The Ghost of Pancho Villa

Photographs by Ewan Telford

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In March 1916, Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa led an unsanctioned cross-border assault on the US at Columbus, New Mexico. His guerrilla army seized munitions and horses, left 19 US dead and the town in flames before fleeing into the Chihuahuan desert, hotly pursued by 10,000 troops. I decided to explore Chihuahua, a state I knew to be rich in history and natural beauty, by tracing some of Villa’s key movements between Columbus and the southern town of Parral, where he would meet a violent death seven years later.

South of the frontier the desert badlands give way to the state’s fertile agricultural hub and the big cattle ranches. Here is rolling chaparral studded with pines and mesquite; open prairies of golden grass brushed by hot lonely winds and roamed by vaqueros on horseback. It was here in 1910, with the dispossession of the ejidos (communal lands) for the landed elite pals of Porfirio Diaz that the Revolution was born. Cutting short a promising career in banditry for la causa, Villa inspired fierce loyalty in a huge peasant army and was known for his unique style of wild cavalry charges and reckless gambles. Centaur of the North; el máximo caudillo, the ultimate leader.

With the US cavalry woefully unprepared, Villa vanished into the vast Sierra Madre (Occidental), a region of rugged, pine-covered mountains flanking the west of the state. At the regions heart are Las Barrancas del Cobre, or Copper Canyon, a giant network of plummeting canyons up to 6,000ft deep. While the mountains are arid, the bottoms of these canyons have a lush, subtropical climate, fostering mangoes, oranges and bananas. To properly penetrate this wild terrain one needs a horse or an off-road vehicle on tracks that will put your heart in your mouth. It’s also a hiker’s paradise and my guide Gustavo brought me to some of the most stunning views I have ever seen.

Somewhere in this vast wilderness Villa spent two months hiding from US soldiers in a cave. Many Tarahumarans, the indigenous Indians of the region, still make dwellings of caves. Originally lowlanders, these deeply reserved people moved to the high ground to escape Spanish enslavement in the silver mines. They are known for their beguiling skills in long distance, rough-terrain running of up to 200 miles without rest. When they began competing internationally against Nike-sponsored athletes, they effortlessly cruised into the top spots wearing sandals made from tire tread.

In January 1917, after a disastrous campaign that brought the two nations to the brink of war, the US departed Mexico leaving Villa to fight the revolution to its bitter end. In 1920 he quietly retired to a beautiful 50-room mansion in Chihuahua City (granted as part of a “ceasing of hostilities” with the nervous Obregon government). It is now the Museo de la Revolución where you can see a wide range of artefacts and mementoes as well as Villa’s death mask. From here, a fifteen minute walk along

the city’s colonial streets brought me to the Basilica de Chihuahua, a magnificent baroque edifice that’s also worth a visit.

Villa died in 1923 in Parral as a hail of machine gun bullets shredded his Dodge Roadster. A scene fit for Bonnie and Clyde or The Godfather and Obregon’s final revenge, it is assumed. At a loss for his usual quips, Villa’s last words are said to have been “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.”

As I crossed the farmlands on the way to Parral, I reflected on the fate of rural Mexican workers and the ejidos a century on from the revolution. Ten years (15?) of drought have been devastating, but the greatest force behind worker displacement has been the NAFTA, which put subsistence farmers up against US corporate agriculture in impossibly unfair competition. Most migrants head north, for the US border.

Somewhere in the centre of the Panteón de Luz Dolores in Parral, a crowded maze of crumbling tombs and stacked graves, lies Villa’s original tomb, where one will find fresh flowers and candles burning. In 1976 the state had Villa’s remains moved to a Mexico City shrine, as befits a national hero. Or so we’re told. Any local in Parral will tell you that Villa’s body was first switched for another and the authorities took the wrong corpse. Lucio, the auxiliar de administracion, walked me to where he believes Villa truly to be buried: in a plain, unmarked grave beside that of his beloved wife (one of 26), deep in the Panteón de Luz Dolores. I know which story I prefer.