Ever since the demise of Francisco Pancho Villa, soldiers-of-fortune as well as treasure hunters from all over the world have looked for the famed gold that Pancho Villa might have buried in the mountains of Chihuahua. Emil Holmdahl, the soldier-of-fortune who is suspected to have stolen Pancho Villa’s head and sold it to the “Skull and Bones” secret society at Yale, spent many years after the Mexican Revolution to find Villa’s gold. Since Villa certainly never admitted to having buried any treasures, we might never know whether the gold exists. However, historians could help with the solution to this important riddle. Primary sources that detail the expenditures of Villa are now open to the public. The University of California at Berkley holds the papers of Silvestre Terrazas, Villa’s secretary of finance and former governor of Chihuahua. The University of Texas has the papers of Lazaro de la Garza, who for most of Villa’s campaigns controlled the arms and munitions sourcing in the United States. FBI files available in the National Archives in Washington detail the smuggling arrests, money transfers, and financial activities of Felix A. Sommerfeld. In short, the finances are literally an open book. So, the final question will be, did Villa have gold?
There are two documented instances, when Villa captured bullion. Cathlene Scalise of the University of California at Berkley uncovered an incredible story in 1999. On April 9th 1913 Villa’s finances received an immense boost because of a daring heist. With a small force of about two hundred men, the rebels stopped Mexican Northwestern Train No. 7 south of the Chihuahua’s capital. The train, which they captured, carried 122 ingots of silver bullion worth about $160,000 ($3.4 million in today’s value), which the rebels took. Because the bullion belonged to American smelting companies it would be hard to sell in the United States without risking confiscation. Villa proffered a “strictly confidential” deal to Wells Fargo to return the loot for $50,000 in cash ($1 million in today’s value). On top of the “finder’s fee,” Villa also offered “protection” for future bullion transports. According to documents found at Wells Fargo, Villa received the $50,000. Not surprisingly, the Villistas eventually returned ninety-three of the silver ingots, the rest, according to Villa, had been “stolen by his men.” The savvy methods through which Villa built not only a superior fighting force but also maintained financial independence fromVenustiano Carranza served him well in the years to come.
The second heist is the stuff of legends. When Villa took Chihuahua in December 1913 Luis Terrazas with the majority of his clan had to flee for safety to the U.S. One of Villa’s first moves was to clear the Banco Minero of its deposits. When the Villistas came to rob the Terrazas bank they made a remarkable discovery. Luis TerrazasJunior, the hacendado’s son, had remained behind to safeguard the remaining family including his mother and the bank of which he was a director. For reasons of insanity or overconfidence, the young Terrazas thought that Villa would not touch him. Shortly before the Villistas could nab him, he took refuge in the British Consulate. Whether or not Villa was aware of international law, which designated diplomatic missions immune, or whether he simply did not care less about British sympathies, he ordered the billionaire’s son arrested. The British Consul protested vehemently but the Villistas removed Terrazas by force. Villa had learned from a director of the Banco Minero, that a large stash of gold had been removed from the vault and hidden. After a few hours of light torture and a mock execution Terrazas revealed that the gold was hidden in a column inside the bank. He did not know which. Raul Madero, by now a Villista general and Luis Aguirre Benavides, Villa’s secretary found the horde: 600,000 Pesos in gold ($6.3 Million in today’s value). For a second time in the history of the revolution, the Banco Minero in Chihuahua City had taken center stage. Where the gold ended up remained Villa’s secret. Treasure hunters, including Soldier-of-Fortune Emil Holmdahl, would spend decades after the revolution searching for the famed gold to no avail.