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Born on June 5, 1878, as Doroteo Arango Arámbula, the future Francisco "Pancho" Villa was the son of peasants living in San Juan del Río. As a child, he received some education from a local church-run school but became a sharecropper when his father died. At the age of 16, he moved to Chihuahua but swiftly returned after his sister was raped by a local hacienda owner. After tracking down the owner, Agustín Negrete, Villa shot him and stole a horse before fleeing to the Sierra Madre mountains. Roaming the hills as a bandit, Villa's outlook changed following a meeting with Abraham González.
Fighting for Madero
The local representative for Francisco Madero, a politician who was opposed to the rule of dictator Porfirio Díaz, González convinced Villa that through his banditry he could fight for the people and hurt the hacienda owners. In 1910, the Mexican Revolution began, with Madero's pro-democracy, antirreeleccionista volunteers confronting Díaz's federal troops. As the revolution spread, Villa joined with Madero's forces and aided in winning the first Battle of Ciudad Juárez in 1911. Later that year, he married María Luz Corral. All across Mexico, Madero's volunteers won victories, driving Díaz into exile.
With Díaz gone, Madero assumed the presidency. His rule was immediately challenged by Pascual Orozco. Villa swiftly offered his los dorados cavalry to General Victoriano Huerta to aid in destroying Orozco. Rather than utilize Villa, Huerta, who viewed him as a rival, had him imprisoned. After a brief term in captivity, Villa managed to escape. Huerta meanwhile had crushed Orozco and had conspired to murder Madero. With the president dead, Huerta proclaimed himself provisional president. In response, Villa allied with Venustiano Carranza to depose the usurper.
Operating in conjunction with Carranza's Constitutionalist Army of Mexico, Villa operated in the northern provinces. In March 1913, the fight became personal for Villa when Huerta ordered the murder of his friend Abraham González. Building a force of volunteers and mercenaries, Villa quickly won a string of victories at Ciudad Juárez, Tierra Blanca, Chihuahua, and Ojinaga. These earned him the governorship of Chihuahua. During this time, his stature had grown to the point that US Army invited him to meet with its senior leaders, including Gen. John J. Pershing, at Fort Bliss, TX.
Returning to Mexico, Villa gathered supplies for a drive south. Utilizing the railroads, Villa's men attacked quickly and won battles against Huerta's forces at Gómez Palacio and Torreón. Following this last victory, Carranza, who was concerned that Villa might beat him to Mexico City, ordered him to divert his attack towards Saltillo or risk losing his coal supply. Needing coal to fuel his trains, Villa complied but offered his resignation after the battle. Before it was accepted, he was convinced by his staff officers to retract it and defy Carranza by attacking the silver producing city of Zacatecas.
Fall of Zacatecas
Situated in the mountains, Zacatecas was heavily defended by Federal troops. Attacking up steep slopes, Villa's men won a bloody victory, with combined casualties numbering over 7,000 dead and 5,000 wounded. The capture of Zacatecas in June 1914, broke the back of Huerta's regime and he fled into exile. In August 1914, Carranza and his army entered Mexico City. Villa and Emiliano Zapata, a military leader from southern Mexico, broke with Carranza fearing that he wished to be a dictator. At the Convention of Aguascalientes, Carranza was deposed as president and departed for Vera Cruz.
Following Carranza's departure, Villa and Zapata occupied the capital. In 1915, Villa was forced to abandon Mexico City after a number of incidents involving his troops. This helped pave the way for the return of Carranza and his followers. With Carranza reasserting power, Villa and Zapata revolted against the regime. To combat Villa, Carranza sent his ablest general, Álvaro Obregón north. Meeting at the Battle of Celaya on April 13, 1915, Villa was badly defeated suffering 4,000 killed and 6,000 captured. Villa's position was further weakened by the United States' refusal to sell him weapons.
The Columbus Raid and Punitive Expedition
Feeling betrayed by the Americans for the embargo and their allowance of Carranza's troops to use US railroads, Villa ordered a raid across the border to strike at Columbus, NM. Attacking on March 9, 1916, they burned the town and looted military supplies. A detachment of the US 13th Cavalry killed 80 of Villa's raiders. In response, President Woodrow Wilson dispatched Gen. John J. Pershing and 10,000 men to Mexico to capture Villa. Employing aircraft and trucks for the first time, the Punitive Expedition chased Villa until January 1917, with no success.
Retirement & Death
Following Celaya and the American incursion, Villa's influence began to wane. While he remained active, Carranza had shifted his military focus to dealing with the more dangerous threat posed by Zapata in the south. Villa's last major military action was a raid against Ciudad Juárez in 1919. The following year he negotiated his peaceful retirement with new president Adolfo de la Huerta. Retiring to the hacienda of El Canutillo, he was assassinated while traveling through Parral, Chihuahua in his car on July 20, 1923.