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José Doroteo Arango Arámbula (5 June 1878 – 20 July 1923), better known as Pancho Villa, was one of the first Mexican Revolutionary generals along with Ramiro Cervantes and Uriel Carrasco.As commander of the División del Norte (Division of the North), he was the veritable caudillo of the Northern Mexican state of Chihuahuamarker 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. Although he was prevented from being accepted into the "panteón" of national heroes until some 20 years after his death, today his memory is honored by Mexicans, Americans and many people around the world. In addition, numerous streets and neighborhoods in Mexico are named in his honor.

General John J. Pershing tried to capture Villa after a year in pursuit. Villa and his supporters, known as Villistas, used 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.

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, Gildardo 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

Francisco Villa as a child.

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 the dictator of Mexico, and he began to conspire with men such as Bernardo Reyes {killed 1913}, Félix Díaz (died in 1945; nephew of Porfirio Díaz), and the American 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 as an unconstitutional usurper. The politicians and generals (which included Pablo González, Álvaro Obregón, Emiliano Zapata and Villa) who supported Carranza's plan were collectively styled 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.

10 centavo paper fiat money note issued by the Chihuahua state government during the anti-Huerta Constitutionalist rebellion in 1913.

Villa's hatred of Huerta became more personal and intense after 7 March 1913, when Huerta ordered the murder of Villa's political mentor, Abraham González, who had worked with Madero and Villa since 1910. González had been one of Madero's political advisors. He recruited 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 20 November 1910. The Plan de San Luis was conceived 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, Río Bravo del Nortemarker (Rio Grande) into Ciudad Juárezmarker 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, were a key factor in forcing Huerta from office a little over a year later, on 15 July 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, Manuel Chao, 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 cash. A rapid, hard-fought series of victories at Ciudad Juárez, Tierra Blanca, Chihuahuamarker and Ojinagamarker followed. Villa then became provisional governor of the state of Chihuahuamarker. 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 paid 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 dead revolutionaries. 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 Terrazas clan, until the location of the bank's hidden gold was revealed.

Villa's political stature at that time was so high that banks in El Paso, Texasmarker, 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 Blissmarker to meet Brigadier General John J. Pershing.

The new pile of money was used to purchase draft animals, cavalry horses, arms, ammunition, mobile hospital facilities (railroad cars and horse ambulances staffed with Mexican and foreign 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 Palaciomarker, Torreónmarker, and Zacatecasmarker.

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

After Torreónmarker, Carranza issued a puzzling order for Villa to break off action south of Torreón and instead ordered him to divert to attack Saltillomarker, 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. 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 Guadalajaramarker, 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 14 July 1914.

At this moment, peace returned to Mexico. The revolutionary caudillos convened a National Convention, and conducted a series of meetings in Aguascalientes. This National Convention set rules for Mexico's path towards democracy. None of the armed revolutionaries were allowed to be nominated for government positions. They chose an interim president, Eulalio Gutierrez. Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa met at the convention. Zapata told Villa he feared Carranza's intentions were those of a dictator and not of a democratic president. True to Zapata's premonition, Carranza decided to oppose the agreements of the National Convention, setting off a civil war.

Split with the United States and the Punitive Expedition

Villa wearing bandoliers in front of an insurgent camp

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 Villa's 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 Prietamarker, Sonoramarker, on 1 November 1915. In January 1916, a group of Villistas attacked a train on the Mexico North Western Railway, near Santa Isabelmarker, Chihuahuamarker, 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 9 March 1916, General Villa ordered nearly 500 Mexican members of his revolutionary group to make a cross-border attack against Columbus, New Mexicomarker. 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 Cavalry Regiment , seizing 100 horses and mules, and setting part of the town on fire. 18 Americans and about 80 Villistas were killed.. On 15 May, they attacked Glen Springs, Texas, killing a civilian and wounding three American soldiers; on 15 June, bandits killed four soldiers at San Ygnacio, Texasmarker; on 31 July, one American soldier and a U.S. customs inspector were killed.

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 Prietamarker (1915 lost)
  • Attack on Columbus, New Mexicomarker (1916 won)

German involvement in Villa's later campaigns

Major General Pancho Villa

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 Tampicomarker to enable German ships to dock there, but the offer was rejected by Villa.

Germansmarker 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 Mexicomarker 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 theater of operations was mainly limited to western Chihuahuamarker, 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.

Last years, death and grave site

After the revolution ended in 1920, Villa was given a hacienda outside of Hidalgo del Parralmarker, Chihuahuamarker by the national government. This was in addition to the Quinta Luz estate that he owned with his wife, María Luz Corral de Villa, in Chihuahua, Chihuahuamarker.

