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José Doroteo Arango Arámbula (5 June 1878 – 20 July 1923) – better known by his pseudonym Francisco Villa or his nickname Pancho Villa – was one of the most prominent Mexican Revolutionary generals.
As commander of the División del Norte (Division of the North), he was the veritable caudillo of the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua which, given its size, mineral wealth, and proximity to the United States of America, provided him with extensive resources. Villa was also provisional Governor of Chihuahua in 1913 and 1914. Although he was prevented from being accepted into the "panteón" of national heroes until some 20 years after his death, today his memory is honored by Mexicans. In addition, numerous streets and neighborhoods in Mexico are named in his honor.
Villa and his supporters seized hacienda land for distribution to peasants and soldiers. He robbed and commandeered trains, and, like the other revolutionary generals, printed fiat money to pay for his cause. Villa's men and supporters became known as Villistas during the revolution from 1910 to roughly 1920.
Villa's dominance in northern Mexico was broken in 1915 through a series of defeats he suffered at Celaya and Agua Prieta at the hands of Álvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles. After Villa's famous raid on Columbus, New Mexico in 1916, U.S. Army General John J. Pershing tried unsuccessfully to capture Villa in a nine-month pursuit that ended when the United States entered into World War I and Pershing was called back. Villa retired in 1920 and was given a large estate which he turned into a "military colony" for his former soldiers. In 1923, he decided to re-involve himself in Mexican politics and as a result was assassinated, most likely on the orders of Obregón.
Villa was born on June 5, 1878, as José Doroteo Arango Arámbula, to poor peasants Agustín Arango and Micaela Arambula at the Rancho de la Coyotada, which was located in San Juan del Río and was one of the largest haciendas in the state of Durango. Doroteo was the oldest of five children and as such helped his mother care for his siblings after Agustín died. As a child, Doroteo received some education from a local church-run school, but quit school and became a sharecropper after his father died.
According to his own later statements, at the age of 16, Doroteo moved to Chihuahua, but swiftly returned to Durango to track down a hacienda owner named Agustín Lopez Negrete, who had raped Doroteo's sister. However, historians have questioned the veracity of this story. After he shot and killed Negrete, Doroteo stole a horse and fled to the Sierra Madre Occidental region in Durango, where he roamed the hills as a bandit. Eventually, he became a member of an outlaw "super group" headed by Ignacio Parra, one of the most famous bandits of Durango at the time. As a bandit he went by the name "Arango."
In 1902, Arango was arrested for stealing mules and assault. While he was spared the death sentence from the rurales due to his connections with the powerful Pablo Valenzuela (to whom Villa would sell the stolen goods), he was forced to join the federal army. Several months later he deserted and fled to the neighboring state of Chihuahua. In 1903, after killing an army officer and stealing his horse, he was no longer known as Arango, but Francisco "Pancho" Villa after his paternal grandfather, Jesus Villa. He was also known to his friends as La Cucaracha ("the cockroach").
According to Frank McLynn, until 1910 Villa would alternate episodes of banditry with more legitimate pursuits. Villa's outlook on banditry would change after he met Abraham Gonzalez. 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.
Beginnings of the Mexican Revolution
In 1910 the Mexican Revolution began, with Madero's pro-democracy, anti-reeleccionista 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. All across Mexico, Madero's volunteers won victories, driving Díaz into exile. Villa, however, strongly disapproved of Madero's decision to name Venustiano Carranza (who had previously been a staunch supporter of Diaz until Diaz refused to appoint him as Governor of Coahuila in 1909) as his Minister of War.
When one of Madero's military commanders, Pascual Orozco, started a counterrebellion against Madero, Villa gathered his mounted cavalry troops and fought alongside General Victoriano Huerta to support Madero. However, Huerta viewed Villa as an ambitious competitor, and later accused Villa of stealing a horse and insubordination; he then had Villa sentenced to execution in an attempt to dispose of him. Reportedly, Villa was in front of a firing squad waiting to be shot when a telegram from President Madero was received commuting his sentence to imprisonment, from which Villa later escaped after serving only a brief period in jail. During Villa's imprisonment, Gildardo Magaña Cerda, a Zapatista who was in prison at the time, provided the chance meeting which would help to improve his poor reading and writing skills, which would serve him well in the future during his service as provisional governor of the state of Chihuahua.
