Pancho Villa

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Pancho Villa is also the name of a boxer..

Image:PanchoVilla.jpg José Doroteo Arango Arámbula (June 5, 1878 (date disputed) – July 20, 1923) — better known by his nom de guerre Francisco Villa or, in its diminutive form, Pancho Villa — was one of the foremost leaders and best known generals of the Mexican Revolution, between 1911 and 1920, and provisional governor of the Mexican state of Chihuahua in 1913 and 1914. Villa mostly operated in the northern theatre of the war, centering on Chihuahua, in the north of Mexico. Villa is often referred to as El centauro del norte (The Centaur of the North), due to his celebrated cavalry attacks as a general. Numerous streets and neighborhoods in Mexico are named for Villa.

Villa and Villa's ardent supporters, known as Villistas, employed tactics such as propaganda and firing squads against enemies, expropriated hacienda land for distribution to peasants and villista soldiers, and printed fiat money to finance Villa's cause. Many of Villa's tactics and strategies were adopted by later 20th century revolutionaries.

Villa's troops were collectively known as the Division del norte (Division Of The North). His elite cavalry troops and bodyguards were known as Los dorados (The Golden Ones).

As one of the major (and most colorful) figures of the first successful popular revolution of the 20th century, Villa's notoriety attracted journalists, photographers, and military freebooters of both idealistic and opportunistic stripe, from far and wide.

Villa's revolutionary aims (other than military goals), unlike those of Emiliano Zapata's Plan de Ayala, were never clearly defined. Villa spoke vaguely of creating communal military colonies for his ex-soldiers, and he subscribed to Venustiano Carranza's Plan of Guadalupe.

Despite extensive research by Mexican and foreign scholars, many of the details of Villa's life are in dispute, and probably always will be.


Pre-revolutionary life

Doroteo Arango was born in San Juan del Río, Durango, in 1878 (date disputed), son of Agustin Arango and Micaela Arámbula de Arango. When his father died, Villa began to work as a sharecropper to help support his mother and four siblings. One day in 1894, Villa came home from the fields to find that the owner of the hacienda had raped Villa's 12-year old sister. Villa grabbed a pistol, shot the owner of the hacienda, and fled to the mountains.

From 1894 to 1910, Villa spent most of his time in the mountains running from the law. At first he did what he could to survive by himself, but by 1896 he had joined some other bandits and soon became their leader. During this time he changed his name to Francisco Villa,(Pancho is a Spanish nickname for Francisco) perhaps suggesting that he was the son of the bandit Agustín Villa. Villa and his group of bandits would steal cattle, rob shipments of money, and commit additional crimes against the wealthy. By stealing from the rich and often giving to the poor, some saw Villa as a modern-day Robin Hood.

The revolt against Diaz

Villa underwent a transformation after meeting Abraham González, the political representative in Chihuahua of Francisco Madero. González opened Villa's eyes to the political world. Villa then believed that he was fighting for the people, to break the power of the hacienda owners (hacendados in Spanish) over the poverty stricken peones and campesinos (farmers and sharecroppers). At the time,Chihuahua was dominated by hacendados and mine owners. The Terrazas clan alone controlled haciendas covering 7,000,000 acres (28,000 km²), nearly the size of the US state of Mississippi.

On November 20, 1910, the Mexican Revolution, led by Madero, began to overthrow the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. After nearly 35 years of rule which the Mexican people were thoroughly tired of, Diaz's political situation was untenable, and his poorly paid conscript troops were no match for the motivated antireeleccionista volunteers fighting for libertad and Maderismo. The antireeleccionistas booted Diaz from office in a few months of fighting. Villa helped defeat the federal army of Díaz in favor of Madero in 1911, most famously in the first Battle of Juarez, which was viewed by Americans sitting on the top of railroad boxcars in El Paso, Texas. Madero became president of Mexico. On May 29, 1911, Villa married Maria Luz Corral.

Most people at that time assumed that the idealist Madero would lead Mexico into a new era of true democracy, and Villa would fade back into obscurity. But Villa's greatest days of fame were yet to come, and democracy in Mexico was further off than most people living in 1911 could have imagined.

Orozco's counterrevolution against Madero

A rebellion led by Pascual Orozco started against Madero, so Villa gathered his mounted cavalry troops, known as Los dorados, and worked with General Victoriano Huerta to support Madero. However, Huerta saw in Villa a powerful enemy for his own interests and later accused Villa of stealing a horse and sentenced him to execution trying to get rid of him, but that sentence was later suspended by President Madero. Villa was instead imprisoned but later escaped. During Villa's imprisionment, he began to learn how to read, a talent that would serve him well during his service as provisional governor of the state of Chihuahua.

