On Friday, July 20, 1923, someone succeeded in doing something that 5,000 U.S. Army troops sent by President Woodrow Wilson under General John Pershing couldn’t do. That day someone killed the legendary Pancho Villa who, perhaps more than anyone else, had come to symolize the Mexican Revolution – especially in the United States.
By then Mexico had settled into about as much peace as it would know in the years after the revolution which lasted for the better part of a decade until around 1920, claiming the lives of 2.1 million Mexicans.
Next Saturday, on the 90th anniversary of Villa’s assassination, Discovery en Español will present a documentary attempting to answer the question of who really killed Pancho Villa.
Documentary of Pancho Villa
El Asesinato de Villa La Conspiracion will use dramatizations reconstructing the scene of the killing and will draw on the opinions of renowned Villa experts, including writer and filmmaker Guillermo Arriaga and historians Jesus Vargas Valdes, Antonio Campuzano and Dr. Jane Dale Lloyd.
Villa’s death may have been inevitable. After the revolution, he had negotiated a deal with the Mexican powers that be which assured him a comfortable life, but his influence and his name were too threatening to some.
The question of who killed Villa has never been satisfactorily answered even though a state legislator from Durango, Jesus Salas Barraza, was among those arrested and originally sentenced to 20 years in prison.
But Barraz’s sentence was soon commuted to three months by the governor of Chihuahua, adding to the belief he had simply been the fall guy for a wider conspiracy that went all the way to the presidency.
Most historians attribute Villa’s death to an elaborate plan hatched by supporters of President Álvaro Obregon that may have even had his tacit approval.
Villa, according to this theory, had his eye in trying to succeed Obregon, and the incumbent president had tapped as his successor Plutarco Elias Calles, who was alleged to have been one of the conspirators.
The other theory involves revenge by the family of Villa’s former general, Jose de la Luz Herrera, who had incurred Villa’s wrath when he betrayed him to side with Venustiano Carranza, a Mexican politician who became president during the revolution and was assassinated in 1920.
Villa had opened a blood feud with Herrera, and this second theory has Villa killed as an act of family revenge by Herrera’s last surviving son.
When death finally came to Villa, it was possibly as much out of his carelessness for his own safety, as he had gone to the town of Parral with only a few of his associates — but without his entourage of bodyguards.
While driving back from the bank in his black 1919 Dodge roadster, Pancho Villa was approached by a pumpkin seed vendor who ran toward his car shouting, “Viva Villa!”
It was an apparent signal for a group of seven riflemen who appeared in the middle of the road and fired a volley of more than 40 shots into the car.
Villa was struck by nine of the shots in his head and upper chest, dying instantly, slumped in the front seat with a hand reaching for his gun.
Six surviving assassins were soon arrested in the desert. Only two served a few months in jail. The other four were commissioned into the Mexican army.
Which theory will Discovery en Español find to be the most probable?
Originally published on VOXXI as Discovery Channel tries to solve Pancho Villa's murder