Pancho Villa: The True Story of Mexico’s Robin Hood Through Old PhotosOnce a bandit, Francisco “Pancho” Villa transformed into one of the Mexican Revolution’s most celebrated generals, earning a reputation as a champion of the underprivileged.

His story is a intriguing blend of rebellion, heroism, and a relentless pursuit of justice for the poor.

The Mexican Revolution erupted in 1910, leading to the overthrow of Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship. However, the aftermath was turbulent.

Francisco Madero, a leader of the revolution, replaced Díaz as president but was assassinated in 1913 by Victoriano Huerta, a former ally turned enemy.

This event sparked further conflict, with different rebel groups vying for power. One such group was the División del Norte, led by Pancho Villa.

Villa, known for his dedication to the poor, had previously allied with both Madero and Huerta.

However, Huerta accused Villa of theft, resulting in Villa’s imprisonment. Although Madero saved him from execution, Villa remained imprisoned as Huerta took control.

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Pancho Villa wearing bandoliers in front of an insurgent camp. Undated photo.

After Madero’s death, Huerta became the new dictator. Villa escaped from prison and, alongside Venustiano Carranza, another revolutionary, sought to overthrow Huerta.

By 1914, they succeeded in removing Huerta from power. However, conflicts among the revolutionaries continued.

Villa clashed with Carranza and made enemies in both Mexico and the U.S. before the revolution ended.

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Pancho Villa with a group of his fellow revolutionaries.

Pancho Villa: The Transformation from Outlaw to Revolutionary

Villa was the son of a field laborer and was orphaned at an early age.

In revenge for an assault on his sister, he killed one of the owners of the estate on which he worked and was afterward forced to flee to the mountains, where he spent his adolescence as a fugitive.

Pancho Villa spent about six years hiding out in the mountains, eventually becoming the leader of a bandit group.

To avoid capture, he changed his name to Francisco “Pancho” Villa. During this time, he started to gain a reputation similar to Robin Hood’s.

Pancho Villa PhotosAs a bandit, Pancho Villa often stole from the rich, like cattle and money, and gave it to the poor.

He did this because he knew what it was like to be poor and saw how the rich took advantage of the poor to get even richer.

Villa slowly returned to society in Chihuahua, where he worked as a miner and sold meat. But people still saw him as a bandit.

Everything changed for Villa when he met Abraham González, a supporter of Francisco Madero, a politician who opposed the government.

González convinced Villa that he could fight for the people by being a bandit. When the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, Villa was 32 years old and ready to join the fight.

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Pancho Villa on horseback c. 1908–1919

In 1910 Villa joined Francisco Madero’s uprising against the dictator of Mexico, Porfirio Díaz.

During the rebellion, Villa, who lacked a formal education but had learned to read and write, displayed his talents as soldier and organizer.

Combined with his intimate knowledge of the land and the people of northern Mexico, those gifts enabled him to place at Madero’s disposal a division of trained soldiers under his command.

After the success of the revolution, Villa remained in the irregular army.

In 1912, during the rebellion of Pascual Orozco, Villa aroused the suspicion of Gen.

Victoriano Huerta, who condemned him to death, but Madero ordered a stay of execution and sent Villa to prison instead. Villa escaped from prison in November and fled to the United States.

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General Pascual Orozco and Colonels Oscar Braniff, Pancho Villa and Peppino Garibaldi, photographed 10 May 1911, after taking Juárez City, during the Mexican Revolution.

After Madero’s assassination in 1913, Villa returned to Mexico and organized a military band of several thousand men, known as the famous División del Norte (Division of the North).

Villa also found valuable new allies in Venustiano Carranza and Emiliano Zapata, who shared his determination to remove Huerta from power.

Because many of Villa’s battles took place near the U.S.-Mexico border, he garnered the most attention from nearby Americans.

Despite having once been a fugitive, Villa embraced being photographed as a revolutionary.

He even signed a contract with Hollywood’s Mutual Film Company in 1913 to ensure that his leadership in battles would be captured on film. Around this time, Villa briefly served as the provisional governor of Chihuahua.

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Honorary Brigadier-General Pancho Villa before a Federal Army firing squad in Jiménez, Chihuahua, in 1912. His execution by General Victoriano Huerta was averted at the last moment by a telegram from President Madero.

By 1914, Huerta had been ousted, and Carranza had assumed leadership of the country. However, peace was not on the horizon, and tensions would soon flare between Villa and Carranza.

