"Don't let it end this way. Tell them I said something"
- Francisco "Pancho" Villa's last words.
Francisco "Pancho" Villa (18781-1923)
Héroe de la Revolución
On June 5, 18781 in San Juan del Rio2, Durango, Mexico, Doroteo Arango came into the world. He was the son of Augustine Arango, a field laborer, and his wife Micaela Arambula. You might rightly be wondering what this has to do with "Pancho" Villa. Well, they are the same person. We'll get to that part soon.
At the age of 12, his father died, and young Doroteo began to work the fields. As he labored on the hacienda and observed his fellow peones he became disgusted with the imbalances of wealth and corruption of power in Mexico, which was to have an enormous impact on his later life.
One day, at age 16, he came home from the fields to find his younger sister, Mariana, cowering from the sexual advances3 of don Agustin Lopez Negrete4, the owner of the plantation on which they lived and worked. Doroteo procured a gun and shot his patron dead and then, quite literally, fled to the hills to avoid capture and execution by the the widely feared rurales5.
Like his earlier life, this period is also shrouded in myth and legend. It is, however, known that he became a cattle rustler as the official government records list his occupation at the time as "wholesale meat-seller", and based on that moniker, it's safe to assume he must have been pretty good at it.
At some point in his late teens, he assumed the name Francisco "Pancho" Villa--originally the name of a famous and colorful bandit earlier in the 19th century6--and assumed control of his roving bandit gang. This is also the era in which he gained his reputation as a Mexican Robin Hood. Engaging in various types of banditry, he would distribute his loot to poor families he encountered. By 1908, he was widely considered the dominant bandit in Durango, Sonora, and Chihuahua.
This is not to say that all of his business ventures during this time were illegal. He also worked mines, and for a time was a contractor on the Copper Canyon railroad. It is also alleged that he took legitimate work from the ranchers he rustled cattle from, helping them on their fields or with the butchering of cows.
In early 1910, Villa was contacted by Abraham González in an effort to recruit him for to overthrow the dictatorship of Presidente Porfirio Diaz in favor of the popular (and then-imprisoned) Francisco I. Madero. In October, Madero escaped prison and fled to the San Antonio, Texas, where he carried on his propaganda campaign. After a brief meeting with Madero, Francisco Villa was commissioned a Captain in the Revolutionary Army.
On November 22, 1910 Villa's rag-tag army of a few hundred ambushed a troop train delivering federales to San Andres, Chihuahua. This was the first victory for the Revolution, and proved to all of Mexico that the Federal troops could be overcome. In April of 1911, Villa undertook several campaigns to control railways, thereby interrupting the supply lines of the goverment.
May 9-10, 1911 proved to be the greatest turning point, as the long battle of Ciudad de Juárez was conducted by Villa. When the city fell to him (not for the last time), he was promoted to Colonel. Two weeks later, on May 25, 1911, the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez was signed, giving power to Madero and sending Diaz into exile.
Unfortunately, the first thing Madero's new government did was alienate the very people who put them in power. Both Emiliano Zapata and "Pancho" Villa became disillusioned with the new hyper-conservative government which went back on nearly every promise made prior to taking power.
It was not until 1912, though, that Matero personally betrayed Francisco Villa. Matero sent his second in command, General Victoriano Huerta to demand the return of some horses that were allegedly stolen by Villa's troops in Juarez. When Villa refused, Huerta had him arrested and ordered his execution.
Never fear, gentle reader, for Francisco escaped shortly after being imprisoned and fled for El Paso, Texas where he regrouped and gained a large number of followers.
When Huerta's camp overthrew and executed Madero in 1913, Villa once again rode against the government of Mexico. He teamed up with General Venustiano Carranza and led numerous raids into northern Mexico.
After capturing a ship full of arms headed for Huerta's army, the relationship between Carranza and Villa became strained. The United States had condemned the attack, and Carranza became incensed, warning the U.S. that war could result if they continued to meddle in the affairs of their neighbor. Villa, ironically, took the passive side and thought that strong diplomatic relations with the U.S. were important in securing the future of a free Mexico.
Villa's incursions pushed farther and farther south, leaving captured cities and federal intallations in his wake. Eventually, on July 15, 1914, Huerta resigned and left the country.
Estados Unidos de América
"Pancho" Villa's troubles were far from over, though, as his one-time ally Carranza became both the president and his bitter enemy. When Carranza assumed power on May 1, 1915, Villa opposed him and carried on the Revolution as if there had been no interruption.
The United States decided to recognize Carranza's government and declared it illegal to sell Villa arms. One merchant who had already been paid in advance refused to deliver the promised weapons, and Villa, rightfully feeling betrayed by all sides, decided to take his grief to the border.
Villa began raiding border towns in New Mexico. Columbus, New Mexico is the assault most well remembered, as Villa entered the town of 400 people with 1500 troops and burned it to the ground7. As a result, his popularity fell greatly north of the border, but the people of Mexico considered him even more of a hero, revering him as a man rebelling against all types of oppression, local and otherwise.
General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing was dispatched by the U.S. government to apprehend the elusive raider. He led the 8th Brigade of the U.S. Army on the "Mexican Punitive Expedition", Wasting several years and 25 million dollars chasing Francisco through the hills of Chihuahua, Pershing eventually was to give up, reporting famously "Villa is everywhere, and Villa is nowhere."8
Eclipse y Asesinato
On July 28, 1920, Villa signed a peace with the government of Mexico, and was allowed to retire to Chihuahua on a general's pension. He ran his hacienda for several years, treating his workers fairly, and staying out of conflicts.
Then, on June 20th, 1923, Francisco "Pancho" Villa was en-route from bank business9 in Parral, Chihuahua his car was sprayed with bullets from seven unidentified assailants. Along with several of his men, he died within a few minutes. The person or persons responsible for the attack were never identified10.
1 Sources vary on the year of his birth, alternately giving 1877, 1878, and 1879. I chose 1878 because it was the most common year used by my sources.
2 There are serious divergences as to what munincipality he was born in, therefore I'll leave the town off of it.
3 One version says she was already raped.
4 According to another version, it was the Don's son, Leonardo, who raped or attempted to rape and was subsequently killed.
5 National rural police. Often attributed super human powers, much like the Texas Rangers.
6 A couple of sources state that the original Francisco Villa was the leader of Doroteo's gang, and that upon his death in a shootout with rurales, he assumed the name. This can be ingored with the knowledge that the original Francisco Villa, if still alive, would have been well over 100 years old and in no shape to roam the countryside robbing people.
7 It is also claimed that he was eventually driven out, but with a spectacular haul of loot.
8 One source claims that Pershing encountered and wounded Villa at some point during the campaign.
9 One source says that he was returning from the baptism of a friend's child, but like many stories about this nearly-mythological figure, it was likely a story to induce greater emotion.
10 A local politician named Jesus Salas Barraza claimed that the assassination was his plan, but there is evidence to the contrary, although nothing that could identify the actual assassins.
Glossary of Spanish Terms:
bandido - Bandit, highwayman
federales - Federal troops, soldiers
hacienda - Plantation
peones - Unskilled laborers, peons
rurales - Rural Police
Fire and Blood: A History of Mexico - T. R. Fehrenbach