Mexico’s revolution: 1910–1920

Part two of a three-part series

THE PREVIOUS article in this series examined the profound political and social tensions that gave rise to revolution in Mexico over the years 1910–1920. To briefly recapitulate, the revolution’s root causes were a combination of “extremely rapid capitalist economic transformation in the countryside and a closed and dictatorial political system.” The former led to mass dispossession of the lands and traditional rights of Mexico’s rural villages, due to the huge profits to be made in commercial and export agriculture. The latter severely restricted the prospects for political and economic advancement of Mexico’s middle classes, who became increasingly embittered with the regime. These two factors combined produced widespread revolt across Mexico after 1910.

The rest of the series will lay out “the narrative of events of the Revolution itself and its outcome.” This will require two more articles, of which this is the first. The story begins with the efforts of the wealthy young idealist Francisco Madero, who attempted something not done before: to seriously challenge the dictator Porfirio Díaz in a presidential election.

The spark: Madero’s presidential campaign
To his contemporaries, Madero would have seemed like an unlikely anti-Porfirian dissident, much less an armed rebel, national president, and finally, a revolutionary martyr. He came from one of Mexico’s wealthiest landlord-capitalist families, one with numerous connections to the old regime. Indeed, one of Madero’s longstandingfriends was José Ives Limantour, Porfirio Díaz’s minister of finance. Yet Madero was also a highly unconventional man for his time and his country. He was educated abroad, in France and California; he was a Spiritist, and held séances to communicate with the dead; he was a strict vegetarian, a teetotaler, and a believer in homeopathic medicine; and he provided schooling and health care for the workers and tenants on his properties. He certainly didn’t fit the later profile of the Mexican revolutionary, wearing a cartridge belt and sombrero: Madero was a short, slender man, often appearing in public wearing a stuffy-looking bowler hat and black suit.

Also unconventional was the fact that in a time and place in which a profound cynicism about politics reigned, Madero remained a passionate believer in the virtues of liberal democracy. In Mexico, this meant free and fair elections rather than stolen ones; constitutional government rather than arbitrary rule; inalienable individual rights over the many abuses by the state; and the rule of law over corruption. During his presidential campaign he would declare that “liberty, by itself, will resolve all problems … [O]nce the people can elect their representatives to Congress, the legitimate representatives will enact all the laws necessary for the growth and prosperity of the Republic.” Madero was clearly more of a political reformer—perhaps even a utopian one—than a social radical, but no one could doubt his sincerity.

So how did such an oddball best the mighty Díaz? Mexico’s rulers would have never foreseen it. Madero’s own grandfather, upon hearing of his plans to challenge Díaz in the presidential elections, referred to it as “a gnat taking on an elephant.” The possibility of wider revolt seemed even less likely. In 1909, the influential newspaper El Imparcial declared that “a revolution in Mexico is impossible.” This view was echoed by the U.S. industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who, after a visit to Mexico in 1910, declared, “In all of the corners of the Republic an enviable peace reigns.” They were mistaken of course, and ironically, it was Díaz himself who first cracked open the Pandora’s box of revolt.

The aging dictator, knowing he had only a few years left, had become increasingly concerned with his international image and his place in history. Perhaps given his increasing penchant for repression, he didn’t wish to be seen, in the last instance, as a thug, especially after all he believed he had done for Mexico. So in 1908, in a interview with U.S. journalist James Creelman for Pearson’s Magazine, he announced his willingness to accept a political opposition, and even an opposition presidential candidate, in Mexico. Díaz’s later behavior showed him to be utterly insincere, but the resulting fawning article—titled “President Díaz: Hero of the Americas”—caused a stir across the country. The regime’s own supporters, and those who carried out its repression, were unsure how to proceed. This provided a space for democrats like Madero to assert themselves.

It’s not that Mexico didn’t have local and national elections under Díaz. But they were largely for show, fixed according to what contemporaries called “the usual methods”—ballot stuffing, vote buying, and, if necessary, physical intimidation. The winning candidate for a governorship or a congressional seat was typically settled in advance via horse-trading among the wealthy. And at the presidential level, the winning candidate was always Porfirio Díaz. But the Creelman interview set off a wave of speculation and negotiation among middle-class political reformers, and anxious members of the landlord and capitalist classes.

The latter were mainly worried about ensuring a stable political succession; Díaz was almost eighty years old, and an heir had to be found. In addition, there were some members of the economic elite who were dissatisfied with the regime and hoped for change. Democracy was not the issue here. Díaz’s technocratic advisers, the highly unpopular científicos, were regarded as increasingly managing the economy, and government fiscal policy, in the interest of foreign bankers. Foreign investors were also seen as enjoying a few too many privileges in the later years of the regime. This was especially true among capitalists in the booming states of the Mexican north, who, while they depended on access to U.S. markets, did not like the gringos heading south and throwing their weight around. Francisco Madero’s family was among these. Such frustrations were exacerbated by the deep recession of 1908, a consequence of Mexico’s increasing integration into the global economic system.

