An Assessment of the U.S. Punitive Expedition of 1916

Roger Soiset graduated from The Citadel in 1968 with a B.S. in history, and after serving in the U.S. Army graduated from California State University (Long Beach) with a Master’s degree in history.   Roger’s fields of specialization are ancient history and the Vietnam Era.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  An Assessment of the U.S. Punitive Expedition of 1916

Date Originally Written:  April 7, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  June 3, 2019.

Summary:  Prior to the 9/11 attacks was Pancho Villa’s 1916 attack on Columbus, New Mexico.  Large-scale efforts to capture Villa failed.  Border violence continued until the success of a more focused U.S. response in 1919.  Today the U.S.-Mexico border remains unsecured and discussions continue to determine the best approach. 

Text:  The attack by Al Qaeda on 9/11/2001 was the second such attack on the continental U.S., the first being in the 20th century.  In view of ongoing discussions about U.S. border security, it is useful to look at the U.S. response to terrorist attacks from Mexico a hundred years ago.  

Emerging as the hero of the Mexican Revolution was Francisco Madero, elected president in 1911 and soon enjoying cordial relations with U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.  The U.S. and Mexico both had presidents who were liberal reformers until Madero was murdered.  Madero’s purported murderer was his successor, Victoriana Huerta.  Following Madero’s death, rebellions promptly broke out in several areas, led by men like “Pancho” Villa,  Emiliano Zapata, and Venustiano Carranza.

The U.S. had already occupied a Mexican seaport, Veracruz, in April 1914 in order to prevent the landing of arms for rebels by a German ship.  Believed to be Mausers direct from Hamburg, it turned out the rifles were Remingtons from New York, but that was not discovered until later. The occupation of Veracruz lasted five months and saw lives lost on both sides.  Huerta’s departure in 1915, the successful blocking of “German” arms and U.S. recognition of Carranza’s government smoothed the troubled U.S.-Mexico relations for everyone except Pancho Villa[1].  Wilson’s arms embargo applied to all the parties involved in the revolution except for the legitimate government, so this meant Carranza was not affected–but Villa was[2].

Villa’s anger resulted in U.S. civilian casualties in Mexico when 17 U.S. mining personnel were executed by Villa’s men in January 1916[3].  Then on March 6, 1916, Villa and about a thousand of his men raided Columbus, New Mexico, killing nine civilians and eight soldiers.  The demand for Wilson to “do something” was not to be denied and he invoked the “hot pursuit” doctrine.  President Carranza’s foreign minister Jesus Acuna informed Wilson that he agreed in principle “to the reciprocity of hot pursuit of bandits…if the raid at Columbus should unfortunately be repeated elsewhere[4].”  Wilson chose to ignore this last caveat and took the message to be an unrestricted right to pursue Pancho Villa into Mexico.  Carranza desperately needed U.S. support, so remained largely silent.  

Despite the ruthless treatment of many Mexican towns by Villa and his men, he was still supported by most Mexicans; or perhaps they feared the local bandit more than their weak government and the “yanquis” whom they hoped would soon go home.  Carranza, seeing his popularity sinking due to his corruption and tolerance of this “gringo” invasion, increasingly made life difficult for U.S. Army General John J. Pershing and his 10,000 men who were pursuing Villa in Mexico.   Perhaps the best examples of Carranza’s efforts were his denial to Pershing the use of the Mexican Northwestern Railway to move troops and positioning Mexican federal troops in the Americans’ path[5].  

Notwithstanding the politics, weather, terrain and the difficulty of the mission, Pershing continued the pursuit some 300 miles into Mexico before two skirmishes occurred between the U.S. and Mexican Army forces with casualties on both sides.  After six weeks, the punitive expedition had come to its Rubicon: fight the hostile Mexican Army before them and possibly start a war, or withdraw.  The withdrawal option was taken, although it took more than seven months before the last U.S. troops crossed back into Texas in February 1917…just in time to pack new gear for World War I in France.  Despite Pershing not capturing Villa,  the nine months in Mexico had proven invaluable insofar as getting the U.S. Army in shape for World War I and giving new equipment a field trial.         

