Jul 082013
Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata

Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata

The Mexican Revolution began when Francisco Madero ran for president against Porfiro Diaz, who had ruled Mexico for thirty-four years. Thrown in prison because he was too popular, a disillusioned Madero organized a revolution in November 1910, and the uprising unleashed powerful social forces. In the northern states of Chihuahua and Coahuila, Pascal Orozco and Pancho Villa led a revolt against a local oligarch. Rebellion had broken out in the southern states as well, and one of the more effective leaders was a village chief named Emiliano Zapata. Faced with rebellions in eighteen states, Diaz fled the country on May 25, 1911. Madero shocked his supporters by refusing to purge the government of Diaz loyalists, who launched a coup in February 1913. Madero mistakenly placed his trust in General Victoriano Huerta, who joined the plotters, deposed Madero and then made himself president.

Huerta remained unfazed by rebellions by Villa and Zapata, but the situation worsened when Venustio Carranza, governor of Coahuila, joined the revolution. Despite Huerta’s contempt, Villa had built up a professional army, while Zapata had become a skilled guerrilla. Even the American occupation of Vera Cruz to avenge a minor diplomatic insult failed to increase Huerta’s nationalist appeal. When Huerta fled to exile in Spain on July 15, 1914, Carranza thought that he was the natural choice for president, but Villa and Zapata had the two largest armies, and they both detested Carranza. Too independent to work together, their sole accomplishment was to deny Carranza the presidential chair. Fortunately for Carranza, Alvaro Obregon, a leading general in the revolution, still nursed a grudge from when Villa had tried to execute him. Since Zapata had little interest in events outside of Morelos, Villa was left to face Obregon alone. Several days of fighting at Celaya proved that Villa was simply a charismatic cavalry leader.

Angered by President Woodrow Wilson’s increasingly blatant support for Carranza, Villa raided Colombus, New Mexico in March 1916. Wilson felt obliged to send a punitive expedition into Mexico, but the expedition failed to find Villa, and it was a constant diplomatic struggle to avoid a war. Worn-down by the constant warfare, an increasing number of zapatista leaders simply refused to fight, and a desperate Zapata was assassinated in April 1919. Carranza made a fatal error when he opposed Obregon’s candidacy for president and ordered his arrest. Obregon won the support of most of the army and Carranza was killed trying to flee Mexico. A victorious Obregon allowed Villa to retire in exchange for peace, which ended the revolution after ten long, blood-soaked years.


After overthrowing the dictator Santa Anna in 1855, liberal forces established a new government in Mexico that greatly weakened the power of the Catholic clergy. Refusing to meekly accept a diminished status, the clergy persuaded several conservative generals to launch a coup d’etat in 1858, which led to The War of Reform. The civil war between liberals and conservatives ended in a liberal victory in 1860, but both sides had run up sizable debts to foreign creditors during the war. Seizing the excuse of debts from the civil war, Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France schemed to place Maximilian, the brother of Emperor Franz Josef of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on the throne of Mexico, which led to the French Intervention in Mexico (1861-1867). Although armies loyal to the republican government of President Benito Juarez were defeated by a French army in 1864, Maximilian never gained the support of the Mexican populace, just the conservative elite, while the French were unable to control the countryside, which was dominated by Juaristas, guerrillas loyal to Juarez. Despite Maximilian’s neutral stance during the American Civil War (1861-1865) and rejection of the Confederacy’s offer of recognition, the Union government would not recognize Maximilian as the ruler of Mexico.

After the fall of the Confederacy, American pressure combined with the threat of war with Prussia caused Louis Napoleon to withdraw the French army in 1867, and Maximilian was overthrown less than two months later. Juarez worked to transform Mexico into a liberal, capitalist society, and greatly weakened the Catholic Church until he died of a heart attack in 1872.

Porfiro Diaz (1876-1910)

Diaz’s Regime

Porfirio Diaz

Porfiro Diaz

Born in Oaxaca, in the south of Mexico, Porfiro Diaz took part in the overthrow of Santa Anna and the War of Reform, and had risen to the position of governor of Tehuantepec by the end of the war. One of the leading generals during the French Intervention, he had become a national hero by the end of the fighting in 1867, but he lost a bid for president that year and decided to retire. Factional in-fighting weakened Benito Juarez’s government, and Diaz became the leader of the radical faction that wanted to overturn the status quo. When Juarez defeated him in the 1871 election, Diaz led a rebellion, claiming that Juarez’s repeated re-elections were against the constitution. Juarez’s death ended the official justification for the rebellion, but Diaz led several revolts until he finally defeated the government’s army in 1876.