Fight against Huerta's usurpation
In the second part of the Mexican Revolution, President Francisco I. Madero was betrayed and assassinated. After crushing the Orozco rebellion, Victoriano Huerta, with the federal army he commanded, held the majority of military power in Mexico. Huerta saw an opportunity to make himself the dictator of Mexico, and he began to conspire with men such as Bernardo Reyes, Félix Díaz (nephew of Porfirio Díaz), and the American ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, which resulted in La decena trágica (the "Ten Tragic Days") and the assassination of President Madero.
After Madero's murder, Huerta proclaimed himself provisional president. Venustiano Carranza then proclaimed the Plan of Guadalupe to oust Huerta as an unconstitutional usurper. Despite his strong dislike of Carranza, Villa aligned with him afterwards to overthrow Huerta; Between Huerta and Carranza, Carranza would be regarded as only the lesser of two evils and would also be regarded as the butt of Villa's jokes and pranks. The politicians and generals (who included Pablo González, Álvaro Obregón, Emiliano Zapata and Villa) who supported Carranza's plan were collectively styled the Ejército Constitucionalista de México (Constitutionalist Army of Mexico), the constitucionalista adjective was added to stress the point that Huerta had not obtained power through methods prescribed by Mexico's Constitution of 1857.
Operating in conjunction with Carranza's Constitutionalist Army of Mexico, Villa operated in the northern provinces. Villa's hatred of Huerta became more personal and intense after 7 March 1913, when Huerta ordered the murder of Villa's dear friend and political mentor, Abraham González, who had worked with Madero and Villa since 1910. González had been one of Madero's political advisors. He recruited Francisco Villa in 1910 to support Madero with the Plan de San Luis which started the first part of the Mexican Revolution with the armed movement of 20 November 1910. The Plan de San Luis was conceived to force Dictator Porfirio Díaz (Mexican president for 33 years) to leave the presidency and allow for a Mexican democracy. Villa later recovered González's remains and gave his friend a proper funeral in Chihuahua.
Villa joined the rebellion against Huerta, entering the valley of the Río Bravo del Norte (Rio Grande) into Ciudad Juárez initially with a mere 8 men, 2 pounds of coffee, 2 pounds of sugar, and 500 rounds of rifle ammunition. The new United States president, Woodrow Wilson, dismissed Ambassador Wilson, and began to support Carranza's cause. Villa's remarkable generalship and recruiting appeal, combined with ingenious fundraising methods to support his rebellion, were a key factor in forcing Huerta from office a little over a year later, on 15 July 1914.
This was the time of Villa's greatest fame and success. He recruited soldiers and able subordinates (both Mexican and mercenary) such as Felipe Ángeles, Manuel Chao, Sam Dreben, Felix A. Sommerfeld and Ivor Thord-Gray, 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 cash. A rapid, hard-fought series of victories at Ciudad Juárez, Tierra Blanca, Chihuahua and Ojinaga followed. The well-known American journalist and fiction writer Ambrose Bierce, then in his seventies, accompanied Villa's army during this period and witnessed the battle of Tierra Blanca. Bierce vanished while still with Villa's army in or after December 1913. Oral accounts of his execution by firing squad were never verified. The American Chief of the Army Hugh L. Scott charged Sommerfeld with finding out what happened, but the only result of Sommerfeld's inquiry was that Bierce most likely survived after Ojinaga and died in Durango.
Governor of Chihuahua
Against the wishes of Carranza, who wanted to name Manuel Chao as the provisional governor of Chihuahua, Villa was named as the provisional governor of the state of Chihuahua in 1913, after the local military commanders in the region elected him. As Governor of Chihuahua, Villa recruited more experienced generals, such as Toribio Ortega, Porfirio Talamantes and Calixto Contreas, in his military staff and achieved more success than ever. Following his appointment as Governor of Chihuahua, Villa's secretary Perez Rul divided his army into two groups, one led by Ortega, Contreras and Orestes Pereira and the other led by Talamantes and Contreras' deputy Severianco Ceniceros.
According to some of the references, Villa considered Tierra Blanca his most spectacular victory, though Talamantes died while fighting the battle as well. Villa's war tactics were studied by the United States Army and a contract with Hollywood was made. Hollywood would be allowed to film Villa's movements and 50% of the profit would be paid to Villa to support the Revolution.
