Pancho Villa: A Life of Revolutionary Warman

José Doroteo Arango Arámbula was born on June 5, 1878 in San Juan del Río, Durango. Better known by his pseudonym Francisco Villa or the hypocoristic of this. Pancho Villa was one of the main leaders of the Mexican Revolution.

Pancho Villa: A Life of Revolutionary Warman
For three years, Pancho Villa suffered numerous attacks from which he escaped unharmed. Yet, on July 20, 1923, he was assassinated in an ambush in Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua. Photo: Inafed

Francisco Villa, whose real name is Doroteo Arango, was born on June 5, 1878, on a ranch near the town of San Juan del Rio, Durango. He was the son of Agustin Arango and Micaela Arámbula. When he was very young, his father died and he had to work to contribute to the family's support, working as a lumberjack, laborer, bricklayer, etc.

When he was 16 years old, the landowner Agustin Lopez Negrete tried to assault his sister Martina and Doroteo came to her aid, wounding the aggressor, which is why he had to flee and take refuge in the mountains, where he changed his name to Francisco Villa and joined the bandits led by Ignacio Parra. He leaves Durango and settles in the south of the state of Chihuahua to continue his raids.

At the beginning of the century, he joined the band led by José Beltrán, to which also belonged one of the most renowned men of the future Villista army: Tomás Urbina. Shortly after, he met Abraham González, who instructed him on the objectives of the Maderista movement and the convenience of joining it.

That is why when Francisco I. Madero called to take up arms against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, through the Plan of San Luis, Villa joined the struggle and together with Pascual Orozco gave Maderismo its decisive successes, fundamentally in the taking of Ciudad Juárez, on May 10, 1911, which meant the defeat of the dictatorship.

When Madero triumphed, Villa left his troops under the command of Raul Madero and retired to the capital of Chihuahua, establishing a meat trading business.

However, Villa's destiny was not to end his days as a peaceful butcher. In March 1912, Pascual Orozco took up arms against the legally constituted government of Madero, and Villa, after being taken prisoner by Orozco, managed to flee from Chihuahua to Coahuila. There he is joined by Maclovio Herrera, Tomás Urbina, Fidel Ávila and Raúl Madero to fight against Orozco.

Francisco Villa, governor, photo from the book "The Correspondence of Francisco Villa".
Francisco Villa, governor, photo from the book "The Correspondence of Francisco Villa". He assumed the position of interim governor on December 8, 1913, and undertook some actions worth mentioning. Photo: Memoria de México

For its part, the central government sent General Victoriano Huerta to fight the infidels. When he arrives in Torreón, Villa puts himself under his orders and fights the Orezquistas in Tlahualilo, Conejos, Escalón, Reyano, and Parral with great success for the Maderistas. In Jimenez, Villa refuses to obey Huerta's orders, and Huerta orders his arrest to shoot him for insubordination. But it was written that the famous Centaur of the North would not die that way.

Thanks to the intervention of President Madero (according to some authors) or General Guillermo Rubio Navarrete (according to others). Huerta accepted Villa's transfer to the Federal District Penitentiary to open a trial for robbery (of a mare) and other charges. On July 13, 1912, he was formally declared prisoner and in November he was taken to the military prison of Santiago Tlatelolco, from where he escaped a month later, thanks to the help of his custodian.

From Mexico City he moved to Toluca and from there to different parts of the Republic until he crossed the border with the United States in January 1913, finally settling in El Paso, Texas.

The Tragic Decade of February 1913, in which President Madero and Vice President Pino Suarez were assassinated, and later the assassination of Abraham Gonzalez in Chihuahua by Victoriano Huerta's henchmen, provoked in Villa the burning desire to fight those assassins. He quickly crosses the Bravo River accompanied by six men, crosses Chihuahua recruiting more men, and joins the constitutionalist movement headed by Venustiano Carranza.

From this moment on, Villa's reckless courage and audacity will make him conquer triumph after triumph and by September 1913 he will be named Chief of the Northern Division, whose most famous members include Felipe Angeles, Manuel Chao, Rodolfo Fierro, Fidel Avila, Rosalio Hernandez, Toribio Ortega, Luis, and Maclovio Herrera, Trinidad Rodriguez, Eugenio Aguirre Benavides, Tomas Urbina (Villa's compadre), Jose Isabel Robles and some others (that would be impossible to mention in this brief space). As well as the famous Dorados de Villa, a select corps of the army of the Northern Division and under the direct command of Villa himself.