On Friday, July 20, 1923, Villa was killed while visiting Parral. Accompanied by his entourage of Dorades ("Golden Ones"), which was what he called his bodyguards, Pancho Villa frequently made trips from his ranch to Parral for banking and other errands. This day, Villa had picked up a consignment of gold from the local bank in Parral with which to pay his Canutillo ranch staff and he was driving through the city in his black 1919 Dodge roadster when a group of seven riflemen appeared in the middle of the road and fired 150 shots in just two minutes into his car. In the fusillade of shots, Villa was hit by at least 16 bullets, including four in his head, killing him almost immediately. Villa was reported to have killed at least one of the assassins before he died. Two of his three bodyguards who were with him also died.

It was never determined who ordered the killing. However, the assassins who were later arrested were given light prison terms leading to general speculation that someone in the Mexican government must have given the order simply because Villa had become an embarrassment to post-revolutionary Mexico.

His purported death mask was hidden at the Radford School in El Paso, Texasmarker, 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 (his skull was stolen). It may be in the city cemetery of Parral, Chihuahuamarker, or in Chihuahuamarker City, or in the Monument of the Revolution in Mexico City. Tombs for Villa exist in all three places, to include the tomb that he had built in Chihuahua. A pawn shop in El Paso, Texasmarker, claims to be in possession of Villa's preserved trigger finger.

location in Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua, news reporters at the scene, and Villa's bullet riddled corpse and auto still exist to this day.

In films, video, and television

appeared as himself in films in 1912, 1913, 1914 and 1916:

The 1934 biopic Viva Villa! was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. Actors that have portrayed Villa include:

In popular culture

  • Mexico City subway (Metro) station Metro División del Nortemarker is named after Pancho Villa's command, and its logo depicts him riding a horse
  • The French musical group Magazine 60 published a song titled "Pancho Villa" in 1987.
  • Víctor Jara in his album Canto Libre in 1970 published the song "Corrido de Pancho Villa".
  • Kid Frost has published a song called "Pancho Villa" featuring Mellow Man Ace.
  • The country music singer Steve Earle published a song titled "Mercenary Song" in his 1995 album "Train A Comin'" (ASIN B000002NAV) about two men from Georgiamarker who go to Mexico to join Pancho Villa's army.
  • In the pilot episode of the 1992-96 TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, the title character briefly becomes involved with Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution, which is referenced in the 2008 movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
  • The Northern Irish poet Paul Muldoon's collection, "Mules" (1977) begins with the poem "Lunch With Pancho Villa".
  • Pancho Villa was portrayed as a teenage rebel in an October 1959 episode of the TV series Have Gun, Will Travel. That was an anachronism, since this series took place in the years about 1877 - one year before Villa's birth.

Further reading

  • Paco Ignacio Taibo II, "Pancho Villa: Una Biografia Narrativa", Planeta (August 30, 2006). ISBN 9703703348, ISBN 978-9703703340.
  • Paco Ignacio Taibo II, "Pancho Villa", History Channel Documentary, 2008.
  • Guadalupe Villa y Rosa Helia Villa (eds.), Retrato autobiográfico, 1894-1914, Mexico City, Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México: Taurus: Santillana Ediciones Generales, c2003 (2004 printing). ISBN 968-19-1311-6.
  • Friedrich Katz, Life and Times of Pancho Villa, Stanford University Press, 1998, ISBN 0-8047-3046-6.
  • Pancho Villa Page
  • Eric J. Hobsbawm, Bandits 1969, New Pr. 2000. ISBN 1565846192 resp. ISBN 978-1565846197.
  • Jeff Howell, Pancho Villa, Outlaw, Hero, Patriot, Cutthroat: Evaluating the Many Faces of Historical Text Archive.
  • Micro-biographies, Figures in Mexican History. Francisco Villa, México, 1993., 1993.


  1. Paco Ignacio Taibo II, "Pancho Villa: Una Biografia Narrativa", Planeta (August 30, 2006).
  2. Usurper: The Dark Shadow of Victoriano Huerta by Jim Tuck ©1999.
  3. Eisenhower, John S. D. Intervention: The United States and the Mexican Revolution, 1913-1917 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993) p. 58
  4. Map of Constitutionalist Army Battles
  6. Huachuca Illustrated, vol 1, 1993: Villa's Raid on Columbus! New Mexico
  8. The Battle of Ojinaga
  9. Disputed by Wikipedia, Pancho Villa, see section entitled "German involvement in Villa's later campaigns."
  10. Pancho Villa as a German Agent?
  11. Mexican Secretary Of Defense - Armies of the Revolution
  13. Questions Begin to Arise Over Death Mask of Pancho Villa.
  14. Pancho Villa (1878 - 1923) - Find A Grave Memorial.
  15. Pancho Villa (1878 - 1923) - Find A Grave Memorial
  16. El Paso, Las Cruces - Weather, News, Sports - For Sale: Pancho Villa's trigger finger.
  17. 'Everywhere you go, the spirit of history has left its mark' - El Paso Times.

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