Mexican Revolution: Biography of Pancho Villa

The Centaur of the North

Pancho Villa
1914: Mexican rebel leader Francisco 'Pancho' Villa (1877-1923) with one of the motorcycles used in the Battle of Torrero. It is a Hendee Special Indian motorcycle. (. Topical Press Agency / Getty Images

Pancho Villa (1878-1923) was a Mexican bandit, warlord and revolutionary. One of the most important figures of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), he was a fearless fighter, clever military commander and important power broker during the years of conflict. His vaunted Division of the North was, at one time, the strongest army in Mexico and he was instrumental in the downfall of both Porfirio Díaz and Victoriano Huerta. When the alliance of Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón finally defeated him, he responded by waging a guerrilla war which included an attack on Columbus, New Mexico. He was assassinated in 1923.

Early Years

Pancho Villa was born Doroteo Arango to a family of impoverished sharecroppers who worked land belonging to the wealthy and powerful López Negrete family in the state of Durango. According to legend, when young Doroteo caught one of the López Negrete clan trying to rape his sister Martina, he shot him in the foot and fled to the mountains. There he joined a band of outlaws and soon rose to a position of leadership through his bravery and ruthlessness. He earned good money as a bandit and gave some if it back to the poor, which earned him a reputation as a sort of Robin Hood.

Revolution Breaks Out

The Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910 when Francisco I. Madero, who had lost a crooked election to dictator Porfirio Díaz, declared himself president and called for the people of Mexico to take up arms. Arango, who had changed his name to Pancho Villa (after his grandfather) by then, was one who answered the call. He brought his bandit force with him and soon became one of the most powerful men in the north as his army swelled. When Madero returned to Mexico from exile in the United States in 1911, Villa was the one who welcomed him. Villa knew he was no politician but he saw promise in Madero and vowed to take him to Mexico City.

The Campaign Against Díaz

The corrupt regime of Porfirio Díaz was still entrenched in power, however. Villa soon gathered an army around him, including an elite cavalry unit. Around this time he earned the nickname “the Centaur of the North” because of his riding skill. Along with fellow warlord Pascual Orozco, Villa controlled the north of Mexico, defeating federal garrisons and capturing towns. Díaz might have been able to handle Villa and Orozco, but he also had to worry about the guerrilla forces of Emiliano Zapata in the south, and before too long it was evident that Díaz could not defeat the enemies arrayed against him. He left the country in April of 1911, and Madero entered the capital in June, triumphant.

In Defense of Madero

Once in office, Madero quickly got into trouble. Remnants of the Díaz regime despised him, and he alienated his allies by not honoring his promises to them. Two key allies he turned against him were Zapata, who was disappointed to see that Madero had little interest in land reform, and Orozco, who had hoped in vain that Madero would give him a lucrative post, such as state governor. When these two men once again took up arms, Madero called on Villa, his only remaining ally. Along with General Victoriano Huerta, Villa fought and defeated Orozco, who was forced into exile in the United States. Madero could not see those enemies closest to him, however, and Huerta, once back in Mexico City, betrayed Madero, arrested him and ordered him executed before setting himself up as president.

Campaign Against Huerta

Villa had believed in Madero and was devastated by his death. He quickly joined an alliance of Zapata and revolution newcomers Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón dedicated to removing Huerta. By then, Villa's Division of the North was the most powerful and feared military unit in the nation and his soldiers numbered in the tens of thousands. Huerta was surrounded and outnumbered, even though Orozco had returned and joined him, bringing his army with him.

Villa led the fight against Huerta, defeating federal forces in cities all over northern Mexico. Carranza, a former governor, named himself Chief of the Revolution, which irritated Villa although he accepted it. Villa did not want to be president, but he did not like Carranza. Villa saw him as another Porfirio Díaz and wanted someone else to lead Mexico once Huerta was out of the picture.

In May of 1914, the way was clear for an attack on the strategic town of Zacatecas, where there was a major railway junction that could carry the revolutionaries right into Mexico City. Villa attacked Zacatecas on June 23. The Battle of Zacatecas was a huge military victory for Villa: barely a few hundred out of 12,000 federal soldiers survived.

After the loss at Zacatecas, Huerta knew his cause was lost and tried to surrender to gain some concessions, but the allies would not let him off the hook so easily. Huerta was forced to flee, naming an interim president to rule until Villa, Obregón, and Carranza reached Mexico City.

Villa Versus Carranza

With Huerta gone, hostilities between Villa and Carranza broke out almost immediately. A number of delegates from the leading figures of the revolution got together at the Convention of Aguascalientes in October of 1914, but the interim government put together at the convention did not last and the country was once again embroiled in a civil war. Zapata remained holed up in Morelos, only fighting those who ventured onto his turf, and Obregón decided to support Carranza, mostly because he felt Villa was a loose cannon and Carranza was the lesser of two evils.