Francisco Villa (center) and the members of the Northern Division.
Francisco Villa (center) and the members of the Northern Division. Photo: Mediateca

Among the most important battles for the Constitutionalist cause and consequently for the defeat of Huertismo are those of Tierra Blanca, Torreon, San Pedro de las Colonias, Chihuahua, Ojinaga, and Zacatecas, fought between November 1913 and June 1914.

Now, when in December 1913 Villa took the capital of the state of Chihuahua, he was appointed provisional governor of the state. He immediately proceeded to dictate a series of decrees on tax and land matters for the benefit of the great majority of Chihuahua's people. Villa could not exercise this position for long since the military activities soon demanded his presence and he had to leave it in the hands of General Manuel Chao by Carranza's orders.

The success achieved by Villa, his sometimes peaceful character and other times irate and irrepressible, his caudillo charisma, his outbursts, his great popularity among the masses, his fame as a womanizer but without any vice, his improvisation, but above all, the lack of a national reconstruction project, made Villismo and with it its leader, to become only a fraction of the Revolution, and not the winning faction, as the movement led by Venustiano Carranza achieved.

Although it is difficult today to conceive that without the outstanding military strategy of the Northern Division it would have been possible to defeat the Huertista forces in such a short time, the country needed more than military triumphs. It needed a national project for reconstruction, and this was articulated by the Carrancistas.

Furthermore, the different positions of both Villa and Carranza in the face of social and international problems, as in the case of the North American military invasion of Veracruz in April 1914, made the image of the former as a nationalist caudillo (leader) even worse and enlarged that of the latter.

Francisco Villa, portrait.
Francisco Villa, portrait. Photo: Mediateca

Returning to the thread of the biography of the Centaur of the North, in May 1914, Carranza had commissioned the Arrieta brothers and Pánfilo Natera to take the Zacatecas plaza but they failed in their attempt. Villa, who was in Chihuahua, decides to go to their aid but Carranza opposes and accepts his resignation as head of the Northern Division.

However, the other chiefs of the army ask Carranza to reconsider his decision and given his refusal, they decide to continue with Villa in his campaign against Zacatecas, which they manage to take victoriously in June. Immediately Carranza ordered to cut the supply of coal for the Villa trains and in this way prevent their advance towards the capital of the Republic.

On his part, General Pablo Gonzalez, in command of the Northeastern Army, promotes the celebration of talks between some representatives of his corps (Generals Luis G. Caballero, Antonio I. Villarreal, Cesáreo Castro) and the Northern Division (Dr. Miguel Silva, Ing. Manuel Bonilla, Gen. José Isabel Robles, Ernesto Meade, and Col. Roque Gonzalez Garza) in the city of Torreon, Coahuila. As a result of these talks, a pact was signed in which Carranza's supreme authority was recognized and he was asked to convene a convention of revolutionary generals and governors to settle the existing differences.

By August 1914, Victoriano Huerta fled the country and left in his place Francisco Carbajal, who through the "Treaties of Teoloyucan" accepted the unconditional surrender and the dissolution of the federal army. Shortly after, the First Chief of the Constitutionalist Army, Venustiano Carranza, makes his triumphal entrance to Mexico City.

From this moment until the end of 1915, what history has recorded as the struggle of factions of the Revolution will develop in the country, in which the Villistas and Zapatistas will confront the Carrancistas. It was not only a military but also an ideological struggle in which the latter were the winners. Especially by defeating the Villa army in the decisive battles of Celaya, Leon, Trinidad, and Guanajuato by force of arms. And ideologically, with the adherence to the Plan de Guadalupe and the Law of January 6, 1915 (despite the Villista Agrarian Law of mid-1915).

Faced with these failures, Villa tried to take refuge in Sonora where he had the help of the governor of the state, Jose Maria Maytorena, but from there they were also expelled by the forces of Plutarco Elias Calles and Benjamin Hill and forced to retreat again, as in the years of Villa's youth, in the Sierra de Chihuahua.