As governor of Chihuahua, Villa raised more money for a drive to the south by printing his own currency. He decreed his paper money to be traded and accepted at par with gold Mexican pesos, then forced the wealthy to give loans that would allow him to pay salaries to the army as well as food and clothes. He also took some of the land owned by the hacendados (owners of the haciendas) to give it to the widows and family of dead revolutionaries. The forced loans would also support the war machinery of the Mexican Revolution. He also confiscated gold from specific banks, in the case of the Banco Minero, by holding hostage a member of the bank's owning family, the extremely wealthy Terrazas clan, until the location of the bank's hidden gold was revealed.
Villa's political stature at that time was so high that banks in El Paso, Texas, accepted his paper pesos at face value. His generalship drew enough admiration from the U.S. military that he and Álvaro Obregón were invited to Fort Bliss to meet Brigadier General John J. Pershing. Returning to Mexico, Villa gathered supplies for a drive to the south.
The new pile of money was used to purchase draft animals, cavalry horses, arms, ammunition, mobile hospital facilities (railroad cars and horse ambulances staffed with Mexican and foreign volunteer doctors, known as Servicio sanitario), and food, as well as to rebuild the railroad south of Chihuahua City. As governor, he also recruited fighters from Chihuahua and Durango and became leader of a large army known as the Division del Norte (Division of the North), the most powerful and feared military unit in all of Mexico. The rebuilt railroad transported Villa's troops and artillery south, where he defeated Federal forces at Gómez Palacio, Torreón, and eventually at the heart of Huerta's regime in Zacatecas. Of all of Villa's generals, Felipe Angeles was considered to be his best one.
Carranza tries to halt the Villa advance, the fall of Zacatecas
After Villa successfully captured Torreón, Carranza issued a puzzling order for Villa to break off action south of Torreón and instead ordered him to divert to attack Saltillo, and threatened to cut off Villa's coal supply if he did not comply. Coal was needed for railroad locomotives to pull trains transporting soldiers and supplies. This was widely seen as an attempt by Carranza to divert Villa from a direct assault on Mexico City, so as to allow Carranza's forces under Álvaro Obregón, driving in from the west via Guadalajara, to take the capital first. This was an expensive and disruptive diversion for the División del Norte, since Villa's enlisted men were paid the then enormous sum of a peso per day, and each day of delay cost thousands of pesos.
Villa, disgusted by what he saw as egoism, complied with Carranza's order to divert his attacks towards Saltillo, but then offered his resignation after capturing the city. Felipe Ángeles and the rest of Villa's staff officers argued for Villa to withdraw his resignation, defy Carranza's orders, and proceed to attack Zacatecas, a strategic mountainous city that was heavily defended by Federal troops and considered nearly impregnable. Zacatecas was the source of much of Mexico's silver, and thus a supply of funds for whoever held it. Victory in Zacatecas would mean that Huerta's chances of holding the remainder of the country would be slim. Villa accepted his staff's advice, cancelled his resignation, and the División del Norte defied Carranza and attacked Zacatecas. Attacking up steep slopes, the División del Norte defeated the Federals in the Toma de Zacatecas (Taking of Zacatecas), the single bloodiest battle of the Revolution, with the military forces counting approximately 7,000 dead and 5,000 wounded, and unknown numbers of civilian casualties. (A memorial to and museum of the Toma de Zacatecas is on the Cerro de la Bufa, one of the key defense points in the battle of Zacatecas. Tourists use a teleférico (aerial tramway) to reach it, owing to the steep approaches. From the top, tourists may appreciate the difficulties Villa's troops had trying to dislodge Federal troops from the peak.) The loss of Zacatecas in June 1914 broke the back of the Huerta regime, and Huerta left for exile on 14 July 1914.
However, in August 1914, Carranza and his army entered Mexico City ahead of Villa. Villa despised Carranza and saw him as another Porfirio Díaz-like dictator. Nevertheless, Villa, who did not want to be named President of Mexico, accepted Carranza as the Chief of the Revolution. The revolutionary caudillos convened a National Convention, and conducted a series of meetings in Aguascalientes. This National Convention set rules for Mexico's path towards democracy. None of the armed revolutionaries were allowed to be nominated for government positions. They chose an interim president, Eulalio Gutierrez. Emiliano Zapata, a military general from southern Mexico, and Pancho Villa met at the convention. Zapata was sympathetic to Villa's views of Carranza and told Villa he feared Carranza's intentions were those of a dictator and not of a democratic president. True to Zapata's prediction, Carranza decided to oppose the agreements of the National Convention, setting off a civil war. Fearing that Carranza was imposing a dictatorship, Villa and Zapata broke with him.
