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VILLA TURNS ATTENTION TO OJINAGA AND CAPTURES THE BORDER TOWN: A 1966 PEN FROM THE PAST BY ROSS MCSWAIN 


Pancho Villa, well supplied after taking Juarez in mid-November 1913, sent three brigades of about 3,000 men to attack Ojinaga and entrap a long time foe, Gen. Luis Terrazas, who was trying to escape to the United States with gold bullion believed to be valued at $2 million.

The tree brigades, moving from separate areas of Chihuahua, traveled on horseback and on foot. Villa assigned 500 of his own brigade to the battle. The Gonzales Ortega Brigade, commanded by Torbino Ortega, had more than 550 soldiers. Fresh from the brief skirmish at Chihuahua City, the brigade also had two batteries of 75-millimeter cannon and some heavy machine guns.

A member of the Ortega brigade, Pedro Cabrajal, lives in Ojinaga. The 71-year-old veteran of Villa's army was a foot soldier. Until recently, he served as night watchman at the Ojinaga mayor's home.

Cabrajal and a childhood friend, Ignacio Rodriquez, 72, fought nearly a month at Ojinaga during that cold January in 1914. Although the two men grew up together in the Ojinaga area, they battled each other. Rodriguez was sergeant with the federal forces.

Recently, the two veterans recalled the battle during an all-day interview which started in the Ojinaga mayor's office and ended when a hard thunderstorm fell over the battleground as the two men pointed out positions from which each fought.

Cabrajal said the brigade he was in left Chihuahua City a few days before Christmas. According to records, it was on Dec. 22, 1913.

First contact between the Villa forces and the federal troops in Ojinaga came on New Year's Day, 1914.

Rodriquez said a cavalry patrol saw the first Villa troops moving on the city from the south. The patrol attacked the Villa soldiers and blew up an artillery piece. In the ensuing fight, the federal soldiers caused many causalities and caused the first contingent of Villa soldiers to retreat.

Cabrajal was not in the first fight with the federals, nor was Rodriguez involved. Rodriquez was in the federal troop encampment in the center of town.

On New Year's night, Cabrajal and other Villa infantry moved closer to the town.

"It was very cold," Cabrajal recalled, "Many had blankets and some of the soldiers had no shoes. Many hundreds of fires could be seen over the countryside as the men tried to warm themselves."

On the third day, federal troops, mostly on horseback charged the Villa lines. Rodriquez was one of them. Federal artillery supported the attack.

"We rode right into the first of them, hollering and shooting," Rodriquez said. "Many ran and were shot. Some were trampled under the horses."

Cabrajal said he lay in his shallow rifle pit and just fired his rifle at the first horseman he could see. Asked if he saw any federal troops fall, he could only shrug his shoulders. The fight ended in less than an hour. Villa artillery slammed into the federals and forced them to retreat to the town. Only minor casualties were inflicted on the cavalry troops, but Villa lost more than 100 men. An additional 130 were taken prisoner.

According to Mexican official records, Villa lost more than 300 men the first three days of the Ojinaga attack. About 200 were killed in the first skirmish. Another 100 died died in the federal attack on Jan. 3.

The prisoners were herded into Ojinaga and held overnight. They were shot the next day. Although Rodriquez knew of the Villa men being shot, he said he did not take part in the executions.

Cabrajal said the Villa forces retreated a second time from the battle to the base of a mountain just south of Ojinaga. During the withdrawal, federal forces ambushed a Villa column in a draw not far from the present site of the new Ojinaga railroad station.

"Hundreds were slaughtered there like cattle," Cabrajal said.

The draw, now called Arroyo del Muerte is filled in some. Many Ojinaga residents say more than 1,000 bodies were counted there after the battle was over. Most of the bodies were buried there, they say.

Rodriquez said federal troops were ordered to dig entrenchments about the town during a lull in the fight.

"We were heavily outnumbered, but we were ordered to make a stand," he said.

Rodriquez said many of the soldiers in the town sympathized with the Villa movement, including himself, but they had to fight or be shot. "Life wasn't worth much," he said.

The two men said they knew of many instances in which brother fought against brother and father fought against sons during the revolution.

Cabrajal, a teenager during the battle, joined Villa in 1911.

The old Villa soldier said he was recruited along with a number of relatives to fight by his brigade leader, Ortega.

"It was for a cause," he said. "My family was poor. We had no land. Ortega said when the fighting was over, everyone would be given land to farm."

Rodriquez, the federal trooper, joined the army because he couldn't find work. He said he liked the army because he was given clothes, food, a good place to sleep and he had a fine horse. He said he was given a peso a day (21 cents).