Fight against Huerta's usurpation

After crushing the Orozco rebellion, Victoriano Huerta held the majority of military power in Mexico. Huerta saw an opportunity to make himself dictator and began to conspire with cronies such Bernardo Reyes, Felix Diaz (son of Porfirio Diaz) and US ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, which resulted in the decena tragica ("Ten Tragic Days") [1] (beginning February 9,1913) faux battle between Reyes and Diaz (occupying the Citadel building) against Madero (holed up in the Palacio Nacional) in downtown Mexico City. Huerta tricked Madero into accepting his "protection", then betrayed Madero, ordering the assassination of Madero and Vice President Pino Suarez, and proclaimed himself as president. Venustiano Carranza then proclaimed the Plan of Guadalupe to oust Huerta from office as an unconstitutional usurper. The new group of politicians and generals {which included Pablo Gonzalez, Alvaro Obregon, Emiliano Zapata and Villa) who joined to support Carranza's plan, were collectively styled as the Ejercito Constitutionalista de México (Constitutionalist Army of Mexico), the constitutionalista adjective added to stress the point that Huerta had not obtained power via methods prescribed in the Constitution of Mexico.

Villa's hatred of Huerta became more personal and intense after March 7, 1913, when Huerta ordered the murder of Villa's political mentor, Abraham González. Villa later recovered Gonzalez's remains and gave his friend a hero's funeral in Chihuahua.

Villa joined the rebellion against Huerta, crossing the Rio Grande into Ciudad Juarez with a mere 8 men, 2 pounds of coffee, 2 pounds of sugar, and 500 rounds of rifle ammunition. The new United States' president Woodrow Wilson dismissed Ambassador Wilson, and began to support Carranza's cause. Villa's remarkable generalship combined with ingenious fundraising methods to support his rebellion, would be a key factor in forcing Huerta from office a little over a year later, on July 15,1914.

This was the time of Villa's greatest fame and success. He recruited soldiers and able subordinates such as Felipe Angeles and Sam Dreben and raised money via methods such as forced assessments on hostile hacienda owners (such as William Benton, who was killed in the Benton affair), and train robberies. In one notable escapade, he held 122 bars of silver ingot from a train robbery (and a Wells Fargo employee) hostage and forced Wells Fargo to help him fence the bars for spendable cash. [2] A rapid, hard fought series of victories at Ciudad Juarez, Tierra Blanca, Chihuahua and Ojinaga followed. Villa then became provisional governor of Chihuahua state.

As governor of Chihuahua, Villa raised more money for a drive to the south by printing fiat money. He decreed his paper money to be traded and accepted at par with gold Mexican pesos, under penalty of execution, then forced the wealthy to trade their gold for his paper pesos by decreeing gold to be counterfeit money. He also confiscated the gold of banks, in the case of the Banco Minero, by holding hostage a member of the bank's owning family, the wealthy and famous Terrazas clan, until the location of the bank's gold was revealed.

Villa's stature at that time was so high that banks in El Paso, Texas accepted his paper pesos at face value. His generalship drew enough admiration from the US military that he and Alvaro Obregon were invited to Fort Bliss to meet General John J. Pershing. A photo was taken of Obregon, Villa and Pershing together.

The new pile of loot was used to purchase draft animals, cavalry horses, arms, ammunition, mobile hospital facilities, and food, and to rebuild the railroad south of Chihuahua City. The rebuilt railroad transported Villa's troops and artillery south, where he defeated Federal forces at Gomez Palacio, Torreon, and Zacatecas.

Carranza brakes the Villa advance, the fall of Zacatecas

After Torreon, Carranza issued a puzzling order for Villa to break off action south of Torreon and instead ordered him to divert to attack Saltillo (which Villa did, winning), and threatened to cut off Villa's coal supply (coal being needed for railroad locomotives to pull trains transporting soldiers and supplies) if he did not comply. This was widely seen as an attempt by Carranza to divert Villa from a direct assault on Mexico City, so as to allow Carranza's forces under Alvaro Obregon, driving in from the west via Guadalajara, to take the capital first (and Obregon and Carranza did enter Mexico City ahead of Villa). This was an expensive (Villa's enlisted men were paid the then enormous sum of a peso per day, so each day of delay cost thousands of pesos) and disruptive diversion for the Division del norte.

