In the wee hours of March 9, 1916, Mexican revolutionary warrior Pancho Villa stormed the sleeping township of Columbus, New Mexico, ransacking and looting the town and leaving behind approximately 25 people killed.
The raid on Columbus — it was never an “invasion of the U.S.” as then President Woodrow Wilson would have liked the world to believe — was prompted by a series of motives that culminated highlighting the U.S. intervention in the Mexican Revolution.
The story of the Columbus raid really started on April 15, 1915, when Pancho Villa and his mighty army was defeated in the now classic field battle of Celaya, in the state of Guanajuato at the hands of General Álvaro Obregón.
In February of 1912, two years before Villa and his Golden Shirts (Los Dorados de Villa) had defeated the federal army, the dictator Victoriano Huerta had ordered, along with former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Henry Lane Wilson, a plot to overthrow and kill the democratically elected president of Mexico Francisco Madero and his vice president José María Pino Suárez.
Victoriano Huerta fled to Paris from where he established contact with Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II who financed a counter revolutionary attack against Villa and President Venustiano Carranza in exchange for crude oil, a product of which Mexico was the world’s largest producer at the time, and the Kaiser needed it to use in the upcoming and planned World War I.
Besides lots of cash, the Germans supplied counter revolutionary General Victoriano Huerta with more than 12 million rounds of 7×57 Mauser ammunition which were introduced through the U.S.
Huerta requested and was granted permission to transport the ammo from New York to El Paso. Yet the Woodrow Wilson Administration was not going to allow Victoriano Huerta to start a new conflict south of the border and was arrested in New York, from where he was moved to Fort Bliss in Texas, where he died.
By this time President Carranza, a diplomat and constitutionalist, had negotiated President Wilson’s backing to bring the Mexican Revolution conflict to a political end.
Besides military aid, the 12 million rounds of ammo imported from Germany played an important part in the 1915 Battle of Celaya as the rounds were handed over to the Texas Rangers, who rendered most of the ammo useless and then passed it on to a Columbus, New Mexico gun runner and hotel owner named Samuel Ravel. Ravel, in turn, sold the ammunition to Pancho Villa prior to the Battle of Celaya.
Pancho Villa found out only too late that he’d been swindled by Samuel Ravel. Still he continued his rebellion against the Venustiano Carranza presidency and held several battles along the border in which the American support for the Venustiano Carranza armies became notoriously obvious.
The battle that angered Villa the most against the gringos was fought at Agua Prieta, Sonora. On Nov. 1, 1915. Villa was supposed to stage a surprise midnight assault on a Carranza regiment but at the moment of the skirmish the Americans lit up reflectors from the U.S. side of the border, making Villa’s army most visible. Obviously, the attack was repelled.
On January, 1916, a group of Villa soldiers ambushed an unguarded train belonging to the Mexico North Western Railroad in the state of Chihuahua, and executed 18 workers of the Guggenheim-owned American Smelting and Refining Company.
Villa from that moment on stopped being an army to turn into what Mexican historian and Army General Luis Garfias calls Villa in his book “Truth and Legend about Pancho Villa” “a common highway robber” and what everyone else called him from then on, “a bandit.”
Apparently, from that moment on Villa focused on attacking Columbus, nabbing Samuel Ravel and getting the money and gold Villa said Ravel had swindled from him on several transactions, but he was particularly sore about the German ammo foiled by the Texas Rangers.
Villa, however, tried to negotiate with Samuel Ravel and sent English speaking colonel Candelario Cervantes to Columbus and get some of the money back from Ravel. Ravel of course refused to give the money back and the message he sent back with Cervantes to Villa was “I’m not going to deal anymore with Mexican bandits.” Villa received this message on Feb. 16, 1916.
That did it! Though the official propaganda machine wanted to portray Villa as a bandit, he considered himself a genuine revolutionary and a military man.
Villa prepared 600 men on horseback to go to Columbus and nab Ravel. Apparently, he knew that he was stepping into U.S. territory, but he really wanted to hang Ravel.
The March 9, 1916, “invasion” lasted just a few hours with the result that Ravel had traveled to El Paso the day before to see a dentist and he was not there during the raid.
Villa and his men tore the town apart, captured 80 horses, 30 mules and 300 rifles. Eight soldiers from the defending garrison were killed along with 10 civilians and a number of Villa’s soldiers.
President Woodrow Wilson ordered General John J. Pershing to stage “a punitive expedition” against Villa.
Pershing failed to find Villa, who knew better the rough Chihuahua terrain, and the expedition ended in 1917 putting an end to one of Pancho Villa’s many military adventures.
Though labeled a “bandido,” Pancho Villa’s remains are kept in the Monument to the Mexican Revolution in downtown Mexico City, as one of the key figures who was part of a larger scenario that fructified in what is today’s Mexico.