A century ago on Aug. 27, 1918, Mexicans and Americans fought one another at the Battle of Ambos Nogales, leaving as many as 129 Mexicans and four Americans dead, and approximately 330 wounded.
There was another toll as well: the previously open border between Nogales, Ariz. and Nogales, Sonora.
As a result of the battle, the two Nogaleses became the first cities on the U.S.-Mexico border to be divided by permanent border fences.
Beginning in 1910, the Mexican Revolution engulfed the region as different factions fought for control of cities like Nogales, Sonora and their access to U.S. trade. In 1913 and 1915, competing Mexican armies battled for control of the city. Violence sometimes spilled into the United States, leading to the deployment of hundreds of U.S. troops to the border.
The open border began to close as U.S. participation in World War I led to the new requirement that all citizens and foreigners have passports to enter and leave the country. Mexicans who crossed the border daily for work suffered greatly from constantly changing passport rules.
The United States also sought to protect wartime food supplies by limiting the number of times Mexicans with passports could cross the line. By August 1918, the U.S. Consulate distributed “food cards” to people in Nogales, Sonora who wished to cross the border to buy foodstuffs for their families. Despite a severe food shortage in northern Mexico, the U.S. government limited the crossings of Mexican grocery shoppers to once per week.
Meanwhile, tensions between Mexicans and U.S. border troops in Nogales festered. In addition to an Aug. 14, 1915, riot between U.S. soldiers and Mexicans, U.S. troops shot and killed two Mexican nationals on the Nogales border on Dec. 31, 1917 and March 22, 1918.
A third fatality was almost added in June 1918 when a U.S. soldier shot at a Mexican man named Ygnacio Orozco after a miscommunication at the unfenced border. Félix Peñaloza, mayor of Nogales, Sonora, defended Orozco and installed a short fence a few yards long on Calle Internacional as a response. Peñaloza hoped better indicating the border and controlling the movement of both U.S. and Mexican foot traffic with a fence would prevent further shootings.
Ambos Nogales was on the verge of exploding.
The battle began at 4:10 p.m. on Aug. 27, 1918, when carpenter Zeferrefino Gil Lamadrid walked from Arizona towards the border. Gil Lamadrid, a Mexican national, carried unidentified contraband on his person and tried to evade an outgoing inspection. Mexican customs inspectors told him to keep walking as U.S. Customs Officer Arthur Barber pulled his revolver and ordered him to return.
Although U.S. and Mexican sources differ, it appears that Mexican customs inspector Francisco Gallegos shot and wounded U.S. Army Private William Klint when he pointed his rifle at Gil Lamadrid. The shootout expanded as nearby U.S. troops exchanged gunfire with Gallegos and the other Mexican guards while Gil Lamadrid escaped.
As the sound of gunfire echoed, dozens of Mexicans joined the fight, firing from behind buildings and sniping at U.S. troops from the surrounding hills.
Histories of the battle based on second-hand accounts claim the Mexican combatants were soldiers acting under the direction of German spies, but no evidence to corroborate this exists at the Pimeria Alta Historical Society, the Archivo Municipal de Nogales or the U.S. National Archives. The majority of the Mexican Army in Nogales left days before to fight rebels near Sasabe, and so the combatants were mostly working-class civilians acting without orders.
Their motive seems to have been anger at local border conditions. As an example, four combatants barged into the U.S. Consulate and allowed all the staff to escape, except a clerk known to harass Mexicans when he worked as a customs agent. Elmer Cooley was shot in the thigh during the ordeal, but was not treated as a hero. U.S. Consul Ezra Lawton acknowledged Cooley’s history and fired him after the battle.
The U.S. Army’s 10th Cavalry Regiment, a segregated African American unit, raced to combat. Although so-called “Buffalo Soldiers” like Sgt. James Penny were not allowed into some Nogales, Ariz. restaurants, they fulfilled their duty. Capt. Joseph Hungerford, a white 10th Cavalry officer, died leading a charge up the hill east of Morley Avenue to stop the sniper fire. Several cavalrymen were wounded, but the position was taken.
Upon hearing the cascade of gunfire, Mayor Peñaloza ran towards the battle. Waving a white handkerchief tied to a cane and pleading with the Mexican combatants to stop fighting, he was hit multiple times by U.S. gunfire just two blocks from the border, dying minutes later. Several Mexican women, two of whom were wounded, braved U.S. fire to rescue the injured. According to the Corrido de Nogales, they said: “No hay cuidado, somos puras mexicanas,” or “No worries, we’re pure Mexican women.”
After terse truce talks, a white flag was raised over the Mexican customs house at 5:45 p.m., but gunfire from the Sonoran side didn’t end until 7 p.m.
The U.S. Army closed the border until the afternoon of Aug. 28, leaving hundreds of Mexican workers stranded in Arizona, with many being forced to sleep on park benches overnight. As dozens of funeral processions took place over the next two days, Sonoran Gov. (and future Mexican President) Plutarco Elías Calles and U.S. Gen. DeRosey Cabell met on International Street to discuss the conflict. Both regretted the violence and Calles, seeking to maintain his government’s relationship with the United States, dismissed the Mexican civilian combatants as “irresponsible.”
Hoping to avoid another battle, Calles and Cabell found a solution that has defined Nogales ever since: a border fence. The two-mile-long, six-foot-tall barbed wire fence Calles and Cabell discussed was installed that fall at a cost of $5,000 ($80,250 in 2018) and marked the first time a permanent fence separated two cities on the U.S.-Mexico border. (The barrier installed by Peñaloza and an earlier fence between Ambos Nogales that stood August-November 1915 were temporary). The 1918 Nogales border war created a fence trend that other cities like Douglas, Naco and Calexico followed.
The Battle of Ambos Nogales has been largely forgotten on the U.S. side. But in Heroica Nogales, Sonora, renamed as such by the Mexican Congress in 1961, memory of the actions of Félix Peñaloza and the local citizenry live on.
Even so, the role of the Battle of Ambos Nogales of Aug. 27, 2018 in the origin of border fencing is less recognized.
(Parra is a native Nogalian, former Nogales High School teacher and current doctoral candidate in history at the University of Southern California. Contact him through his website, nomadicborder.com.)