Pancho Villa & the Columbus Raid.
Some pedants have attempted to draw comparisons between the September 11, 2001 Attack on America in New York and Washington, D.C. by terrorists and the 1916 raid on the town of Columbus, New Mexico by Mexican revolutionaries under the direction of Francisco “Pancho” Villa.
. There are few comparisons.
• The Attack on America resulted in the deaths of about 3,000 civilians. Villa’s raid resulted in the deaths of 17 Americans, nine of them civilians.
• The Attack on America was unprovoked. It can be argued that Villa’s raid was specifically provoked, even though his motive has been debated from that day to this.
• The Attack on America was unconventional. Villa’s attack was surreptitious, to be sure, but it was conventional in the context of the times. The Americans had the chance to fight back, and did so successfully. They killed more than 100 of Villa’s soldiers and captured many others.
It seems worthwhile to review the Columbus raid.
About 400 Mexican revolutionary troops crossed the border into the United States about three miles south of Columbus, New Mexico in the early morning hours of March 9, 1916. They immediately set about looting the town. A detachment of the 13th U. S. Cavalry, camped nearby, was taken by surprise and responded in some disorder before soldiers and citizens alike effectively repelled the invaders. One source claims the Villistas took more than 100 Army horses and mules and many guns as they retreated south. Another source reports that the Mexicans actually left behind so many of their own horses, that an auction was held to sell them, along with their saddles. Such is the confusion about what happened that day, even so many years after the fact.
Most historians believe that Villa was not present at Columbus. One writer1 reports that the Mexican commander was Pablo López who was wounded in both legs during the fighting. He was subsequently captured near Satevó, Chihuahua by Mexican regular troops, tried and executed by firing squad at Chihuahua City.
A Rio Rancho man, Enrique Garcia, argues that Villa was present during the raid. Garcia’s grandfather, Alejandro Garcia, was a colonel in Villa’s army. Alejandro claimed that he participated in the Columbus raid, and that he rode at the head of the column with the famed revolutionary.
Garcia said that the raid was the result of a business deal gone bad. His story was that Villa delivered a herd of cattle to some Columbus businessmen who refused to pay. He also said that the Villistas only took from Columbus banks the money that was due them.
Another alleged motive frequently cited is that Villa had paid Columbus merchants for delivery of guns and ammunition. They had taken his money and then failed to deliver the weapons. Yet another conjecture is that the raid was simply meant to steal guns and ammunition from the cavalry detachment camped there.
There may also have been a political motive. Villa remained at war with the Venustiano Carranza government in Mexico City in 1915-163. He had managed to get along with the Americans up until 1915 and he hoped the United States would recognize him as the legitimate leader of Mexico. Instead, the Woodrow Wilson administration recognized Carranza. And it went beyond that. The Wilson administration also placed an arms embargo on trade with the Villistas, which closed the munitions traffic in places like Columbus.
And militarily, Villa was on hard times. He’d suffered several humiliating defeats by Carranza’s army and his troops had been reduced in number from thousands to hundreds. He had been declared an outlaw in Mexico. In late 1915, the United States allowed a force of about 4,000 Mexican soldiers to cross into Texas at Eagle Pass, and to take a train to Douglas, Arizona. There they reentered Mexico and attacked Villa’s forces at Agua Prieta, winning a telling victory. Villa blamed the United States for his defeat.
Pancho Villa’s days as major force in northern Mexico were numbered. The United States Army sent a so-called Punitive Expedition — about 12,000 strong — under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing, into Mexico to exact retribution from Villa for the Columbus raid. After 11 months of searching the deserts and mountains of northern Mexico, Pershing gave up and withdrew. Villa had simply dispersed his troops into small groups, and he himself hid out in a cave in the Sierra Madre until summer.
One historian of the Mexican Revolution said this: “The centaur of the North [Villa] was becoming a minor character in a drama that was becoming more political than martial. In the years [after] the Punitive Expedition he continued to fight a war peculiarly his own. Much of the time it seemed to be a war for war’s sake.
”In July of 1920, Villa quit fighting altogether. He had about 700 men left in his “army.” The Mexican government gave him a 25,000-acre rancho in the state of Durango. He stayed out of politics after that, but he had made many enemies over the years. It all caught up with him on July 20, 1923 when he was assassinated in the town of Parral, shot 13 times by eight gunmen. He was 45 years old. The identities of his killers have never been proven, but a man named Jesús Salas Barraza claimed to be the “intellectual author” of the assassination plot.
The final distinction that must be made between the Attack on America and the Columbus raid is this: A park commemorating the raid was dedicated in 1959. It was not named for any of the citizens who were killed there, or even for General Pershing. It was named for Pancho Villa. No park in New York City is likely to be named for Osama Bin Laden.
- William Weber Johnson. Heroic Mexico: The Narrative History of a Twentieth Century Revolution. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968.
- Alejandro Garcia lived in Las Cruces for many years. He died in 1983 at the age of 113. He would have been about eight years older than Villa.
- Villa had been at war since the 1910 Revolution in which Francisco Madero ousted long-time dictator Porfirio Diaz.