The Legacy of Pancho Villa’s Raid on America
In the words of one U.S. cavalry officer, Columbus, New Mexico in 1916 was little more than “a cluster of adobe houses, a hotel, a few stores and streets knee deep in sand,” filled with cactus, mesquite and rattlesnakes. Only about 300 people lived in this desolate town three miles from the Mexican border, and if not for Camp Furlong, home to a 350-man detachment of the 13th U.S. Cavalry in Columbus’ southeast quadrant, the town would have little more significance than the desert that surrounded it.
Yet on March 9, 1916, the stillness of the desert night was shattered by a shout and gunfire. A sentry, Pvt. Fred Griffin, challenged several figures lurking in the pitch black near the 13th Cav’s headquarters. Griffin was answered by a rifle shot that hit him in the stomach, but managed to fire as he reeled backwards, killing his assailant and two other Mexicans before slumping to the ground and dying.
The legendary Mexican revolutionary and bandit Pancho Villa was leading 500 men in a cross-border raid on Columbus. Villa had spent two decades roaming Mexico’s Durango and Chihuahua provinces robbing and kidnapping, committing arson and murder. Yet he also carefully cultivated a Robin Hood image by donating a portion of his booty to the poor of northern Mexico, becoming a popular folk hero in the process. When the revolution against dictator Pofirio Diaz erupted in 1910, Villa took to the battlefield as a guerrilla, and by 1915 his “Division of the North” seemed invincible. Yet Villa left a trail of savagery notable even amid the vicious backdrop of the Mexican Revolution. He ordered the mass executions of hundreds of prisoners, and he oversaw the torture and slaughter of hundreds of ethnic Chinese in the towns he captured. Villa had a falling out with one of the political leaders of the revolution, Venustiano Carranza, and in October 1915, the United States officially recognized the Carranza government. The Wilson administration allowed the Carrancistas to cut through U.S. territory en route to defeating Villa’s forces at Agua Prieta, which led him to swear revenge on the United States and murder 17 American miners on a train in January 1916.
Consequently, panic erupted among the residents when the Villistas rode into Columbus shouting “Viva Villa! Viva Mexico!” and shooting wildly into houses and at any civilians in their path. Luckily, at Camp Furlong, Villa’s men mistook the stables for the garrison’s sleeping quarters and directed most of their fire at horses rather than soldiers. In Columbus, the raiders reached the Commercial Hotel, where they dragged civilian men into the street, robbing and murdering them. Others were killed on the stairs and in the lobby.
The raiders made a serious tactical error, however, by setting fire to the hotel. Troops from the 13th Cav had linked up and took up firing positions on Main Street. The conflagration from the hotel illuminated the streets and allowed the cavalrymen to distinguish Americans from the Villistas. The U.S. forces trapped the enemy in a crossfire, and within 90 minutes their four machine guns fired close to 20,000 rounds.
At 7:30 that morning, Villa’s bugler signaled retreat. Nearly 60 men from the 13th Cav’s H and F troops rode after Villa’s force in pursuit, overtaking the Mexicans’ rearguard 300 yards south of the border for the first of four mounted pistol charges. The American detachment drove the bandits 15 miles into Mexico before being forced to withdraw due to shortages of ammunition and water and exhausted mounts. Although the Americans had not lost a single man, the detachment’s commander — Maj. Frank Tompkins — counted nearly 100 dead Villistas on their return across the border.
Back in Columbus, the corpses of 67 raiders had been dragged to the outskirts of town, doused in kerosene, and set ablaze, adding to the stench of smoldering wood from the gutted area along Main Street. Seventeen Americans were killed during the fighting, including nine civilians. Four troopers, two officers, and one civilian were wounded as well. Captured Mexicans and copies of correspondence from Villa to other revolutionary commanders found on the body of a Villa aide confirmed that Pancho Villa had led the attack.
In three brief hours, Columbus was transformed from a poor, desolate desert town to the sight of the deadliest attack on U.S. soil by a foreign military force between the War of 1812 and Pearl Harbor.
Once viewed as a historical anomaly or a romantic embodiment of a dying frontier, Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus remains relevant 100 years later for reasons both having to do with the threat and the U.S. response. For just as the weakness of the Mexican state in 1916 enabled Villa to threaten U.S. security, today the structural failures of Central American states pose cross-border threats. Although the days of hundreds of banditos crossing the border on horseback to attack American cities are long gone, today hundreds of thousands of unauthorized migrants illegally cross the U.S.–Mexico border each year, as do tons of illegal narcotics. Beyond concerns over illegal immigration, the lack of border security poses another potential threat, as military leaders such as former U.S. SOUTHCOM Commander Gen. John Kelly have warned about the growing danger that terrorists could exploit the human trafficking networks that operate across the U.S.–Mexican border. Although reports of Islamic State training camps in Mexico have been debunked, there has been credible reporting of cooperation between Hezbollah and the Sinaloa cartel, especially with regards to the cartel’s tunnel-building efforts underneath the border.