Although he won election as president in 1877, Diaz’s position in the early years of his rule was far from secure, so he emphasized compromise and negotiation, rather than blunt repression. In fact, he routinely flattered people to build up a network of loyal followers, and rewarded them with patronage to deepen that loyalty. Elections were held regularly but only candidates who had Diaz’s approval won at the national and the state levels. Even then, the state governors ruled with a great deal of autonomy as long as they did not directly oppose his government. After choosing a trustworthy candidate to replace him in 1880, Diaz ran again in 1884. Having led several rebellions himself, Diaz knew how rebels operated and crushed any rebellion, so his reign had little serious opposition. Once he had solidified his control over the nation, he introduced amendments to the 1857 Constitution, which allowed repeated re-election. Since he was constantly re-elected, governors and legislators were also re-elected repeatedly. Many governors served from the final amendment in 1890 to the revolution in 1910.

José Yves Limantour

Jose Yves Limantour

Believing that Mexico’s economy required severe reform, Diaz appointed Jose Yves Limantour Minister of Finance in 1893, giving him the authority required to reshape the economy. Limantour balanced the budget, improved Mexico’s credit, and introduced firmer banking regulations. These efforts encouraged American and European corporations and financiers to invest in Mexico, especially in Mexican railways. Worried that foreigners had too much control over a vital national resource, Limantour passed the Railway Law of 1899, which gave the government a majority interest in the railway network. Although Diaz would be criticized for being too generous to foreign business interests, his closest advisers were divided between pro-American and pro-European. Diaz knew that Mexico desperately needed foreign investment but still strived to limit foreign influence by balancing American and European business interests against each other.

When Mexico celebrated the hundred-year anniversary of independence from Spain on September 15, 1910, eighty-year-old President Diaz had ruled Mexico for the past thirty-four years, and he ensured that the celebration would be suitably lavish. The parties attended by local and foreign dignitaries were decadent with meals served on silver and gold plates, but the majority of the population of Mexico City were poor and were not invited. 85% of Mexico was still rural in 1910, living in haciendas, villages or small ranches. Convinced that native Mexicans were simply incapable of building a modern Mexico, Diaz had turned a blind eye to the monopolistic practices of the foreign companies and ensured that they received favorable judgements whenever sued by Mexicans, which encouraged exploitation.

On the surface Mexico was prosperous, since the government had produced a balanced budget since 1894 and had large cash reserves. However, the emphasis on growth at any cost had produced an urban working class that would react very differently to the lack of freedom than the rural peons who were accustomed to subservience. When economic downturns led to layoffs, workers had launched lengthy strikes in 1906-1907, but Diaz sided with the employers and sent in the army to end the strikes. A generation had grown up in stability and were grateful but Diaz’s refusal to help the workers eroded his popularity.

There were few calls for a revolution but Diaz’s position was less secure by 1910. Prices had been rising since 1890 but living standards had fallen steadily during the same period. The cientificos (intellectuals and technocrats) lived surrounded by luxury but one out of every two children died in their first year and 84% of the population was illiterate. Diaz saw unrest growing but was unwilling to rein in the large corporations and land-owners who were his main pillars of support. Worse, the years of peace and the lack of a real threat had caused his network of spies and rurales (police) to become corrupt and lazy. Like Diaz, the governors of many states were old, and no longer had the energy to deal with problems.

Finally, his failure to establish a clear order of succession would be an issue. Diaz had refused to pick a successor largely because he feared assassination once he made the choice, so he preferred to keep possible contenders off-balance. His habit of playing rivals against each other had been effective but as he grew older, factions formed around potential successors. Diaz’s two key rivals, General Bernado Reyes and Limantour, each represented different factions in the government. Limantour led the cientificos, who favored European investment to counterbalance American influence in the Mexican economy. However, the cientificos were widely unpopular and were viewed as having persuaded Diaz to implement reforms that had benefited them at the cost of the rest of society.

Bernardo Reyes

Bernardo Reyes

Having led campaigns against the Apache and the Yaqui in the north, General Reyes had been rewarded with the post of governor of Nuevo Leon in 1885. Reyes had expanded his power-base by siding with the powerful Carranza clan in Coahuila when they organized a revolt in 1893 against the unpopular governor, who had permitted foreigners, largely American, to crowd out local cattlemen and farmers. With the support of the Carranzas, Reyes had ensured the election of the governor of his choice in 1894. The clan was represented in the state legislature by Venustiano Carranza, a fervent nationalist, who had grown up with Juarez as his idol. Although Carranza never openly criticized Diaz, he became a strong backer of Reyes, who arranged for him to enter national politics as a senator from 1903 to 1908.

