Villa is everywhere

by Jim Fish

Ozona—On March 9, 1916, at approximately 4:15 a.m., a Mexican raid consisting of 485 armed troops attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. Residents were awakened with cries of "Viva Villa!" and "Viva Mexico!"

The raiders wore sombreros with khaki uniforms and crisscrossed bandoliers over their chests. The leader of the operation was none other than the Mexican Revolution’s General Francisco "Pancho" Villa.

The assault on the small town of four hundred residents was an utter surprise. Villa, the strategist had been indicating a run at El Paso, while leading his troops ever closer to Columbus. The citizens of El Paso were familiar with Villa’s previous assaults across the Rio Grande in the neighboring Juarez. The military forces at nearby Fort Bliss remained on alert for a sudden attack.

“The residents of Columbus on the other hand felt little cause for alarm. Confident with their garrison of soldiers, they could not conceive that Villa might be only a few miles south of them planning to attack. The 13th U.S. Cavalry, headquartered in Columbus, provided a false sense of security for the citizens of the straggling U.S. town.

At noon on March 8, Villa’s Lieutenant Colonel Cipriano Vargas and another officer returned from their scouting of the town and garrison with their report. They were convinced there were only about thirty American soldiers on the post. Also, on the night of the attack, Colonel Herbert Slocum, Army Chief at Columbus, had even gone out of town,” writes Friedrich Katz, in his article, ‘Pancho Villa and the Attack on Columbus, New Mexico.’

The town consisting of a cluster of adobe houses, some wooden framed buildings, a railroad station, two hotels, the army camp, and a few other enterprises was entered by the Villa’s troops before anyone knew they were there. All the 13th Cavalry officers were absent, as well. However, the raiders encountered resistance almost immediately from American military personnel who retaliated as promptly as possible. At daylight, realizing that the American forces were greater than Villa’s scouts had reported, the guerrillas began to retreat. By 7:30 a.m. the withdrawal was done.

Casualties were counted afterward, yielding a cost of eighteen American lives and ninety of Villa’s troops. Official records reported missing food and other goods taken such as eighty horses, thirty mules, some military equipment, and three hundred military-grade weapons. Villa’s men concentrated on hotels, robbing guests of their cash and valuables, and stores whose proprietors quickly relinquished their goods. They left individual residences alone and occupied themselves by stealing horses, arms, and ammunition. Women were not raped and no captives were taken.

But new evidence reveals that Villa’s primary motivation was Villa’s firm belief that President Wilson had concluded an agreement with Carranza that would virtually convert Mexico into a U.S. protectorate. Did Villa attack Columbus because of his firm conviction that Carranza had sold out Mexico to the U.S.? Villa had reasons for believing Carranza had surrendered Mexico’s independence with an agreement with President Wilson. Villa sought to shift the burden to the Porfirian upper classes and to weaker groups of foreigners, namely the Spaniards.

Carranza decided to shift as much of the burden of new taxes as possible onto foreign companies, mainly U.S. investors.

Through restraint toward U.S. business, Villa doubtless hoped to gain access to U.S. arms and, eventually, even to gain official recognition by the U.S. government. U.S. mining companies and other major players favored Villa. 

Wilson’s advisors assured Villa that the U.S. government would not recognize Carranza as president. But in October 1915, citing fears of German intrigues in Mexico, Wilson recognized Carranza’s government. Villa was suspicious that some strange event had changed Wilson’s mind, namely that Carranza had agreed to make Mexico a controlled American territory. Villa conveyed his disapproval in his raid on Columbus.

Within a week of the attack, a punitive expedition of 10,000 troops commanded by General John (Blackjack) Pershing, invaded the Mexican state of Chihuahua. President Wilson ordered them to capture Pancho Villa. However, within a year of the raid, on Feb. 5, 1917, the expedition was considered a failure and the punitive expedition withdrew back into the United States.

General Pershing confided, “Villa is everywhere, and Villa is nowhere.”

If Villa’s attack on Columbus had done anything to risk Mexico’s fragile independence, the failure of the Pershing expedition did much to repair the damage. Villa became a symbol of national resistance in Chihuahua and enhanced his standing among his own countrymen. Francisco "Pancho" Villa is still celebrated as the only man to ever attack the United States and get away with it.

Ozona June