Following the Convention, Carranza was deposed as President and fled to Veracruz. Following Carranza's departure, Villa and Zapata occupied Mexico City. Although Villa had a more formidable army, Carranza's general Álvaro Obregón was a better tactician. With Obregón's help, Carranza was able to use the Mexican press to portray Villa as a sociopathic bandit. In late 1914, one of Villa's top generals, Toribio Ortega died of typhus.
After he fled Mexico City, Carranza also maintained control over two Mexican states, Veracruz and Tamaulipas. These states, however, contained Mexico's two largest ports and Carranza was therefore collecting more revenue than Villa. In 1915, Villa was forced to abandon the capital after a number of incidents involving his troops. This helped pave the way for the return of Carranza and his followers.
To combat Villa, Carranza sent his ablest general, Álvaro Obregón, north. Meeting at the Battle of Celaya, a battle fought between April 6 and April 15, 1915, Villa was badly defeated suffering 4,000 killed and 6,000 captured. Obregón would encounter Villa again at the Battle of Trinidad, which was fought between April 29 and June 5, 1915, where Villa suffered another huge loss. In October 1915, Villa crossed into Sonora, the main stronghold of Obregón and Carranza's armies, where he hoped to crush Carranza's regime. Carranza had reinforced Sonora, however, and Villa was badly defeated. Rodolfo Fierro, his most loyal officer and cruel hatchet man, was killed while Villa's army was crossing into Sonora as well.
After losing the Battle of Agua Prieta in Sonora, an overwhelming number of Villa's men in the Division del Norte were killed and 1,500 of the army's surviving members soon turned on him and accepted an amnesty offer from Carranza. In November 1915, Carranza's forces had captured and executed Contreras, Pereyra and Pereyra's son. Severianco Ceniceros also accepted amnesty from Carranza and turned on Villa as well. Although Villa's secretary Perez Rul also broke with Villa, he refused to become a supporter of Carranza.
Only 200 men in Villa's army would remain loyal to him and he was soon forced to retreat back into the mountains of Chihuahua. However, Villa and his men were determined to keep fighting Carranza's forces. Villa's position was further weakened by the United States' refusal to sell him weapons. By the end of 1915, Villa was on the run and the United States Government recognized Carranza.
Split with the United States and the Pancho Villa Expedition
After years of public and documented support for Villa's fight, the United States, following the diplomatic policies of Woodrow Wilson, who believed that supporting Carranza was the best way to expedite establishment of a stable Mexican government, refused to allow more arms to be supplied to Villa's army, and allowed Carranza's troops to be relocated over U.S. railroads. Villa felt betrayed by the Americans. He was further enraged by Obregón's use of searchlights, powered by American electricity, to help repel a Villista night attack on the border town of Agua Prieta, Sonora, on 1 November 1915. In January 1916, a group of Villistas attacked a train on the Mexico North Western Railway, near Santa Isabel, Chihuahua, and killed several American employees of the ASARCO company. The passengers included eighteen Americans, fifteen of whom worked for American Smelting and Refining Company. There was only one survivor, who gave the details to the press. Villa admitted to ordering the attack, but denied that he had authorized the shedding of American blood.
After meeting with a Mexican mayor named Juan Muñoz,Villa recruited more men into his guerrilla militia and now had 400 men under his command. Villa then met with his Lieutenants Martin Lopez, Pablo Lopez, Francisco Beltran, Candelario Cervantes and commissioned an additional 100 men to the command of Joaquin Alvarez, Bernabe Cifuentes and Ernesto Rios; Pablo Lopez and Cervantes were later killed in the early part of 1916. Villa and his 500 guerrillas then started planning an attack on US soil.
