Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution


Doroteo Arango Arámbula, better known as Francisco or “Pancho” Villa, was a Mexican revolutionary general. He was born on June 5, 1878 and little is known of his early life. According to his own version of his life story, at the age of 16 he shot an older man, the son of a big landowner, who had tried to rape Pancho’s younger sister, Martina.

Pancho became an outlaw, not an unusual path for a man of the lower classes in Mexico to be forced into during the rule of Porfirio Diaz. Judges
belonged to the aristocracy and offending an estate owner for any reason could lead to jail, execution or forced recruitment into the Army. Díaz’s presidency was characterized by extreme exploitation of the working class, farmers and peasants. Wealth, political power and access to education were concentrated among a handful of families, overwhelmingly of European descent, who controlled much property in large estates. Most of the people in Mexico were landless. Foreign companies, mostly from the United Kingdom, France, and the United States, also exercised a great deal of power within Mexico.

Díaz changed land reform efforts started under previous leaders. His
new land laws virtually undid all the hard work by leaders such as
Benito Juárez. No peasant or farmer could claim the land he occupied without formal legal title. Small farmers were helpless and angry; from this cause, many leaders including Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata would launch a rebellion against Díaz, escalating into the eventual Mexican Revolution. Madero decided to run against Díaz in the 1910 Presidential Elections. Diaz thought he could control the election as he had the previous seven. Díaz, however, did not approve of Madero and had him jailed on election day. Díaz was announced the winner of the election by a landslide, providing the initial impetus for the outbreak of the Revolution. Madero’s vague promises of agrarian reforms attracted many of the peasants throughout Mexico and in late 1910, revolutionary movements broke out in response to Madero’s imprisonment. The rebels were particularly strong in the north and Madero was a weak leader and his support quickly deteriorated. His short-lived regime came to an end in 1913 when the commander-in-chief General Victoriano Huerta set in motion a coup d’état. Madero and vice president José María Pino Suárez were both assassinated less than a week later. After Madero’s murder, Huerta proclaimed himself provisional president. Venustiano Carranza then proclaimed the Plan of Guadalupe to oust Huerta from office as an unconstitutional usurper. The new group of politicians and generals (which included Pablo González, Álvaro Obregón, Emiliano Zapata and Villa) who
joined to support Carranza’s plan were collectively styled as the Ejército Constitucionalista de México (Constitutionalist Army of
Mexico). included Pancho Villa, who captured Ciudad Juárez (bordering El Paso, Texas) along the Rio Grande. After Madero defeated the weak federal army on May 21, 1911, he signed the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez with Diaz. It stated that Díaz would abdicate his rule and be replaced by Madero. Insisting on a new election, Madero won overwhelmingly in late 1911. Some

supporters criticized him for appearing weak by not assuming the presidency and failing to pass immediate reforms. But Madero established a liberal democracy and received support from the United States and popular leaders such as Orozco, Villa, and Zapata. Villa joined the rebellion against
Huerta, crossing the Río Bravo del Norte (Rio Grande) into Ciudad Juárez with a mere 8 men, 2 pounds of coffee, 2 pounds of sugar, and 500 rounds of rifle ammunition. Villa’s remarkable generalship and recruiting appeal, combined with ingenious fundraising methods to support his rebellion, would be a key factor in forcing Huerta from office a little over a year later, on July 15, 1914. This was the time of Villa’s greatest fame and success. He recruited soldiers (both Mexican and mercenary) and raised money using methods such as forced assessments on hostile hacienda owners, and train robberies. In one notable escapade, he held 122 bars of silver ingot from a train robbery (and a Wells Fargo employee) hostage and forced Wells Fargo to help him sell the bars for spendable cash. A rapid, hard-fought series of victories at Ciudad Juárez, Tierra Blanca, Chihuahua and Ojinaga followed. By the end of 1913 he had amassed an army of 3,000 men and become governor of Chihuahua. He also confiscated the large land holdings of the aristocracy to finance his army and help the poor. The new pile of loot was used to purchase draft animals, cavalry horses, arms, ammunition, mobile
hospital facilities and food, as well as to rebuild the railroad south of
Chihuahua City. Villa signed a contract with Mutual Film Company of New York for $25,000 for exclusive rights to the revolution. Along with boots and artillery, Mutual Film provided Confederate Army uniforms, boots and fancy guns for the front row so Pancho’s scruffy soldiers would look better on the silver screen. Make-up artists supposedly powdered Villa’s face to lighten it for certain scenes, his hair was trimmed and combed. Mutual’s camera crews accompanied Villa’s peasant army when the

