The day Pancho Villa invaded the U.S.

It remains for General Villa and the militiamen of the Northern Division the honor of seeking to avenge the opprobrium of U.S. imperialism by invading their territory with a revolutionary force.

The day Pancho Villa invaded the U.S.
Pancho villa invades the U.S. Photos: txalaparta

In Latin America's stormy relations with the United States, since the latter became independent. Endured continued siege, aggressions, invasions, occupations, and interventions of all kinds, some direct and others covert. Since the beginning of the 19th century, the United States has repeatedly invaded the countries south of the Rio Grande. Mexico, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Colombia, Panama, Puerto Rico, and Nicaragua, among others, have seen their national sovereignty sullied and have endured the intrusion into their territories of the "glebe of morphinomaniacs", as César Augusto Sandino called the Yankee Marines.

There have been so many aggressions against us by the United States that their enumeration alone would fill several volumes. Because of this very frequency, sometimes the impression is left that one more invasion or intervention (whether it is called Plan Colombia or Plan Puebla-Panama) is no longer news. The strange thing is the opposite, that it is Latin America that invades the United States. It is as if it happened as in the old joke: news is not when a dog kills a man, news is when a man kills a dog. And that is exactly what happened exactly a century ago, on March 9, 1916.

On that day, for the first and only time in history, so far, the United States was attacked and invaded for a few hours from Latin American territory, more exactly from its neighboring country, Mexico. It was not the first attack that the United States had endured, for, in the War of 1812, England had already done so. But that had been carried out as part of conventional war and by a world power, and in that sense, it was of little glory or interest. That of 1916 was something completely different, the invaders were Latin Americans, Mexicans to be precise, and their attack was unprecedented. Nor was there ever a similar event again.

On that occasion, a group of 500 armed men, under the leadership of the revolutionary leader Pancho Villa, attacked the small town of Columbus, located in New Mexico, in the border area with Mexico. Columbus was a small town, in a military camp, where less than 800 people lived. That town was like chorizo, a single long street, where the stores, a bank, and a hotel were located.

Shouting "Viva Mexico! Death to the gringos!", the contingent of Mexican guerrillas raided Colombus at 4:45 a.m. on March 9, 1916. Pancho Villa had his reasons for attacking the United States, which ranged from personal to strategic issues. In personal terms, he did not admit that an arms dealer, resident in Columbus, and by the name of Samuel Ravel, had denied him the delivery of some Springfield rifles that he had already paid for. He was outraged to learn that in the city of El Paso (United States) a score of Mexicans had been brutally murdered when the jailer set fire to them. But the fundamental reasons of a born military man, and a consummate strategist, as Pancho Villa was, went beyond his considerations.

A poster offering 5000 dollars for the capture of Pancho Villa.
A poster offering 5000 dollars for the capture of Pancho Villa.

The fundamental reason why he decided to invade the United States was to reject the support that Woodrow Wilson's government had given to the constitutionalist government of Venustiano Carranza because he believed that this meant the end of Mexican sovereignty. The alliance between the two governments implied in practice that the United States supplied arms to the Constitutionalists and allowed the use of its territory for the movement of its troops, thus facilitating the attack against Pancho Villa's troops.

As a result of these events, Pancho Villa published a manifesto on November 21, 1915, in which he denounced that the price to be paid for the American support to Carranza was "the sale of our country by the traitor Carranza". In the same sense, in a letter sent to Emiliano Zapata, he stated: "The sale of the homeland is a fact, and in such circumstances [...] we decide not to burn one more cartridge with the Mexicans, our brothers, and prepare and organize ourselves properly to attack the Americans in their own burrows and let them know that Mexico is the land of the free and the tomb of thrones, crowns, and traitors".

With his attack on Colombus, Villa intended to break the good relations between the United States and the Constitutionalist government. With this, he also sought to rebuild, amid the nationalist reaction, his army (the once-powerful Northern Division), which was seriously decimated and had suffered important blows from the troops loyal to Carranza.

The attack of the guerrilla troops commanded by Pancho Villa was quite disorderly, which allowed the Yankee troops, as well as the civilians who were in the town, to respond quickly. One of the most costly mistakes was to have burned a hotel, a fact that facilitated the location of the attackers. The confrontation lasted six hours, at the end of which the Villa troops collected their wounded and returned to Mexico, capturing 80 horses, 30 mules, and 300 rifles. The final toll of the attack, about which there are discrepancies among historians, was 17 U.S. military personnel killed, along with ten civilians and about 80 villistas died. Seven of them were also captured. Colombus was destroyed, and the first images of the day showed a place in ruins and flames.

Columbus town after Pancho Villa raid.
Columbus town after Pancho Villa raid.

The response of the United States, as was to be expected, was brutal. To pursue Pancho Villa, a hunt was organized, like those typical of the Far West: a price was put on his head, he was classified as a common bandit, and he was pursued for nearly a year, as part of the so-called Punitive Expedition led by General John Pershing. The persecution took place in Mexican territory, in a typical case of territorial invasion. But the United States could not achieve its objective of capturing Pancho Villa dead or alive. The hunt for the popular revolutionary was a resounding failure for the United States, due to the available troops, five thousand men, the costs of the same, and the investment in arms and equipment, of an army with cavalry, infantry, and artillery units and an air squadron of eight airplanes.

Of course, as is frequent in US military interventions, the incursion served to test new weapons and war tactics, which will be very useful in later wars. About the invaders, the Mexicans said, with their characteristic humor, "They came in like eagles and are leaving like wet chickens!"

Pancho Villa became the symbol of popular resistance to the invasion and his image acquired a notable nationalist connotation, as a defender of Mexico's territorial sovereignty. Pancho Villa's incursion into U.S. territory a century ago is a memorable historical milestone. It should always be remembered as an example of independence and dignity. Surely in other conditions, in a united and sovereign continent, March 9 would be a public holiday, and the statue of Pancho Villa would be present in the main squares of all cities, as a way of paying tribute to the memory of the only one who has dared to attack the United States in its own home.