Villa on his horse Siete Laguas after the battle at Ojinaga, Chihuahua.

The Legend of Pancho Villa


Bonnie McGuire


Pancho Villa was both loved and hated by many. He was a Robin Hood to some, and a cruel, cold blooded killer to others. Who was this remarkably controversial hero of the Mexican Revolution? There are many stories about him, including what my grandmother and uncle told me.

Doroteo Arango (Pancho Villa's real name) was born at the rancho La Coyotada near San Juan del Rio, Durango on June 5, 1877, to Adrean Arango and Maria Micaela Arambula, during a thunderstorm. This storm was later interpreted as an omen of a tempestuous love life. In later years thunderstorms affected Villa peculiarly. He once remarked to friend, "A storm reminds me of a battle to live. I mean the men I have known, the slaves of the wealthy hacendados and mine owners. I can close my eyes and see the rain beating down on the poor field workers. Ah, the pity that some men live in luxury while others must know belly hunger, biting cold, and the hurt of the lash. I'll change that some day."

The boy Doroteo was from an uneducated peasant family, and the little schooling he received was provided by the local church-run village school. when his father died, he began to work as a sharecropper to support his mother and four siblings. Sharecropping is a system of agriculture production in which a landowner allows a sharecropper to use the land in return for a share of the crop produced on the land. It typically involves a relatively rich land owner and a less wealthy, poor agricultural worker or farmer, although the reverse relationship, in which a poor landlord leases to a rich tenant also exists. The advantages of sharecropping in other situations include enabling access for women to arable land where ownership rights are only vested in men.

The generally accepted story states Doroteo moved to Chihuahua at the age of 16, but promptly returned to his village after learning that a wealthy hacienda owner had tried to sexually assault his younger sister, who was only twelve years old. He confronted the man, whose name was Austin Negrete, and shot him dead; then stole a horse and dashed towards the rugged Sierra Madre mountains to escape the police. His career as a bandit was about to begin.

He became a cattle rustler and later joined a band of rustlers that was led by a man named Francisco "Pancho" Villa. In one of their many skirmishes with the law, the group was surprised by a group of mounted police (rurales) and Francisco was killed. Doroteo then assumed command and name of the fallen leader. Perhaps he did this to throw off those who hunted him for killing the hacienda owner, or to assume authority over the group. From that time on he was known as Pancho Villa. He was a natural leader and was very successful as a bandit, leading raids on towns, killing and looting. He was also involved in more legitimate ventures, including being a contractor on the Copper Canyon railroad, worked as a drover of livestock, horse trader, or head of a group of transporters, including money or valuables for foreign, particularly American companies. The foreign interests considered him highly reliable, and there were never any claims of theft against him.

In 1910, when the Mexican (Madero) revolution broke out, Villa was recruited by the revolutionary leader, Abraham Gonzalez. Villa put together an army of armed cowboys and ruffians and became their revolutionary general who led the war in the northern part of Mexico. His personality and victories made him an idol of the masses. Villa's forces were based in Chihuahua, where Villa ruled over northern Mexico like a medieval warlord. He financed his army by stealing from the endless cattle herds in northern Mexico and selling beef north of the border, where he found plenty of U.S. merchants willing to sell him guns and ammunition. Faced with a stagnant economy, he issued his own money; if merchants refused to take it, they risked being shot. Executions, which Villa often ordered on a whim, were usually left to his friend Rodolfo Fierro, best known by his nickname El Carnicero (the butcher). In true Robin Hood style, he broke up the vast land holdings of local hacendados and parceled them out to the widows and orphans of his fallen soldiers. There were rumors that Villa may have been partially financed by the German imperial government, and some of his military actions were explicitly designed to aid the Kaiser's cause. During the early days of the revolution Villa had very good relations with Americans. On Christmas Eve of 1912 he escaped from the military prison of Santiago Tlatelolco in Mexico City. He had been imprisoned after being reprieved from a death sentence handed down by General Victoriano Huerta, the usurper who would overthrow Francisco Madero in February 1913. That same month, Villa found himself in El Paso enjoying freedom and countless friendships with gringos. On March 9th he crossed the border with 15 men and started a revolt against the Huerta dictatorship. Villa has always liked Americans and the feeling was mutual, so among those who joined his ranks was a foreign legion of adventurers from America. Among them was the legendary John Reed (who wrote Insurgent Mexico), Oscar Creighton (a San Francisco bank robber) called the Dynamite Devil, Sam Drebben (the fighting Jew) a Spanish-speaking machinist named Ben Turner, and Edward (Tex) O'Reilly, a tough rancher turned soldier-of-fortune, later serving in the Philippine Insurrection and World War I.

