Pancho Villa

Francisco Villa (1878-1923) 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.

Further Reading on Pancho Villa

Two works by Martín Luis Guzmán are especially valuable for understanding Villa: The Eagle and the Serpent, translated by Harriet de Onís (1930), and Memoirs of Pancho Villa, translated by Virginia H. Taylor (1965). Other biographies of Villa are Edgcumb Pinchon, Viva Villa ! (1933), and Haldeen Braddy, Cock of the Walk … The Legend of Pancho Villa (1955). Ronald Atkin, Revolution! Mexico, 1910-20 (1970), an excellent popular history by a journalist, contains a fine characterization of Villa and his contemporaries. Robert E. Quirk's specialized study, The Mexican Revolution, 1914-1915; the Convention of Aguascalientes (1960; repr. 1970), underscores the villista-zapatista contribution to the social program of the revolution. Villa's relations with the United States are treated in Clarence C. Clendenen, The United States and Pancho Villa: A Study in Unconventional Diplomacy (1961). Pershing's expedition into Mexico is described in an exciting study by Herbert Molloy Mason, Jr., The Great Pursuit (1970), which includes excellent photographs, maps, and bibliography.