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Mexican Revolution: Biography of Pancho Villa

The Centaur of the North

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Mexican Revolution: Biography of Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa with his troops

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Pancho Villa (1878-1923) was a Mexican bandit, warlord and revolutionary. One of the most important figures of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), he was a fearless fighter, clever military commander and important power broker during the years of conflict. His vaunted Division of the North was, at one time, the strongest army in Mexico and he was instrumental in the downfall of both Porfirio Díaz and Victoriano Huerta. When the alliance of Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón finally defeated him, he responded by waging a guerrilla war which included an attack on Columbus, New Mexico. He was assassinated in 1923.

Early Years

Pancho Villa was born Doroteo Arango to a family of impoverished sharecroppers who worked land belonging to the wealthy and powerful López Negrete family in the state of Durango. According to legend, when young Doroteo caught one of the López Negrete clan trying to rape his sister Martina, he shot him in the foot and fled to the mountains. There he joined a band of outlaws and soon rose to a position of leadership through his bravery and ruthlessness. He earned good money as a bandit, and gave some if it back to the poor, which earned him a reputation as a sort of Robin Hood.

Revolution Breaks Out

The Mexican Revolution broke out in 1910 when Francisco I. Madero, who had lost a crooked election to dictator Porfirio Díaz, declared himself president and called for the people of Mexico to take up arms. Arango, who had changed his name to Pancho Villa (after his grandfather) by then, was one who answered the call. He brought his bandit force with him and soon became one of the most powerful men in the north as his army swelled. When Madero returned to Mexico from exile in the United States in 1911, Villa was one who welcomed him. Villa knew he was no politician but he saw promise in Madero and vowed to take him to Mexico City.

The Campaign Against Díaz

The corrupt regime of Porfirio Díaz was still entrenched in power, however. Villa soon gathered an army around him, including an elite cavalry unit. Around this time he earned the nickname “the Centaur of the North” because of his riding skill. Along with fellow warlord Pascual Orozco, Villa controlled the north of Mexico, defeating federal garrisons and capturing towns. Díaz might have been able to handle Villa and Orozco, but he also had to worry about the guerrilla forces of Emiliano Zapata in the south, and before too long it was evident that Díaz could not defeat the enemies arrayed against him. He left the country in April of 1911, and Madero entered the capital in June, triumphant.

In Defense of Madero

Once in office, Madero quickly got into trouble. Remnants of the Díaz regime despised him, and he alienated his allies by not honoring his promises to them. Two key allies he turned against him were Zapata, who was disappointed to see that Madero had little interest in land reform, and Orozco, who had hoped in vain that Madero would give him a lucrative post, such as state governor. When these two men once again took up arms, Madero called on Villa, his only remaining ally. Along with General Victoriano Huerta, Villa fought and defeated Orozco, who was forced into exile in the United States. Madero could not see those enemies closest to him, however, and Huerta, once back in Mexico City, betrayed Madero, arrested him and ordered him executed before setting himself up as president.

Campaign against Huerta

Villa had believed in Madero and was devastated by his death. He quickly joined an alliance of Zapata and revolution newcomers Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón dedicated to removing Huerta. By then, Villa's Division of the North was the most powerful and feared military unit in the nation and his soldiers numbered in the tens of thousands. Huerta was surrounded and outnumbered, even though Orozco had returned and joined him, bringing his army with him.

Villa led the fight against Huerta, defeating federal forces in cities all over northern Mexico. Carranza, a former governor, named himself Chief of the Revolution, which irritated Villa although he accepted it. Villa did not want to be president, but he did not like Carranza. Villa saw him as another Porfirio Díaz and wanted someone else to lead Mexico once Huerta was out of the picture.

In May of 1914 the way was clear for an attack on the strategic town of Zacatecas, where there was a major railway junction that could carry the revolutionaries right into Mexico City. Villa attacked Zacatecas on June 23. The Battle of Zacatecas was a huge military victory for Villa: barely a few hundred out of 12,000 federal soldiers survived.

After the loss at Zacatecas, Huerta knew his cause was lost and tried to surrender to gain some concessions, but the allies would not let him off the hook so easily. Huerta was forced to flee, naming an interim president to rule until Villa, Obregón and Carranza reached Mexico City.

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