Attack on New Mexico
On 9 March 1916, General Villa ordered nearly 100 Mexican members of his revolutionary group to make a cross-border attack against Columbus, New Mexico. While some believed the raid was conducted because of the U.S. government's official recognition of the Carranza regime and for the loss of lives in battle due to defective bullets purchased from the United States, it was accepted from a military standpoint that Villa carried out the raid because he needed more military equipment and supplies in order to continue his fight against Carranza. They attacked a detachment of the 13th Cavalry Regiment (United States), burned the town and seized 100 horses and mules and other military supplies. 18 Americans and about 80 Villistas were killed. There are other attacks in US territory that have been said to be done by Villa, however, none of these attacks were ever confirmed to be performed by Villistas. These unconfirmed attacks are: 1) On 15 May, it is claimed that they attacked Glenn Springs, Texas, killing a civilian and wounding three American soldiers; 2) on 15 June, bandits killed four soldiers at San Ygnacio, Texas; 3) on 31 July, one American soldier and a U.S. customs inspector were killed.
Pancho Villa Expedition
In response to Villa's raid on Columbus, President Wilson sent 5,000 men of the U.S. Army under General John Pershing into Mexico to capture Villa. Employing aircraft and trucks for the first time in US Army history, Pershing's force chased Villa until February 1917. The search for Villa was unsuccessful. However, some of Villa's senior commanders (Colonel Candelario Cervantes, General Francisco Beltrán, Beltrán's son and Villa's second-in-command Julio Cárdenas) and a total of 190 of his men were killed during the expedition.
The Mexican population were against US troops in Mexican territories. There were several demonstrations of their opposition to the Punitive Expedition and that counted towards the failure of that expedition. During the expedition, Carranza's forces captured one of Villa's top generals, Pablo Lopez; he was executed on June 13, 1916.
German involvement in Villa's later campaigns
Before the Villa-Carranza irregular forces had left to the mountains in 1915, there is no credible evidence that Villa co-operated with or accepted any help from the German government or agents. Villa was supplied arms from the USA, employed international (Americans included) mercenaries and doctors, was portrayed as a hero in the US media, made business arrangements with Hollywood, and did not object to the 1914 US naval occupation of Veracruz. Villa's observation was that the occupation merely hurt Huerta. Villa opposed the armed participation of the United States in Mexico, but he did not act against the Veracruz occupation in order to maintain the connections in the United States necessary to buy bullets and other supplies. The German consul in Torreón did make entreaties to Villa, offering him arms and money to occupy the port and oil fields of Tampico to enable German ships to dock there, but Villa rejected the offer.
German agents did attempt to interfere, unsuccessfully, in the Mexican Revolution. Germans attempted to plot with Victoriano Huerta to assist him to retake the country, and in the infamous Zimmermann Telegram to the Mexican government, proposed an alliance with the government of Venustiano Carranza.
There were documented contacts between Villa and the Germans, after Villa's split with the Constitutionalists. Principally this was in the person of Felix A. Sommerfeld (noted in Katz's book), who allegedly, in 1915, funneled $340,000 of German money to the Western Cartridge Company to purchase ammunition. Sommerfeld had been Villa's representative in the United States since 1914 and had close contacts to the German naval attaché in Washington Karl Boy-Ed as well as other German agents in the United States such as Franz von Rintelen and Horst von der Goltz. In May 1914, Sommerfeld formally entered the employ of Boy-Ed and the German secret service in the United States. However, Villa's actions were hardly that of a German catspaw; rather, it appears that Villa only resorted to German assistance after other sources of money and arms were cut off.
At the time of Villa's attack on Columbus, New Mexico in 1916, Villa's military power had been marginalized (he was repulsed at Columbus by a small cavalry detachment, albeit after doing a lot of damage), his theater of operations was mainly limited to western Chihuahua, he was persona non grata with Mexico's ruling Carranza constitutionalists, and the subject of an embargo by the United States; so communication or further shipments of arms between the Germans and Villa would have been difficult.
A plausible explanation of any Villa-German contacts after 1915 would be that they were a futile extension of increasingly desperate German diplomatic efforts and Villista dreams of victory as progress of their respective wars bogged down. Villa effectively did not have anything useful to offer in exchange for German help at that point.
When weighing claims of Villa conspiring with Germans, one should take into account that at the time, portraying Villa as a German sympathizer served the propaganda ends of both Carranza and Wilson.
The use of Mauser rifles and carbines by Villa's forces does not necessarily indicate any German connection. These weapons were widely used by all parties in the Mexican Revolution, Mauser longarms being enormously popular. They were standard issue in the Mexican Army, which had begun adopting 7 mm Mauser system arms as early as 1895.