A loose coalition of wealthy and middle-class reformers finally settled on a potential successor: Bernardo Reyes, the popular military general and governor of the northern state of Nuevo León. A campaign began, not to challenge Díaz, but merely to make Reyes his vice-presidential candidate, in opposition to Díaz’s nomination of a científico crony. Reyes had always been a loyal member of the system, but was also viewed as not beholden to the hated científicos. But President Díaz, feeling threatened, put the kibosh on this succession plan. Reyes was ordered on a diplomatic mission to Europe—to undertake a study of military tactics, it was said—an assignment he meekly accepted. Even the timid pro-Reyes political campaign was too much for the dictator, in spite of his fine words in the Creelman interview. The científico was kept as vice-presidential candidate, and those who had sought cautious, incremental change were left empty-handed.

Into this gap stepped Francisco Madero, who was running a presidential campaign directly against Díaz, under the banner of his Anti-Reelectionist Party. His slogan was a simple one: “sufragio efectivo y no reelección”—effective suffrage and no reelection. Far more than the Reyes campaign, his program was a principled appeal to those who saw liberal democracy as a path to further national progress, and a restraint on the rampant political privilege and corruption throughout government. And unlike Reyes, he was willing to politically challenge the regime. The long-suffering liberal middle-class opposition in Mexico increasingly flocked to his banner.

Madero also obtained a great deal of urban working-class support. His belief in freedom of association—derived from Mexico’s long-ignored Constitution of 1857—meant that workers should have the right to organize themselves as anyone else might. This would allow them to form “strong associations, so that, united, you will be able to defend your own rights,” as Madero told a rally of textile workers. For Madero this did not mean government intervention to regulate wages and working conditions or legalized collective bargaining. But his message gave urban workers some hope in an increased freedom to organize, and they rewarded Madero with widespread backing. By the summer of 1910 there were some thirty working-class Maderista clubs across Mexico.

The political opening of which Madero took advantage did not last long, however. Díaz soon realized that Madero might actually win the election if he was allowed to continue, in spite of the regime’s “usual methods.” After a speech in the northern city of San Luis Potosí, the young scion was arrested for “attempts at rebellion and insults to the authorities,” and thrown behind bars. Not long after, Díaz was smoothly “reelected” for the seventh time. Soon the lavish celebrations of the centennial of Mexican independence began in the capital. Díaz and his regime seemed to have prevailed yet again.

The blaze: Madero’s revolt
At this stage, sitting in prison, his electoral campaign in tatters, Madero appears to have finally decided that armed revolt would be the only way to dislodge the dictator and bring democracy to Mexico. His friends within the regime soon helped to get him out of his cell, and have him placed under house arrest. Disguising himself as a laborer, Madero then fled the country, and issued his famous “Plan de San Luis Potosí” from San Antonio, Texas. It repeated Madero’s political denunciations of the regime, while declaring the recent elections to be null and void, and Madero to be the provisional president of Mexico. It was a cautious document, largely avoiding social questions, while affirming that Madero sought “to avoid as far as possible the disorders inevitable in any revolutionary movement.” Perhaps revealing his own inexperience in these matters, Madero declared that the rebellion in support of his plan was to begin at 6:00 p.m. sharp on November 20, 1910.

Yet significantly, the Plan de San Luis also appealed, in a limited way, to the nation’s campesino population. The plan noted that for those who had been “deprived of their lands” under the dictatorship, their cases were to be “subject to review” by the government. Moreover, those who lost lands through so-called “immoral means” would have them returned, by force of law. As with the working class, Madero attempted to tread a fine line between reaching out to plebian supporters, and not making promises he did not wish to keep. But it didn’t matter: even lip service to their hopes and demands was something campesinos had not heard from a major political figure in decades. Most already believed they had lost their lands by “immoral means.” Madero, moreover, was calling on them to pick up a gun. In response, Mexico’s campesinos would act in a way that Madero’s other sympathizers had not: they would take up arms on a massive scale. It was this ongoing agrarian mobilization over the next ten years—at times rising, at times falling, but never fully crushed—that made the revolution such a bitter and polarized conflict.

But at first Madero’s revolt looked to be a complete bust. The police and army were obviously forewarned. Madero crossed into Mexico on horseback from Texas with a number of supporters but got nowhere. His various urban middle-class conspirators were quickly arrested, when not killed. But this was not to be the end of the story.

Madero’s call for revolt found the greatest resonance in the northern state of Chihuahua and its environs. Due to its dependence on mineral and beef exports, this state had been hit harder than others in the 1908 recession. Moreover, it was ruled by a particularly corrupt and dictatorial family clan, at the top of which stood Luis Terrazas, easily Mexico’s largest landowner. Resentment of the Porfirian system ran deep, and conditions were ripe for revolt.

Chihuahua was also home to José Doroteo Arango, a tough cattle-rustler and bandit leader who had been living in the mountains for years with his men. It was said he first ran afoul of the law in his home state of Durango, when he shot a local hacienda administrator who had tried to rape his sister. Whatever the truth of the matter was, he already had developed longstanding grudges against the authorities in Chihuahua, and they with him. At this point Arango was only one rebel leader among many, but he would soon distinguish himself by his audacity and leadership in combat on behalf of Madero. He would later go down in history as the infamous Pancho Villa.

