San José State University
Department of Economics

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Thayer Watkins
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Francisco Pancho Villa
of Mexico

The States of Mexico

Early Life

Doroteo Arango, who is known to history as Francisco Pancho Villa, was born in 1878 in the state of Durango, Mexico on an hacienda. His father, who died when Doroteo was a child, was a field worker who was the illegitimate son of Jesús Villa. Doroteo became the source of support for his mother and four sisters. When Doroteo was sixteen something happened which is uncertain and now unknowable. Apparently Doroteo injured or killed a member of the hacienda family for an offense committed against his sister. That offense could have been rape, attempted rape or the request that she become a concubine. As a result of Doroteo's attack on the haciendado he had to flee to the mountains. In the mountains he lived as a fugitive and ultimately as a bandit. It was then that Doroteo adopted the name Francisco Villa, perhaps because Villa was his grandfather's name and perhaps because Francisco Pancho Villa was the name of a legendary Robin Hoodesque bandit of the mountains of Durango and probably both. Doroteo, hereafter Pancho Villa, joined with other bandits and became a member of an outlaw gang. He claimed to have garnered 50,000 pesos as his share of the loot from robbing a miner. Villa claimed also to have given much of this away to the poor, and perhaps he did give some to the poor. In any case, after this fortune was gone he again went back to banditry.

The evidence is that Villa was exceptionally bright. As a bandit he was more of the master criminal that meticulously plans the big heists rather than the holdup man who robs the little stores. He apparently was not satisfied with his life as a bandit and throughout his life had the goal of owning and operating a butcher's shop.

Villa had a high level of native intelligence although he had little education. As a leader of guerrila troops he was adept and clever, but also brutal and vicious, especially when he could not control his violent rages. He could have been a much better man and leader than he was. His relationship with women is indicative of his nature. He asked many women to marry him and he went through the Catholic wedding ceremony with them, but he had his men remove from the records all evidence of the marriages. He was cunning, clever but unprincipled.

Political Background for Mexico of the Time

Villa's childhood, adolescence and early adulthood were during the Porfiriato, the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. Díaz came into power after a period of political instability in Mexico. He was determined to establish political stability as a prerequisite for economic stability and growth. To raise funds Díaz granted monopolies and special privileges to business that could utilize those privileges to prosper and share the gains with the Díaz government. In many cases the business that could prosper were foreign-owned so Díaz was thought to be biased toward foreign interests. That was not true. He wanted results and promoted the organizations that had the expertise to achieve those results. When he perceived an excessive American influence he sought and promoted British businesses. The following example illustrates the situation.

Before petroleum was discovered in commercial amounts in Mexico, Mexico was depeent upon imports of petroleum products, particularly kerosene. The importation, distribution and marketing of kerosene and other petroleum products was solely in the hands of one American firm, Waters-Pierce Oil Co. The price of kerosene in Mexico during that time was about 40 U.S. cents per gallon. In 1889 Porfirio Díaz invited Weetman Pearson of the British construction company of S. Pearson and Sons, Ltd. to come to Mexico to construct a railroad across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Weetman Dickinson Pearson, was a son of one the sons of the founder Samuel Pearson.

It is notable that before it was known that Mexico had petroleum fields the government was not willing to risk public funds to explore for oil. There was too much of a risk that there wasn't any petroleum there.

The construction crews for the railroad Pearson was building found seepage petroleum and later the firm drilled oil wells to obtain fuel for the railroad's locomotives. That drilling found oil in commercial quantities. This was in the early 1900's. Weetman Pearson, later known as Lord Cowdray, created the Mexican Eagle Oil Company (Cia Mexicana de Petroleo El Aguila SA) in 1900 which went on to become a dominant firm in the Mexican petroleum industry until expropriation in 1938. A major part of the reason for the Mexican Eagle Oil Company's success was the special favors granted to it by Porfirio Díaz before his downfall. In several Mexican states Eagle Oil had the exclusive right to explore for oil. The Mexican public benefited from the success of Eagle Oil because the price of kerosene fell from $0.40 per gallon to about $0.14 per gallon. In 1908 the Mexican Eagle Oil Co. brought in a gusher at Potrero de Llano. This gusher was brought under control and was a very productive oil well. This was not always the case with gushers. Some gushers were not controllable and resulted in more of a loss to the drillers than a dry hole.

Once the Mexican public got used to the lower price of kerosene which resulted from the success of entrepreneurs like Pearson, people focused on the profits of the successful companies garnered, in part, from the special privilges granted by Díaz.