But it wasn’t over in 1917—Pancho Villa and his “Army of the North” were busy looting and shooting up Juarez, Mexico, again in June 1919, just across the Rio Grande from Ft. Bliss.  Bullets from the raid killed and wounded U.S. personnel on the base, and this time prompt action was taken.  A combined infantry and cavalry force attacked Villa’s band of approximately 1200 men and destroyed or disbursed them so effectively that Villa never rode again[6].  One wonders what the course of events might have been after a similar action in January 1915 at the town of Naco in Sonora, Mexico, when a Villa band had driven Carranza’s forces from that border town.  Stray bullets killed one American and wounded twenty-six more in Douglas, Arizona.  The U.S. reaction was to remove the Tenth Cavalry four miles north of the danger zone[7]. This reaction, viewed as weakness, encouraged contempt and further violence.  A limited response in 1915 like the later one in 1919 might very well have discouraged another such incident—and the violence at Columbus might never have happened.     

If President Wilson had recognized Victoriana Huerta as the legitimate ruler of Mexico as did most other countries, it is likely that the Mexican Revolution would have ended in 1913.  If Wilson had not decided to stop Germany from supplying arms to rebels in 1914, Pancho Villa’s relations with the U.S would not have soured.  The revolutions in Morelos (Zapata), Coahuila (Carranza) and Chihuahua (Villa) might very well have burned themselves out without the added incentive of a foreign army invading their land.  As it was, Carranza would become the undisputed president after the murder of his rival Zapata in 1919 and the bribing of Villa into retirement (which was made permanent in 1923 with his murder).  One is reminded of that description of Europe after the Hundred Years War: “They made a desert and called it peace.”

It is said that good fences make good neighbors.  The incidents cited in this paper show the truth of this from a hundred years ago, and certainly events today beg the question: What is the best approach to securing the U.S. border with Mexico?    


[1] Mason, Herbert Molloy, Jr, pp. 45-50.  “The Great Pursuit: Pershing’s Expedition to Destroy Pancho Villa”, Smithmark Publishers, 1970.”  Hereafter, “Mason”.

[2] Eisenhower, John S. D., p. 185. “Intervention! The United States and the Mexican Revolution, 1913-1917”. W.W. Norton & Co., 1993.  Hereafter, “Eisenhower”.

[3] “U.S. Imperialism and Progressivism 1896 to 1920”, ed. Jeff Wallenfeldt, p. 41. 

[4] Mason, p. 71.

[5] Eisenhower, p. 236.

[6] Eisenhower, p. 312.

[7] Eisenhower, p. 171.

Assessment Papers Border Security Mexico Roger Soiset United States

Options for Mexico with the Trump Administration

Vincent Dueñas is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a U.S. Army Major, and an Associate Member of the Military Writers Guild.  This Mexico vignette was first written to fulfill a requirement in his degree program.  The views reflected are his own and do not represent the opinion of the United States Government or any of its agencies.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto faces a potentially combative relationship with the United States (U.S.), anemic economic growth, and increasing security concerns from Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs).

Date Originally Written:  December 21, 2016.

Date Originally Published:  February 9, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the perspective of the National Security Advisor for Mexican President Peña Nieto, who is offering options for Mexico, in light of incomplete domestic reforms and emergent challenges from the U.S.

Background:  President Peña Nieto’s “Pacto por México” was an agreement aimed at unifying the country’s three major parties in strengthening the Mexican state, improving political and economic democratization, and expanding social rights.  This agreement resulted in the successful enactment of constitutional reforms, but implementation has stalled due to opposition and unfavorable global conditions[1][2].  President Peña Nieto won the presidency as a member of the historically powerful, centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).  His election revived the PRI’s control after a 12-year tenure under the right of center National Action Party (PAN).  The PAN and the left of center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) have recently undermined the implementation of the President’s reforms for their own political gain prior to the 2018 election.

Significance:  Current U.S. overtures calling for the funding of a border wall by Mexico and the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) pose a significant challenge to Mexico’s economic and national security dynamics.  This dramatic shift in relationship with the U.S., Mexico’s largest trading partner, may detrimentally impact Mexico and create a dangerous security issue.  Although we have a large capable military, our forces are committed to fighting TCOs and we are not prepared to engage in a direct conflict with the U.S.  As a nation, Mexico has actively sought to participate fully in the global liberal world order and a failure to counterbalance U.S. overtures threatens to destabilize our economy and amplify the worsening TCO problem.