It was the varied Chihuahuan irregular forces like Villa’s that largely broke the back of Díaz’s rule. They were described by one contemporary critic as “rogues or killers escaped from justice, ignorant ranchers, coarse muleteers, bankrupt crackpots, [and] failed students and professionals.” Another noted that many of their leaders had “more or less open accounts with the government for crimes unpunished.” There will be more to say on the composition of the Chihuahuan forces later, but these assessments (leaving aside their deprecatory character) were not that far from the truth. Along with ranchers, bandits, and “coarse muleteers,” there were migrant workers, unemployed miners, ranch hands, and cowboys. The troops also included residents of the northern military colonies: communities that had been given land and weapons in past decades to fight the Apaches. These were people who strongly valued a readiness to fight, and the ability to ride a horse and use a rifle. Taken together, this was the nucleus of what would later become Villa’s Northern Division, the most impressive fighting force Mexico had ever seen. They were local people who knew the terrain in which they operated, and made for ready and hardened fighters; men who could ride all night on horseback on empty stomachs, and mount a merciless surprise attack at dawn. As they increasingly came together, Díaz’s Federal Army did not stand a chance.

But Madero’s revolt was not limited to the Mexican north. A year before the stolen presidential election, an equally momentous election took place, although no one would have known it at the time. It was for the leadership of the village of Anenecuilco, in the state of Morelos: not far from the great capital of Mexico City, but in many respects a world away. The village was seven centuries old, and many of its ancient title deeds had been written in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs. On September 12, 1909, a respected local horse trainer and small rancher was elected municipal president. His family had a long and proud history of fighting in Mexico’s nineteenth-century patriotic wars. The rest of the new village leadership were young men like himself, all determined to fight the growing abuses by the local sugar haciendas. His name was Emiliano Zapata.

Zapata already had a reputation among the local authorities as a troublemaker, and that would only increase in his new role. The following year Zapata began organizing the repossession of hacienda lands in Morelos, with armed campesinos tearing down boundary fences, and distributing plots among local villagers. His notoriety and popularity grew across the state, and he was soon on the run from the law. Zapata’s rebel forces began to equip themselves by stealing weapons and horses from local landlords; in one case they hijacked a train and drove the locomotive straight through the hacienda gates. In March of 1911 Zapata and his supporters formally joined Madero’s revolt, fighting the army in the areas south of the capital.

Ultimately it was Madero’s campesino supporters, fighting on various fronts, who made the difference. On May 9, Villa was among the rebels who took the strategic border city of Ciudad Juárez. On May 15, rebels took the key northern railroad hub of Torreón, after the Federal Army fled. On May 19, Zapata, commanding some four thousand men, captured the city of Cuautla in Morelos—roughly 20 miles from the outskirts of the capital—after heavy fighting. Soon after, federal troops surrendered Cuernavaca, the state capital. The writing was on the wall. On May 25, 1911, the once-invincible Porfirio Díaz resigned, and handed the presidency to a caretaker. He boarded the ship Ypiranga the following day, en route to exile in Europe. On October 1 of that same year, Madero was elected by an overwhelming majority to be president of Mexico.

The tiger is definitely loose
The old Porfirian elite might have come to forgive Madero for pushing Díaz into the dustbin of history. But there was always a problem with him, in their eyes: Madero was too sincere in his democratic and constitutional ideals. When it came time to use a firm hand against rural revolt in Mexico, try as he might, nothing the new president would do was good enough for them. Although Madero was far from a radical, and certainly not tolerant of campesino rebellion—this little man in the bowler hat, this vegetarian oddball who prattled on about political liberty and fair elections—as far as the rich were concerned, he could not be trusted. Indeed, it’s fair to say that many of them despised him. They were nostalgic for the old General Díaz, who had proven time and again that he would mercilessly defend their interests against the rabble. Instead, all of Madero’s democratic reforms were just making the poor more insolent and unmanageable. To his misfortune, Madero was, as one of his supporters put it, “the leader of the bourgeois revolution who the bourgeoisie refused to understand.”

From their perspective, Madero’s campaign had “unleashed a tiger,” to use Porfirio Díaz’s phrase; the old dictator had further added: “Let us see if he [Madero] can control it.” Ultimately, Madero could not. The contemporary intellectual Luis Cabrera noted that almost immediately, “The great country estate saw itself threatened on all sides.” Madero’s victory unleashed an explosion of agrarian radicalism—and campesino revenge—across much of the country. The Zapatista movement was only the best-organized and most visible example of this. As a result of Madero’s call to revolt, there were some sixty thousand men armed across the country, and in many cases those guns started to be turned on hated politicians and landlords.

Well before Madero’s election, armed villagers led by Zapata had begun occupying the lands of the sugar plantations in Morelos, while their powerless owners and administrators, according to historian John Womack, “had no alternative but to meet the revolutionary demands.” In the Laguna, the rich agricultural region to the north, one contemporary observer noted that sharecroppers and renters had begun to seize hacienda land, since in their view, “as the Maderistas have won, they have the right to take [it] and are, in fact, owners of the land.” In nearby Torreón, meanwhile, the plebians of the city, according to one horrified report, were “displaying an improper equality … [and] obliging ladies and respectable people to walk in the middle of the streets,” rather than on the sidewalk. The streets at this time of year, the rainy season, were filled with mud.