Americans also manned Villa's primitive air force, made up of four planes. The pilots were ex-barnstormers and just as colorful as their comrads on the ground. They had names like Micky McQuire, Wild Bill Heath and Farnum T. Fish. It was even rumored that Hollywood's cowboy Tom Mix served with Villa's forces, although denied by one El Paso journalist, who claimed it was invented by the studio's publicist. Because of these volunteers, Villa was able to team up with Vinustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregon to drive Huerta into exile in July 1914. However, the fall of Huerta didn't solve the turbulence plaguing Mexico. Before the end of the year, Villa had fallen out with Carranza and Obregon. Mexico was again plunged into civil war. Carranza was installed in Mexico City as provisional president and Obregon was his enforcer.

Obregon was a self-made, highly skilled general who had studied trench warfare tactics used on the Western Front in France. With this expertise, he defeated Villa and drove him from central Mexico back to the northern sierra of Chihuahua. On October 19, 1914, the United States extended de facto recognition to Carranza. Villa felt this was a terrible betrayal. He'd always befriended the gringos and this was his bitter reward. Being a direct, simple man, he didn't understand, nor accept the politics mandating that you recognize whoever seems to effectively control the chaos of a nation. Villa was further angered on November 2, 1915, when carrancista troops were allowed to cross U.S. soil to attack him in the rear at Agua Prieta, across the border from Douglas, Arizona. To add insult to injury, U.S. searchlights were deliberately focused on the villistas to make them easier targets for their enemies.

General Hugh L. Scott, who had many dealings with Villa, sympathized that "the recognition of Carranza had the effect of solidifying the power of the man who had rewarded us with kicks and making an outlaw of the man who helped us." Villa sent Scott a telegram saying that he was the one honest man north of the border. However, the villistas later killed 18 American mining engineers of the ASARCO company that they captured when they held up a train near Santa Isabel, Chihuahua on January 10, 1914.

Now back to the German connection. At this point we'll focus on Felix A. Sommerfeld, described by German historian Friedrich Katz as "one of the most interesting members of the shadowy army of agents, double agents, and lobbyists who swarmed like locusts over Mexico once the revolution had begun." Sommerfeld was a con man. Though he'd fought against the revolutionary Boxers in China, he came to Mexico and convinced Madero that he was a revolutionary democrat.

 Meanwhile,  he was establishing close relations with the German government and certain U.S. business interests. These interests were represented by a crooked lobbyist named Sherbourne Hopkins, who was closely allied with Carranza. Sherbourne befriended Sommerfeld, gave him money, and told him to go to Mexico to work with Carranza. The silver tongued Sommerfeld completely won Carranza's trust, and was given the assignment to spy on Villa at Chihuahua. This he did, but not for Carranza. All information on Villa went to the German government. In addition, he ingratiated himself with Villa, who gave him an exclusive concession to import diynamite for his forces. For this, Sommerfeld received a commission of $5,000 a month. In late 1915 (a few months before the attack on Columbus) the U.S. Justice Department ascertained that $340,000 had been paid into Sommerfeld's bank account in St. Louis. The money came from a German government account in New York. When these transactions came to light, Sommerfeld closed the account. Following the money trail, Treasury agents learned it had been paid to the Western Cartidge Company, the arms suppliers for Villa. When confronted by agents of the Justice Department, Sommerfeld insisted that he had severed all relations with Villa after the U.S. recognized Carranza, and sent Villa a telegram protesting the massacre of the 16 mining engineers. Yet he was unable to explain why $340,000 deposited in his account by the German government had ended up in the hands of Villa's arms supplier. Also, according to Carranza's agents in the U.S., Sommerfeld continued to buy arms for Villa even after his interrogation by the Justice Department. As is often the case, who was using whom.

Pancho Villa was a revolutionary, and the fact that he may have received arms and financial aid from the Germans doesn't mean he embraced Kaiserism. The dominant Carranza-Obregon forces and now hostile United States, placed Pancho Villa between a rock and a hard place, so this time he didn't turn down help. Earlier, the German consul in Torreon, which Villa had captured, gave a lavish banquet for him and urged him to march on the Tampico oil fields. With the capture of Tampico, German ships would land in the port and bring him money and arms. Villa appeared to consider the offer, but then changed his mind and marched on Chihuahua. His eventual acceptance of their help was not that Pancho was a German agent, but rather a man engaged in the old game of playing both ends against the middle.

Columbus, New Mexico after the attack.

