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Pancho Villa
1878 - 1923

Francisco Villa was a famous Mexican military commander and guerrilla of the warring phase of the Mexican Revolution.


Pancho Villa was born Doroteo Arango on June 5, 1878, in San Juan del Rio, Durango. His life as an orphaned peasant ended, according to tradition, when he defended his sister against the hacienda owner. He became a bandit chief and horse trader, changed his name, and finally joined the maderistas in Chihuahua under Abraham González.

Without formal education, Villa was to learn revolutionary goals from association with Francisco Madero and his movement. Villa rebelled against the Porfirio Díaz regime and, because of successes as a guerrilla fighter, his knowledge of the terrain, and his skill as an organizer, was given the rank of colonel. On May 11, 1911, his forces and those of Pascual Orozco attacked and captured Ciudad Juárez contrary to Madero's orders. The victory marked the triumph of the Madero revolution.

After Madero assumed the presidency, Villa returned to civilian life as a businessman, but the Orozco rebellion in 1912 brought him back to the fray, defending the Madero regime first independently and then under Victoriano Huerta's orders. Imprisoned and about to be shot by Huerta for insubordination, Villa was saved by the intervention of Raúl Madero, the President's brother. Imprisoned for a while, he escaped to the United States. He reentered Mexico with a handful of companions to fight the usurper Huerta after Madero's death. By September 1913 that handful had become the nucleus of Villa's Division of the North.

In the struggle against Huerta, Villa was in uneasy alliance with Venustiano Carranza and Emiliano Zapata. The villistas took Torreón and won the crucial battle of Zacatecas (June 23, 1914). By then the irritations had built up and made conflict inevitable once the common foe had been vanquished. In part the differences were ideological, but more significant was the clash of personalities - the stubborn Carranza, proud of his prerogatives as first chief, and the indomitable and undisciplined Villa.

After Carranza's abortive Convention of Generals in the capital removed to the "neutral zone" of Aguascalientes, the zapatistas managed to dominate the gathering ideologically while the villistas held military control. Villa was made chief of Convention military operations against Carranza and with Zapata occupied Mexico City in December 1914. The Convention government could not command its own commander. Villa lived according to his own personal code, beyond authority and law. He took what he pleased whether it was women or the lives of men.

Coordination between the zapatistas and villistas proved difficult if not impossible. The Convention government was forced to leave the capital as Álvaro Obregón advanced from the southeast. Villa retreated northward, there to be defeated in the most massive battles of the revolution, at Celaya and León in the spring of 1915. The power of the Division of the North was broken, and the myth of invincibility of Villa's cavalry (the famous dorados) was exploded.

Villa withdrew to Chihuahua, which he continued to control, and is credited with introducing reforms including some land distribution. In March 1916, angered by United States recognition of Carranza, Villa attacked Columbus, N. Mex. For almost a year Gen. Pershing's punitive expedition sought unsuccessfully to capture or destroy the "Centaur of the North." Some villista groups were dispersed, and Villa himself was wounded, but the uncooperative posture of the Carranza regime and the apparent inevitability of war with Germany speeded the withdrawal of the forces.

Villa continued guerrilla harassment of the Carranza government until the regime was overthrown by the rebellion of Agua Prieta in 1920. The interim administration of Adolfo de la Huerta reached an agreement whereby Villa agreed to lay down his arms and accept rank as a division general and the ranch of Canutillo, Durango, to support him and his escort.

Pancho Villa was killed on June 20, 1923, in Parral by obregonistas apparently fearful that he might emerge from his retirement to oppose the election of Plutarco Calles. More than four decades later the Mexican Congress voted to inscribe his name in gold on the chamber walls with other heroes of the Mexican Revolution.


When Villa came of age, he declared his freedom from the peonage of his parents and became notorious as a bandit in Chihuahua and Durango. His vigorous fighting in the revolution of 1910–11 was largely responsible for the triumph of Francisco I. Madero over Porfirio Díaz. When Victoriano Huerta overthrew Madero (Feb., 1913), Villa joined Venustiano Carranza and the Constitutionalists in the fight against Huerta. The Constitutionalists met with continual success. Villa, at the head of his brilliant cavalry, Los Dorados, gained control of N Mexico by the audacity of his attacks; Huerta resigned in July, 1914.

