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Who Killed Pancho Villa?

A Murder Conspiracy That Went All the Way to the Top


Who Killed Pancho Villa?

The Death of Pancho Villa

Photographer Unknown


Villa rarely left his ranch and when he did, his fifty armed bodyguards (all of whom were fanatically loyal) accompanied him. In July of 1923, Villa made a fatal mistake. On July 10 he went by car to the neighboring town of Parral to serve as godfather at the baptism of the child of one of his men. He had a couple of armed bodyguards with him, but not the fifty that he often traveled with. He had a mistress in Parral and stayed with her for a while after the baptism, finally returning to Canutillo on July 20.

He never made it back. Assassins had rented a house in Parral on the street which connects Parral with Canutillo. They had been waiting for three months for their chance to hit Villa. As Villa drove past, a man in the street shouted “Viva Villa!” This was the signal that the assassins were waiting for. From the window, they rained down gunfire on Villa’s car.

Villa, who had been driving, was killed almost instantly. Three other men in the car with him were killed, including the chauffeur and Villa’s personal secretary, and one bodyguard died later of his injuries. Another bodyguard was injured but managed to escape.

Who Killed Pancho Villa?

Villa was buried the next day and people began asking who had ordered the hit. It quickly became apparent that the assassination had been very well organized. The killers were never caught: Federal troops in Parral had been sent away on a bogus mission, which meant that the killers could finish their job and leave at their leisure without fear of being chased. Telegraph lines out of Parral had been cut: Villa’s brother and his men did not hear of his death until hours after it had happened. An investigation into the killing was stymied by uncooperative local officials.

The people of Mexico wanted to know who had killed Villa, and after a few days, Jesús Salas Barraza stepped forward and claimed responsibility. This let many higher officials off the hook, including Obregón, Calles and Castro. Obregón at first refused to arrest Salas, claiming his status as a congressman gave him immunity. Then he relented and Salas was sentenced to twenty years, although the sentence was commuted three months later by the Governor of Chihuahua. No one else was ever charged with any crime in the matter. Most Mexicans suspected a cover-up, and they were right.


Most historians believe the death of Villa played out something like this: Lozoya, the crooked former administrator of the Canutillo ranch, started making plans to kill Villa in order to avoid having to repay him. Obregón got word of the plot and at first toyed with the idea of stopping it, but was talked into letting it go ahead by Calles and others. Obregón told Calles to make sure that the blame would never fall on him.

Salas Barraza was recruited and agreed to be the “fall guy” as long as he was not prosecuted. Governor Castro and Jesús Herrera were also involved. Obregón, through Calles, sent 50,000 pesos to Félix Lara, commander of the federal garrison at Parral, to make sure he and his men were “out on maneuvers” at the time. Lara did him one better, assigning his best marksmen to the assassination squad.

So, who killed Pancho Villa? If any one name must be linked to his murder, it should be that of Alvaro Obregón. Obregón was a very powerful president who ruled through intimidation and terror. The conspirators never would have gone ahead had Obregón opposed the plot: there was no man in Mexico brave enough to cross Obregón. In addition, there is a good amount of evidence to suggest that Obregón and Calles were not merely bystanders, but actively participated in the conspiracy.


McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.

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