Francisco Villa

(1878 - 1923)

General Francisco "Pancho" Villa was the most iconic and best-known personality of the Mexican revolution. Villa was born Doroteo Arango in the northern state of Durango, in 1878. As a young man he was a bandolero, a common bandit. The contacts he made during these early years would serve him well later, when he sought to put together a revolutionary army.

Uneducated, and considered by many to be coarse, Villa was nevertheless a military genius, and had a superb, instinctive understanding of the game of international politics. His ability to generate publicity and give it his own spin would rival many celebrities today. He loved being in the limelight.

Villa was inspired early on by the revolution of Francisco Madero, and his military career grew during the Maderista period (1910-1911). In fact, Villa, along with fellow general Pascual Orozco, attacked Ciudad Juárez against Madero's orders and won. This victory was instrumental in bringing Madero into power. Although Madero soon pushed Villa to the sidelines, Villa never lost his admiration for the man who took the first steps in the revolution.

In response to the coup by Victoriano Huerta, which overthrew Madero, Villa developed an extraordinary army, the División del Norte. During this time, Villa also became Provisional Governor of his then-home state of Chihuahua, and brought the politics and economy of the state under his control. Villa was joined around this time by Felipe Ángeles, who would become his chief strategist. Angeles was an expert in artillery, and many attribute some of Villa's best decisions and most successful campaigns to Ángeles's influence.

Villa loved being photographed. The fact that he operated close to the United States meant that he was nearly always in the spotlight in the U.S. In 1913, Villa signed a contract with Hollywood's Mutual Film Company to film many of his battles. Sometimes battles were re-scheduled or re-staged for the convenience of the cameras. It was during this period that the United States supported Villa and provided him with weapons. Villa, in turn, remained sensitive to U.S. interests in Mexico.

Among his triumphs during this era, the battles of Zacatecas and Ojinaga stand out as particular highlights. At Ojinaga, Villa defeated Huerta's federal troops and forced them across the Rio Grande to Marfa, Texas. Late in the campaign to overthrow Huerta, Carranza tried to sabotage Villa's progress toward Mexico City by sending him to Saltillo, an insignificant target, rather than the more important town of Zacatecas. Ángeles convinced Villa to once again disobey orders, and Villa's triumph at Zacatecas, one of the bloodiest campaigns of the revolution, helped defeat Huerta once and for all. While he was a hero in the revolution, Villa was also known for his brutality in the face of betrayal. Both he and his "trigger-man," Rudolfo Fierro, were known for the particularly barbaric ways in which they would dispatch their enemies.

After taking power, Carranza tried to eliminate Villla. A turning point came in 1915, when Villa and his elite soldiers, the dorados, lost several battles to Carranza's general, Álvaro Obregón. The battle of Celaya was a brutal and unexpected defeat – one which sent the seemingly-invincible Villa reeling. In this battle, and in the battle of Agua Prieta, against Carrancista general Plutarco Elias Calles, Villa and his 19th-century-style cavalry came up against 20th century technology imported from the war in Europe (WWI) and employed by the Constitutionalists. Their use of barbed wire, sophisticated machine guns, and trench warfare resulted in a massacre of Villa's troops.

Partly because of these defeats, the U.S. withdrew their support of Villa in favor of recognition of Carranza. In 1916, angered by what he perceived as a betrayal by the United States, Villa attacked the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. Although Villista casualties far outweighed those of the Americans, the U.S. government was outraged and sent troops, led by General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing, into Mexican territory to rout out Villa and eliminate him. The search continued well into 1917 but Pershing's men never found him.

The effort of avoiding Pershing's forces took its toll on Villa. Although he won a number of skirmishes during the period 1917-1919, he was never the same as he had been at the height of his power. In 1923, in an agreement with then-President Álvaro Obregón, Villa retired to a hacienda in Canutillo, near Parral, Chihuahua. He seemed to be living the quiet life of a rancher, surrounded by former comrades and friends, many of whom now served as his body guards. But Obregón, and his soon-to-be successor, Plutarco Elias Calles, wanted to take no chances that Villa might regain his strength. They established a conspiracy to assassinate him. On July 20, 1923, as Villa made his way back to his ranch from Parral, seven riflemen rained a fusillade of shots on his car. The "Centaur of the North" was no more.

In death, as in life, Villa remains a controversial figure. One hundred years later, he is loved by some and despised by others. Today, the specter of this rogue genius lives on in hundreds of photographs and thousands of feet of motion picture footage -- images inspired by the daring bandit who became the one of the most famous generals of the Mexican revolution.