Option #1:  Continue the “Pacto por México” and engage in limited unilateral diplomatic confrontation with the U.S.

Risk:  The risk in continuing the “Pacto por México” rests mainly in the inability for the country to implement these reforms at this critical juncture.  President Peña Nieto’s legacy will be incomplete as the PAN and PRD sabotage the progress on reforms in order to gain political advantage.  In responding reactively to the U.S., President Peña Nieto risks being seen as weak and our government will continue to lose legitimacy.  Progress in combating TCOs will continue to fall short as necessary judicial reforms will fail to materialize.

Gain:  The greatest gain from this approach would be the preservation of the status quo, drawing the least ire from the U.S.  It would minimize potential economic blowback and allow maximum possibility for favorable concessions from the U.S. during any renegotiation over NAFTA.  Additionally, it provides the most assured means of avoiding repercussions against vital security cooperation and assistance funding and collaboration with the U.S. military and its security agencies.

Option #2:  Get out in front of the U.S.’ overtures and reframe the challenge of the U.S. through a new PRI-led domestic campaign of “Dialogues” that would represent the next phase of “Pacto por Mexico” and reinvigorate public support for the reforms.  Acknowledging that the “Pacto” has faced difficulties, Mexican society can be rallied together by the PRI through a communications campaign that frames Mexico as a parent-like figure to the U.S., who is suffering from drugs and self-destructive behavior.  This campaign can connect directly with Mexican citizens’ familial inclinations through a perspective that describes a parent who is caring for a fellow family member with understanding.  Simultaneously, a provisional dialogue with TCOs should be initiated to seek a reduction in violence on the basis of pride and the threat that U.S. actions pose to Mexican society writ large.  Lastly, we should initiate and lead a multilateral hemispheric effort to economically and diplomatically counterbalance the U.S. by reinvigorating the concept of the Free Trade Agreement for the Americas.

Risk:  The risks are many, but the dialogue with TCOs poses the greatest risk, as the perception of government collusion with criminals could become a scandal that could undo the party.  The suspension of remittances and security cooperation and assistance funding, such as the Mérida Initiative, would be extremely costly.  This approach would also signal a clear departure from a collaborative approach with the U.S. and commit Mexico to dependency exclusively on other markets, such as China and the countries in Latin America, which historically have not looked favorably towards Mexico.

Gain:  This would increase Mexico’s leverage against the U.S. by spearheading a hemispheric economic block.  A deliberate campaign of domestic and international action could consolidate the PRI’s authority within the country as the leader that will protect Mexican citizens from hostile U.S. intentions and lead a hemispheric coalition to confront discordant U.S. policies.  Riding the hopefulness of the Colombian peace process, a successful truce with TCOs could bring about an era of peace and stability that would allow judicial reforms to be implemented, which could eventually tackle corruption.  President Peña Nieto can garner attention, legitimacy, and credibility by speaking objectively and unemotionally as a counterbalance to the U.S. approach.  This could also pay out in dividends as other regions of the world may begin to look to Mexico as a primary partner in the hemisphere.

Other Comments:  The U.S.’ redefinition of its role as guarantor of the international post-World War 2 order provides the opportunity for other states to become more authoritative in international affairs.  China, for example, has begun challenging the U.S.’ will to engage in a military confrontation in the South China Sea.  Brazil, Canada, Colombia and Mexico are the hemisphere’s most sizeable economic and military powers after the U.S.  Brazil is experiencing political upheaval and is incapable of significant international action.  Canada is too close of an ally to the U.S. and most likely would be unwilling to challenge them directly.  Colombia is undergoing a peace process and is also a major ally of the U.S., which reduces their willingness to challenge the U.S. directly.  Mexico therefore stands as the only country with the ability and freedom to assert itself against the U.S. in the hemisphere.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  Sada, Andres. “Explainer: What is the Pacto por Mexico?” Americas Society/Council of the Americas. March 11,2013. Retrieved January 26, 2017, froméxico.

[2]  U.S. Congressional Research Service. Mexico: Background and U.S. Relations (CRS-2016-FDT-0759; December 5, 2016), by Clare Ribando Seelke. Text in ProQuest Congressional Research Digital Collection. Retrieved January 26, 2017.

Mexico Option Papers Vincent Dueñas