Antipathy and suspicion had always existed between Villa and Carranza; now, with their common enemy eliminated, an open break occurred after the Convention of Aguascalientes. A bloody contest ensued, with Álvaro Obregón taking the side of Carranza. In the midst of chaos, Villa, with Emiliano Zapata, occupied Mexico City (Dec., 1914) but later evacuated the capital (Jan., 1915). Obregón pursued Villa, and their armies engaged at Celaya (Apr., 1915). Decisively defeated, Villa was driven north and out of military significance. In the winter of 1915 he campaigned disastrously against Plutarco E. Calles in Sonora.

Villa's waning power was further diminished by President Wilson's recognition of Carranza (Oct., 1915), which angered Villa. In Jan., 1916, a group of Americans were shot by bandits in Chihuahua, and on Mar. 9, 1916, some of Villa's men raided the U.S. town of Columbus, N.Mex., killing some American citizens. It is not certain that Villa participated in these assaults, but he was universally held responsible. Wilson ordered a punitive expedition under General Pershing to capture Villa dead or alive. The expedition pursued Villa through Chihuahua for 11 months (Mar., 1916–Feb., 1917) but failed in its objective. Carranza violently resented this invasion and it embittered relations between Mexico and the United States.

Villa continued his activities in northern Mexico throughout Carranza's regime, but in 1920 he came to an amicable agreement with the government of Adolfo de la Huerta. Three years later Villa was assassinated at Parral. In a sense Pancho Villa was a rebel against social abuses; at times he worked a rough justice but he was a violent and undirected destructive force. His daring, his impetuosity, and his horsemanship made him the idol of the masses, especially in N Mexico, where he was regarded as a sort of Robin Hood. The Villa myth is perpetuated in numerous ballads and tales.


Doroteo Arango Arámbula (June 5, 1878 – July 20, 1923), better known as Francisco or "Pancho" Villa, was a Mexican Revolutionary general. In his own version of his life at the age of 16 he shot an older man, the son of a big landowner, who had tried to rape Pancho's younger sister Martina. After this, being pursued for murder, he escaped. (This version is debunked - see Jeff Howell at References below.) During the following years, first living as an outlaw, then working his way up to a position as a division's commander, not many details are known.

As commander of the División del Norte (Division of the North), he was the veritable caudillo of the Northern Mexican state of Chihuahua; which, given its size, mineral wealth, and proximity to the United States of America, gave him great popularity. Villa was also provisional Governor of Chihuahua in 1913 and 1914. While he was prevented from being accepted into the "pantheon" of national heroes until some twenty years after his death, today his memory is honored by Mexicans and many Americans. In addition, numerous streets and neighbourhoods in Mexico are named in his honour.

In 1916 he raided Columbus, New Mexico. This act provoked the unsuccessful Punitive Expedition commanded by General John J. Pershing, which failed to capture Villa after a year in pursuit. Villa and his supporters, known as Villistas, employed tactics such as propaganda and firing squads against his enemies, and seized hacienda land for distribution to peasants and soldiers. He robbed and commandeered trains, and, like the other Revolutionary generals, printed fiat money to pay for his cause. Villa's generalship was noted for the speed of its movement of troops (by railroad), the use of an elite cavalry unit called Los dorados ("the golden ones") (for which he earned the nickname El Centauro del Norte (The Centaur of the North)), artillery attacks, and recruitment of the enlisted soldiers of defeated enemy units. Many of Villa's tactics and strategies were adopted by later 20th century revolutionaries.

As one of the major (and most colourful) 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 stripes) from far and wide.

Villa's non-military revolutionary aims, unlike those of the Zapatista Plan de Ayala, were not clearly defined. Villa only spoke vaguely of creating communal military colonies for his troops.

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

When one of Madero's military commanders, Pascual Orozco, started a counterrebellion against Madero, Villa gathered his mounted cavalry troops and fought alongside General Victoriano Huerta to support Madero. However, Huerta viewed Villa as an ambitious competitor, and later accused Villa of stealing a horse and insubordination; he then had Villa sentenced to execution in an attempt to dispose of him. Reportedly, Villa was standing in front of a firing squad waiting to be shot when a telegram from President Madero was received commuting his sentence to imprisonment, from which Villa later escaped. During Villa's imprisonment, Gilbardo Magaña Cerda, a Zapatista who was in prison at the time, provided the chance meeting which would help to improve his poor reading and writing skills, which would serve him well in the future during his service as provisional governor of the state of Chihuahua.