Distrust and rivalry between Villa and Carranza led to a rift, forcing Villa to flee Mexico City with Emiliano Zapata in December 1914.

After suffering defeats by Carranza in several battles, Villa and Zapata sought refuge in the northern mountains.

In a bid to show that Carranza did not control northern Mexico, Villa executed around 17 U.S. citizens in Santa Isabel, Chihuahua, in January 1916.

Two months later, he attacked Columbus, New Mexico, killing about 17 Americans. In response, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson dispatched Gen. John J. Pershing’s expedition to the area.

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Villa with his staff in 1913. Villa is in gray suit in center. His aide, Gen. Rodolfo Fierro, is to Villa’s right. To Villa’s left is Gen. Toribio Ortega and far right of photo is Colonel Juan Medina. Villa and Fierro served in the Constitutionalist Army opposing Huerta. Once Huerta was ousted in July 1914.

Despite Villa’s popularity and his deep knowledge of the northern Mexican terrain, Pershing’s expedition failed to capture him.

The Mexican government also opposed Pershing’s presence on Mexican soil, making it impossible to apprehend Villa.

Villa continued his guerrilla activities as long as Carranza remained in power. After the overthrow of Carranza’s government in 1920, Villa was granted a pardon and a ranch near Parral, Chihuahua, in return for agreeing to retire from politics.

Three years later he was assassinated amid a barrage of gunfire while traveling home in his car from a visit to Parral. He was 45 years old.

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Constitutionalist Generals Obregón (left), Villa (center) with U.S. Army General Pershing, posing after an August 1914 meeting at Fort Bliss, Texas.

The next day, Villa’s funeral was held and thousands of his grieving supporters in Parral followed his casket to his burial site while Villa’s men and his closest friends remained at the Canutillo hacienda armed and ready for an attack by the government troops.

Villa was likely assassinated because he was talking publicly about re-entering politics as the 1924 elections neared.

Obregón could not run again for the presidency, so there was political uncertainty about the presidential succession. Obregón favored fellow Sonoran general Plutarco Elías Calles for the presidency.

If Villa did re-enter politics, it would complicate the political situation for Obregón and the Sonoran generals.

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From left to right, the revolutionary generals Candelario Cervantes, Pablo López, Francisco Villa, Francisco Beltrán, Martín López.

Legacy of Pancho Villa

According to Pancho Villa’s major biographer, Friedrich Katz, the revolutionary was perceived as a destroyer, but in Katz’s assessment, there were positive aspects to that.

Villa played a decisive role not just in the destruction of Huerta’s regime, but also the entire old regime.

During Villa’s brief time as governor of Chihuahua, he carried out a significant land reform. In his confiscation of landed estates and expulsion of their owners, he weakened that class.

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El Carnicero Rodolfo Fierro (left), Pancho Villa, and Raúl Madero.

With his remains now buried in the Monument to the Revolution, Villa was also honored with adding his name to the wall of Mexican heroes in the Chamber of Deputies. In both cases of official recognition there was considerable controversy.

The fact that Villa’s image and legacy were not quickly appropriated and manipulated by the ruling party the way Zapata’s was kept Villa’s memory and myth in the hearts of the people.

“Popular tastes wanted Villa to be thrilling, not respectable. They were enamored of Villa the daring Robin Hood, the satyr and monster, the unpredictable deviant, the grimy guerrillero and outlaw with uncanny power over men.”

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Zapata and Villa with their joint forces enter Mexico City on 6 December 1914.

Of the major figures of the Revolution, Villa and Zapata are best known to the general public, as defenders of the dispossessed.

In contrast, those who came to hold political power, Madero, Carranza, and Obregón are unfamiliar to most outside Mexico. It took decades for Villa to receive official recognition as a hero of the Revolution.

As with the others entombed in the Monument to the Revolution, his remains rest near some whom he fought fiercely in life, including Venustiano Carranza. One scholar notes, “In death as in life, Carranza would be eclipsed by Francisco Villa.”

Pancho Villa Photos

Pancho Villa (left) “commander of the División del Norte (North Division)”, and Emiliano Zapata “Ejército Libertador del Sur (Liberation Army of the South)” in 1914. Villa is sitting in the presidential chair in the Palacio Nacional.

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The generals Villa and Zapata.

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Villa and his wife Luz Corral at his hacienda in 1923, a few months before his assassination.

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Monument to Pancho Villa in Bufa Zacatecas mountain range.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Britannica / Library of Congress).