Government's pursuit of Pancho Villa a lesson in hunting for terrorists

September 19, 2001|By John Petersen and Pete Petersen

TODAY, Columbus, N.M., is a small town in the southwest corner of the state with a population of 1,200. But 85 years ago, it was ground zero for an international terrorist attack that left U.S. citizens dead and wounded and most of the town destroyed.

The terrorists were led by a marginalized, cult-like figure similar to the major suspect behind the recent, horrible terror attacks in New York and Washington. And the effective U.S. response to the 1916 attack can provide a framework for what will work now. All-out war does not crush a band of terrorists, but resolute action will.

The leader of the 1916 attack on Columbus was Mexican Gen. Francisco "Pancho" Villa. He had allied his "Villistas" with the effort of Venustiano Carranza to successfully overthrow the ruling government of Mexico in 1910. Once in power, Carranza decided Villa was no longer an asset. The revolutionary had become an outlaw. With nowhere to go and running out of supplies, Pancho Villa eventually was pushed toward Mexico's northern border with the United States.

On Jan. 10, 1916, Villa stopped a train in Mexico, removed 18 U.S. citizens, stole their possessions, and executed them. Escalating his terror campaign, he crossed the border into New Mexico and attacked Columbus on March 9 in a direct assault on the United States. Villa escaped back across the border and disappeared into the Mexican hills.

President Woodrow Wilson demanded that the Mexican government capture Villa. When it became obvious that Mexico was both unwilling and unable to do so, the United States sent the 10,000-strong Punitive Expeditionary Force deep into Mexico.

The preliminary orders were to capture Pancho Villa and bring him to justice. The Army's chief of staff, Gen. Hugh L. Scott, asked Secretary of War Newton D. Baker if the United States was declaring war on one man. Baker clarified the order to read that the United States wanted Villa's "band captured or destroyed."

The orders were specific: The incursion into Mexico would only be for the stated purpose and that the force would withdraw quickly once this was accomplished.

Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing, later commander in chief of American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, led the expedition into Mexico. The U.S. troops, including the 10th Cavalry "Buffalo Soldiers," an African-American force, suffered greatly from the harsh elements and poor mechanization, but not from Villa's terrorists. They destroyed Pancho Villa's band and the terrorist threat against the United States.

Pancho Villa was never caught -- by U.S. forces. Unknown individuals assassinated him in 1923, while in retirement on his ranch near Hidalgo del Parral, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

The 1916 U.S. expeditionary force only sought to wipe out the terrorist Villistas, not to harm struggling Mexico.

Very little economic or geographic difference exists today between modern Afghanistan and the northern portions of Mexico in 1916. Should we "punish" a region that has ties to a terrorist? No one has suggested bombing the Vero Beach flight school with "ties" to the recent terrorists.

What will work is to give ourselves the authority to step over borders and into disorganized regions of the world to destroy terrorist elements. This will not be easy. Unfortunately, the destruction of buildings with bombs or the capture of one man does not destroy the threat.

But it is possible to destroy a terrorist threat with resolute and thorough action. The United States has neutralized the threat posed by indigenous terrorist Eric Rudolph, chief suspect in the Atlanta Olympics bombing and other deadly explosions, without ever capturing him.

Clearly, the United States wants retribution for the appalling acts committed in Washington and New York. What is more important than revenge, however, is the neutralization of the specific terrorist threat.

To paraphrase Baker in 1916, "We should capture or destroy this band of terrorists." The United States can field and deploy a 21st century expeditionary force. We must realize that this may require laborious, dangerous and expensive efforts but that they can achieve real peace far more effectively than cruise missiles.

John Petersen is a physician from Baltimore practicing in Vero Beach, Fla. His father, Pete Petersen, is professor of management at Johns Hopkins School of Professional Studies in Business and Education and a former infantry battalion commander in Vietnam.

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