In the village of Iguapalapa, in the state of Guerrero, the indigenous residents armed themselves, occupied the agricultural land and pasture they had lost, and retook their land titles by armed force. Those who resisted were shot, including the local priest. At the Catmis hacienda in the Yucatán, the landowners, two brothers with cruel reputations, “were killed by the weapons of their own servants.” In Temax, in the same state, the jefe político was taken to the town square by angry villagers, tied to a chair, and “riddled with bullets.” The fifty haciendas in the Apam region of Hidalgo were, in the words of one military officer, “constantly requesting protection for their persons and property.” According to another report, in the state of Michoacán there were “armed Indians organizing for the purpose of dispossessing landlords, … [claiming] lands belonging to their ancestors, because ‘Madero said we could have them.’” At the hacienda Sierra Prieta, not far from the capital, the peones complained about their low wages to the landlord. He responded by cutting them. As a result, a group of forty peones attempted to meet with the administrator of the estate; he refused to see them, and ordered them punished. Enraged, they forced their way into his office. His body was later found with forty stab wounds, one for each peón.

Stories like these poured in from all over the country, alarming not only the landlords, but the new president as well. For Madero had wanted no such thing. He was a landlord and capitalist himself, a kind-hearted one to be sure, but not one who wished that the campesinos take matters into their own hands. He firmly believed that the poor “want liberty,” as he argued in one speech, because “liberty will give you bread.” Change would come through the ballot box—“a new weapon which you have won”—rather than further revolt. Madero was at times exasperated with popular leaders like Zapata, who would not give up their supporters’ demands, and await the maturation of his vision.

Madero’s policy with rebel campesinos went beyond speeches and admonitions, however. His grandfather, the family patriarch, had given the young president stern advice to “repress any new movement which seeks to introduce disorder … [by] punishing its authors with the greatest severity.” This Madero sought to do, although with an important caveat: the loyalists of the old regime who introduced “disorder”—by rebelling against him—were treated with kid gloves, as we shall see. But the campesinos who fought the landlords—such as the Zapatistas—were given the iron fist.

In the meantime, Madero did his best to actively court the old Porfirian elite, and particularly the Federal Army. Madero spent more than twice what Díaz did on the military, using nearly one third of the government budget for this purpose. Otherwise government expenditure and budget priorities changed little, if at all, from the Díaz era. The army’s numbers increased from twenty thousand to seventy thousand men, and Madero personally wooed the generals and officers with expensive gifts and easy promotions. In addition, much of the old Porfirian political class was kept in place throughout Madero’s government, much to the consternation of his supporters.

It’s not as if Madero was completely oblivious to the anger and frustration at the bottom of society; many of his allies warned him of the dangers of conciliating the old regime and abandoning the popular forces that had brought him to power. One group of congressional supporters appealed to the president in a letter, noting, “The revolution is heading towards collapse and pulling down the government to which it gave rise, for the simple reason that it has not ruled with revolutionaries. Compromises and concessions to the supporters of the old regime are the main causes of the unsettling situation in which the government … finds itself. … The regime appears relentlessly bent on suicide.” Another Maderista, writing from the restive Laguna region, noted that those who fought for Madero “see no practical benefit from the struggle in which they helped you: the land is not divided; not even the smallest communities’ property, which the big proprietors seized from them, has been restored; the worker is not supported in his demands.” According to historian Alan Knight, Madero’s supporters “expecting speedy redress, … now experienced swift disillusionment.”

Along with the more dispersed incidents of rural revolt and violence, some of Madero’s original allies also rose up against him, raising the banner of agrarian reform. The most intractable of these was undoubtedly the Zapatista movement in Morelos. Indeed, in the months following the victory of the San Luis rebellion, Zapata and his campesino followers became increasingly disillusioned with Madero. Not long after Díaz’s resignation, outside Madero loyalists swept into Morelos and occupied a number of towns. One of Zapata’s lieutenants was quickly executed for taxing the rich of the region. Although Zapata was clearly the principal authority in the state, a message was being sent. A new governor was appointed without consulting Zapata: he was the former head of the Bank of Morelos, and unquestionably pro-landlord. Historian John Womack describes the speed with which the landlords regained political control as “astounding”—as it probably seemed to Zapata and his followers, who had not expected such reversals after Madero’s victory.

Madero was in fact busy attempting to restore the status quo ante—at least between campesino and landlord—in as many areas as possible. The accords that had secured Díaz’s departure required all revolutionary troops to disarm, while reestablishing the authority of the defeated Federal Army. It was a concession that rankled many of the rebels. Prior to his formal election to the presidency, Madero met personally with Zapata in Morelos and tried to convince him to disarm his forces and accept Madero’s promises that land questions would eventually be “subject to review.” This meant, however, that the lands the campesinos had taken would have to be returned to the haciendas. Of Zapata’s roughly 4,000 men, Madero proposed that 250 would be given jobs as rural policemen; the rest would have to turn in their weapons. Meanwhile, the Federal Army, its authority restored, was menacingly encircling Morelos. Zapata’s brother found Madero’s approach so disingenuous—“this little man has already betrayed the cause”—that he wanted him lynched on the spot.

But the reality was that the Zapatistas’ cause was never Madero’s. He never wished his movement to go much beyond liberal political reform. As he noted in a speech the following year, “It has been maintained that the object of the San Luis revolution was to resolve the agrarian problem; that is not correct. The revolution was to recover our liberty.” If campesinos wanted land, they had to obtain it “by means of hard work.” Indeed, it would be “utterly absurd to demand that the government should acquire the big properties and divide them among smallholders.” Elsewhere Madero denounced the “amorphous agrarian socialism,” which he believed to be “peculiar to the simple minds of the peasants of Morelos” rebelling under Zapata. Indeed, Zapata’s “peculiar” political approach mirrored the qualities of the campesinos he led: after decades of robbery and betrayal, they were a taciturn, suspicious, stubborn, intransigent people, who did not take well to being sweet-talked. The negotiations with Madero, not surprisingly, did not amount to much.