On May 29, 1911, Villa married María Luz Corral, a woman whom he met when he and his army rode into San Andres and asked for monetary contributions. Together, Villa and his wife had only one child, a daughter who died within a few years after birth. An alleged son of Pancho Villa, the Lieutenant Colonel Octavio Villa Coss, was reportedly killed by Juan Nepomuceno Guerra, a legendary drug lord from the Gulf Cartel, in 1960. While Villa had engaged in several marriage ceremonies with many of his mistresses, Corral was his only legal wife. Corral would also take care of the children Villa fathered through his various extramarital affairs. At the time of his death, Corral and five different women each claimed to be his widow.
Last years, death and gravesite
Following his unsuccessful military campaign at Celaya and the American incursion, Villa's influence began to wane. While Villa still remained active, Carranza shifted his focus to dealing with the more dangerous threat posed by Zapata in the south. By the end of 1915, Villa no longer had an army and had gone back to being a guerrilla leader in the mountains of Chihuahua. Villa's last major military action would be a raid against Ciudad Juárez in 1919. Following the raid, Villa would suffer yet another major blow after Felipe Angeles, who had returned to Mexico in 1918 after living in exile for three years as a dairy farmer in Texas, left Villa and his now small militia. Angeles was also later captured by Carranza's forces and was executed on November 26, 1919.
After losing his final battle at Ciudad Juárez, Villa agreed that he would cease fighting if it were made worth his while. Villa still continued fighting and conducted a small siege in Ascencion, Durango after his failed raid in Juarez. However, the siege failed and Villa's new second-in-command, his longtime lieutenant Martín López, was killed during the fighting.
On May 21, 1920, a break for Villa came when Carranza, along with his top advisors and supporters, was assassinated by supporters of Álvaro Obregón. With his archnemesis dead, Villa was now ready to negotiate a peace settlement and retire. On July 22, 1920, Villa was finally able to send a telegram to Mexican interim President Adolfo de la Huerta, which stated that he recognized Huerta's presidency and requested amnesty. Six days later, Adolfo de la Huerta met with Villa and successfully negotiated a peace settlement.
In exchange for his retirement, Villa was given a 25,000 acre hacienda in Canutillo, just outside of Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua, by the national government. This was in addition to the Quinta Luz estate that he owned with his wife, María Luz Corral de Villa, in Chihuahua, Chihuahua. The last remaining 200 guerrillas and veterans of Villa's milita who still maintained a loyalty to him would reside with him in his new hacienda as well and the Mexican government also granted them a pension that totalled 500,000 gold pesos. The 50 guerrillas who still remained in Villa's small cavalry would also be allowed to serve as Villa's personal bodyguards.
On Friday, 20 July 1923, Villa was killed while visiting Parral. Usually accompanied by his entourage of Dorados (his bodyguards) Pancho Villa frequently made trips from his ranch to Parral for banking and other errands. This day, however, Villa had gone into the town without them, taking only a few associates with him. He went to pick up a consignment of gold from the local bank with which to pay his Canutillo ranch staff. While driving back through the city in his black 1919 Dodge roadster, Villa passed by a school and a pumpkinseed vendor ran toward Villa's car and shouted Viva Villa! – a signal for a group of seven riflemen who then appeared in the middle of the road and fired over 40 shots into the automobile. In the fusillade of shots, Villa was hit by 9 Dumdum bullets in his head and upper chest, killing him instantly. He was found in the driver seat of the car, with one hand reaching for his gun.
One of Villa's bodyguards, Ramon Contreras, was also badly wounded but managed to kill at least one of the assassins before he himself managed to escape; he would be the only person who accompanied Villa during this assassination who managed to survive. Two other bodyguards, Claro Huertado and Villa's main personal bodyguard Rafael Madreno, who were with him also died, as did his personal secretary Daniel Tamayo and his high ranking Colonel Miguel Trillo, who served as his chauffeur. Villa is sometimes reported to have died saying: "Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something." However, there is no contemporary evidence he survived his shooting even momentarily, and his biographer, Katz, confirms that Villa died instantly; Time Magazine also reported in 1951 that both Villa and his aide (Tamayo) were killed instantly. 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 hacienda in the Canitullo armed and ready for an attack by the government troops. The six surviving assassins hid out in the desert and were soon captured, but only two of them served a few months in jail, and the rest were commissioned into the military.