Francisco Villa during his surrender.
Francisco Villa during his surrender. Photo: Mediateca

From 1916 to 1920 the famous Northern Centaur developed a period of guerrilla warfare, attacking various towns in Chihuahua and Coahuila and taking refuge in the mountains. From these years, his attacks on the town of Santa Isabel (where he killed 15 American engineers) and on the population of the United States, Columbus, New Mexico, stand out. Due to the international tensions that these attacks provoked between both countries, a new invasion of Mexican territory was about to take place.

However, Villa's skill and his knowledge of the terrain in which he operated made his capture impossible, despite the organization of the so-called "Punitive Expedition" commanded by U.S. General John Pershing. It was only when Venustiano Carranza was assassinated in Tlaxcalantongo, Puebla, in May 1920, that Pancho Villa accepted to surrender through the Sabinas agreements and retire to private life in the Canutillo hacienda.

On the morning of July 20, 1923, in the town of Parral, Francisco Villa was also assassinated by Jesus Salas Barraza. With this event ends one of the most outstanding lives that took part in the Revolution, and that with time has become one of its most controversial myths.

Pancho Villa on horseback, portrait.
Pancho Villa on horseback, portrait. Photo: Mediateca

Chronology of the biography of Pancho Villa

1878

June 5th. Doroteo Arango is born in Rio Grande, municipality of San Juan del Rio, Durango.

1894

He wounds Agustin Lopez Negrete and flees. Becomes a bandit and changes his name to Francisco Villa. He joins Jose Beltran's party along with his compadre Tomas Urbina.

1894-1910

For his bandit activities he is persecuted and declared outlawed.

1910-1911

He joins the revolutionary ranks of the Madero revolutionaries. At the triumph of Ciudad Juarez, he is promoted to the rank of colonel.

1912

Once Madero was elected constitutional president of Mexico, Villa returned to Chihuahua. Pascual Orozco's revolt breaks out and Villa takes up arms again to fight him under the orders of Victoriano Huerta. He is promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

May. He defeats the Orozquistas in Reyano and Parral. For insubordination to his boss, Victoriano Huerta, he is tried and sentenced to the firing squad. President Madero intervenes and manages to save his life.

July. He is transferred to the Federal District Penitentiary for trial.

November. From that prison, he is transferred to the military prison of Santiago Tlatelolco.

December. Flees from prison. Passes through Toluca, Salvatierra, Celaya, Guadalajara, Manzanillo, Mazatlan and Negates.

1913

January. Crosses the northern border and settles in El Paso, Texas, United States.

February. President Madero and Vice President Pino Suárez are assassinated, and General Victoriano Huerta usurps power.

March. Fugitive from the justice of the United States, Villa again enters Mexican territory accompanied by only six men and immediately begins to organize more people to fight against Huertism and on the side of the constitutionalism represented by Venustiano Carranza.

June. Triumphs over the Federals at Bustillos and Casas Grandes. He establishes his center of operations in the District of Ascension to arrange his advance towards the south.

September. He is designated by his men "Chief of the Northern Division".

October. Takes Torreon and imposes a forced loan of 300,000 pesos.

November. Takes the capital of the state of Chihuahua. Defeats the Federals in Tierra Blanca.

December. He returns to Chihuahua and takes office as provisional governor of the state. He issues a series of decrees, as well as a large amount of money. The Huertista general José Refugio Velasco recovers Torreon and Villa hands over the governorship to General Manuel Chao by orders of Carranza.

1914

January. They take the plaza of Ojinaga and little by little the north of the country is in the hands of the Constitutionalists.

February. Assassination of the English subject, Guillermo Benton, at the hands of Rodolfo Fierro, Villa's right-hand man.

March. Very important victories for the revolution of the Villista army in Ciudad Lerdo, Cerro de la Pita, Gomez Palacio and other places.

April. The Federates abandon Torreon and pursued by Villa are defeated in San Pedro de las Colonias. The North American marines invade the port of Veracruz. Villa does not see this intervention with bad eyes and declares so, thus deepening his separation with Carranza.