And so on November 28, 1911, the “Revolutionary Council of the State of Morelos” broke with the new president, and issued the famous Plan de Ayala. It was signed by Zapata and the fifty-eight other members of the council, most of whom could barely write their names. Madero was denounced as a traitor to the very cause he had championed, because of his collaboration and compromises with the old Porfirian elite. But it was the agrarian question that lay at the center of the plan. All the “land, woodlands and waters” taken by the landlords “shall become forthwith the property of villagers or citizens who have the appropriate deeds and have been dispossessed through the trickery of our oppressors.” The document added that “such property will be resolutely defended with arms in hand.” Moreover, “Any usurpers who claim the right to it must argue their case before special courts to be established at the victory of the revolution.”

This was a crucial revolutionary measure. Note that now it was not the campesinos who had to go to court to prove they had a right to the land; in fact, the landlords would have to go to court to do so. It was an approach, as historian Adolfo Gilly has noted, that stood the established legality of capitalist property rights on its head. In addition, in revolutionary Morelos even “the appropriate deeds” were not necessary: if the village elders remembered that the village’s boundaries were so, then so it would be. The memory of the campesino had more weight than the documented capitalist property rights of the landlord.

Lastly, for good measure, the plan added, “Hacendados, científicos, and local bosses who directly or indirectly oppose this plan will have their property nationalized.” In Morelos, this essentially meant all the large landlords in the state. It would certainly mean close to the same in the rest of the country. In short, the Plan de Ayala was a document that called for the radical transformation of rural property relations in Mexico and the smashing of established property rights laws, all to be carried out by armed action, and the maintenance of this transformation by postrevolutionary force of law. While they fought, the Zapatistas would directly put this program into practice in Morelos. There are historians who have questioned whether Zapatismo was truly a “revolutionary” movement; if this doesn’t qualify as revolutionary, then it’s hard to imagine what would.

Madero’s deadly compromises
By this point, President Madero had long given up on convincing Zapata to moderate his demands. He began to appoint a series of thugs to carry out military scorched-earth campaigns in Morelos—to destroy the state in order to save it. The goal was to forcibly put down the Zapatistas and their supporters, and to protect the landlords and their property. One of these thugs was General Victoriano Huerta, who would soon become Madero’s point man in dealing with revolt. Later he would be the man who ordered Madero’s murder. Meanwhile, the idea of crushing the Morelos movement was gleefully celebrated in the Porfirian press of the capital. The conservative paper El Imparcial called for an “energetic purification” of the state, given that “Zapatismo is in the air people breathe, in every inch they tread.... Everyone in Morelos is a Zapatista.” The army took to its mission with zeal, engaging in large-scale massacres and rapes, the burning of villages, and the wholesale expulsion of the campesino population.

It would be unfair to say, however, that Madero accomplished only repression during his short presidency. He was committed to his political reforms, and achieved many of them: elections in Mexico, although flawed, were freer than ever before (and perhaps since); political parties were freer than ever before; the press was freer than ever before; and the national Congress was freer than ever before. But ironically, given the continued political and economic power of the Porfirian elite, these various institutions largely focused on attacking Madero himself. His enemies made it their goal to undermine—and eventually destroy—his presidency, with the army being the final punta de lanza, the spear point. Perhaps Madero’s greatest weakness—speaking in terms of his own survival, and that of his government—was his faith in the established rule of law, and his belief that the old Porfirian reactionaries also shared it. He was gravely mistaken, and it cost him his life.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government was not standing pat. It was deeply concerned with the ongoing “disorder” in Mexico, and the threat to the extensive assets of U.S. investors in the country. “I am getting to point where I think we ought to put a little dynamite for the purpose of stirring up that dreamer [Madero],” President Taft wrote to his secretary of state around this time, “who seems unfitted to meet the crisis in the country of which he is President.” The most despicable role, however, was surely reserved for U.S. ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, a man who has rightly gone down in history as a villain. He essentially promised anyone in Mexico who would listen that if they overthrew Madero they could count on U.S. support. Indeed, the final accord between the anti-Madero conspirators was settled in the offices of the U.S. Embassy, and came to be known as the notorious “Embassy Pact.”

Two key figures in the toppling of the Madero government were the aforementioned General Bernardo Reyes, and Felix Díaz, a military officer and nephew of the former dictator. They had each independently started counterrevolutionary rebellions against Madero, both of which had ended in pathetic failure. But they were given cushy jail terms, ones that allowed them to freely meet with their supporters in Mexico City, and they continued to conspire against the government. In early February 1913 the two men were freed from jail by sympathizers in the army, and declared themselves—once again—in revolt. After some initial skirmishes, the rebels barricaded themselves in a fortress in the capital, the Ciudadela. This was the beginning of the Decena Trágica—the tragic ten days—which led to Madero’s ouster.

