Bandito Numero Uno

Bandito Numero Uno


Only WWI stopped Pershing’s manhunt for charismatic guerrilla Pancho Villa


Mary Kemper

Staff Writer


  He was a killer, a lover, an army general, former elected official, unlikely film star, a Robin Hood and guerrilla leader who was actually able to retire in comfort and relative obscurity — until he was assassinated.

  Few figures from U.S. history are as colorful and intriguing as Francisco “Pancho” Villa. If it weren’t for the Great War, he might have made an even more lasting mark than he did.

  By the time no less than Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing — and a no less hardened and seasoned 10th Cavalry Division of Buffalo Soldiers, among others — began to hunt Villa down, he was busy fighting off one would-be president after another, and splinter factions of revolutionaries galore.

  Pershing had at least 5,000 troops under his command to hunt down Villa, who never commanded more than 500 or so men himself. But the self-proclaimed general, who never rose above the rank of private, was a canny and instinctive tactician, and many historians think it would have required saturation levels of tens of thousands of American troops to overcome Villa.


Early lawbreaker


  Villa was born the son of a sharecropper in northern Mexico. He was born in 1878, just one year after Porfirio Diaz became president of Mexico. It took decades to oust Diaz from office, but Villa played a key role.

  The young Villa already had a rather elastic system of morals. When he was 16, he killed a man accused of raping a female cousin of Villa’s, forcing him to flee his home and embark on a life of crime. The hills of northern Mexico were already home to a collection of revolutionaries, dissidents and various criminal types, who found safety and sustenance from a friendly population.

  Different factions were constantly vying for power in Mexico, which was still new to republican rule after centuries under the Spanish monarchy. These factions murdered each other and stole from each other regularly — and at times dropped their feuds with each other and ganged up on still other factions.

  Villa became proficient at stealing cash, arms and livestock, mainly cattle, to sell to various gangs, legal and illegal. Surplus beef was handed out to villagers, giving rise to the reputation of Villa as Robin Hood. Later, as an elected official, he learned how to give “gifts” at the right times to the right people to further his aims.


Ouster of one president after another


  Villa was a backer of one Francisco Madero, who was ousted as president by Gen. Victoriano Huerta in a coup. Villa then signed on with anti-Huerta fighter Venustiano Carranza, who prevailed, but fell out with him. Villa first supported Emiliano Zapata as Mexican leader, but soon vied for power with him.

  At one point during the height of Villa’s power and popularity, the U.S. considered backing him for the presidency. By 1914, however, the U.S. decided to back Carranza in what was by then a civil war, and Villa was enraged.


Murder of Americans


  Villa suffered losses of fighters and resources as a result of the conflict, and he badly needed to replenish supplies. In March 1916, he decided to attack a U.S. Army garrison across the border in Columbus, N.M., to seize arms, ammunition and other supplies.

  Villa’s raiders made off with 100 horses and mules. Eighteen Americans and 80 guerrillas were killed.

  Those whom Villa fought with from his own country did not fare as well. Villa was personally responsible for numerous executions without trial, and numerous rapes following the conquest of villages.

  The U.S. retaliated against the cross-border raid by sending Pershing and 5,000 troops — which eventually swelled to nearly 100,000 — on an extensive manhunt.

  The mission met resistance from native Mexicans almost immediately, who resented the “Yanqui” incursion on their lands. Carranza himself, though he was backed by the U.S. government, ordered attacks on Pershing’s troops.

  The mission adopted a more diplomatic veneer, supposedly more of a police hunt for a fugitive, but Villa and his men were still a force to be reckoned with.

  The guerrillas led three more attacks cross-border into Texas during this time, killing more than two dozen American soldiers and civilians.

  By July 4, a truce was called so that negotiations could take place.


Interruption of the Great War


  By Jan. 17, 1917, the U.S. had successfully persuaded the Carranza government to allow U.S. troops to resume their hunt for Villa.

  However, that same month, the famous Zimmermann Telegram was discovered. Named after the German consul in Mexico, the offer was made to give the U.S. territory in Mexico in exchange for supporting Germany in World War I, which had been raging since 1914.

  As things turned out, the mood in the U.S. was clearly for joining the fray in support of Britain, France and their allies. President Woodrow Wilson backed the isolationists, but the tide was against them. Troops — mostly National Guardsmen — who would have pursued Villa were redirected to the Great War overseas. The wily bandito was free.


Life in the fast lane


  By the time Villa was made governor of the state of Chihuahua in 1920, Carranza had been executed by Huerta, who took over the presidency and made peace with his old nemesis Villa.

  Villa retired to a sizeable hacienda, a wealthy man with at least two wives and numerous mistresses. Back in the States, the Mutual Company, a movie outfit that made newsreels, contracted with Villa to make a documentary on the revolution and civil war using actual fighters.

  Newsmen embedded in the Mexican revolutionary ranks were nothing new. When footage of actual combat was deemed to be too dull and chaotic to edit into usable format, the fighters themselves were willing to recreate battles, and even staged new ones with their enemies to get the best results.

  Villa was one of these revolutionaries. Already famous for having outwitted the Yanqui Pershing, he became a huge celebrity for his exploits.

  Villa never went anywhere without at least 50 bodyguards, but for some reason, he went out with only a few to a neighboring village of Parral one day to attend a christening of the child of one of his top henchmen.

  On July 20, 1923, Villa was assassinated by allies of then-President Alvaro Olbregon, who was an old pal of Villa’s nemesis Carranza. Villa had been talking publicly about running for president himself, and Carranza, who could not run again, wanted his own successor.

  A group of about 7 gunmen poured lead into Villa’s car, killing him instantly on that hot July afternoon.

  He went on to occupy a lasting place in Mexican history, but he never made the Hall of Heroes list of influential revolutionaries and presidents like Zapata and Benito Juarez.

  Even after death, Villa remained a figure in the news. Someone stole his skull from his grave in Parral, and it was rumored to have wound up as property of the Skull and Bones Society at Yale University.

  Villa fathered numerous children, the last of whom, a son, died in 2009.