followers fled to the mountains to wage five years of harsh guerilla warfare from 1915.

Desperate gambles such as Villa's attack on the town of Columbus across the US border in order to provoke US military intervention and unite national resistance under Villa's leadership, temporarily paid off, as did Carranza's anti-peasant and anti-worker policies, in briefly reviving support for Villa.

But Villa's continued expropriations from the peasants, forced recruitment to his army (which once respected rather than feared Villa) and terrorist acts against the population (for example, executing and allowing the rape of the wives of captured soldiers) critically weakened his social base and forced Villa to conclude a peace deal with Obregon (who had murdered Carranza, cornered the chickpea market and become a millionaire).

Obregon also reached a peace settlement with Zapata. But where Zapata, whose political strength remained solid, won recognition for the land reform introduced in his state, Villa managed only a remote estate in Durango (albeit a large one) for him and his soldiers, with Villa in quasi-military control.

Villa couldn't keep out of politics, however. He backed the rival to Obregon for president in the 1923 elections. Obregon, wary of Villa's ability to rise from the canvas, and desperate for US recognition of his regime, was implicated in the assassination of Villa in 1923.


Villa's political decline was due to his failure to implement land reform. Zapata paid the peasants of Morelos with land whilst Villa paid the peasants of Chihuahua in paper money which, when it lost its value, left them with nothing but promises and poverty.

Villa's fundamental failure was one of political ideology. He was aloof from socialism in general and hostile to Bolshevism in particular. Villa's pronouncements on communism, following the victory of the Russian Bolsheviks, were no different from those of any other conservative Mexican landowner appealing to inequality as an innate condition of humanity.

"Equality does not and can not exist", said the estate-owner Villa. "Society is a big stair with some people at its lower end, some people in the middle, some rising and some very high. It is a stair very clearly determined by nature."

Unlike the Bolsheviks, Villa had no concept of socialism as radical democracy which places power in the hands of the labouring masses. When his army took over cities, he did not establish popular political organisations that could have strengthened the social basis of the revolution. Villa's liberation of cities was accompanied by theatrical one-off redistributions of food and clothing, not by democratic redistribution of power.

Villa had the avenging heart and narrow political horizon of the social bandit rather than the social vision and political radicalism of the Bolshevik.

Katz, though no Marxist, is well aware of these political limitations of Villa. He gives a fair run to "class warfare" as an analytical concept, making his book quite valuable.

Until his political limitations caught up with him, Villa was a genuine revolutionary who produced a mighty people's army and a legend, one not as black as his enemies proclaim nor as saintly as his defenders extol, but one that will forever evoke the dream of justice and the championship of the oppressed and cheated.