The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Along the border, echoes of revolution and Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa on horseback during the Mexican Revolution, sometime around 1914. Villa’s deadly raid on a town in New Mexico led to a U.S. military expedition into Mexico to try to capture or kill him. It did not succeed. (Bain News Service/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

In 1913 and 1914, Mexico suffered under a cruel dictator, Victoriano Huerta, who had gained power by assassinating that nation’s democratically elected president in a U.S.-sanctioned coup. Hoping to restore representative government, four unlikely allies joined forces to defeat Huerta. They called themselves Constitutionalists. The consequences of the Constitutionalists’ victory for both Mexico and the United States are the focus of Texas historian Jeff Guinn’s “War on the Border: Villa, Pershing, the Texas Rangers, and an American Invasion.” It is a story with striking resonance today.

The Constitutionalists’ leader was Venustiano Carranza, a wealthy cattle rancher and politician from northeast Mexico. At his side was Álvaro Obregón, a successful farmer and soldier from Sonora. Although intently opposed to Huerta, Carranza and Obregón were political moderates, reserved in appearance and disposition. The same could not be said of their comrades.

Emiliano Zapata grew up in a peasant community in southern Mexico. His family and their friends had seen their land and water seized by wealthy individuals and businesses (often foreign-owned). As a young firebrand, Zapata had proposed an economic plan that was breathtaking in its simplicity. The rich in Mexico would give one-third of their land and possessions to the poor, and those who resisted would give the remaining two-thirds as well.

The fourth member of the quartet was the most mysterious. His background and even his true name were matters of debate. He called himself Pancho Villa. His friends called him La Cucaracha, “the cockroach.” Villa’s conscience had been raised by Zapatistas he met while imprisoned for theft. Yet his revolutionary motives remained unclear. Zapata wanted to take from the rich and give to the poor. Villa, it seemed, wanted to take for himself.

After ousting Huerta in July 1914, Carranza became president with Obregón as his minister of war. Zapata, for his part, wanted radical agrarian reforms that Carranza was unwilling to support. And Villa wanted a promotion to major general, which Carranza refused to give. Both men immediately went into armed rebellion against their former allies — Zapata in the south and Villa in the north.

During the following year, Obregón and his federal troops demolished Villa’s forces in several crucial engagements. Desperate for supplies, Villa attempted an equally desperate maneuver. In the predawn hours of March 9, 1916, Villa’s troops crossed the U.S. border and raided Columbus, N.M. They killed about 20 Americans in the attack, burned Columbus, stole its horses and mules, seized weapons and goods from a nearby U.S. cavalry base, and escaped back to Mexico.

Americans were outraged, none more so than President Woodrow Wilson. He immediately ordered U.S. Army Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing to capture or kill Villa. Less than a week after Villa’s raid, Pershing and his Punitive Expedition, as it was called, crossed into Mexico to commence their manhunt. Significantly, they lacked Carranza’s permission to do so.

Guinn suggests that conflict between the United States and Mexico was part of Villa’s plan from the beginning. Villa knew that Carranza lacked the military power to defend Mexico’s border against the United States. But other Mexicans might not see it that way. “If Carranza didn’t immediately expel the American soldiers,” Guinn writes, “he’d be perceived as a gringo lackey.” In this way, “public outrage against Carranza and the U.S. could do for Villa what his once mighty forces could not.”

Events came to a crisis with the publication of the Zimmerman telegram. This was a secret offer from Germany to Mexico stating that if Mexico would declare war on the United States, to distract it from the war in Europe, Germany would later help Mexico regain the territory it had lost at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, meaning the entire southwestern quarter of the United States. With the matter stated in such stark and now public terms, Mexico refused the offer and declared neutrality in World War I. Wilson recalled Pershing and his troops from Mexico and sent them to Europe to fight Germany. Black Jack never found Pancho.

With U.S. forces reassigned away from the border, many Texans believed they had to fend for themselves against ongoing Mexican incursions. Their primary instrument would be the Texas Rangers. With virtually no membership screening, oversight or internal discipline at this point in their history, the Rangers became something like a death squad.

The most shameful incident happened in early 1918 when a company of Rangers murdered 15 unarmed and innocent Tejano men and boys, whom they habitually called “greasers,” in the border village of Porvenir. No Rangers were convicted of a crime. “There is no way to be certain how many innocent Mexicans and Tejanos were killed along the border by the Texas Rangers,” Guinn writes. “Only that the number is gruesome.”

After Porvenir, Texas disbanded several Ranger companies and improved discipline. But the revolution in Mexico was far from over. In the years following World War I, the four Constitutionalist heroes of the Mexican Revolution (Carranza, Obregón, Villa and Zapata) each died by assassination.

Guinn argues that this period of violence solidified a framework of relations between the two nations that endures today. Many in Mexico continue to view the United States as a hypocritical, imperialistic bully, while many Americans see Mexico as a security threat rooted in gang violence and undocumented border crossings. “The current solution of confining unwanted border arrivals in bare-bones detention camps,” Guinn notes, “exactly replicates the first such camp at Fort Wingate, New Mexico, more than a century ago.”

And the similarity does not end with detention camps. What began as a short stretch of chain-link fence between Calexico at the southern border of California and Mexicali in Mexico has become, over the subsequent decades, several hundred miles of U.S.-built barrier wall separating the countries. And much like the Texas Rangers of a century ago, undertrained and overarmed civilian militias today patrol the U.S. side of the border, preying upon Hispanic people they regard as suspicious. “In so many ways on the border,” Guinn writes, “inherent mutual mistrust and hostility remain.”

War on the Border

Villa, Pershing, the Texas Rangers, and an American Invasion

By Jeff Guinn

Simon & Schuster.
350 pp. $28