Carranza set himself up as President of Mexico until elections could take place and sent Obregón and his army after the rebellious Villa. At first, Villa and his generals, such as Felipe Angeles, scored decisive victories against Carranza. But in April, Obregón brought his army north and lured Villa into a fight. The Battle of Celaya took place from April 6-15, 1915 and was a huge victory for Obregón. Villa limped away but Obregón chased him and the two fought at the Battle of Trinidad (April 29-June 5, 1915). Trinidad was another huge loss for Villa and the once-mighty Division of the North was in tatters.

In October, Villa crossed the mountains into Sonora, where he hoped to defeat Carranza's forces and regroup. During the crossing, Villa lost Rodolfo Fierro, his most loyal officer, and cruel hatchet man. Carranza had reinforced Sonora, however, and Villa was defeated. He was forced to cross back into Chihuahua with what was left of his army. By December, it was evident to Villa's officers that Obregón and Carranza had won: most of the Division of the North accepted an offer of amnesty and switched sides. Villa himself headed into the mountains with 200 men, determined to keep fighting.

The Guerrilla Campaign and the Attack on Columbus

Villa had officially gone rogue. His army down to a couple of hundred men, he resorted to banditry to keep his men supplied with food and ammunition. Villa became increasingly erratic and blamed the Americans for his losses in Sonora. He detested Woodrow Wilson for recognizing the Carranza government and began harassing any and all Americans that crossed his path.

On the morning of March 9, 1916, Villa attacked Columbus, New Mexico, with 400 men. The plan was to defeat the small garrison and make off with weapons and ammunition as well as to rob the bank and get revenge on one Sam Ravel, an American arms dealer who had once double-crossed Villa and a Columbus resident. The attack failed on every level: the American garrison was much stronger than Villa had suspected, the bank went unrobbed, and Sam Ravel had gone to El Paso. Still, the fame Villa gained by having the guts to attack a town in the United States gave him a new lease on life. Recruits once again joined his army and word of his deeds was spread far and wide, often romanticized in song.

The Americans sent General Jack Pershing into Mexico after Villa. On March 15, he took 5,000 American soldiers across the border. This action became known as the “Punitive Expedition” and it was a fiasco. Finding the elusive Villa proved next to impossible and logistics were a nightmare. Villa was wounded in a skirmish in late March and spent two months recovering alone in a hidden cave: he dispersed his men into small squads and told them to fight on while he healed. When he came out, many of his men had been killed, including some of his best officers. Undaunted, he took again to the hills, fighting both the Americans and Carranza's forces. In June, there was a confrontation between Carranza's forces and the Americans just south of Ciudad Juárez. Cool heads prevented another war between Mexico and the United States, but it was clear that it was time for Pershing to leave. By early 1917 all American forces had left Mexico, and Villa was still at large.

After Carranza

Villa remained in the hills and mountains of northern Mexico, attacking small federal garrisons and eluding capture until 1920 when the political situation changed. In 1920, Carranza backed off a promise to support Obregón for president. This was a fatal mistake, as Obregón still had much support in many sectors of society, including the army. Carranza, fleeing Mexico City, was assassinated on May 21, 1920.

The death of Carranza was an opportunity for Pancho Villa. He began negotiations with the government to disarm and stop fighting. Although Obregón was against it, Provisional President Adolfo de la Huerta saw it as an opportunity and brokered a deal with Villa in July. Villa was granted a large hacienda, where many of his men joined him, and his veterans were all given mustering-out pay and an amnesty was declared for Villa, his officers, and men. Eventually, even Obregón saw the wisdom of peace with Villa and honored the deal.

Death of Villa

Obregón was elected President of Mexico in September of 1920, and he began the work of rebuilding the nation. Villa, retired to his hacienda in Canutillo, began farming and ranching. Neither man forgot about one another, and the people never forgot Pancho Villa: how could they, when the songs about his daring and cleverness were still sung up and down Mexico?

Villa kept a low profile and was seemingly friendly with Obregón, but soon the new president decided the time had come to get rid of Villa once and for all. On July 20, 1923, Villa was gunned down as he drove a car in the town of Parral. Although he was never directly implicated in the killing, it is clear that Obregón gave the order, perhaps because he feared Villa's interference (or possible candidacy) in the 1924 elections.

Pancho Villa's Legacy

The people of Mexico were devastated to hear of Villa's death: he was still a folk hero for his defiance of the Americans, and he was seen as a possible savior from the harshness of the Obregón administration. The ballads continued to be sung and even those who had hated him in life mourned his death.

Over the years, Villa has continued to evolve into a mythological figure. Mexicans have forgotten his role in the bloody Revolution, forgotten his massacres and executions and robberies. All that is left is his daring, cleverness and defiance, which continue to be celebrated by many Mexicans in art, literature, and film. Perhaps it is better this way: Villa himself certainly would have approved.

Source: McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.