The head of the army had been seriously wounded in the outbreak of the revolt, and Madero appointed General Victoriano Huerta to succeed him. Huerta, however, was soon playing both sides, in part under the influence of U.S. ambassador Wilson. He began secretly negotiating with the coup plotters about a post-Madero government. At the same time, Huerta was sending loyal troops on suicide missions against the rebels’ well-defended positions in the Ciudadela. The shelling of the fortress also consistently seemed to miss the mark, although it killed plenty of people in the surrounding neighborhoods. Huerta was essentially holding out, playing hardball with the other plotters, hoping to emerge as top dog in the end.

Madero had one last chance to undermine the coming coup. His hard-nosed brother Gustavo rightly suspected that General Huerta was conspiring with the rebels rather than fighting them. Late one night, as the standoff continued in the capital, he brought the general to the president’s offices—at gunpoint—and explained the suspected plot to his brother. Huerta vigorously professed his innocence. He was lying of course, but Madero believed him, and gave him another chance to prove his loyalty. Gustavo was told to put away his weapon, to restrain himself, and Huerta was let go. The following day, the general returned to the National Palace at the head of rebel troops, arrested President Madero, forced him to resign, and assumed the presidency. Madero had remained in power only fifteen months.

The thug they always wanted

The old Porfirian elite—from the landlords and the church hierarchy to the army brass—were thrilled at Huerta’s accession. The archbishop of Mexico had a Te Deum sung at Mass in honor of the new president. Two days after the coup, General Huerta and his new cabinet attended a lavish party at the U.S. Embassy. Huerta was just the unreconstructed thug the rich wanted in power to deal with the poor. There would thankfully be no more of Madero’s attempts to reconcile their rule with constitutional niceties.

General Huerta’s seventeen-month dictatorial presidency was as bizarre as it was brutal. He was a notorious drunkard, and held many of his cabinet meetings in various bars in the capital. On one occasion he had his entire cabinet arrested for not wearing the emblems and sashes required of generals in civilian clothing. Huerta was also reportedly an avid pot smoker; it is said that the old folk tune “La Cucaracha” came to be sung in mockery of him:

La cucaracha, la cucaracha,
Ya no puede caminar,
Porque le falta, porque no tiene,
Marihuana que fumar!1

But it was Huerta’s brutality that most stood out. As the German ambassador to Mexico, a Huerta supporter, noted, “The government displays a corruptibility and depravity that exceeds anything known in the past.… This terrorism is not that of an enlightened autocrat but is currently assuming the form of a senseless rage.” Of his methods, the ambassador added, “We could look upon them with equanimity if they were not occasionally extended to foreigners.” 

The first victim was Madero himself, and his closest collaborators. His brother had his eyes gouged out and was beaten and stabbed to death by Huerta’s soldiers. Abraham González, a moderate reformer and the Maderista governor of Chihuahua, was thrown under a moving train. Madero was summarily executed, along with his vice president, while being transferred to a federal penitentiary. He was allegedly “attempting to escape,” a fiction few tried to maintain. Before long prominent critics of the government were being “disappeared” or forced to flee the country, after being robbed by the army of any wealth they had. Most of the country’s state governors were soon replaced by military men, and later that year, in October 1913, the Congress was formally dissolved. Another dictator was in charge, albeit one more crass and cruel than Díaz had ever been.

While in detention awaiting his fate, José María Pino Suárez, Madero’s vice president, had written to a friend asking: “Will they have the stupidity to kill us?... They would gain nothing, for we would be greater in death than we are today in life.” Alas, they were indeed that stupid, and brutal. And it is also true that Madero became greater, as a symbol, in death than in life. For all the disillusionment with him, Madero’s murder was met with widespread anguish and rage. His supporters, and his critics, vowed to avenge his death.

One of these was undoubtedly Pancho Villa. He had remained a loyal Maderista throughout the reformer’s short-lived presidency. Until shortly before the coup, however, he was sitting in the Tlatelolco prison in Mexico City. How this came about is yet another episode in Villa’s eventful life. General Huerta had early on recognized Villa—at the time a popular commander in the Chihuahuan state militia—as a potential future rival, or threat. In June 1912, he had him arrested on trumped-up charges of stealing a horse. Huerta tried to have Villa executed on the spot for the crime, but he was saved by the last-minute intervention of President Madero himself. Villa was transferred to Mexico City to await trial. Only six weeks before the coup he escaped with the help of a young prison clerk he had befriended. Villa painstakingly filed the bars to the window of his cell over the course of weeks, and walked out of the prison yard on Christmas Day, wearing a hat and dark sunglasses, and blowing his nose into a handkerchief. Had he stayed there only a few more weeks he surely would have been murdered. Villa fled to the United States, and in March 1913, he crossed back into Mexico, ready to join the fight against Huerta. With him were eight men—including the young clerk—along with three horses, a pound of salt, and two pounds of coffee.

The rise of the Constitutionalists
The original states in the anti-Huerta revolt, aside from Zapatista Morelos, were Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Sonora, running in a row across the northern border of Mexico. In general, the north was more prosperous, more literate, more commercially minded, and more middle-class than the rest of the country; it was the boom region of the Porfirian era. It might be an exaggeration to say that the new Maderista generation in this part of the country mainly wanted to be left alone, away from Porfirian corruption and control, so that they could make money. But exaggeration or not, this represented a key element of the opposition to Huerta in the north. Much of the rank and file, however, were still the ranchers, cowboys, muleteers, unemployed miners, and military colonists that had followed Villa before, and would do so again. Fortunately, the previous Maderista rebel forces had maintained their weapons and organization in the north in the form of state militias. The attempts by Madero to disarm them, or subsume them to the Federal Army’s authority, had largely been resisted.