May. The Federals are defeated at Paredón. Saltillo is evacuated and occupied by the ViIlista army.

June. The constitutionalists under the command of the Arrieta brothers and Panfilo Natera are defeated in Zacatecas and Villa tries to move to that place which Carranza opposes. Villa resigns, but the Chiefs of the Northern Division do not accept and decide to continue under Villa's orders, contrary to Carranza's wishes. After bloody battles Villa takes the Zacatecas plaza and Carranza gives orders not to supply Villa with more coal so that he could not advance towards the capital of the Republic.

July. Talks are held between the representatives of the Northeastern army of General Pablo Gonzalez and the Northern Division to avoid a rupture between Villa and Carranza. For this reason the representatives of both armies signed the "Torreon Pact". Villa goes to Chihuahua and marries Luz Corral.

August. Victoriano Huerta flees Mexico City and leaves in his place Francisco Carbajal, who accepts the unconditional surrender and disappearance of the federal army through the signing of the "Treaties of Teoloyucan". Carranza arrives triumphantly to Mexico City. The governor of Sonora, José Maria Maytorena, supported by Villa, intensifies his fight against the constitutionalists Plutarco Elias Calles, Benjamin Hill, and Salvador Alvarado. Obregon is commissioned to mediate in the conflict and is about to lose his life by orders of Villa himself.

September. Villa launches a manifesto in which he disavows Carranza's authority.

October. The Convention of revolutionary generals and governors begins in Mexico City and is later moved to the neutral city of Aguascalientes. In the end, this Convention will be dominated by Villa. Carranza moves his government to Veracruz after the evacuation of this port by the North Americans.

November. Zapatista troops enter Mexico City.

December. Villa arrives to the capital of the Republic to meet with Zapata and both sign the so called "Pact of Xochimilco". In Sonora, Maytorena attacks Calles and Hill and this provokes an international conflict in which Villa, Carranza and General Hugo L. Scott have to intervene to calm down the United States. Villa breaks with the provisional president appointed by the Aguascalientes Convention, General Eulaho Gutierrez.

1915

Francisco Villa is named by the new president of the Convention, General Roque Gonzalez Garza, "General in Chief of the revolutionary forces in all their military operations".

April-June. The Villista army is forced to retreat to the North after the Obregonist triumphs at Celaya, Leon, Trinidad, and Guanajuato.

September. The remainder of the Northern Division reconcentrates in Chihuahua and from there they leave in expedition for Sonora to take refuge.

October. The faction of Venustiano Carranza is recognized by the United States government. The Villistas cross the Sierra Madre Occidental with much pain and toil. Rodolfo Fierro dies in Queretaro.

November. They reach Agua Prieta, Sonora, and there they are defeated by Calles. Villa goes to Naco, Cananea, and Hermosillo, where he is again defeated.

December. They return to Chihuahua and soon after have to flee the state capital. The garrison of Ciudad Juarez surrenders with a large number of men and weapons.

1916-1920

Villa starts a guerrilla war against the triumphant revolutionary forces.

January. He attacks the town of Santa Isabel killing 15 North American engineers. Carranza declares him outlawed.

February. In that same year (1916) he attacked the American town of Columbus, New Mexico, United States, giving rise to the beginning of the so-called Punitive Expedition under the command of General John Pershing, who entered Mexican territory in pursuit of him without managing to capture him. During these years Villa continued to make his runs in Chihuahua and Coahuila, always hiding in the mountains to reestablish himself; taking important towns for brief days and then fleeing in a stampede.

1920

Upon the death of Venustiano Carranza in May of this year, the interim president Adolfo de la Huerta achieved Villa's surrender through the "Sabinas Agreement", Coahuila, by means of which he was granted the Canutillo ranch to retire to private life.

1923

On July 20, in an ambush he is shot by Jesus Salas Barraza in Parral, Chihuahua.

1926

February. His tomb located in the town of Parral, Chihuahua, is violated and his head is stolen.

1966

His name is placed in gold letters in the Chamber of Deputies.

1969

A monument to Francisco Vila ("Pancho Villa") was erected in Mexico City.

1976

By presidential decree Francisco Villa remains were exhumed and transferred to the Monument to the Revolution in the capital of the Republic.