On December 30, 1915, the city of El Paso honored Carrancista Gen. Álvaro Obregón with a banquet attended by various political and military dignitaries, including El Paso mayor Tom Lea, Mexican Consul Andrés G. García, and United States Army Gen. John J. Pershing. This event promoted the beginning of an era of peace in Mexico by calling attention to the removal of revolutionary leader Francisco “Pancho” Villa as a threat to American mining interests in Chihuahua. Carrancista troops secured Chihuahua City and the region. General Obregó assured Mexican American businessman and politician Félix Martínez that U.S. capital and American citizens would be protected and safe in Mexico.
While Obregón pronounced Mexico safe for investment and travel, “Pancho” Villa gave a warning to the Cusihuiriáchic Mining Company and its general manager C. R. Watson that they would no longer be protected, and they should flee the country. Watson quickly assembled his employees and boarded a train for safe passage to El Paso. At the insistence of Obregón and in direct defiance of Villa’s threat, Watson and his men made arrangement to return to the Cusi mines in Chihuahua several weeks later. They contacted customs collector Zach T. Cobb as well as Andrés G. García for passports and salvo conductos.
On January 12, 1916, at approximately two o’clock in the afternoon, a group of 100 soldiers commanded by Villista Col. Pablo López attacked a “stalled” passenger train that was transporting the Cusi mining men. An eyewitness reported that the band shouted, “Viva Villa!” and “Death to the Gringos.” Upon hearing shouts from the Villista band, five Americans jumped from the train, but the rebels quickly captured them and summarily executed the hapless miners.
The soldiers marched to the “American coach” and ordered that “all Gringos step out” of the car, line up, and remove their clothing. López then commanded two troopers to kill the Americans; the soldiers walked down the line and shot each of the men. Americans that tried to escape fell prey to other rebels who mortally shot them in their tracks.
The train carrying the remains of the eighteen Americans murdered at Santa Ysabel, Chihuahua, arrived in Juárez on the morning of January 13, 1916, and then crossed the river to the Santa Fe railway freight depot in El Paso, where citizens unloaded the corpses. An armed escort accompanied the bodies to various undertaking establishments. While the local police and military guard took precautions against any unrest, some enraged Americans marched in the streets and wanted retribution for the atrocities committed in Santa Ysabel.
Approximately thirty men of various backgrounds, including well-known local businessmen, held a meeting in El Paso and proposed to assemble a volunteer “foreign legion” of 1,000 men for service in Mexico under the protection of the Carranza government. The men felt confident that this volunteer unit could be outfitted and funded by a majority of those present at the meeting as well as by mining interests in Mexico. Meanwhile, crowds filled the streets of El Paso.
Tensions escalated throughout the afternoon when American soldiers from Fort Bliss took to the streets and attacked two Mexican men near the “Chihuahuita” district, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood located in the downtown area. Scuffles between Mexicans and other U. S. soldiers occurred later that evening, and many police wagons returned to their respective stations with “civilians” who had participated in the disturbances and with Mexicans who had been attacked. Soldiers and Anglo civilians in saloons took their drunken escapades to the streets and assaulted Mexicans. Victims also included women, children, and the elderly. Hundreds of Americans, intending to exact revenge on local Mexicans, amassed in the downtown streets that outlined “Chihuahuita,” and the confrontation erupted into a riot, with Anglos and U. S. soldiers on one side and Mexicans on the other. The crowd swelled to almost 1,500 men. After the initial reports of fighting came in, police worked for two to three hours to quell the disturbances.
Upon hearing news of the turmoil, groups from “El Segundo Barrio” came with bats, sticks, pipes and any other weapons they could muster to defend themselves. According to some eyewitness accounts, residents (including soldiers) of Ciudad Juárez joined their Mexican brethren from El Paso. At the peak of the rioting, Fort Bliss commander Gen. John J. Pershing ordered the Sixteenth Infantry to occupy the downtown streets because the local police force could not adequately restore order. Lines of troops marched through the streets and set up sentry posts in the middle of the plaza and on street corners. American soldiers searched for weapons and for Villa sympathizers in Chihuahuita until well after midnight. The troopers enforced curfews for all residents except those who possessed permits signed by the provost marshal. Despite the military occupation, soldiers and Mexicans continued to fight in the streets.
After the riot, the El Paso Police Department and General Pershing dispatched their respective units to “clean up” the Mexican quarter in the effort to avoid more violence. Approximately fifty soldiers and as many police officers rounded up suspected Villa associates during their “clean up” of the Chihuahuita neighborhood.
As the authorities subsequently fanned out over the downtown area, Pershing declared martial law and established a containment policy called “Dead Lines” on Mexican neighborhoods and the international port of entry at the Santa Fe Bridge. Pershing concluded that Mexicans needed to be separated from Anglos in order to stop any additional rioting. Pershing’s directive restricted Mexicans from leaving the “Chihuahuita” district and Americans from entering it. His closure of the international bridge extended the “Dead Line” to a separation of the United States from Mexico. This order denied Americans access to Ciudad Juárez and prohibited Mexicans from crossing into El Paso. The “Dead Line” was periodically enforced for almost a year and profoundly impacted downtown El Paso’s Mexican-owned businesses that suffered drastic decreases in patronage in the year following the riot.
The El Paso Race Riot of 1916 intensified racial divisions between Anglos and Mexicans in the city and negatively affected race relations in the border region for many years.