When Reyes ran for vice-president as the anti-cientificos’ candidate against the cientificos’ candidate Ramon Corral during the 1904 election, Diaz came down in support of the cientificos, and ensured that Corral was elected. The sole compromise had been to deny Limantour the vice-presidency.

The spark that started the revolution was Diaz’s announcement during an interview with an American journalist in 1908 where he claimed that he would not run in the 1910 presidential election, which would have been his seventh re-election. Intended to improve Diaz’s image abroad, he had no intention of keeping the promise.

When Diaz reneged on his promise not to run, the anti-cientificos and cientificos decided to fight for the vice-presidency again, in order to be well-placed to succeed to the presidency when the dictator finally died. Reyes announced that he would run for vice-president, but Diaz had begun to view the increasingly popular Reyes as a threat, so he intervened and removed Reyes’ ally as governor of Coahuila and replaced him with his own man. Diaz had previously balanced the cientificos against the reyistas (supporters of Reyes), but he saw both of them as a threat by 1909. Even though Reyes had deliberately avoided leading a populist movement, was backed by the conservative middle class who was still loyal to Diaz, refused to make any criticism of Diaz, was only maneuvering for the vice-presidency, and offered the best opportunity for compromise and a smooth transfer of power in the future, Diaz was in no mood for compromise, no matter how delicately suggested. Sent to Europe to study German military tactics, Reyes accepted exile rather than openly oppose Diaz. It is unknown if he feared the threat to his personal safety or simply understood that a presidential challenge would overturn the entire social order in Mexico.

Félix Díaz

Felix Diaz

Felix Diaz Jr., was the son of Felix Diaz, the dictator’s brother, who had been governor of Oaxaca but had been killed during Diaz’s 1872 revolt. Raised by his uncle, Felix never absorbed any of his charisma. Majoring in engineering, not tactics, at the prestigious Military College, he had earned promotion to general by 1909. Marriage to the daughter of a prominent family in Vera Cruz gave him a solid base in the city. Despite his family connection to the dictator, there were few political positions available for the ambitious Felix, since Diaz believed stability was best ensured by keeping the same people in office for years. When Felix ran for governor of Oaxaca in 1902, his uncle backed the establishment candidate against him, which simply increased the popularity of his nephew, since people genuinely wanted change. Refusing to back down, Diaz permitted a third candidate, a member of the cientifico faction, to win the election. Irritated by his nephew’s defiance, Diaz sent him into temporary exile as consul to Chile. A year and a half later, he was allowed to return to Mexico as head of the capital’s police force, but he focused his energy on buying land for speculation, frequently evicting tenants to introduce large-scale production. Although Felix Diaz supported Reyes and the anti-cientificos, he was initially unwilling to risk exile by running for vice-president, but the anti-cientificos needed a standard-bearer and Felix hated vice-president Carral. However, he had waited too long, and there was another, more popular candidate.

Francisco I Madero

Francisco Madero

The key leader would be Francisco Madero, a member of one of the twelve richest families in Mexico and a successful businessman. The death of his mother when he was twenty-eight had caused him to take interest in his fellow human beings, not just his own company. Although he lost the election for governor of Coahuila in 1905, Madero proved to be a determined campaigner. Convinced that he was receiving messages from spirits, Madero became a recluse who devoted everything to the cause of opposing Diaz. His book, The Presidential Succession of 1910, which criticized Diaz’s regime, especially the exploitation of the poor by foreign interests, appeared in January 1909 and sold out immediately.

In 1909, Madero formed the National Anti-reelectionist party with himself as a presidential candidate, attracting the middle-class supporters of Reyes, as well as the Carranza clan. Refusing to break with Reyes, Carranza had lost Diaz’s support for governor of Coahuila. When Reyes backed down and refused to challenge Diaz, Carranza switched his support to Madero. The 1907 depression had affected the middle-and upper classes, and the Madero family had seen the value of its holdings decrease sharply, which encouraged the family to support their earnest son’s campaign. Not all of his family were optimistic. Madero’s grandfather described the situation as the “struggle of a microbe against an elephant.”

However, a number of factors were in Madero’s favor. While rich clans controlled a number of Mexican states, they only admitted a few new members through marriage, blocking access to the higher levels of the local power structure to the upper and middle-class, who would become Madero’s initial supporters. Moreover, the upper and middle-class were frustrated by the rank corruption that existed throughout Mexican officialdom, and they were denied any legitimate means of dealing with that frustration. Embarking on a nationwide tour, Madero routinely addressed crowds that numbered in the tens of thousands. Since Madero refused to be pressured into exile, Diaz arrested both Madero and 6,000 members of his new party, thus ensuring a smooth re-election.

