Pancho Villa is known in history as the dare devil who chose a life of banditry rather than submitting to the oppressive life under Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. When Villa joined the forces of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, he stood out as one of the most brutal fighters in Francisco Madero’s armies. For his services in the Madero uprising, Villa received the funds to start slaughter houses in Chihuahua City. The source of his income, according to western lore were the rustled cattle herds of the largest landholdings in Mexico, those of General Luis Terrazas. When Villa entered the fray after the Decena Tragica, the cattle rustling operation fed his armies and drove Terrazas virtually insane. However, what is less known about Villa are his efforts to create a semblance of order in the territories he controlled. Indeed, Villa very effectively battled brigandage, the scourge of rural life. Bandits faced summary execution wherever Villa would find them and by most accounts the crime rate in Chihuahua diminished as Villa’s control over the state increased. According to missionary Alden Buell Case, “…he [Villa] was strongly desirous of retaining the good will of the Washington administration and, perhaps for this reason, he was especially energetic and effective in his hostility to the bandit element wherever encountered. The ‘Colorados’ [Orozquistas] who refused to accept amnesty in laying down their arms or joining his own troops, were treated as outlaws and hunted down like beasts. Never had Porfirio Diaz in the days of his iron rule exhibited more relentless vigour [sic] or success in the suppression of brigandage than Francisco Villa in the brief era of his supremacy.”
While hunting down the “bandits,” Villa also displayed hitherto unknown restraint when he occupied villages and cities. Town folk looked with dread towards efforts of other military leaders especially Tomás Urbina and “Cheche” Campos to take their community from the opposing forces of Victoriano Huerta. The rebel occupiers usually engaged in indescribable feats of plunder, rape, execution, and destruction leaving the townspeople in a state of despair. Cities of relative wealth such as Durango, Torreon, Chihuahua, and Parral had to experience this cycle of violence and theft multiple times as the front lines shifted over the years. In June 1913 Tomás Urbina took the capital of Durango, a great military success for the rebellion against Huerta. Historian Katz quoted an eyewitness who described what happened when the revolutionary forces entered the city: “Like an avalanche that descends from the mountain, fused their forces with those of the lower classes, full of desires for vengeance, destruction, and plunder, and began to assault stores, carrying out shameful acts of plunder, while other groups, animated by the natural lack of confidence of the peasants, were shooting at fictitious enemies, and dynamite explosions and rifle fire could constantly be heard. The sack of the city was followed by fire, and the night of June 19 was more horrendous than the day of combat, since the city was lighted by the sinister glow of the flames that had engulfed twelve of the main stores in the city.”
Most likely stemming from advice he received from Sherburne G. Hopkins, Felix A. Sommerfeld and others who fought for recognition and support of the Constitutionalists in Washington, Villa showed remarkable restraint when his forces occupied a town or village. Plunderers were summarily executed, order was quickly restored and enforced, and, while prisoners of war faced firing squads, the townspeople were largely left unmolested. Historians argue about Villa’s motivation in showing such behavior, which was unusual for revolutionaries. Whether it was solely an effort to prove his civility to the American government or to show to the Mexican population that he was the best choice for restoring order to Mexico, Villa gained an enormous amount of goodwill on both sides of the border. The ranks of his burgeoning army swelled with every village and town he marched through. With regards to the American government, it received glowing assessments from its consular officers telling of the level of discipline and control Villa exercised over his forces.