By Sandra Sarinana, Nora Juárez, Wendy King, Sergio Lopez and Peter Zacher
Bandit, robber, murderer. Many middle class and elite Mexicans and most Americans saw him this way. But thousands of voiceless peasants who worked from dawn until dusk saw the exploits and military feats of Pancho Villa and made him a hero, he who came from their ranks.
Charismatic leaders like Pancho Villa responded passionately to the oppression, starvation and a desire for democracy that lay at the root of the Mexican Revolution.
Image caption: Portrait of Francisco "Pancho" Villa has him in uniform as General Del Norte. Photo courtesy of the Aultman Collection, El Paso Public Library
Hundreds of stories that cannot be verified exist about Villa but most historians agree about the facts of his early life. Francisco "Pancho" Villa was born Doroteo Arango in San Juan Del Rio, Durango, on June 5, 1878. An illiterate farm hand, he tended the cattle and horses on a hacienda, thus familiarizing himself with the countryside and gaining a deep understanding of Mexico's terrain. His work on the land provided him a practical education that would later prove advantageous. On the hacienda, Villa saw firsthand the abuse and oppression his family and others in his social class endured. Many thousand Mexicans were considered peones, farm workers much like slaves; they were always indebted to the landowners for whom they worked, and their children inherited their debts. A deep hatred for the oppressors developed over the years.
When he was 16, Doroteo's father, Agustín Arango, died and left him in charge of the family. Doroteo disliked the working conditions and went to a neighboring farm in hopes of a better life. Since he was responsible for his father's debt, the owner of the land sent for him. He was captured like a runaway slave and whipped like one. He received a beating so severe that he would carry the imprint of the lashes to his grave.
One day he came home to find that the owner of the hacienda, López Negrete, had assaulted his sister. Enraged, Doroteo sought out López and shot him. Since landowners exploited their workers and could legally punish them for disobedience, Arango fled to the mountains of Durango.
While on the run, he assumed the name Pancho Villa, often maintaining that he was in fact the son of the bandit Agustín Villa. Pancho became a thief during this time, stealing to survive. Villa traveled to the state of Chihuahua, where he met Abraham Gonzalez, a rebel fighting against Porfirio Díaz, the president and perpetrator of oppression and suffering of those like Villa.
Gonzalez offered Villa a chance to fight for his people. Mexican author Victor C. Reyes writes that Villa's desire for revenge and the hope for his people made him accept the offer.
Villa was a born leader, and because of his magnetic personality, he easily recruited 375 men within five days. Most of his followers were peasants, both men and women. The women, known as "soldaderas" or "adelitas," joined either to follow their men or because they believed in the revolution. He took good care of his followers making sure they were paid, well fed and cared for when injured.
Villa's call to arms appealed to those suffering from extreme poverty and frustration under the economic and political centralization of power of Díaz. Villa offered his services to the rebel leader, Francisco I. Madero.
Villa and Pascual Orozco led a surprise attack on federal soldiers in Juárez in May 1911. This victory, coupled with Villa's ability to recruit a vast number of soldiers in little time meant power, and his reputation soared among the revolutionaries.
The brutality of this battle also reflected Villa's refusal to show mercy to the enemy. In one case, he executed a federal soldier who died as he begged for his life. Villa emptied his gun on this man, then continued shooting him with guns from his followers. This sheer hate with which Villa fought led to some losses as well.
In 1911, Díaz resigned and General Victoriano Huerta took command of troops fighting against the revolutionaries. Huerta had Villa imprisoned for insubordination and ordered him executed. But newly elected President Madero stopped the execution.
Villa headed for the United States. In El Paso, he heard of Madero's murder at Huerta 's orders and the death of other friends, including Gonzalez. Villa wasted no time taking his revenge on Huerta; he recruited 3,000 men in three weeks.
Their goal was to capture the city of Chihuahua, where Huerta and his forces had barricaded Orozco. Villa struck smaller towns and won every single one. Villa had an ability to make the right decisions at the right moment. Leon Metz writes that Villa was a dangerous guerilla leader with a genius ability to make good tactical decisions on a horse in the middle of a battle. After a rousing victory in Torreón, Villa formed his famous "Dorados" or "Golden Ones," an elite group of soldiers who began their career as his personal bodyguards. Villa chose each man personally, and his initial three units of 32 men later increased to 400. They wore gold insignias in their hats and often paid for their supplies with gold coins. The skilled Dorados often turned the odds of a battle in Villa's favor. They also did his dirty work, such as executions. And many became his devoted associates and stayed with him even during his retirement.
