Facts About Mexican Leader Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa with a motorcycle

Corbis via Getty Images

Pancho Villa was one of the most famous leaders of his time and a renowned general of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, though many don't know how he came to be the influential figure that he was. This list will bring you up to speed on everything you should know about the Mexican Revolution's hero, Pancho Villa.

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Pancho Villa Wasn't Always His Name

Villa's birth name was Doroteo Arango. According to legend, he changed his name after murdering a bandit responsible for raping his sister. He then joined a gang of highwaymen after the incident and adopted the name Fransisco "Pancho" Villa, after his grandfather, to protect his identity.

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Pancho Villa Was a Skilled Horseman

Villa commanded the most feared cavalry in the world at the time of the war as an outstanding horseman and general. He was known for personally riding into battle with his men and executing skilled attacks on his enemies, often outwitting them. He was so often on horseback during the Mexican Revolution that he was often called the "Centaur of the North."

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Pancho Villa Never Wanted to Be President of Mexico

In spite of a famous photo of him taken in the presidential chair, Villa claimed to have no ambitions of becoming the president of Mexico. As an enthusiastic supporter of Francisco Madero, he wanted only to win the revolution to unseat dictator Porfirio Diaz, not to claim the presidential title himself. After Madero's death, Villa never supported any other presidential candidates with the same fervor. He just hoped that someone would come along that would allow him to continue to serve as a high-ranking military officer.

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Pancho Villa Was a Successful Politician

Even though he claimed to have no political ambitions, Villa proved his knack for public administration while serving as governor of Chihuahua from 1913–1914. During this time, he sent his men to help harvest crops, ordered the repair of railways and telegraph lines, and imposed a ruthless code of law and order that even applied to his troops. His brief time served was spent well improving the lives and safety of his people.

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Pancho Villa Retaliated Against the United States

On March 9, 1916, Villa and his men attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico, with intentions of stealing munitions, robbing banks, and getting revenge on the United States. The attack was a retaliation against the U.S. recognizing the government of his competitor, Venustiano Carranza, but was ultimately a failure as Villa's army was easily driven off and he was forced to flee. Villa's cross-border attacks prompted U.S. involvement in the Mexican Revolution and led the military to organize a punitive expedition soon after, led by General John “Black Jack” Pershing, to track down Villa. Thousands of American soldiers searched northern Mexico for months in vain to find him.

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Pancho Villa's Right-Hand Man Was a Murderer

Villa wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty and personally killed many men on and off the battlefield. There were some jobs, however, that even he was unwilling to do. Rodolfo Fierro, Villa's sociopathic hitman, was said to have been fanatically loyal and fearless. According to legend, Fierro, also called "The Butcher," once shot a man dead just to see if he would fall forward or backward. In 1915, Fierro was thrown off his horse and drowned in quicksand, a death that deeply affected Pancho Villa.

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The Revolution Made Pancho Villa a Very Wealthy Man

Taking risks and leading the revolution made Villa quite wealthy. Though he had begun as a penniless bandit in 1910, he achieved great success as a beloved war hero by 1920. Just 10 years after joining the revolution, he retired to his large ranch with a generous pension and had even obtained land and money for his men. He died with many enemies but even more supporters. Villa was rewarded for his courage and leadership with riches and fame.

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No One Knows Exactly Who Killed Pancho Villa

Time and time again, Villa escaped death and proved his tactical skill, using his cavalry—the best in the world at the time—to devastating effect. In 1923, however, Villa was finally outsmarted in what is largely regarded as an assassination involving great corroboration. His mistake was traveling to Parral by car with only a few of his bodyguards, and he was killed instantly when assassins opened fire on the vehicle. Many believe that the attack should be credited to Alvaro Obregón, the leader at the time and long-time challenger of Villa, in conspiracy with Melitón Lozoya, the former owner of the hacienda that became Villa's who was deeply indebted to the former general. These two likely organized Villa's stealthy assassination and Obregón had enough political power to keep their names clear.