Who Killed Pancho Villa?

A Murder Conspiracy That Went All the Way to the Top

Pancho Villa
Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Legendary Mexican warlord Pancho Villa was a survivor. He lived through dozens of battles, outlasted bitter rivals such as Venustiano Carranza and Victoriano Huerta, and even managed to evade a massive US manhunt. On July 20, 1923, however, his luck ran out: assassins ambushed his car, shooting it over 40 times with Villa and his bodyguards inside. For many, the question lingers: who killed Pancho Villa?

Villa During the Revolution

Pancho Villa was one of the main protagonists of the Mexican Revolution. He was a bandit chieftain in 1910 when Francisco Madero began the revolution against aging dictator Porfirio Diaz. Villa joined Madero and never looked back. When Madero was murdered in 1913, all hell broke loose and the nation fell apart. By 1915 Villa had the most powerful army of any of the great warlords who were dueling for control of the nation.

When rivals Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón united against him, however, he was doomed. Obregón crushed Villa at the Battle of Celaya and other engagements. By 1916, Villa’s army was gone, although he continued to wage a guerrilla war and was a thorn in the side of the United States as well as his former rivals.

Villa Surrenders

In 1917, Carranza was sworn in as President but was assassinated in 1920 by agents working for Obregón. Carranza had reneged on an agreement to hand over the presidency to Obregón in the 1920 elections, but he had underestimated his former ally.

Villa saw the death of Carranza as an opportunity. He began negotiating the terms of his surrender. Villa was allowed to retire to his vast hacienda at Canutillo: 163,000 acres, much of which was suitable for agriculture or livestock. As part of the terms of his surrender, Villa was supposed to stay out of national politics, and he didn’t need to be told not to cross the ruthless Obregón.

Still, Villa was quite safe in his armed camp far in the north.

Villa was fairly quiet from 1920 to 1923. He straightened out his personal life, which had become complicated during the war, ably managed his estate and stayed out of politics. Although their relationship had warmed a bit, Obregón never forgot about his old rival, quietly waiting in his secure northern ranch.

Villa’s Enemies

Villa had made many enemies by the time of his death in 1923:

  • President Alvaro Obregón: Obregón and Villa had clashed many times on the field of battle, with Obregón generally emerging victorious. The two men had remained on speaking terms since Villa’s 1920 surrender, but Obregón always feared Villa’s popularity and reputation. Had Villa declared himself in rebellion, thousands of men would have instantly flocked to his cause.
  • Minister of the Interior Plutarco Elias Calles: Calles was a northerner like Villa and had become a general in the revolution by 1915. He was a shrewd politician, allying himself with the winners throughout the conflict. He held important posts in state governments and Carranza made him Minister of the Interior. He helped Obregón betray Carranza, however, and kept his post. A close ally of Obregón, he stood to take the presidency in 1924. He hated Villa, having fought him in the revolution on more than one occasion, and it was well-known that Villa opposed Calles’ progressive economic policies.
  • Melitón Lozoya: Lozoya had been the administrator of the Canutillo hacienda before it had been given to Villa. Lozoya had embezzled huge sums from the hacienda while he was in charge, and Villa demanded it back...or else. The graft was apparently on such a scale that Lozoya could not hope to repay it, and may have killed Villa to avoid his own death.
  • Jesús Herrera: The Herrera family had been loyal Villa supporters at the outset of the revolution: Maclovio and Luis Herrera had been officers in his army. They betrayed him, however, and joined Carranza. Maclovio and Luis were killed at the Battle of Torreón. Villa captured José de Luz Herrera in March of 1919 and executed him and his two sons. Jesús Herrera, the lone surviving member of the Herrera clan, was Villa’s sworn enemy and attempted several times to assassinate him from 1919 – 1923.
  • Jesús Salas Barraza: Salas was another old revolutionary who had first joined the fight against Victoriano Huerta. After Huerta’s defeat, Salas joined Obregón and Carranza against Villa. In 1922 he was elected congressman from Durango but never forgot his old grievances against Villa.
  • Governor of Durango Jesús Agustín Castro: Castro was another former foe of Villa: he was a supporter of Carranza who had been ordered to hunt Villa down in 1918-1919 without success.
  • Any Number of Other People: Villa was a hero to some, a devil to others. During the revolution, he was responsible for thousands of deaths: some directly, some indirectly. He had a quick fuse and had murdered many men in cold blood. He was also a womanizer who had a number of “wives,” some of which were only girls when he took them away. Dozens if not hundreds of fathers and brothers might have had a score to settle with Villa.

Assassination

Villa rarely left his ranch and when he did, his 50 armed bodyguards (all of whom were fanatically loyal) accompanied him. In July of 1923, Villa made a fatal mistake. On July 10 he went by car to the neighboring town of Parral to serve as godfather at the baptism of the child of one of his men. He had a couple of armed bodyguards with him, but not the 50 that he often traveled with. He had a mistress in Parral and stayed with her for a while after the baptism, finally returning to Canutillo on July 20.

He never made it back. Assassins had rented a house in Parral on the street which connects Parral with Canutillo. They had been waiting for three months for their chance to hit Villa. As Villa drove past, a man in the street shouted “Viva Villa!” This was the signal that the assassins were waiting for. From the window, they rained down gunfire on Villa’s car.

Villa, who had been driving, was killed almost instantly. Three other men in the car with him were killed, including the chauffeur and Villa’s personal secretary, and one bodyguard died later of his injuries. Another bodyguard was injured but managed to escape.

Who Killed Pancho Villa?

Villa was buried the next day and people began asking who had ordered the hit. It quickly became apparent that the assassination had been very well organized. The killers were never caught. Federal troops in Parral had been sent away on a bogus mission, which meant that the killers could finish their job and leave at their leisure without fear of being chased. Telegraph lines out of Parral had been cut. Villa’s brother and his men did not hear of his death until hours after it had happened. An investigation into the killing was stymied by uncooperative local officials.

The people of Mexico wanted to know who had killed Villa, and after a few days, Jesús Salas Barraza stepped forward and claimed responsibility. This let many higher officials off the hook, including Obregón, Calles, and Castro. Obregón at first refused to arrest Salas, claiming his status as a congressman gave him immunity. Then he relented and Salas was sentenced to 20 years, although the sentence was commuted three months later by the Governor of Chihuahua. No one else was ever charged with any crime in the matter. Most Mexicans suspected a cover-up, and they were right.

Conspiracy

Most historians believe the death of Villa played out something like this: Lozoya, the crooked former administrator of the Canutillo ranch, started making plans to kill Villa in order to avoid having to repay him. Obregón got word of the plot and at first toyed with the idea of stopping it, but was talked into letting it go ahead by Calles and others. Obregón told Calles to make sure that the blame would never fall on him.

Salas Barraza was recruited and agreed to be the “fall guy” as long as he was not prosecuted. Governor Castro and Jesús Herrera were also involved. Obregón, through Calles, sent 50,000 pesos to Félix Lara, commander of the federal garrison at Parral, to make sure he and his men were “out on maneuvers” at the time. Lara did him one better, assigning his best marksmen to the assassination squad.

So, who killed Pancho Villa? If one name must be linked to his murder, it should be that of Alvaro Obregón. Obregón was a very powerful president who ruled through intimidation and terror. The conspirators would never have gone ahead had Obregón opposed the plot. There was no man in Mexico brave enough to cross Obregón. In addition, there is a good amount of evidence to suggest that Obregón and Calles were not merely bystanders but actively participated in the conspiracy.

Source

McLynn, Frank. . New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.