- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 3, 2006


By Eileen Welsome

Little, Brown, $25.95, 393 pages


If there is any luster clinging to the name of Pancho Villa, the Mexican desperado and sometime revolutionary, as a kind of Robin Hood or folk hero, it gets pretty severely tarnished in Eileen Welsome’s “The General and the Jaguar.”

Denting Villa’s reputation is not what the author set out to do in this excellent history, but a byproduct of her main purpose: to tell the story of the infamous raid by Villa’s forces on the border town of Columbus, N.M., early in the morning of March 9, 1916, and the subsequent pursuit of him by American soldiers under Gen. John (“Black Jack”) Pershing.

Once hailed in the United States as the “Man of the Hour” battling Mexico’s corrupt political system, Villa by this point had lost much prestige among Americans and popularity among the Mexican populace. What the purpose of his raid was is not entirely clear, but it resulted in the deaths of 18 American soldiers and civilians and the wounding of 10 others.

The government of President Woodrow Wilson reacted swiftly. Not quite obtaining the full cooperation of the not-quite-legitimate Mexican government of Venustiano Carranza, the United States within six days of the raid sent an initial force of 192 officers and 4,800 enlisted men (which later grew) into Mexico to hunt for Villa.

Mrs. Welsome, previously the author of “The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War,” constructs her book well. She opens from the point of view of several Americans captured by Villa shortly before the raid, pulls back to put him and the raid in the context of Mexican history, and then moves forward with her narrative of the raid and the Pershing expedition.

Villa and Pershing are, of course, at the center of the story, but the author directs the spotlight more fully on Villa. The effect at times is withering.

It is believed that Villa was born in 1878 in Durango to sharecropper parents and baptized Doroteo Arango. He took the name Francisco Villa when he joined a group of bandits. He was converted from bandit to revolutionary by the reformer who later became the Mexican president, Francisco Madero. As a revolutionary Villa achieved wide fame and attracted hundreds, if not thousands, of fighters to Madero’s cause.

A superb horseman, energetic and charismatic, Villa was tough, courageous and feared. He considered himself too ignorant to govern Mexico, so he allied himself with Carranza, then another revolutionary. Villa could be ruthless and cruel, sometimes whimsically so. Prisoners were routinely slain. Once he had four of them lined up and shot with one bullet.

After Carranza became his enemy, Villa ordered the slaughter of 90 women loyal to Carranza. He shot one woman point-blank himself. On another occasion he had “enemy” women rounded up and allowed his troops to rape them.

When his declining reputation no longer brought him willing recruits, Villa forcibly conscripted them. The severe wound he received during his flight from Pershing was from the gun of one of his own conscripts (a fact he did not know).

Defeated by Carranza’s forces and inflamed by what he took to be repeated American betrayals, Villa turned his efforts against the United States, leading ultimately to the Columbus raid. Mrs. Welsome says he gave “a demented, rage-filled speech” to his men before the raid, asserting that “gringos” were to blame for all the bad conditions in Mexico.

The author does a good job of describing Columbus and its atmosphere the day before the attack, and gives a swiftly moving account of the raid itself. Likewise, the story of the pursuit, and threats that it might lead to outright war, holds our interest.

Active pursuit ended June 21, but American forces remained in Mexico until Feb. 5, 1917. It has been claimed that the expedition was a waste of taxpayers’ money because Villa was never killed or captured (an early demand), but, Mrs. Welsome concludes, “in truth, the expedition had actually fulfilled its amended mission by killing or dispersing nearly all of Villa’s band.”

Pershing soon thereafter was named leader of the American Expeditionary Force during World War I. He was promoted to general of the armies, the first person to earn that distinction since George Washington.

Villa, on the other hand, met a violent death, like other leaders of the Mexican Revolution. After concluding a deal with the Mexican government and pulling back into a kind of retirement with his many “wives” and many more children, he was gunned down in his Dodge touring car on July 20, 1923.

Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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