In 1916, when an American merchant refused to deliver the arms to Villa's army which they had paid him for, Villa entered the United States. On the way they stopped at my grandparent's mine. He recognized them because of her red hair that fascinated him years earlier when he supplied meat for the mine they operated in Mexico. This day they sat down at the kitchen table and visited for about an hour. Before leaving, Pancho ordered his men not to harm them, or their place. Later, the villista's attacked the 13th Cavalry, bringing back more than a hundred of its horses and mules, a heavy load of rifles and machine guns. The raiders also killed 26 civilians in Columbus, New Mexico (above). United State's President Woodrow Wilson responded to the Columbus raid by sending 6,000 troops under General John (Black Jack) Pershing to Mexico to pursue Villa. The President also dispatched several divisions of Army and National Guard troops to protect the southern U.S. border against further raids and counter-attacks. During the punitive search, the United States launched its first air combat mission with eight airplanes. At the same time, Villa was also being sought by Carranza's army. The U.Sl expedition was eventually called off after failing to find Villa, who successfully escaped from both armies. 

Some sources say that on May 29, 1911 Villa married Maria Luz Corral (left), and although he was linked with several bogus marriages, Luz was able to produce a valid certificate proving that she was his only legal wife. The couple had one child, a daughter, who died within a few years. Luz had no other children, but she took in children Villa had fathered with other women. Perhaps she felt that he would always return to her, knowing that several of his children were with her. Villa built the quinta (manor) during the revolution, and Luz lived there until her death in 1981. Villa was assassinated in 1923, and several of his alleged wives claimed the manor. The marriage certificate might not have been sufficient to safeguard her claim, but Luz had an important ally. During the revolution, Alvaro Obregon had visited had visited the Villas at the quinta. There Villa had plotted to have Obregon killed, but Luz had interceded, saving the future president's life. The favor was not forgotten, and Obregon used his considerable influence to protect Luz's claim.

Sharing her memories, eighty-two year old Dona Luz told of her life as a child, living with her widowed mother in the town of San Andres. One day, when she was a teenager, Villa and his soldiers rode in and demanded monetary contributions from the townspeople. Her mother asked to be excluded, and Villa visited her small store to see if she was really as poor as she claimed to be. There he met Luz. The courtship was very brief, and over the objections of her mother, Luz married Villa. The attending priest asked Villa to make his confession. The General declined, stating that it would take days to list all his sins.

Obregon overthrew Carranza in 1920, and while fleeing to Veracruz, Carranza was assassinated. While Obregon was preparing to run for president, the interim chief executive, Adolfor de la Huerta signed a peace treaty with Villa on July 28, 1920. Willa surrendered and retired from the revolution. He was given a hacienda in Canutillo, and an annual pension. Many attempts were made on Villa's life by relatives of persons he'd killed. On July 20, 1923, fourteen men waited for Villa near the town plaza at Parral, Chihuahua. They were hiding in trees and on rooftops.

As Villa's black Ford turned the corner, the mercenaries let loose a volley that killed the three occupants, and left 50 bullet wounds (mostly around the heart) in the body of the seemingly invincible bandit-revolutionary. They wanted to make sure he couldn't survive, because the legend was that "He would get shot, fall off his horse and get up again time after time; that Villa had a deal with the devil." In reality, Villa had created a bulletproof vest out of the skins of black sheep. He'd stopped wearing it when he retired to his hacienda, and became the region's benefactor.

Hailed as a hero of the Mexican Revolution, the charismatic Villa brought 300 street children from Mexico City to Chihuahua and housed and educated them in a boarding school orphanage. He parceled out land his army had taken from hacienda owners to widows and children and opened a school of agriculture. He may have been a bank robber, cattle rustler and murderer in his youth, but that didn't stop the people of Parral from worshipping Villa. They paraded past his body, lying in state on a hotel balcony, and mourned his death.

So ended the passionate life and visions of Pancho Villa about whom author John Reed wrote..."This ignorant fighter, not educated enough to be the President of Mexico."  He told it to me once in these words: "When the new Republic is established there will never be any more army in Mexico. Armies are the greatest support of tyranny. There can be no dictator without an army. We will put the army to work. In all parts of the Republic we will establish military colonies composed of the veterans of the Revolution. The State will bive them grants of agricultural lands and establish big industrial enterprises to give them work. Three days a week they will work and work hard, because honest work makes good citizens. And the other three days they will receive military instruction and go out and teach all the people how to fight. Then when the Patria is invaded, we will just have to telephone from the palace at Mexico City, and in half a day all the Mexican people will rise from their fields and factories fully armed, equipped and organized to defend their children and their homes. My ambition is to live my life in one of those military colonies among my companeros whom I love, who have suffered so long and so deeply with me. I think I would like the government to establish a leather factory there where we could make good saddles and bridles, because I know how to do that; and the rest of the time I would like to work on my little farm, raising cattle and corn. It would be fine, I think, to help make Mexico a happy place."