The Madero Movement

Francisco Madero was one of three brothers from a wealthy family of the northern state of Coahuila in Mexico. He led a movement that overthrew the dictator of forty years, Porfirio Diaz, in 1910. The success of the revolution was due to the dedication and organizational abilities of Madero's supporters rather than Francisco Madero himself. Madero was a well-meaning member of the upper class. For him, the revolution was a political matter; a matter of restoring the constitution of 1857 and so forth. For Emiliano Zapata the revolution was a matter of land reform and a social revolution.

In 1910 Díaz told a foreign magazine journalist that he would not run in the next election. But when the time came he did run. However he allowed Francisco I. Madero, a liberal reformist from Coahuila, to run against him. Díaz won the election and imprisoned Madero before releasing him to leave Mexico. Madero went to St. Louis in the U.S. and from there he planned a revolt which was joined by others. Madero created in St. Louis the Plan of San Luis de Potosí. The Plan was distributed in dissident areas of Mexico. Local leaders, particularly Francisco Pancho Villa in the state of Chihuahua, decided to join Madero's revolution. Other local leaders joining Madeo were Pascual Orozco of Chihuahua and Emiliano Zapata of Morelos. Rebels captured Cuidad Juarez and other state capitals. Díaz' forces collapsed and Díaz, then eighty years of age, resigned the presidency on May 25, 1911 and went into exile in France, ultimately dying in Paris years later.

Villa joined Madero's movement after a meeting with Madero. Madero treated him with respect and characterized Villa's past banditry as due to the social conditions. Villa and Orozco, another Madero ally, captured the northern city of Ciudad Jaurez (across the border from El Paso, Texas). In the south Zapata's forces scored a significant victory. Díaz was faced, at age eighty, of fighting a rebellion on two fronts. If he sent too many of his forces north to put down the rebellion there Zapata's forces could threaten the capital. If he sent too few the northern forces would march south, picking up recruits as they came. Limantour, Díaz' principal adviser recommend that he resign. Díaz did so in May of 1911.

Madero served as saintly figurehead for the movement. In power Madero committed one blunder after another. He ended up allowing the holdovers from the Díaz regime exercise the power of government. Madero himself was honest and well-meaning but his naivete endangered his supporters and ultimately cost him his life. In retrospect Madero was fundamentally a fool. Madero was not prepared to deal with the realities of Mexican politics.

Emiliano Zapata supported the Madero movement, but when Zapata found that Madero-in-power was not willing to fulfill the promises of Madero-the-crusader-for-the-overthrow-of-the-dictator, Zapata began to have serious doubts about continuing to support Madero. Madero ordered Zapata to disband his army and Zapata complied. Others in the Madero administration did not think Zapata had disarmed his forces and sent Federal troops to carry out the disarming and disbanding of Zapata's forces. Zapata withdrew with his army into the countryside and no longer supported Madero. He launched another revolution in the southern states.

In the north, Pascual Orozco also broke with Madero and launched a revolt. The Mexican army under the command of Victoriano Huerta put down Orozco's revolt.

Villa participated in the suppression of Orozco's rebellion by Huerta. Nominally Villa was under the command of Huerta, but Villa's irregular troops operated largely independent of Huerta. When the Orozco's rebellion was suppressed Villa announced to Huerta that he was demobilizing his troops. Huerta, who passionately hated Villa, chose to take this as an act of desertion and had Villa taken prisoner. Huerta intended to have Villa executed.

A message was sent to President Madero to have him prevent Villa's execution. President Madero waffled and it was only the intervention of the President's brother, Gustavo, that saved Villa. Even with an order to stay the execution and send Villa to Mexico City for resolution of his case Huerta tried to have the execution carried out. Villa was transfered to the prison in Mexico City where he attempted to engineer an escape.

Meanwhile, the nephew of Porfirio Díaz, Félix Díaz, tried to launch a revolt from Veracruz but was arrested and brought to Mexico City. From prison Félix Díaz was able to organize protests in the streets of Mexico City.

After months of ineptitude that lost him the support of former allies such as Emiliano Zapata he was finally confronted with rebels threatening Mexico City. General Huerta was called in by Madero to suppress the protests in Mexico City. This was a catastrophic blunder on the part Madero. General Huerta marched his troops to Mexico City and recognized that there was nothing stopping him from taking control of the government. With the army under his command in the capital he had the power to take over the government of Mexico and he did so. Huerta had President Madero and Vice President José María Pino Suárez arrested. He forced their resignations which made him president. Later Madero and Pino Suárez were killed in 1913 while being transferred to another prison. Essentially they were executed. Madero was a well-meaning member of the upper class who was not capable of dealing with the realities of power politics in Mexico.

