Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

Columbus remains one of the only American towns to be invaded by a foreign force since the Revolutionary War. Pancho Villa's "invasion" of the United States occurred on March 9, 1916. It began as a raid conducted by Pancho Villa's Division of the North on Columbus, located just north of the present-day city of Palomas, Chihuahua. The raid escalated into a full-scale battle between the 1,500 "Villistas" and the United States Army. Villa himself led the assault, only to be driven back into Mexico by elements of the 13th Cavalry Regiment stationed at Columbus, but not before killing 19 residents and leaving the town in flames.

The raid by Pancho Villa was in retribution for American support of his rivals for the control of Mexico. In 1913, a bloody civil war in Mexico brought the general Victoriano Huerta to power. American President Woodrow Wilson despised the new regime, referring to it as a “government of butchers,” and provided active military support to a challenger, Venustiano Carranza. Unfortunately, when Carranza won power in 1914, he also proved a disappointment and Wilson supported yet another rebel leader, Pancho Villa.

A wily, peasant-born leader, Villa joined with Emiliano Zapata to keep the spirit of rebellion alive in Mexico and harass the Carranza government. A year later, though, Wilson decided Carranza had made enough steps towards democratic reform to merit official American support, and the president abandoned his support of Pancho Villa. Outraged, Villa turned against the United States. In January 1916, he kidnapped 18 Americans from a Mexican train and slaughtered them. A few weeks later, he led his raid on Columbus.

Now determined to destroy the rebel he had once supported, Wilson ordered General John Pershing to lead 6,000 American troops into Mexico and capture Villa. Reluctantly, Carranza agreed to allow the U.S. to invade Mexican territory. For nearly a year, Pershing and his soldiers chased Pancho Villa using horse, motor vehicles, and even airplanes. Pershing’s troops had several bloody battles with the "Villistas", but after almost a year with thousands of troops and modern military equipment, they were unable to locate Pancho Villa. Eventually, Carranza withdrew permission for the occupation. Pershing returned home in early 1917, and three months later left for Europe as the head of the American Expeditionary Force of World War I.

After the withdraw of American troops from Mexico, Pancho Villa continued with his rebellion against the Carranza government, but never again attacked the United States. After helping remove Carranza from power in 1920, Villa was pardoned and agreed to retire from politics. His enemies assassinated him in 1923 at Parral, Chihuahua.