The key leader in this new phase was Venustiano Carranza, a prominent landlord and the governor of the state of Coahuila. He and the governor of Sonora were the only ones not to recognize the new regime (the governor of Chihuahua, of course, was already dead). Carranza quickly gathered up the pro-Madero forces in the north; they named themselves the Constitutionalists, in reference to the Constitution of 1857, which had been violated with the military coup. A new national plan was unveiled, this one titled the “Plan de Guadalupe.”

The declaration, however, was far more conservative than Madero’s original program for rebellion from 1910. The Plan de Guadalupe was extremely brief and pragmatic, and there was no mention whatsoever of social issues—merely an emphasis on the need to restore constitutional order to Mexico. There was none of Madero’s talk of the great virtues of liberty and democracy. Land reform was certainly not on the table. The plan also emphasized that “when the Constitutionalist Army occupies Mexico City, the citizen Venustiano Carranza, First Chief of the Army, will be in interim charge of the Executive Power.” Carranza jealously guarded his leadership role of the movement from the start, and had little tolerance for dissent. Moreover, as we shall see, he covered his rather conservative politics, and sought popular support, with a strongly voiced and opportunistic nationalism, one primarily directed at the United States.

But there was a sense, albeit a limited one, in which Carranza was far more radical than Madero. Although his shadow cabinet was all men of “waistcoats and neckties,” they recognized, from Madero’s tragic experience, that the old Porfirian political class and the army couldn’t be conciliated. They had to be crushed by force. Madero had been far too forgiving, tolerant, and naïve, the Constitutionalist leaders believed, and he had been killed as a result. Indeed, if the new leaders had not rebelled they might have all been killed as well, Carranza included. And so political niceties were now a thing of the past: the gloves had to come off.

From bandit to hero
Carranza was ostensibly in command of the Constitutionalists—as their “First Chief”—but his conservatism put him in conflict with the many radicals in his ranks. In addition, Zapata in the south refused to recognize Carranza’s leadership until the latter recognized the Plan de Ayala, something the First Chief would never do, given his pro-landlord politics. Villa was one of the popular leaders in the Constitutionalist camp who was also too radical for Carranza, but the latter needed Villa. He was made commander of the Northern Division, one of the Constitutionalist armies, and eventually became the key military leader of the anti-Huerta phase of the revolution. Along the way he also became a folk hero to the people of Mexican north and beyond.

The question is how Villa—a rural bandit not long before—achieved this degree of popular support. According to historian Friedrich Katz, he was “a complex mixture of [twentieth-century] social revolutionary and nineteenth-century caudillo.” What does this mean? Both Villa and Zapata drew their support in large part from the radical policies they championed, of which more later. But whereas Zapata’s authority in Morelos ultimately derived from the organization of collective-landowning villages, in Chihuahua (and northern Mexico as a whole) such a tight-knit, homogenous social organization was far less common. Villa’s army was far more heterogeneous in its social composition; this would be true of its politics as well. It did not have the cohesive grassroots social base of Zapata’s movement.

Villa thus maintained his authority and commanded his army via the methods of the caudillo, the nineteenth-century regional strongman. The caudillo, broadly speaking, could be characterized as having great personal charisma, courage in battle, skills with both horse and rifle, loyalty to those loyal to him, generosity with subordinates and the less fortunate, and the quick and merciless use of violence. Villa had all these qualities in spades. In short, he took care of “his people,” and they took care of him and obeyed his command. His policies benefiting the poor in Chihuahua, his audacity and success on the battlefield, his ability to pay a soldier’s salary to the many unemployed in his state, and the fear he struck in his Huertista enemies, all ensured him a growing popularity and respect.

Meanwhile, in the face of renewed rebellion, the Federal Army was no less incompetent and mismanaged than before. It was merely larger and better equipped, thanks to the previous efforts of Madero. In many cases this just gave the officers more things to steal, when they weren’t stealing from and extorting the general population. Indeed, Huerta at one point told a foreign diplomat, “If I forbid the Army to steal, it will revolt against me.” The rank-and-file troops remained the same unmotivated forced recruits employed under Díaz. Mass desertions become increasingly common, while Villa’s Northern Division bested them repeatedly in battle on the plains of the Mexican north.

In certain cases it was Villa’s unconventional tactics that made the difference. Take the rebel victory at Chihuahua City, the capital of the state. After a frontal attack had failed, Villa’s troops commandeered a military coal train some miles from town. The station telegraphist was forced to inform headquarters that the train had to return to Chihuahua City, due to the rail lines being cut by the enemy. Some two thousand armed Villistas boarded the train, and at each station the local telegraphist was instructed—a gun to his head—to inform the authorities that all was well. Late at night they entered the city without resistance. The surprise “Trojan train” strategy worked—the Federals were caught completely by surprise, and the town fell to the rebels.

Villa also succeeded through fear: the Federal Army leadership was given absolutely no quarter. His men, many of them military colonists accustomed to frontier warfare, expected no less from their enemies. Captured army officers were executed en masse. Madero’s death was to be avenged. Some were shot stacked in groups of three or more to save on ammunition. As a result, many chose to abandon their posts and flee rather than face defeat and certain death at Villa’s hands.