Villa, disgusted by what he saw as egoismo, tendered his resignation. Felipe Angeles and Villa's officer staff argued for Villa to withdraw his resignation, defy Carranza's orders, and proceed to attack Zacatecas, a strategic mountainous city considered nearly impregnable; but since Zacatecas was the source of much of Mexico's silver, and thus a supply of funds for whomever held it, victory there against Huerta would mean that his chances of holding the remainder of the country would be slim. Villa accepted Angeles' advice, cancelled his resignation, and the Division del norte defeated the Federals in the Toma de Zacatecas (Taking of Zacatecas), the single bloodiest battle of the Revolution, with the military forces counting approximately 7,000 dead and 5,000 wounded, and unknown numbers of civilian casualties. (A memorial to and museum of the Toma de Zacatecas is on the Cerro de la Bufa, one of the key defense points in the battle of Zacatecas. Tourists use a teleferico (aerial tramway) to reach it, due to the steep approaches. From the top, tourists may appreciate the difficulties Villa's troops had trying to dislodge Federal troops from the peak.) The loss of Zacatecas (in June 1914) broke the back of the Huerta regime, and Huerta left for exile on July 14, 1914.

This was the beginning of the split between Villa and the constitutionalistas of Carranza, which would eventually doom Villa as a military and political power in Mexico. Carranza's egoismo would eventually become self-destructive, alienating most of the people he needed to hold power, and doom him as well.

Villa as media star

Villa's colorful personality and success in battle during this period made him a celebrated media figure in the United States and the subject of several movies. Villa's keen eye for publicity (and offers of money) led to some movie scenes being filmed on location with Villa's troops. US journalists and photographers such as John Reed followed Villa and filed reports and images from the battlefront for publication in US newspapers and magazines. IMDB list of movies Villa appeared in

There was much speculation in the US press in 1913 and 1914, that Villa would become President of Mexico. Villa always denied such speculation, claiming that he was not educated well enough to assume the responsibility.

Zapata and Villa's entry to Mexico City

Villa had a long-distance and somewhat tenuous relationship with Emiliano Zapata, another peasant who was fighting in the south of Mexico, mostly in the states of Morelos, Guerrero, and Puebla. While Zapata could hold his own against the Federals, he was constrained by tight finances and lack of a direct path to the United States for arms imports. Lack of a land connection, during most of the Revolution, between Zapata's region and areas Villa controlled, limited the amount of contact and cooperation between the two.

After the interim presidency of Francisco S. Carvajal, who succeeded Huerta, Carranza and the Constitutionalist Army entered Mexico City in August 1914. Meanwhile, Villa and Zapata refused to join Carranza, claiming that Carranza was attempting to set himself up as a caudillo, and was not intending to carry out the aims of the revolution. The Convention of Aguascalientes, which Carranza refused to attend, met between October 10 and November 13, 1914. The Convention deposed Carranza as primer jefe (Number One Chief) of the Revolution and installed Eulalio Gutiérrez as President. In November, 1914, Carranza left Mexico City for Veracruz, and repudiated the Convention. [3]

After Carranza's exit, Villa and Zapata entered and occupied Mexico City in early December, 1914. They had their first face to face meeting in Xochimilco on December 4, 1914.

Revolt against Carranza and Obregon

Villa was forced out of Mexico City in 1915, following a number of incidents between himself, his troops and the citizens of the city, and the humiliation of President Eulalio Gutiérrez. The return of Carranza and the Constitutionalists to Mexico City from Veracruz followed. Villa then rebelled against Carranza and Carranza's chief general, Alvaro Obregon. Villa and Zapata styled themselves as convencionistas, supporters of the Convention of Aguascalientes.

Unfortunately, Villa's talent for generalship began to fail him in 1915. When Villa faced General Obregon in the Battle of Celaya, repeated charges of Villa's vaunted cavalry proved to be no match for Obregon's entrenchments and modern machine guns, and the villista advance was first checked then repulsed. In a later engagement, Obregon lost one of his arms to villista artillery.

Villa retrenched to Chihuahua and attempted to refinance his revolt by having a firm in San Antonio, Texas, crank out more paper fiat money. [4] (Most Villa money seen today dates from this period) But the effort met with limited success, and the value of Villa's paper pesos dropped to a fraction of their former value as doubts grew about Villa's political viability. Villa began ignoring the counsel of the most valuable member of his military staff, Felipe Angeles, and eventually Angeles left for exile in Texas. Despite Carranza's unpopularity, Carranza had an able general in Obregon and most of Mexico's military power, and unlike Huerta, was not being hampered by interference from the United States.