Shortly after his death, two theories emerged about why he was killed. One was that he was killed as an act of family revenge by Jesus Herrera, the last surviving son of Villa's former general Jose de la Luz Herrera. In 1914, Jose de la Luz Herrera and his family betrayed Villa and joined Carranza. Villa then made it a goal to exterminate the Herrera clan.
In 1915, Herrera's son Maclovio was accidentally killed by friendly fire while fighting Villa on the outskirts of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. Another one of Herrera's sons, General Luis Herrera, was captured in a hotel by Villa's soldiers after the Battle of Torreón in 1916 and was executed. In 1919, Jose de la Luz Herrera and his two sons Zeferino and Melchor, along with a number of the men in their militia, were captured by Villa's soldiers after an unsuccessful attack on Villa's base in Parral and were executed; Villa, however, surprisingly pardoned and released the remaining prisoners who were captured. After Villa retired, Jesus Herrera was determined to use his family's wealth to seek revenge on Villa. In 1922, a secret war began between Herrera and Villa and lasted over a year. According to Villa, Herrera had bribed a number of men, including some of his own former generals, to kill him and was unsuccessful.
The other theory that emerged was that Villa was killed for political reasons. At the time of his death, Villa had taken an interest in running for President of Mexico and would have presented a significant challenge to his rival potential candidate Plutarco Elías Calles.
While it has never been completely proven who was responsible for the assassination, most historians attribute Villa's death to a well planned conspiracy, most likely initiated by Plutarco Elías Calles and Joaquin Amaro with at least tacit approval of the then president of Mexico, Obregon. At the time, a state legislator from Durango, Jesus Salas Barraza, whom Villa once whipped during a quarrel over a woman, claimed sole responsibility for the plot. Barraza admitted that he told his friend Gabriel Chavez, who worked as a dealer for General Motors, that he would kill Villa if he were paid 50,000 pesos. Chavez, who wasn't wealthy and didn't have 50,000 pesos on hand, then collected money from enemies of Villa and managed to collect a total of 100,000 pesos for Barraza and his other co-conspirators. Barraza also admitted that he and his co-conspirators watched Villa's daily car-rides and paid the pumpkinseed vendor at the scene of Villa's assassination to shout "Viva Villa!" either once if Villa was sitting in the front part of the car or twice if he was sitting in the back.
Despite the fact that he did not want to have a sitting politician arrested, Obregon gave into the people's demands and had Barraza arrested. Barraza was originally sentenced to 20 years in prison, The following month, however, Barraza's sentence was commuted to three months by the Governor of Chihuahua; Barraza eventually became a colonel in the Mexican Army. In a letter to the governor of Durango, Jesus Castro, Barraza agreed to be the "fall guy" and the same arrangement is mentioned in letters exchanged between Castro and Amaro. Others involved in the conspiracy were Felix Lara, the commander of federal troops in Parral, who was paid 50,000 pesos by Calles to remove his soldiers and policemen from the town on the day of the assassination, and Meliton Lozoya, the former owner of Villa's hacienda whom Villa was demanding pay back funds he had embezzled. It was Lozoya who planned the details of the assassination and found the men who carried it out. It was reported that before Barraza died of a stroke in his Mexico City home in 1951, his last words were "I'm not a murderer. I rid humanity of a monster."
Villa's purported death mask was hidden at the Radford School in El Paso, Texas, until the 1970s, when it was sent to the Historical Museum of the Mexican Revolution in Chihuahua; other museums have ceramic and bronze representations that do not match this mask.
Villa was buried in the city cemetery of Parral, Chihuahua, Tombs for Villa exist in Chihuahua and Mexico City. The Francisco Villa Museum is museum dedicated to Villa located at the site of his assassination in Parral.
Period newsreel showing views of the assassination location in Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua, news reporters at the scene, and Villa's bullet riddled corpse and auto still exist to this day. Villa's skull was stolen from his grave in 1926.
Villa's last living son, Ernesto Nava, died in Castro Valley, California, at the age of 94, on 31 December 2009. Nava appeared yearly in festival events in his hometown of Durango, Mexico, enjoying celebrity status until he became too weak to attend.