rebuilt railroad transported his troops and artillery south. Mutual filmed the bloody battles where he defeated Federal forces at Gómez Palacio, Torreón and Zacatecas. Life of Villa (1912) and The Life of General Villa (1914), the two films made about Villa’s life by the Mutual Film Company have been lost, but some unedited film reels of the battle of Ojinaga (January 1914), showing Pancho Villa and his army fighting Federal forces, as well as photographs and publicity stills taken from the original film, do still exist. Villa’s good relationship with the American media wasn’t an accident, he was well aware of the power of the press and even delayed an attack on Juarez to avoid conflicting with the World Series.


Many of Pancho Villa’s soldiers were indigenous Yaqui Indians and they were very fond of smoking ‘motas’ – marijuana cigarettes. The term marijuana is said to have originated with the soldiers of Villa’s army. Several stories about the origin of the term have been told over the years, but it is most likely that it began with the female camp followers of Villa’s army, known as Soldaderas. A popular corrido (folk song) written at the time of the Revolution called Marijuana: La Soldadera tells the tale of a young woman who accompanies her beloved Juan when he joins Villa’s army to cook his meals, but she proves braver than Juan and when he is killed, takes up his rifle and fights bravely, being promoted to sergeant. Some insight into the popularity of corridos celebrating Soldaderas is given by this description from the life history of Zeferino Diego Ferreira, one of Villa’s Dorados: Once I met a colonel named Petra Herrera. She dressed like a man and was very brave. Her troops operated in the north and belonged
to the Northern Division. Almost all of them were men. They fought with grenades made of the sacks from goat testicles filled with shrapnel and gunpowder, with a fuse. They hardly used anything else. I mean they were brave! 

Pancho Villa himself is said to have smoked marijuana before going to battle to become mas valiente (more valiant). There is a picture of Villa and Porfirio Ornelas sitting under a tree, taken at Canutillo in 1920; they are said to be smoking ‘motas‘ but others claim they are eating, it is not clear from the picture, but I would tend to think they had stopped for a spot of lunch and Villa looks to be biting on a piece of food, not smoking a ‘mota.’
Some have said a photograph exists that was taken in Sabinas while Villa was negotiating his amnesty with the Federal government where he can be seen smoking a ‘mota’; newsreel footage of this event also exists and it is claimed that twice Villa can be seen smoking. Author Alvaro Canales has claimed to possess a sequence of photographs taken in Sabinas that show Villa rolling and smoking his ‘cigarro de hoja.’ There are references about Villa’s smoking habits in his early days in the book El Verdadero Pancho Villa by Sil-vestre Terrazas and also in his later years in Con Villa: Memorias de Campan?ta by Jose Maria Jaurrieta.

In his book Greed, Rage, and Love Gone Wrong, Bruce Rubenstein describes the use of marijuana in Villa’s army of Indians and mercenaries: A contingent of long-haired Yaqui Indians known as Las Cucarachas (The Cockroaches) smoked marijuana, a habit that soon became the hallmark of Villa’s army. Gringo recruits like Ward, Tom Mix (later a movie star), Tracy Richardson and Sam “The Fighting Jew” Dreben turned up their noses at loco-weed and mescal. They drank American whiskey purchased in Texas, often with the proceeds from sales of marijuana they brought across the river with them.