Split with the United States and the Punitive Expedition

The United States, following the diplomatic policies of Woodrow Wilson, who believed that supporting Carranza was the best way to expedite establishment of a stable Mexican government, refused to allow more arms to be supplied to Villa, and allowed Mexican constitutionalist troops to be relocated via US railroads. Villa felt betrayed by these actions and began to attack Americans. He was further enraged by Obregon's use of searchlights, powered by American electricity, to help repel an Villista night attack on the border town of Agua Prieta, Sonora,on November 1,1915. In January 1916, a group of villistas attacked a train on the Mexico North Western Railway, near Santa Isabel, Chihuahua, and massacred 18 American employees of the ASARCO company.

On March 9, 1916, Villa led 1,500 (disputed, one official US Army report stated "500 to 700") Mexican raiders in a cross-border attack against Columbus, New Mexico, in response to the U.S. government's official recognition of the Carranza regime [5]. They attacked a detachment of the [13th US Cavalry], seized 100 horses and mules, burned the town, killed 10 soldiers and 8 of its residents, and took much ammunition and weaponry.

United States' President Woodrow Wilson responded by sending 6,000 troops under General John J. Pershing to Mexico to pursue Villa. In the U.S., this was known as the Punitive or Pancho Villa Expedition. During the search, the United States launched its first air combat mission with eight airplanes.[6] At the same time Villa was also being sought by Carranza's army. The U.S. expedition was eventually called off as a failure, and Villa successfully escaped from both armies.

Later Life and Assassination

After the Punitive Expedition, Villa remained at large but never regained his former stature or military power. Carranza's loss of Obregon as chief general in 1917, and his preoccupation with the continuing rebellion of the Zapatista forces in Morelos (much closer to Mexico City and perceived as the greater threat), prevented him from applying sufficient military pressure to extinguish the Villa nuisiance. Few of the Chihuahuans who could have informed on Villa, were inclined to cooperate with the Carranza regime. Villa's last major raid was on Ciudad Juarez in 1919.

In 1920, Villa negotiated peace with new President Adolfo de la Huerta and ended his revolutionary actions. He went into semi-retirement, with a detachment of 50 of los dorados for protection, at the hacienda of El Canutillo [7]. He was assassinated three years later in Parral, Chihuahua, in his car. The assassins were never found. While there is some circumstantial evidence that Obregon was behind the killing, Villa made many enemies over his lifetime, who would have had motives to murder him. Villa is remembered as a folk hero in Mexico.

In 1926 grave robbers decapitated his corpse. [8] His skull has yet to be found.

The location of the rest of Villa's corpse is in dispute. It may be in the city cemetery of Parral, Chihuahua [9], or in the Monument of the Revolution in Mexico City [10]. Tombstones for Villa exist in both places.

Villa's Battles and military actions

Villa's personality, eccentricities and habits, trivia and legends about Villa

As noted in the introduction, the tumultous times of the Mexican revolution in which Villa lived means that many details of Villa's life will never be completely verifiable. Even contemporary press and eyewitness accounts often conflict, each side of the conflict had a propaganda machine churning out its own spin on events. However, listing some of the legends and stories is important for explaining Villa's political mystique.

John Reed's book Insurgent Mexico relates many tales of Villa, and has stories of Reed's personal encounters with the general. John Eisenhower's book Intervention! details the US interventions in Tampico and Chihuahua during the Revolution. Freidrich Katz's Life and Times of Pancho Villa is the most thorough scholarly English language treatment of Villa's life.

  • Villa was noted as a schoolbuilder, proposing schools in Chihuahua wherever he saw children gathered.
  • He was a lover of ice cream. One corrido song of the revolution states that Villa made a point of stopping for ice cream before gunning down a betrayer on the streets of Chihuahua.
  • He was a lifelong teetotaler, and supposedly gagged on a toast of brandy offered to him by Emiliano Zapata.
  • He was a dancer of legendary stamina. Reed claims Villa arrived late for the Battle of Torreon, after an all-night dancing stint. Reed may have cleaned up the account a bit to avoid having his book or writings comstocked by the Post Office.
  • Villa was a ladies' man and a polygamist. Numbers on how many women Villa married vary, but it has been speculated as many as 24.
  • Villa supposedly escaped the Punitive Expedition by having himself sewn up inside the body of a dead horse.
  • Villa may have been involved in the demise of Ambrose Bierce.
  • Villa's legal widow, Luz Corral, operated Villa's former mansion, Quinta Luz as the Museo de la Revolucion in Chihuahua until her death in 1981. The museum is still in operation, and Villa's death car is on display. (Spanish) (English, photo of death car)
  • There are unconfirmed rumors that the Skull and Bones club at Yale University is in possession of Villa's skull.[12]
  • The song La Cucaracha was modified and popularized by Villa's troops to mock Venustiano Carranza. Multiple theories exist over exactly who or what the oblique reference to the cockroach , was meant to refer to (possibly Villa's car or Villa's army). [13] As with other corridos, the song was an oral tradition and verses were frequently made up or modified impromptu by whoever sang it.
  • The son of Giuseppe Garibaldi, noted Italian patriot, was a colonel on Villa's military staff. Garibaldi,Jr. was sacked by Villa for claiming too much credit in the press for Villa's 1911 victory in Ciudad Juarez.
  • Rodolfo Fierro, Villa's sidekick and noted cold-blooded killer, reportedly once killed a random passerby in the streets of Chihuahua, to settle a bet on whether a dying man fell forwards or backwards.
  • At the Battle of Tierra Blanca,Chihuahua, Villa (or possibly Rodolfo Fierro) invented the tactic of maquina loca (Crazy Locomotive), namely hijacking a locomotive behind enemy lines, packing it with explosives, then sending it with the throttle tied down into the rows of railroad cars at the enemy's rear.
  • In the Benton affair, Villa and Mexican revolutionaries in general earned the lifelong enemity of Winston Churchill, by executing William Benton, an obstinate English hacienda owner.

