Villa, Francisco "Pancho" (1878–1923)

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Villa, Francisco "Pancho" (1878–1923)

Francisco "Pancho" Villa (b. 5 June 1878; d. 20 July 1923), Mexican revolutionary, general, governor of Chihuahua (1913–1915). Christened Doroteo Arango, one-time bandit and muleteer, Villa became one of the most important and controversial leaders of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920).

The history of Villa's youth is masked in legend. He was by occupation a hacienda peon, miner, bandit, and merchant. There is a colorful story of his killing a hacendado who had raped his sister and his subsequent escape to banditry. Most certainly, according to biographer Friedrich Katz, he was a cattle rustler, which far from branding him an outlaw brought him a degree of popular renown. Villa eventually settled in San Andrés, Chihuahua, a village in the throes of violent protest against taxes imposed by the Chihuahua state government controlled by the Terrazas family.

In 1910 Villa joined the revolution led by Francisco I. Madero in Chihuahua. After Madero's victory in May of 1911, Villa retired to Chihuahua City, using his mustering-out money to begin a meat-packing business. He returned to military duty in 1912 to fight against the counterrevolution of Pascual Orozco, Jr. His commander, General Victoriano Huerta, ordered him executed for insubordination, but Madero intervened, sending him to prison, from which he escaped shortly thereafter. Following a few months in exile in the United States, Villa returned to avenge the overthrow and assassination of Madero by Huerta in February 1913. In March 1913 Villa crossed the Rio Grande from Texas with a handful of men. His key lieutenants came from the northern villages that had once been military colonies in the Indian wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Toribio Ortega and Porfirio Talamantes, for example, had led their Chihuahuan villages, Cuchillo Parado and Janos, respectively, in protests against land expropriations. With his peasant-worker army, Villa conquered Chihuahua in the name of the Constitutionalist movement in 1913.

In control of Chihuahua from late 1913 through 1915, Villa expropriated the estates of the landed oligarchy and used the revenues they produced to finance his army and government. His rule in Chihuahua was an ingenious compromise between the need to satisfy the demands of the revolutionary masses for land reform and the immediate necessity of obtaining funds to win the war first against Huerta and then against his despised rival, Venustiano Carranza. He promised to distribute the confiscated properties after the triumph of the Revolution. In the meantime, these estates, some managed by his generals and others by a state agency, supported the widows and orphans of veterans and the starving unemployed of the mining and timber regions of Chihuahua, and provided the necessary funds for supplying the Villista army.

His Division of the North, led by an elite corps, the dorados, paved the way to Huerta's defeat. Along the way south from his initial victories in Chihuahua, Villa fought bloody battles, first at Torreón in April and then at Zacatecas in June 1914. His split with Carranza widened, however, and Villa withdrew from the campaign.

It was during the fight against Huerta that Villa first manifested his hatred for Spaniards. In Torreón he rounded them up and shipped them across the U.S. border, in the meantime confiscating their property. Later he would commit additional atrocities against them.

The Constitutionalists defeated Huerta in 1914 but almost immediately split into two factions, one led by Villa and the other by Carranza. One of the crucial issues between the two leaders was Carranza's intention to return the landed estates confiscated by the Villistas to their owners. This would have undercut much of Villa's support by depriving him of the main symbol of reform and the main source of his funds.

When a revolutionary convention met in Aguascalientes in the fall of 1914, Villa, allied with Emiliano Zapata, the peasant leader from the state of Morelos, demanded that Carranza abdicate as leader of the Revolution. When Carranza refused, Villa and Zapata declared themselves to be in armed opposition under the provisions of the convention. In November 1914 the Conventionist armies of Villa and Zapata occupied Mexico City. The Constitutionalists were in apparent disarray. The Conventionist alliance between Villa and Zapata dissipated, however, because neither of their regionally based, popular movements could sustain long-term military or political success outside its home area.

In a series of brutal battles in the center of the country in 1915 (Celaya, 6-7 April and 13-16 April; León, throughout May; Aguascalientes, 10 July), however, Villa suffered major defeats at the hands of the Carrancista general Alvaro Obregón Salido. Villa's tactics of unrelenting attack were disastrous in the face of Obregón's entrenched troops. Villa's once mighty army disintegrated. The crucial battle took place at León (also called Trinidad), where over thirty-eight days at least five thousand men died.

Villa, though badly defeated and eliminated as a major military force, stayed in the field. His prestige was irretrievably damaged and his allies rapidly defected. In late 1915 he made a desperate effort to establish a foothold in Sonora but failed when Obregón dispatched troops through the United States to reinforce Constitutionalist troops in Agua Prieta. A series of defeats followed, sending Villa back across the Sierra Madre to Chihuahua.

Villa was forced once again to adopt guerrilla tactics. Many of his aides, especially the more respectable former Maderistas, went into exile in the United States. Villa stayed and tormented the national and state governments for four years. This "second wind" of Villismo brought it back to its roots as a local, popular movement based in the sierras of Chihuahua.

In 1916 Villa responded to U.S. recognition of and cooperation with Carranza by viewing Americans with increasing hostility. One of his lieutenants murdered seventeen American engineers at Santa Isabel, Chihuahua, in January. On 8-9 March several hundred Villista raiders crossed the border into Columbus, New Mexico. Although his motives for the attack are much debated, there is some evidence Villa sought to precipitate a military intervention by the United States in order to prevent an agreement with Carranza that would have rendered Mexico a virtual protectorate of the United States.

A force led by U.S. general John J. Pershing futilely chased Villa from mid-March 1916 until early February 1917, nearly a year. After Pershing's withdrawal, for the next two years Villa periodically occupied Chihuahua's major cities, Ciudad Juárez and Hidalgo de Parral. He was able to raise armies of from one thousand to two thousand men.

Shortly after the 1920 overthrow and murder of Carranza by his own army, led by Alvaro Obregón, the interim president of Mexico, Adolfo De La Huerta, negotiated Villa's amnesty and retirement. As part of the bargain, the general obtained a large hacienda in northern Durango, Canutillo, and a substantial subsidy for himself and a retinue of his troops. In 1923 Villa was assassinated in Hidalgo de Parra, perhaps because the national regime feared he would join de la Huerta, who would rebel some months later.

See alsoChihuahua; Madero, Francisco Indalecio; Mexico, Wars and Revolutions: Mexican Revolution; Orozco, Pascual, Jr.; Zapata, Emiliano.


Francisco R. Almada, Gobernadores del Estado de Chihuahua (1980), provides the basic biographical data. See also Martín Luis Guzmán, Memoirs of Pancho Villa, translated by Virginia H. Taylor (1965).

Friedrich Katz, The Secret War in Mexico (1981), "Pancho Villa, Peasant Movements, and Agrarian Reform in Northern Mexico," in Caudillo and Peasant in the Mexican Revolution, edited by D. A. Brading (1980), and "Pancho Villa: Reform Governor of Chihuahua," in Essays on the Mexican Revolution: Revisionist View of the Leaders, edited by George W. Wolfskill (1979).

Silvestré Terrazas, El verdadero Pancho Villa (1984).

Additional Bibliography

Alba, Víctor. Pancho Villa y Zapata: Águila y sol de la Revolución Mexicana. Barcelona: Planeta, 1994.

Katz, Friedrich. The Life and Times of Pancho Villa. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2001.

Taibo, Paco Ignacio. Pancho Villa: Una biografía narrativa. Mexico City: Planeta, 2006.

                                      Mark Wasserman

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Villa, Francisco "Pancho" (1878–1923)

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