La Cucaracha is the Spanish equivalent of Yankee Doodle – a traditional satirical tune periodically fitted out with new lyrics to meet the needs of the moment. The origins of the song are obscure, but the Mexican writer Jose Joaquin Fernandez de Lizardi claimed the song was brought to Mexico from Spain by a captain of marines. Lyrics for La Cucaracha exist commemorating 19th-century conflicts in both Spain and Mexico, but the most famous verses were written during the Mexican revolution of 1910-1920. Included among the new lyrics were the most famous verse of all:

“La cucaracha, la cucaracha, The cockroach, the cockroach, Ya no puede caminar; Can’t walk anymore Porque no tiene, porque le falta Because it doesn’t have, because it’s lacking Marihuana que fumar. Marijuana to smoke”

There are many stories about the origins of this verse, some refer to the ‘Cucaracha’ as Pancho Villa’s car, which with his soldiers hanging out of it looked a bit like a cockroach and was notorious for breaking down. Others say that the song is ridiculing the Federal forces they said couldn’t fight without smoking marijuana. Some say it was directed at the dictatorial
Mexican president Victoriano Huerta who was ridiculed by his many enemies as a drunk and dope fiend who lived only for his daily weed. Perhaps the most accepted explanation of it is that it is a song about a soldadera. “La Cucaracha” is a nickname sometimes given to women whose name is Cuca, which is short for Maria de Refugio, a fairly common name in Mexico. La Cucaracha became the anthem of Pancho Villa’s army, according
to Marijuana – The First Twelve Thousand Years by Ernest L. Abel:
The song was adopted as Villa’s battle hymn after his capture of Torreon and subsequent overthrow of the Mexican government because many of his men had smoked marihuana before going into battle, much like other soldiers drinking alcohol before battle.


By December 1914, in conjunction with the armies of Carranza and
Zapata, Villa captured Mexico City, forcing Huerta to flee and placing control of the government in the hands of the three rebel leaders. However, the following spring, Villa was forced out of the triumvirate when he lost a power struggle with Carranza. In the ensuing conflict, his troops were badly defeated by Carranza’s army at the Battle of Celaya. In his book Pancho Villa and Black Jack Pershing, James W. Hurst gives an account of Villa’s disastrous attack at Celaya. He describes the behaviour of Villa’s encamped army before the battle: The Yaqui Indians smoked marijuana and danced away the nighttime hours in wild abandon. The peasants drank sotol and whiled away the hours in song and conversation; the Dorados patrolled the area and tried to maintain a semblance of order. 

Villa bandits who raided
Columbus, New Mexico,
caught by American sol-
diers in the mountains of
Mexico and held, in camp
near Namiquipa, NARA
photo #533443 (April 27,
1916, 1916 – 1917)

Villa launched a frontal attack at night that foundered on the artillery and machine gun fire of the Federal troops. Hurst describes the action: The Yaqui Indians who led the attack were stoned on marijuana, and they made no attempt at subterfuge, as they charged into the illuminated barbed wire they were simply slaughtered.  Villa was forced to withdraw to his headquarters in Durango. There he resumed his life as a bandit, raiding
isolated American border towns and mining camps as well as Mexican villages. The defeat at Celaya was blamed on the Americans, who had allowed Carranza’s troops to pass through U.S. territory while trying to outflank Villa’s army. Even worse, they had supplied Villa with bad ammunition. Zeferino Diego Ferreira, a cavalry soldier in the Division Del Norte, explained what happened when he told his life story to Laura Cummings in the 1970s: They killed a lot of our men at Celaya but we didn’t have ammunition. If it weren’t for the United States, Carranza wouldn’t have won. They sold us ammunition that wasn’t any good. It only had a tiny bit of gunpowder in it. Hardly any. Instead, it had sawdust inside. When we fired, the bullet would fall two or three feet ahead of us. The United States helped the federales a lot. When they couldn’t take Agua Prieta, they let them pass through U.S. territory to attack the city from the north. A lot of Villa’s silver ended up in the hands of the United States.