At the time of the arrest of the President and Vice President, General Huerta was dining in a restaurant with the President's brother, Gustavo Madero. When General Huerta received a message saying that the President and Vice President had been arrested Huerta told Gustavo Madero that he had to go somewhere in which he should have a pistol. He asked Gustavo if he could borrow his. Gustavo Madero was a good hearted man who had lost the sight in one eye. He gave Huerta his gun and Huerta immediately pointed it at him and told him he was under arrest. Huerta turned Gustavo over to other members of the coup. One of these individuals poked a sword into Gustavo's good eye. The blinded Gustavo tried to struggle with his captors and one emptied his revolver into Gustavo, killing him. The Maderos were reformers completely unqualified to deal with the power politics of Mexico. The drama of the event is overwhelming. And this incident is just one piece of a mosaic of Mexican politics of the time.

In the political turmoil involved in Huerta's coup d'etat Villa escaped and fled to Chihuahua.

The Huerta Dictatorship

Revolutionaries such as Emiliano Zapata who were in revolt against Madero remained in revolt against Huerta. In the north, three rebel groups formed a coalition: Pancho Villa in Chihuahua, Venustiano Carranza in Coahuila and Álvaro Obregón in Sonora. Huerta sent troops into the north and carried out assassinations but was unable to suppress the rebels. The government of Woodrow Wilson in the U.S. did not recognize the usurpation of power by Huerta and provided aid to the northern coalition of rebels. In 1914 after an incident in Veracruz, Wilson ordered the American occupation of the city. The subsequent protests led to the resignation of Huerta on July 8, 1914.

The Civil War, the Constitution of 1917 and the Carranza Presidency, 1917-1920

Although Huerta was driven from power more by his inability to counter the American occupation of Veracruz than the military operations of the rebels, once Huera left the effective power was in the hand of the organized resistance. But the resistances were not unified. Once their common enemy of Huerta was gone, their differences became all important.

In an attempt to achieve some unification Carranza called a convention of rebel leaders in Aguascalientes (hot springs). Carranza of Coahuila and Obregón of Sonora represented political revolutionaries whereas Villa of Chihuahua and Zapata of Morelos were more radically social revolutionaries. Carranza's convention did not have the intended effect. The convention fell under the sway of the social revolutionaries who chose Eulalia Gutiérrez for provisional president of Mexico. Gutiérrez went to Mexico City to take power. Carranza and Obregón opted to establish an alternate government in Veracruz. Gutiérrez did not last long in Mexico City. He relocated to Neuvo Léon, whereupon Obregón took his place in Mexico City. There were two more governments for Mexico; that of the Zapatistas in the south and Villa in Guanjuato. But it was Carranza who made the shrewder choice of location. In Veracruz Carranza fell heir to the munitions which had been under the control of the American occupying force. These munitions gave him a advantage over the other contenders and he emerged victorious and was recognized as the legitimate president of Mexico by the United States.

Francisco (Pancho) Villa
Pancho Villa expressed his rage at the U.S. recognition of Carranza by carrying out raids on border towns in New Mexico. President Woodrow Wilson reacted by sending an expeditionary force into Mexico to hunt down Villa. The force failed to capture Villa.

Carranza presented a proposed constitution based upon the constitution of 1857 but going farther in the direction of radical social institutions. After the formal acceptance of this constitution of 1917 Carranza ran for the office of the president and won.

In office Venustiano Carranza was much more conservative than would be expected from his support of the constitution of 1917 and its radical provisions. In particular, President Carranza not only did not choose to carry out the land redistribution provisions of the constitution but even returned land that had been confiscated during the civil war period. This back pedaling on the issue of land reform and redistribution put him at odds with Emiliano Zapata and his supporters.

The Obregon Presidency and the Demise of Francisco Pancho Villa

Carranza tried to maintain power beyond his term as president. This sparked a rebellion by Obregon. Carranza looted many government institutions of Mexico City and loaded a special train with the loot. The train was supposed to take him and his retinue to Veracruz. The train was stopped as a result of tracks having been removed. Carranza fled to the mountains where he was killed by a local guerrila leader.

Obregon took power in Mexico City. Obregon gave Villa a large grant for his services to the revolution and to keep him out of politics. Villa settled in the state of Durango and invested in businesses. In 1923 Villa was assassinated under circumstances which made it unclear who had arranged it.


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