Fight Against Huerta's Usurpation

In the second part of the Mexican Revolution, president Francisco I. Madero was betrayed and assassinated. After crushing the Orozco rebellion, Victoriano Huerta, with the federal army he commanded, held the majority of military power in Mexico. Huerta saw an opportunity to make himself dictator and began to conspire with people such as Bernardo Reyes {killed 1913}, Félix Díaz (died in 1945; nephew of Porfirio Díaz) and US ambassador Henry Lane Wilson {Dismissed 1913-died 1932}, which resulted in La decena trágica (the "Ten Tragic Days") and the assassination of President Madero.

After Madero's murder, Huerta proclaimed himself provisional 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 González, Álvaro Obregón, Emiliano Zapata and Villa) who joined to support Carranza's plan, were collectively styled as the Ejército Constitucionalista de México (Constitutionalist Army of Mexico), the constitucionalista adjective added to stress the point that Huerta had not obtained power through methods prescribed by Mexico's Constitution of 1857.

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, who had worked with Madero and Villa since 1910. Abraham Gonzálezwas one of Francisco I. Madero's political advisors. He recluted Francisco Villa in 1910 to support Madero with the Plan de San Luis which started the first part of the Mexican Revolution with the armed movement of November 20th, 1910. The Plan de San Luis was made to force Dictator Porfirio Diaz (Mexican president for 33 years) to leave the presidency and allow for a Mexican Democracy. Villa later recovered González's remains and gave his friend a proper funeral in Chihuahua.

Villa joined the rebellion against Huerta, crossing the Río Bravo del Norte (Rio Grande) into Ciudad Juárez 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 and recruiting appeal, 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 (both Mexican and mercenary) such as Felipe Ángeles, Sam Dreben and Ivor Thord-Gray, and raised money using methods such as forced assessments on hostile hacienda owners, 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 sell the bars for spendable cash. A rapid, hard-fought series of victories at Ciudad Juárez, Tierra Blanca, Chihuahua and Ojinaga followed. Villa then became provisional governor of the state of Chihuahua. According to some of the references, Villa considered Tierra Blanca his most spectacular victory. Villa's war tactics were studied by the American Army and a contract with Hollywood was made. Hollywood would be allowed to film Villa's movements and 50% of the profit would be payed to Villa to support the Revolution.

As governor of Chihuahua, Villa raised more money for a drive to the south by printing his own currency. He decreed his paper money to be traded and accepted at par with gold Mexican pesos, then forced the wealthy to give forced loans that would allow to pay salaries to the army as well as food and clothes. He also took some of the land owned by the hacendados (owners of the Haciendas) to give it to the widows and family of death revolutionaries. For some this might appeared as a unfair act, however, the Haciendas have been operating as feudal properties, where the workers are treated almost as slaves and the salaries are so low that the workers have to be in debt with the hacendados who "lowned" goods from the Hacienda store (tienda de raya). The acts of Villa allowed to partially compensate for decades of dishonety and unfairness. The forced loans would also support the war machinery of the Mexican Revolution. He also confiscated gold from specific banks, in the case of the Banco Minero, by holding hostage a member of the bank's owning family, the extremely wealthy and famous Terrazas clan, until the location of the hidden bank's gold was revealed.

Villa's political 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 Álvaro Obregón were invited to Fort Bliss to meet Brigadier General John J. Pershing.

The new pile of loot was used to purchase draft animals, cavalry horses, arms, ammunition, mobile hospital facilities (railroad cars and horse ambulances staffed with Mexican andforeign volunteer doctors, known as Servicio sanitario), and food, as well as to rebuild the railroad south of Chihuahua City. The rebuilt railroad transported Villa's troops and artillery south, where he defeated Federal forces at Gómez Palacio, Torreón, and Zacatecas.

Carranza tries to halt the Villa advance, the fall of Zacatecas

After Torreón, Carranza issued a puzzling order for Villa to break off action south of Torreón and instead ordered him to divert to attack Saltillo, and threatened to cut off Villa's coal supply if he did not comply. Coal was needed for railroad locomotives to pull trains transporting soldiers and supplies, and was therefore necessary for any general. 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 Álvaro Obregón, driving in from the west via Guadalajara, to take the capital first, and Obregón and Carranza did enter Mexico City ahead of Villa. This was an expensive and disruptive diversion for the División del norte, since Villa's enlisted men were paid the then enormous sum of a peso per day, and each day of delay cost thousands of pesos. Villa did attack Saltillo as ordered, winning that battle.

