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A Secret Ransom Payment To Mexico's Pancho Villa
Bancroft Documents Shed Light on Little-Known Chapter in Career of Mexican Revolutionary

By Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
Posted May 5, 1999


Photo: Francisco

Francisco "Pancho" Villa.

Documents recently acquired by The Bancroft Library reveal startling new information on the one-time bandit and famed Mexican revolutionary leader Pancho Villa.

The records show 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 his famous "Division of the North" -- a hushed-up ransom payment secretly arranged by Wells Fargo Express bankrolled Villa's resurgence.

The ransom money "helped propel Villa briefly to the pinnacle of power and influence in the Mexican Revolution," said Walter Brem, the 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 Berkeley's extensive holdings on the Mexican Revolution, including about 120 letters and telegrams from Villa during the years 1913 to 1923.

Francisco "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 D╠az. Villa earned the rank of colonel while helping to unseat D╠az and install Madero. Subsequent political turmoil landed Villa in prison in 1912. He escaped and fled to the United States, but returned to Mexico when Madero and Villa's friend, the governor of Chihuahua, were assassinated in 1913.

In perhaps the most romantic legend attributed to Villa, he 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 to form his famous Divisi█n del Norte (Division of the North). 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 Berkeley documents -- more than a dozen internal memos between Wells Fargo & Company Express, S.A., and its Mexican subsidiary -- proves the story true.

A letter from the Wells Fargo shipping subsidiary in El Paso details Villa's attack. On April 9, 1913, Villa's rebel band stopped a Mexican Northwestern train in southern Chihuahua. Villa and 25 men boarded the train and made off with 122 bars of silver bullion, then worth nearly $160,000. 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 at the time."

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 that 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, Compan╠a 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," pledging not to rob "cars or offices themselves or allow anyone else to do so."

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, 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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May 5 - 11, 1999 (Volume 27, Number 33)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
Comments? E-mail berkeleyan@pa.urel.berkeley.edu.