May 3, 1999
BERKELEY — Documents recently acquired by The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, reveal new information on the one-time bandit and famed Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.
The records indicate that at a critical point in Villa’s career — when he had only a few men under his command but was soon to add thousands more to assemble the dreaded
Division of the North — a hushed-up ransom payment secretly arranged by Wells Fargo Express bankrolled Villa’s resurgence. The existence of the ransom payment was not previously known.
helped propel Villa briefly to the pinnacle of power and influence in the Mexican Revolution, said Walter Brem, the UC Berkeley Bancroft Library curator who uncovered the information.
This is a real find. It’s a real smoking gun. It documents an event that historians have treated warily.
Brem made the discovery recently while reviewing Wells Fargo field office documents added to the collection in 1996, purchased from a United States dealer. The records supplement UC Berkeley’s already extensive holdings on the Mexican Revolution, including about 120 letters and telegrams from Villa during the years 1913 to 1923.
Pancho Villa, born Doroteo Arango in 1878, was an important guerrilla leader in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). This bloody struggle ended a 30-year dictatorship in Mexico and ultimately established a constitutional republic.
In 1910, Villa joined Mexican revolutionary Francisco Madero’s uprising against the dictator of Mexico, Porfirio Díaz. Villa earned the rank of colonel while helping to unseat Díaz and install Madero.
Subsequent political turmoil landed Villa in prison in 1912. He escaped and fled to the United States, only returning to Mexico, outraged, when Madero and Villa’s friend, the governor of Chihuahua, were assassinated in 1913.
In perhaps the most romantic legend attributed to him, Villa crossed the border to avenge his friend’s death and restore the revolutionary cause with a band of only about eight men, but soon recruited thousands more with his charismatic leadership and formed his famous División del Norte (Division of the North), a potent military machine. By 1914 they had won a string of important victories.
Legend has it that Villa fueled this war effort in part by looting a rich silver train, but this account was only reported in one semi-historical 1938 book,
Memorias de Pancho Villa.
The newly discovered UC Berkeley documents — more than a dozen internal memos between Wells Fargo & Company Express, S.A., and its Mexican subsidiary — prove the truth of this legend. The letters, some in English, also indicate what happened to the silver and why its fate was long concealed.
A letter from the Wells Fargo shipping subsidiary in El Paso details Villa’s attack. Villa’s rebel band, then between 150 and 200 strong, stopped Mexican Northwestern Train No. 7 in southern Chihuahua, Mexico, on April 9, 1913. Villa and 25 men boarded the train and made off with 122 bars of silver bullion, then worth nearly $160,000.
One passenger was killed
in a most cruel way, torturing and mutilating him horribly, the letter said, corroborating the
Memorias account that says one train passenger was
shot for possessing enemy military orders.
Wells Fargo correspondence readily identifies the stolen silver bars, and customs and military authorities were alerted. Under these conditions in war-torn Mexico, selling the silver would have been nearly impossible, Brem said.
What happens when a revolutionary knocks over a train and steals a load of silver? said Brem.
What is he going to do with the stuff? There were arms, financial and transportation embargoes.
Villa’s solution, the Wells Fargo papers reveal, was to initiate a backroom deal brokered by Wells Fargo subsidiary agents. In exchange for $50,000 dollars cash, paid out in pesos by the mining companies who owned the bullion, Villa agreed to return the silver.
The terms of the deal were to be kept
strictly confidential, according to a letter from the Wells Fargo subsidiary, Compañia Mexicana de Express, S.A., dated about three weeks after the theft.
Do not let any member of the Junta, the loosely allied revolutionary band trying to overthrow the government,
or anyone else know of the terms, the letter said.
Wells Fargo refused to publicly acknowledge the payment because it did not want to be accused of
aiding and abetting enemies of the Mexican — and later American — government. Other documents suggest the company feared copycat robberies.
As part of the deal, Villa also promised the Wells Fargo subsidiary
protection, the Berkeley documents reveal. He pledged not to rob
cars or offices themselves or allow anyone else to do so.
The letters also reveal that, inexplicably, the Wells Fargo subsidiary made critical mistakes that left it vulnerable to the robbery in the first place. It agreed to ship much of the silver without the usual release forms waiving responsibility in the event of theft. Also company policy forbade such shipments through the dangerous region. The robbery came as an unwelcome surprise to Wells Fargo Executive Vice President E. R. Jones, who writes from Los Angeles demanding to know why the shipment had ever been accepted in the first place.
A final letter on the theft indicated Villa ultimately returned 93 of the silver bars. He claimed the other 28 were missing, stolen by his men.
Villa went on to become governor of the state of Chihuahua and in 1914 entered Mexico City as one of the victorious leaders of the revolution. But Villa’s fortunes soon declined. His forces were badly defeated by rival revolutionaries, and Villa returned to guerrilla warfare. Among subsequent deeds, Villa’s execution of 16 United States citizens at Santa Isabel, followed by an infamous raid on Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, incurred President Woodrow Wilson’s wrath. The president dispatched an army expedition after Villa, but the outlaw was never captured.
In 1920 Villa retired to a Chihuahua ranch. He was assassinated three years later.
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