“Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something“.
Francisco “Pancho” Villa (1878 – 1923) was born into a family of sharecroppers in the Mexican state of Durango and raised in poverty. He received some elementary schooling in early childhood, but had not progressed beyond basic literacy when his father died and he was forced to quit school and help his mother. He worked a variety of menial jobs, interspersed with stints of banditry with local gangs. At age 16, he reportedly killed his first man, a hacienda owner whom he accused of raping his sister. He then stole his victim’s horse and fled to the hills, which became his base for years to come as he turned to full-time banditry.
Captured in 1902, he was spared the death penalty, and inducted into the Mexican army instead. He deserted after killing an officer and stealing his horse and returned to banditry. In 1910, when the Mexican Revolution began, he was persuaded that he could fight for the people by directing his banditry against hacienda owners. Villa proved adept at the revolution’s style of warfare and was instrumental in defeating the government’s forces in northern Mexico.
After victory, the rebel alliance split when the new government failed to enact promised land reforms. Villa, appointed a brigadier general, supported the new government against his former comrades, but struck a superior general during a quarrel and was sentenced to death. He was saved from the firing squad at the last moment by the arrival of a telegram from the president ordering his imprisonment instead.
Villa escaped and fled to the US, but returned to Mexico in 1913, after securing American support, to fight against a new government that had seized power in a coup. In the second round of fighting, Villa again achieved considerable success, and local military commanders appointed him governor of the state of Chihuahua. As governor, he confiscated grand haciendas, and broke them up into smaller plots which he redistributed to the widows and families of fallen revolutionaries. It was during this period that Villa gained international fame, and was depicted in the press as a romantic bandit-warrior who took from the rich and gave to the poor.
The coup-installed government was overthrown, but the victorious allies again fell out. In this third round, Villa did poorly, and suffered repeated setbacks. By 1915, he was reduced to a small band hiding in the hills of Chihuahua, and the US shifted its backing from Villa to his opponents. Feeling betrayed, he began attacking American interests in northern Mexico, and in 1916, crossed the border and attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. The US responded with a military expedition to Mexico, to hunt down Villa. He eluded the Americans, and his popularity rose among Mexicans resentful of the intrusion.
Villa continued a low-scale guerrilla campaign until 1920, when he made peace and recognized the Mexican government in exchange for an amnesty and a 25,000-acre hacienda. In 1923, he announced plans to run for president, but soon thereafter, his car was ambushed and shot up, and he was fatally wounded. Aware that life as interesting as his should end with an interesting final statement, but unable to think of anything memorable, Pancho Villa’s last words as he lay dying were: “Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something“.