Villa, disgusted by what he saw as egoism, tendered his resignation. Felipe Ángeles 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. Zacatecas was the source of much of Mexico's silver, and thus a supply of funds for whoever held it. Victory in Zacatecas would mean that Huerta's chances of holding the remainder of the country would be slim. Villa accepted Ángeles's advice, cancelled his resignation, and the División 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 teleférico (aerial tramway) to reach it, owing 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.

At this moment, peace comes back to Mexico. All the revolutionary caudillos create a National Convention, and have a set of meetings in Aguascalientes. The National Convention sets rules for Mexican's path towards a democracy. None of the armed revolutionaries would be allowed to be nominated for government positions. They select an interim president Eulalio Gutierrez. Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa meet at the convention. Zapata tells Villa he fears Carranza's intentions are those of a dictator and not of a democratic president. True to Zapata's impression, Carranza decides to oppose the agreements of the National Convention, starting a civil war.

Split with the United States and the Punitive Expedition

After years of public and documented support of Villa's fight, 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 Villas army, and allowed Carranza's troops to be relocated over US railroads. Villa felt betrayed by the Americans. He was further enraged by Obregón's use of searchlights, powered by American electricity, to help repel a 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 killed several American employees of the ASARCO company. Passengers included 18 Americans, including 15 who worked for American Smelting and Refining Company. There was only one survivor, who gave the details to the press. Villa admitted to ordering the attack, but denied that he had authorized the shedding of American blood.

Cross-border attack on New Mexico

On March 9, 1916, General Villa ordered 700 (disputed, one official US Army report stated "500 to 700") Mexican members of his revolutionary group to make a cross-border attack against Columbus, New Mexico. The raid was conducted because of the U.S. government's official recognition of the Carranza regime and for the loss of lives in battle due to defective bullets purchased from the United States. They attacked a detachment of the 13th US Cavalry, confiscated 100 horses and mules, set the central part of the town on fire, and killed 84 persons. This was the second time U.S. land was attacked by another country. Uncorfirmed rumours and false newspaper notes claimed that Pancho Villa's righthand men Charlie McEvoy and Ari Najarian infiltrated all of the enemies' ports and were key in his raids across the land. On May 15 attacked Glen Springs, Texas, killing a civilian and wounding three American soldiers; on June 15 bandits killed four soldiers at San Ygnacio, Texas; on July 31 one American soldier and a U.S. customs inspector were killed.

The Hunt for Pancho Villa

United States President Woodrow Wilson responded to the Columbus raid by sending 10,000 troops under General John J. Pershing to Mexico to pursue Villa. (Wilson also dispatched several divisions of Army and National Guard troops to protect the southern US border against further raids and counterattacks.) In the U.S., this was known as the Punitive or Pancho Villa Expedition. Mexicans did not support the entrance of American troops on mexican territory. At a city in Chihuahua, mexicans threw stones to the Punitive. There was a lot of clandestine Mexican support to General Villa, his army and his fight to improve social rights and wealth distribution in Mexico. During the search, the United States launched its first air combat mission with eight airplanes. At the same time, General Villa was being sought by Carranza's army, as well. The U.S. expedition was eventually called off after failing to find Villa, and Villa successfully escaped from both armies.

After the Punitive Expedition, General Villa continued fighting against Carranza's dictatorship and in support of social rights. He was an avid supporter of women's rights, a promoter of education and a proper wealth distribution. He always supported and shared the strugle of the lower social classes in Mexico.

In 1920, General Villa negotiated peace as Adolfo de la Huerta {Died July 9, 1955} became President interim. General Francisco Villa ended his revolutionary activity. He went into semi-retirement, with a detachment of 50 dorados for protection, at the hacienda of El Canutillo.. He also negotiated a one year salary and land for his army. The year of salary would allow them to live for that year and start working the land in views of having a decent living (paid by producing their land) in future years. He gave part of the El Canutillo land to the "dorados" and he farmed and fixed the decadent Hacienda in order to have roof and food for future years. He also founded a "modern" school named Felipe Angeles. Children leaving outside Canutillo were allowed to attend Felipe Angeles school and to leave in Canutillo from Monday to Friday. Furthermore, the parents of kids attending this school received a small monthly stipend.