While reasonable people can disagree about issues such as drug legalization and the extent to which unauthorized migrants threaten U.S. economic and security interests, concerns about border security clearly resonate with the American people and have become central to the 2016 presidential election, serving as the centerpiece of Donald Trump’s improbable campaign. Trump’s success at exploiting the American public’s concern on this issue ensures its continued prominence from now until November regardless of whether or not the billionaire wins the Republican nomination or the White House.
The U.S. response to Villa’s raid also remains pertinent a century later, as it established a pattern of personalizing Latin American security threats that persisted for most of the 20th century. As I recount in my history of U.S. strategic manhunts, Wanted Dead or Alive, President Woodrow Wilson announced, “An adequate force will be sent at once in pursuit of Villa with the single object of capturing him and putting a stop to his forays.” The War Department issued orders for Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing to lead the expedition into Mexico. On March 16, the Punitive Expedition entered Mexico. For the three months, Pershing and his men combed the deep canyons of the Sierra Madres in Chihuahua province — an area roughly the size of Virginia and the Carolinas combined — searching for Villa. Despite several near misses, Villa eluded Pershing. The Americans scored many victories over Villa’s forces, however, and killed several of his subordinates. (Gen. Julio Cardenas, the commander of Villa’s elite bodyguard, was killed in a raid led by then-Lt. George S. Patton). By the time the Punitive Expedition was finally withdrawn, Pershing’s forces had scattered Villa’s band, killing 203, wounding 108, and capturing 19 of the 485 Villistas who had attacked Columbus. Although Pershing’s troops did not get their man, Villa was never again a serious threat to U.S. security.
Over the next 75 years, American policymakers repeatedly deployed U.S. forces to Latin America with the operational objective of killing or capturing an individual in order to counter a perceived security threat. From 1927 to 1933, U.S. Marines pursued Nicaraguan guerrilla leader Augusto Sandino after he targeted Americans enforcing the peace treaty that ended Nicaragua’s civil war. In 1967, U.S. Green Berets trained the Bolivian Ranger battalion that — with the assistance of CIA operatives — captured and killed Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. Twenty-four thousand U.S. troops invaded Panama in December 1989 to arrest strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega on drug trafficking and racketeering charges after he threatened American citizens living in Panama. And in 1992, elements of Delta Force were deployed to Colombia to help police hunt down Pablo Escobar, the vicious kingpin of the Medellin drug cartel who was finally killed in December 1993 (a top secret U.S. military intelligence unit had been involved in the hunt for Escobar since 1989).
The pattern of targeting individuals perceived as threats to U.S. security continues with U.S. support for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s “kingpin” strategy, which focuses on taking out the top and mid-level leadership of Mexico’s largest transnational criminal organizations. U.S. forces have provided training and shared intelligence with the Mexican Navy special forces responsible for capturing the leaders of the Zetas, Gulf, and Sinaloa cartels, including the February 2014 capture of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. (This strategy has not been without costs, to be sure. It is argued that the fragmentation of the cartels due to the decapitation campaign has actually increased violence in Mexico, and that elements of Mexico’s security forces are complicit in significant human rights abuses.) Similarly, decapitation campaigns have been central pillars to the ongoing U.S. campaigns against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, with many of the same factors determining operational success or failure as they did for the Punitive Expedition.
Yet unlike 1916, there is greater awareness that the weakness of Central American state institutions must be addressed concurrently with the targeting of key leaders. Consequently, the 2007 Merida Initiative with Mexico earmarked $1.4 billion to “break the power of organized crime, strengthen the U.S. southern border, improve Mexican institutional capacity, and reduce the demand for drugs.” Similarly, as recently reported by the Wall Street Journal, U.S. special forces have been training Honduran police to fight gangs such MS-13 and 18th Street in order to reduce the violence that helps spur the flood of unauthorized migration across the U.S.–Mexican border from Central America. This is in addition to a broader Central American Regional Security Initiative intended to build partner capacity and strengthen regional institutions for fighting transnational criminal organizations.
It is tempting to view Pancho Villa’s raid 100 years later through a hazy lens of romance and nostalgia for the days of a lawless frontier. Yet in reality, the attack on Columbus epitomized a threat that has not disappeared, but evolved into more complex and perhaps pernicious manifestations. Beyond the possible remedy of building a border wall — which will still be susceptible to evasion by tunnel-building — U.S. policymakers must continue to seek ways to address the causes of this problem, not merely its symptom, by building the capacity of Central American military and police and by strengthening the institutions that enable our allies to address potential threats before they reach the U.S.–Mexican border.
Benjamin Runkle, PhD, is a former Defense Department official, Director on the National Security Council, and Professional Staff Member on the House Armed Services Committee, where he covered Building Partnership Capacity issues. He is the author of Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts from Geronimo to bin Laden.