Commander of Rodriquez's troop was Capt. Marcus Cano. Cano, also an Ojinaga resident, died several years ago. The federal troops stationed at Ojinaga numbered about 350 regulars and about 60 reserves. Federal soldiers with Terrazas boosted the total to about 600.

Villa advised of discontent among brigade leaders, sent an additional 2,000 men into the Ojinaga battle on Jan. 6. he directed Martiniano Servin, an artillery commander to take command of the Villa forces until he could arrive on the scene.

On Jan. 10, it was announced that Villa was with his troops. A stream of refugees, ignoring sniper fire, fled Ojinaga to Presidio. Now more than 2,000 refugees were interred there.

On Jan. 11, Villa mounted the final attack on Ojinaga. He sent a column of 800 men to attack the town from the south, led by his generals Hernandez and Jose Rodriquez. Just west of the town, Villa placed his artillery in an area between the Conchos and Rio Bravo (Rio Grande). Villa with 900 men under his direct command, and Toribio Ortega's brigade reinforced to 700 men, started advancing from the north just at daybreak.

Salvador Mercado and Pascual Orozco, federal forces leaders, directed the defense of the city from the old customs house.

Pedro Cabrajal, the Villa foot soldier who still lives in Ojinaga, said the rifle fire was intense from the town as the Ortega men advanced across the chaparral area, immediately across from where the international bridge is now located.

We ran and hollered "Viva Villa", Cabrajal sid with a gleam in his eyes.

Ignacio Rodriquez, a federal soldier during the night now a retired railroad worker living in Ojinaga, said the Villa forces moved out of the draws and arroyos surrounding the town and started swarming toward them.

"Hundreds and hundreds came yelling and shooting," he said. "We were frightened but our officers would not let us leave the trenches. They told us to shoot."

Villa's artillery pounded the city and the trench fortifications. Some of the shells screamed over the Rio Grande and exploded within several hundred yards of Presidio.

Carlos Spencer, a storekeeper in Presidio, said he remembers his father telling of the shells falling near the first Spencer store. Small arms punctured the store's kerosene storage tank.

"Presidio was much closer to the river then," Spencer explained. "The town site was moved back from the river after a bad flood in the "20's."

Americans sent a note to Villa's artillery commander asking that the gun's elevation be lowered. It was done so immediately.

But when the artillery was adjusted, some of the shells then fell among Villa's own men, Cabrajal recalled.

"Several men near me were blown to bits when a shell landed close by," he said.

The final battle, fought during the late morning hours and early afternoon, lasted only a few hours.

The federals, outnumbered 5 to 1, retreated to the river and crossed over, only to be rounded up by U.S. cavalrymen from Marfa, sent to protect Presidio.

Villa lost an estimated 100 soldiers in the final assault. Some historians have put the Villa dead at a much higher figure. But Cabrajal said losses were light on the final day.

"The Federalists lost heavily in the last attack," Cabrajal said.

Rodriquez, one of the federal soldiers to escape to Presidio, was put into a camp with other soldiers. Their arms, munitions and other supplies were taken over by the U.S. Army.

Cabrajal said the chaparral area was littered with destroyed, dead horses, bodies of dead and wounded.

"The wounded were cared for by several doctors in the Villa army," he said. "Many of the wounded, both Villa and army men were carried to Presidio for treatment."

Cabrajal said after the town was taken, the Villa troops sacked homes for food, clothing and gold.

We just stayed around the town for about a week before leaving, he said.

During the week after the battle, townspeople were told to bury the dead. Some of the federal troops, watched carefully by Americans ordered to protect them from the Villistas, also helped bury the dead.

Cabrajal said most of the Villa men just rested, drank and ate while the townsmen cared for the dead and wounded. Equipment left behind was quickly collected for Villa's rag-tag army.

Rodriquez walked to Marfa with the thousands of refugees, where all were put aboard trains and sent to Fort Bliss. He stayed in the United States and worked on the Southern Pacific Railroad after the revolution until 1926. he returned to Ojinaga and worked as a laborer.

Cabrajal fought two more years with Villa. He was seriously wounded in a battle on the Durango-Chihuahua border in early 1916. He finally returned to the Ojinaga area about 1920. He lives with his sons. Rodriquez lives with his daughters.

The men said there were several Ojinaga residents who fought in the battle, but most are now gone. Occasionally, Cabrajal and Rodriquez talk over the fight with these few surviving friends.

Both said they wouldn't fight again if they had their lives to live over.

"We did not get anything out of the battle, except to nearly get killed," Cabrajal said.

Rodriquez said the fight came about over politics.

"There was no other way except to do battle," explaining why the political fight ended in bloodshed.

"There were no speeches" just fighting, he continued. Cabrajal said he has no interest in politics.

"We don't dedicate ourselves to parties anymore," he explained.


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