Clearly, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson had sided with Villa’s rival Carranza. This infuriated Villa, who retaliated against U.S. citizens in Mexico. Sixteen American mining engineers were slain in the Santa Isabel Massacre of January 1916. Two months later, Pancho Villa became the first man to invade U.S. territory since the British in the war of 1812. At approximately 4:17 am on March 9, 1916, Villa’s troops attacked Columbus, New Mexico and its local detachment of the U.S. 13th Regiment. They killed 10 civilians and 8 soldiers, leaving 2 civilians and 6 militaries wounded,
for a total of 18 killed and 8 wounded. The raiders also burned the town, took many horses and mules, seized available machine guns, ammunition and merchandise before returning to Mexico. However, Villa’s troops suffered considerable losses, with at least sixty-seven dead, caused mainly by armed citizens in Columbus. About thirteen others would later die of their wounds. Five Mexicans were taken prisoner. The raid may have been spurred by an American merchant in Columbus who supplied Villa with weapons and ammunition. After Villa paid several thousand dollars of cash in advance, the merchant decided to stop supplying him with weapons and demanded payment in gold. The U.S. press reacted sharply to news of the Columbus raid. The reaction was especially swift in the Los Angeles Times. Before Villa’s New Mexico incursion, the newspaper had described Villa as a “rebel leader.” After the Columbus raid, an editorial denounced him as an “outlawed Mexican bandit” and “the vilest kind of ruffian.”

President Wilson could not stand idle in the face of an invasion of US territory and sent Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing to lead an expedition into Mexico. A $5,000 bounty was offered for Villa’s capture and Army posters invoked “The Flag, Old Glory” in calling for 25,000 recruits: “Come on, boys, be ready to shoulder the trusty Springfield.” On March 15, Pershing led an expeditionary force of 10,000 men into Mexico to capture Villa but Pancho had already had more than a week to disperse and conceal his forces before the punitive expedition tried to seek them out in unmapped, foreign terrain.
Pershing made his main base encampment at Casas Grandes, Chihuahua and divided his force into two columns to seek out Villa. Due to disputes with the Carranza administration over the use of the Mexico North Western Railway to supply his troops, the Army employed a truck-train system to
convoy supplies to Pershing’s encampment and The Signal Corps
set up a wireless telegraph service from the border to Pershing’s HQ.
The newly adopted aeroplane was used by the 1st Provisional Aero Squadron to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the mountains.

The idea sounded better than it was – gasoline had to come in on pack mules and two planes crashed in the first week, with the other four soon lost to further accidents. The campaign was a logistical nightmare — there were no roads or maps and drinking water was scarce. Many Mexicans undoubtedly misled the Americans, pointing in one direction when they knew Pancho had gone the other. The Mexican government at first was favourable to the U.S. attack
on its enemy, Villa, but Carranza came to resent the U.S. presence and soon Pershing’s troops were fighting both Villa’s rebels and regular Mexican troops. In June, Lieutenant George S. Patton raided a small community and killed Julio Cárdenas, an important leader in the Villista military. The Mexican government at first was favourable to the U.S. attack on its enemy, Villa, but Carranza came to resent the U.S. presence and soon Pershing’s troops were fighting both Villa’s rebels and regular Mexican troops.

In June, Lieutenant George S. Patton raided a small community and killed Julio Cárdenas, an important leader in the Villista military organization, and two other men. Patton personally killed Cardenas and is reported to have carved notches into his revolvers, but Villa continued to elude capture. In early 1917, as war loomed between the United States and Germany, President Wilson recalled the Army. General Pershing gave up the chase with the memorable explanation: “Villa is everywhere and Villa is nowhere.”


In 1920, the Carranza government struck a deal with Villa in which he
agreed to halt his raids in exchange for settling down on a ranch in
Canutillo and being appointed a general in the Mexican army. However, on June 20, 1923, Villa was ambushed and murdered in Parral by followers of Álvaro Obregón, a former army general, who feared that Villa would oppose their leader’s candidacy for president in the upcoming elections. Immediately following his death, the name of Pancho Villa was eliminated from all history books, children’s books and all monuments in Mexico. It wasn’t until 1975 (more than a half-century after his death) that both the Mexican and American governments felt safe enough to exhume his body, and when they did, they discovered that someone had stolen his head. After a large parade was held in his honour in Mexico, Pancho Villa’s body was sent to the cemetery where many Mexican revolutionary heroes were buried, and he was finally given the proper burial he deserved.

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