In 1914, using hit and run tactics, Villa gained control of Northern Mexico His powerful fighting force became known as "La División Del Norte" or the Division of the North. Author Frank Tompkins says that Gen. Hugh Scott, President Woodrow Wilson's top military advisor, argued the United States should support Villa as he could become the "George Washington" of Mexico.
John J. Pershing, commanding general of Fort Bliss, personally escorted Villa to Fort Bliss and hosted a reception at the Country Club for him in August 1914. Ironically, it would be Pershing who would chase Villa in Mexico after his raid on Columbus, NM in 1916. These events and the fact that he could buy supplies and find refuge in El Paso led Villa to believe that the United States would soon recognize him as the Mexican leader.
However, a wealthy rancher and governor of the neighboring state of Coahuila, Venustiano Carranza, was about to mount his own challenge to Huerta. Carranza had recruited military forces against Huerta, but he hated Villa. Historian Jim Tuck writes that Carranza might have envied Villa's impressive military skills and the attention the American press lavished on him, often calling him "The Mexican Robin Hood."
Despite his feelings about Villa, Carranza implored him to join forces, but Villa laughed in his face. This insult led Carranza to look to Álvaro Obregón, another revolutionary leader, for help in getting rid of Villa.
Author Bob Carral says that Carranza worried about the powers of the División del Norte because he couldn't control or manipulate Villa. However, Carranza declared himself the head of the revolutionary forces.
Carranza defeated Villa in two major battles in Celaya within a week. Villa lost over 9,000 men and most of his ammunition. Most importantly, it cost him political authority in Northeast Mexico. While Carranza had made few efforts to protest U.S. business interests in Mexico, Villa openly opposed American holdings. Perhaps Villa's attitude also affected the choice the United States government made in supporting revolutionary leaders.
Historian Haldeen Braddy writes that because violence from the Mexican Revolution endangered America's investments, the United States aided Carranza's rebellion against the dictator Huerta. President Wilson recognized Carranza as provisional president in 1915, infuriating Villa. While other rebel leaders stopped fighting, Villa turned his energy and hatred toward his new enemy, the Americans.
Villa valued loyalty above all, and betrayal never went unpunished. Villa vowed to kill any and all Americans he could find. To make matters worse, the United States began an embargo on munitions and supplies that were once offered to Villa. While Villa was forced to supply his war essentials from smugglers, American officials helped Carranza.
In their last encounter, Carranza and Villa met in Agua Prieta, Sonora, a Carranza garrison. John D. Eisenhower tells us that while villistas crossed Chihuahua into Sonora with limited supplies, Carranza, with Wilson's permission, had transported 5,000 men across American soil to arrive in Agua Prieta before Villa.
Villa's night attack failed as heavy artillery fire forced him to retreat. Carranza declared Villa "finished for good" and invited American companies that had departed since the revolution to return, assuring their safety.
Villa retaliated against the United States on January 10, 1916. Leon Metz writes that American workers bordered a train in Chihuahua City heading for a mine that closed in 1911 because of the revolution. Two hours away, villistas waited for the miners and within minutes after stopping the train, they executed 16 Americans, each with a single gunshot to the back of the head. Only one man survived.
News of the massacre enraged El Pasoans. Gen. Pershing declared martial law, while Fort Bliss remained on alert. It would take less than two months for Villa to attack Americans in their own country.
So while many Mexicans, especially in the north, still consider Villa a hero, a great military leader and revolutionary, the ultimate interpretation all depends on one's loyalties. Villa was a farmer, a soldier and an excellent horseman. He also was a cattle rustler, murderer and rebel. He did not drink liquor, and he swam and ran to keep in shape.
His charisma and reputation attracted the women - many of them. Although Luz Corral was his first and legal wife, Villa "married" several women over his lifetime, including one Juana Torres. When her family stole 40,000 pesos from him, he banished her from Chihuahua permanently.
Villa divided huge haciendas and gave the land to his soldiers and their widows. He stole cattle and robbed banks, leaving the peasants a share of the meat and money. He suffered the injustices of Mexico's social system, but his charismatic personality captivated men and women alike. Even though he had no formal schooling, his military genius was unsurpassed.
Villa is still an intriguing subject of study. Just as the lashes he received as a sharecropper scarred his back, he left a permanent mark on Mexican and American history.