Pancho Villa's Treasures
The history of 19th century and early twentieth century Mexico is packed with revolutions and counter revolutions. Since a tradition of viable democracy had no precedence in Mexico, strong men developed throughout the country who were beholden to a president, and from whom military and political power were granted. Allegiances seemed to be held as long as the powerful were made comfortable.
When movements to free peons from subjugation by these large landed estate owners arose, leadership frequently came from the less entitled classes, even gangs. When revolutionary leadership needed to raise large amounts of money for a local community or army, there was always the risk of mischief and thievery. To understand the sums of gold, silver, and resources moving about Mexico during revolutionary times, a bit of history is required.
Aggression at an Early Age
Mexico was under the thumb of the hacienda system, a system which saw local power residing in the wealthy landowners while peasants were relegated to serf status working in mines, on farms, or ranches. For over 30 years, Porfirio Diaz, the President of Mexico, ruled the country in this manner favoring the landed and increasing Mexico's debt to foreign countries.
Doroteo Arango, aka Pancho Villa, started working in the fields at a young age. He turned to robbery and banditry when his sister was raped by either a wealthy landowner or Federal Army troops, depending on the version of the story. In some versions he killed the perpetrator at the age of 16, in another he shot the guilty party in the foot. He apparently decided that he hadn't much to lose by becoming an outlaw, and soon his fighting skills brought him to a position of leadership within a gang. He hid in the mountains, coming out to raid and retreat swiftly and effectively with his cavalry. He shared plunder from banks, ranches, railroads, and mines with the less fortunate, and soon became known of as one who took from the rich and gave to the poor.
Sometime in 1909 or 1910, Villa met a political representative of Francisco Madero, Abraham Gonzales, a man who disapproved of the Porfirio Diaz government. This man gave Pancho Villa his first look at what we might call political science today. Some accounts claim that Gonzales even helped him learn to read and write. Both men wanted a better life for their enslaved population, and soon Villa decided to become a revolutionary.
A Tale of Buried Silver Bullion
In 1911, Pancho Villa commanding the Division Del Norte in the north of Mexico and Emiliano Zapata commanding the Liberation Army of the South defeated Porfirio Diaz and the Federal Army. By 1913, both had parted ways and were supporting other leaders fighting to take power from President Francisco Madero. War requires money, and funding for a revolutionary army is always difficult to secure. Pancho Villa was creative in his quest to support his men.
A famous tale of Pancho Villa and stolen silver bars has been told over and over for many years. But today, documentation discovered by the University of California, Berkeley in 1996 and made public in 1999 brings the truth to light.
On April 9, 1913, Pancho Villa liberated bullion from Mexican Northwestern Train 7. A letter authored by Wells Fargo Bank in El Paso, Texas reveals that a train was plundered south of the capital of the state of Chihuahua (also Chihuahua). Villa and two hundred men held up the train and took 122 ingots of silver worth an estimated $3.4 million today. The silver came from Mexican mines and had been smelted by American companies. Villa knew that trying to cross the border and unload such a quantity of precious metal in the United States would bring about unwanted attention and risk.
Villa arranged for a secret deal with Wells Fargo about 3 weeks after the robbery. He would give the bank the silver in return for the equivalent of $50,000 ($1 million in today's cash). As a bit of value added, he promised to protect any other shipments of bullion from attack, and promised that the arrangement would be strictly confidential. He also promised to not attack Wells Fargo offices or cars. Another letter indicates that Wells Fargo was afraid of the repercussions of telling other revolutionaries or the federal government of what had taken place.
The undocumented tale tells of Pancho Villa and his men traveling on the same train they robbed to a town called San Andres where government soldiers attacked them. At night, he and his men escaped to a town called Bachiniva. Somewhere along the road to the same, one of his soldiers who had been killed was buried. In that grave is the body of an outlaw and 122 bars of silver. But now we know that Villa got cash for the silver – and, oh, I forgot to tell you - he only returned 96 bars. Twenty-six bars of silver are not accounted for. For my money, I would bet that that was traded for supplies for his men, which seems to have been his pattern of behavior through 1923.
Another Treasure - This Time Gold
An important wide spread tale of Pancho Villa's fortune is less well documented but nevertheless continues his legend in Mexico. A significant horde of gold is said to be hidden north of Mazatlan and west of Durango. Not far from the Gulf of California it lies close to the town of Tepuxta. This area was a place of retreat for Pancho Villa. A cavern near the origin of the Rio Presidio River is reportedly the hideaway of this famous treasure. Not coincidently, much of Pancho Villas activity and that of his men was in and around the Sierra Madre Mountains, a place where Villa and his bandits would take refuge after their hit and run tactics with the Federal Army. It is in these mountains that the Rio Presidio begins as a stream.
Banco Minero Funds Pancho Villa
In December of 1913, Pancho Villa and his "Villistas", again in need of money for warfare financing, raided Chihuahua and the Banco Minero. Director of the bank, Luis Terrazas, stayed behind at his hacienda to protect his family. From there he retreated hastily to the British Consulate thinking that he would be safe due to traditional immunity. Unfortunately, Pancho Villa, in typical fashion, was not impressed by traditional decorum and raided the consulate capturing Terrazas. Earlier a bank manager had devulged that a store of gold had been removed from the bank safe and hidden. After some hours of torture, Tarrazas gave up that the gold was hidden in one of the bank columns. One of Villa's senior officers found the gold after a destructive search. Gold in the amount of 600,000 Pesos ($6.3 million today) was uncovered. Legend has it that the treasure has never been found, and I suspect Villa spent it on weapons, horses, mules, wagons, food, and ammunition. War is a very costly endeavor.
In an irony befitting this enigmatic figure, local folklore has it that an American treasure hunter beheaded him to sell his skull to an eccentric millionaire who collected the heads of historic ﬁgures. Buried in Parral, Mexico, his skull was stolen in 1926. Villa had stolen a great deal during his years, only to end up having his own grave robbed.
Pancho Villa loved to have his photograph taken, even playing himself in moving pictures. His military tactics were bold enough and successful enough that American General John Pershing felt it important to study them. His generosity with his troops and the peasantry of Mexico are the stuff of Mexican songs known as corridos. Villa's propensity for ruthlessness and torture are also well known. He held political office, invaded the U.S. at Columbus, New Mexico, and had his battles in 1913 filmed.
Regardless of your opinion of the man, Pancho Villa's memory will continue to inspire affection and bitterness, much as it has for the last 100 years.
Who was Pancho Villa?
http://felixsommerfeld.com/news/mexican-revolution-blog/2013/7/16/where-is-pancho-villas-gold, July 16, 2013, Heribert von Feilitzsch
http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/99legacy/5-3-1999.html, University of California, Berkelely, 5/3/99, Public Affairs (510-642-3734), Kathleen Scalise, Public Affairs
http://bobbrooke.com/panchovilla.htm, Writing At Its Best, Bob Brooke Communications 2000-2017
http://www.buscadores-tesoros.com/t196-tesoro-de-pancho-villa-en-tepuxtla, June 14, 2008, Pedro Cantu
Biography of Pancho Villa, Didactic Encyclopedia, https://edukalife.blogspot.com, 2016/09, biography-of-francisco-villa-pancho.html, September 26, 2016
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© 2017 John R Wilsdon