German involvement?

Some historians debate whether Villa was involved with the Germans and how much aid and information passed through them. Some contend that the Germans encouraged Villa's actions against U.S. interests in 1916 and his incursions into Texas and New Mexico, with the aim of fomenting instability on the southern border of a power they definitely did not want interfering in World War I. Other actions by the Germans, such as the Zimmermann Telegram to the Mexican government, indicate a desire on their part to destabilize the United States. The extent of Villa's role as an abettor of German interests and receiver of German aid is still an open question, but the idea would not seem to be in contradiction with his opportunistic tendencies and feeling of betrayal by the policies of the United States at the time. However, at the time of Villa's attack on Columbus, New Mexico, Villa's military power was mostly an impotent nuisance (he was repulsed at Columbus by a small cavalry detachment, albeit after doing a lot of damage), his theatre of operations was mainly limited to western Chihuahua, he was persona non grata with Mexico's ruling Carranza constitutionalists, and the subject of an embargo by the United States, so communication or shipments of arms between the Germans and Villa would have been difficult. A more plausible explanation of any Villa-German contacts would be that they were a futile extension of increasingly desperate German diplomatic efforts and villista pipe dreams of victory as progress of their respective wars bogged down in 1916.

Some contacts between Germans (prinicipally in the person of Felix A. Sommerfeld, noted in Katz's book) and Villa are documented well enough to be believeable. However, the actions of Sommerfeld indicate he was likely acting in his own self interest (he supposedly was paid a $5,000 per month stipend for supplying dynamite to Villa, a fortune in 1915), and Villa's actions were hardly that of a German catspaw. [14] When weighing claims of Villa conspiring with Germans, one should take into account that at the time, portraying Villa as a German sympathizer served the propaganda ends of both Carranza and Wilson.

The use of Mauser rifles by Villa's forces does not necessarily indicate any German connection, these were widely used by all parties in the Mexican revolution.

Villa's disputed parentage and birthdate

A number of theories have been advanced as to Villa's true parentage. One theory claims he was the illegitimate son of Luis Férman Gurrola, a wealthy hacendado or rancher whose own father was an immigrant of Austrian-Jewish origin.[15] Sra. Arámbula's use of the apellido of de Arango indicates that she was attached to Sr. Arango sufficiently to adopt his name.

Disputes about Villa's birthdate (depending on the source, between 1877 to 1879) are not surprising, most 19th century Mexican campesinos were illiterate (as Villa was), could not read calenders and often did not keep track of such minituae. Much government documentation of vital statistics in Mexico was destroyed during the Revolution, church documents often were destroyed in the Revolution and the anti-clerical reactions that followed. 19th century Mexicans (and some today) typically celebrated their saint's day in lieu of or as well as their actual birthday. Some folks followed the practice of naming children after the saint's day they were born on. In Villa's case, his saint's day (Dorothea) is February 6.

One of Villa's official portraits lists his birthday as October 4,1877 [16]

Pancho Villa in films

Villa represented in films by himself in 1912, 1913, and 1914. Many other actors have represented him, such as:


  • Retrato autobiográfico, 1894-1914. Guadalupe Villa y Rosa Helia Villa, editors. Mexico City, Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México: Taurus: Santillana Ediciones Generales, c2003 (2004 printing). ISBN 9681913116
  • "Life and Times of Pancho Villa", Friedrich Katz, Stanford University Press, 1998, ISBN 0804730466 [17]

External links


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