He was assassinated on July, 1923 in Parral, Chihuahua, in his car. The assassins shot 150 bullets to Villa's car and received 300 miserable pesos for their act. The assassination had political implications and motivations. It is said that Obregon (Mexican President at the moment of the assassination) and Calles (War Minister) were involved or at least had known of the assassination plan. They let it happened. The assassins were never arrested, although a Durango politician, Jesús Salas Barraza, publicly claimed credit. While there is some circumstantial evidence that either Obregón {killed July 17, 1928} or Plutarco Elías Calles {died October 19, 1945} was behind the killing, Villa made many enemies over his lifetime, who would have had motives to murder him. Today Villa is remembered by Mexicans as a hero, a General with impresive military tactics and a revolutionist fighting for a better wealth distribution, education and women's rights.

Following Obregon's wishes, members of the Mexican military service reporting to Durazo decapitated his corpse in 1926. This created a strong social reaction and the skull ended up dissapearing. There are several stories of its possible location. It is said that it is burried on northern Mexican land. Some claim that it rests in the Skull and Bones Tomb in New Haven, CT.

A purported death mask alleged to be Villa's was hidden at the Radford School in El Paso, Texas, until the 1970s, when it was sent to the National Museum of the Revolution in Chihuahua; other museums have ceramic and bronze representations that do not match this mask.

The location of the remainder of Villa's corpse is in dispute. It may be in the city cemetery of Parral, Chihuahua, or in Chihuahua City, or in the Monument of the Revolution in Mexico City. Tombstones for Villa exist in both places. A pawn shop in El Paso, Texas, claims to be in possession of Villa's preserved trigger finger.

Period newsreel showing views of the assassination location in Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua, news reporters at the scene, and Villa's bullet riddled corpse and auto still exist.

Villa's battles and military actions

* Battle of Ciudad Juárez (twice, in 1911 and 1913, won both times)
* Battle of Tierra Blanca (1913 won)
* Battle of Chihuahua (1913 won)
* Battle of Ojinaga (1913 won)
* Battle of Torreón and Battle of Gómez Palacio (1914 won)
* Battle of Saltillo (1914 won)
* Battle of Zacatecas (1914 won)
* Battle of Celaya (1915 lost)
* Attack on Agua Prieta (1915 lost)
* Attack on Columbus, New Mexico (1916)

German involvement in Villa's later campaigns

Before the Villa-Carranza split in 1915, there is no credible evidence that Villa co-operated with or accepted any help from the German government or agents. Villa was supplied arms from the USA, employed international (Americans included) mercenaries and doctors, portrayed as a hero in the US media, made business arrangements with Hollywood, and did not object to the 1914 US naval occupation of Veracruz (Villa's observation was that the occupation merely hurt Huerta). He opposed the armed participation of the United States in Mexico, but he did not act against the Veracruz occupation in order to maintain the connections in the United States necessary to buy bullets and other supplies. The German consul in Torreón did make entreaties to Villa, offering him arms and money to occupy the port and oil fields of Tampico to enable German ships to dock there, but the offer was rejected by Villa.

Germans and German agents did attempt to interfere, unsuccessfully, in the Mexican Revolution. Germans attempted to plot with Victoriano Huerta to assist him to retake the country, and in the infamous Zimmermann Telegram to the Mexican government, proposed an alliance with the government of Venustiano Carranza.

There were documented contacts between Villa and the Germans, after Villa's split with the Constitutionalists. Principally this was in the person of Felix A. Sommerfeld, (noted in Katz's book), allegedly, in 1915, he funneled $340,000 of German money to the Western Cartridge Company to purchase ammunition. However, the actions of Sommerfeld indicate he was likely acting in his own self-interest (he acted as a double agent for Carranza). Villa's actions were hardly that of a German catspaw; rather, it appears that Villa only resorted to German assistance after other sources of money and arms were cut off.

At the time of Villa's attack on Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, Villa's military power had been marginalized (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 further shipments of arms between the Germans and Villa would have been difficult.

A plausible explanation of any Villa-German contacts after 1915 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. Villa effectively did not have anything useful to offer in exchange for German help at that point.

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 and carbines by Villa's forces does not necessarily indicate any German connection. These weapons were widely used by all parties in the Mexican Revolution, Mauser longarms being enormously popular. They were standard issue in the Mexican Army, which had begun adopting 7 mm Mauser system arms as early as 1895.










This web page was last updated on: 17 December, 2008