Villa’s successes on the battlefield also got Washington’s attention. The new Woodrow Wilson administration had soured on Huerta and his erratic and unstable rule, and was fishing around for a new strongman: someone, anyone, who could bring some measure of “order” to Mexico. The “First Chief” Carranza was out, because of his strident anti-Americanism. But Wilson seems to have been taken in by Villa’s leadership abilities and personal authority. According to one diplomat, President Wilson felt that Villa “represents the only instrument of civilization in Mexico. His firm authority allows him to create order and educate the turbulent mass of peons so prone to pillage.” He was a known social radical, but Villa had also been careful to leave U.S. property alone, to avoid antagonizing the gringos while he fought Huerta. In February 1914, with half the country already in Constitutionalist hands, Wilson lifted the U.S. arms embargo on Mexico. This allowed weapons, which previously had to be smuggled, to flow more easily across the northern border. Villa, meanwhile, seemed to enjoy the favorable attention from the north. He even allowed a film crew—from the Mutual Film Company—to come south of the border to record his battles, in order to make a movie starring Villa as himself. The movie has since been lost (some of the footage survives), but Villa received a $25,000 advance. His star was clearly on the rise.

Woodrow Wilson, meanwhile, was still keen on moving events along in Mexico. His administration finally decided that a partial military occupation of the country was necessary. Wilson had secretly proposed such a plan to Carranza, and was immediately turned down, although this didn’t really deter him. Wilson settled on the idea of directly occupying the port city of Veracruz. Although Huerta’s regime was clearly on the ropes, Wilson felt that by controlling the nation’s principal port the United States could influence the national settlement after Huerta fell. In this he ended up being quite mistaken.

To invade another country a pretext had to be found, of course. And as usual, it was too silly to be believed; on April 9, 1914, a few U.S. sailors were briefly detained in the gulf port of Tampico. They were released within two hours, with an official apology besides, but the U.S. Navy admiral in charge issued an ultimatum: he demanded, as a penance of sorts, that the American flag be raised over the port, and given a twenty-one gun salute by Mexican troops. This was obviously a nonstarter. President Huerta proposed a salute to both flags, which was refused. In the meantime, President Wilson, with evidence of Mexico’s insolence in hand, secured authorization for an armed intervention in Mexico. The total vote in the U.S. House of Representatives was 337 to 37. The U.S. Navy attacked and occupied the port on April 22; in the process 126 Mexicans and 19 Americans were killed. U.S. forces would remain until November 1914, a few months after Huerta’s ouster.

Carranza immediately denounced the occupation on behalf of the Constitutionalists, while Villa publicly distanced himself from his chief, and refused to criticize Wilson’s action. It may have been that Villa had his sights on the presidency, and guessed it would be hard to secure over U.S. opposition. It may have also been a ploy to placate the gringos: why loudly provoke them as Carranza was doing? Better to just smile and wave at them, and go about your business. No one knows for sure, but it was another example of Villa’s very eclectic and changing political stances. He had a unique ability to pragmatically combine many positions, policies, and social forces in his camp, although it would ultimately be his undoing.

By the spring of 1914, cities and towns across the country were falling like dominoes to the Constitutionalists. Once again, the writing was on the wall. On July 15, 1914, Huerta resigned the presidency and fled Mexico. Carranza’s forces entered the capital not long after, and the Constitutionalists were now officially masters of the country. The restoration of Mexico’s constitutional order seemed to be close at hand.

But this was only in theory. The new masters were rife with internal divisions, as was Mexico as a whole. This soon led to a split in the Constitutionalist forces, and even further warfare. Why? Some historians attempt to explain these divisions as being simply about personal rivalries, and an individual lust for power. From this perspective, both Villa and Carranza coveted the presidency, Zapata for some reason sided with Villa, and so their respective armies fought one another for several more years. Yet this perspective is remarkably limited, especially given the high level of political debate and contestation in the country, including within and between the revolutionary camps. There are in fact far better potential explanations for the 1914 split.

From the start, as mentioned previously, the landlord Carranza had struggled with a left wing within his own Constitutionalist camp, and with the open mistrust of Zapata. In the last article of this series we will take a closer look at the social and political composition of the Constitutionalists, how and why they broke apart, and why the forces of Villa and Zapata ultimately did not prevail.

  1. The cockroach, the cockroach, can’t walk right now, Because he lacks, because he doesn’t have, marijuana to smoke.



Issue #76

March 2011

Revolt in the Middle East: Another world is possible

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking


  • The crimes of occupation

    Jim Ramey reviews Aftermath: Following the Blood of America's Wars in the Muslim World by Nir Rosen
  • Gaza’s nightmare shows the truth about Israel

    Hadas Thier reviews Midnight on the Mavi Marmara: The Attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla and How It Changed the Course of the Israeli/Palestine Conflict by Moustafa Bayoumi and Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel's War Against the Palestinians by Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé
  • The planet and the profit system

    Chris Williams reviews The Ecological Rift: Capitalism's War on the Earth by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark and Richard York
  • Ways of resistance in Latin America

    Jason Farbman reviews Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America by Ben Dangl and Bolivia's Radical Tradition: Permanent Revolution in the Andes by S. Sándor John