As the leader of a middle-class movement, Madero was not a natural revolutionary but he gradually came to accept that there was no other option if Diaz was to be defeated. Believing that Madero was no longer a threat following the election, Diaz permitted him to leave prison under the supervision of guards, but Madero soon eluded his guards and made his way across the border to Texas. Claiming that the election was illegal, he called for a revolution on November 20, 1910. Madero was not a student of revolutions, but he accurately perceived that Mexico was ready for a revolution. His error was the belief that his middle-class backers could carry out a successful revolution.

Unknown to Madero, greedy hacendados had pushed farming villages to the brink of rebellion in the south, which created the conditions needed for revolution, a very bloody revolution.

Emiliano Zapata

During the course of Diaz’s regime, the haciendas had expanded steadily, absorbing the lands of small farmers. The haciendas were able to enroach into land held commonly by villagers because the land had never been properly documented, even though the villagers had had traditional rights to the land for generations. This process had begun with the 1857 Constitution that had banned corporate landholding with the two-fold goal of weakening the power of the Catholic Church and removing the communal safety net to encourage villages to be more aggressive in raising cash crops, thus stimulating rural entrepreneurs. Diaz brought stability and pushed for improvements to the national infrastructure, which enabled haciendas to grow.

The peons who lived on the haciendas were ruthlessly exploited by the owners. Since the debts were inherited by children, the peons made a permanent work force that was unable to bargain or even leave the closed environment of the haciendas, where the stores were controlled by the hacienda owners. Residents of villages near the haciendas were driven by a fear of losing their land and falling into the inescapable quicksand of debt in the haciendas. Land meant freedom, therefore it had an almost religious meaning to the peasants of Mexico, especially in Morelos, where 28 hacendados owned roughly three quarters of the land by 1909. Unlike traditional farms, the large operations of sugar production in the haciendas were increasingly mechanized, so the price of labor remained low..

Emiliano Zapata

Emiliano Zapata

Although Emiliano Zapata’s family was a relatively well-off peasant family, misery and poverty were an ever-present part of his environment. Born on August 8, 1879 in Morelos, Zapata was the ninth of ten children, but only half of the children survived to adulthood. Aside from farming a plot of land, the Zapatas owned cattle and horses, so Zapata received more formal education than his fellow villagers. He also grew up hearing stories of haciendas illegally claiming village land. As a child, he watched a hacienda take an orchard that had belonged to his family for generations, and he even saw a village burned to the ground by police working for a powerful hacienda owner. The people of Zapata’s village had been engaged in an increasingly fierce conflict with a local hacienda that was trying to gain control of the village. Through the course of the conflict, Zapata learned the importance of land deeds and developed a hatred of railways, which increased the power of the hacienda owners by giving them access to larger markets.

Although Zapata’s parents died when he was sixteen-years-old, he did well in business, running a large farm and making money transporting cargo with his mule team. A respected businessman, Zapata was selected to be part of a small delegation that travelled to Mexico City in 1905 to petition Diaz for assistance during a dispute with a local hacienda. The meeting produced a legend that Zapata had provoked a confrontation with Diaz and was marked by the president as ‘one to note.’ It seems unlikely that Zapata was the standout in the delegation since the village chief, not Zapata, was deported, but the experience was undoubtedly influential. Zapata’s political education continued in 1906 when he befriended Pablo Burgos, a book-dealer, and Otilio Montano, a schoolteacher who admired the Russian anarchist Kropotkin.

At the same time, the conflict between the villagers and the sugar-producing haciendas intensified because the haciendas were steadily losing market share to foreign competitors and to American-owned producers in Mexico with access to advanced technology. Political lobbying convinced Diaz to raise tariffs against foreign competitors but the haciendas could make no headway against the more productive American-owned companies. Instead of modernizing or combining to create economy of scale, they simply squeezed the villages even more, relying on friendly judges to rule against local Indians during property disputes, tying up poor villagers in lengthy legal battles and depriving villages of any financial support or spin-off business. Entire villages quickly disappeared, having lost all of their land and water rights to the surrounding haciendas.

Pablo Escandón

Pablo Escandon

When the governor of Morelos died shortly after winning re-election in 1908, Diaz nominated his chief of staff Pablo Escandon, even though he was the scion of a rich family, more familiar with the latest fashions than the complex regional politics. Aware that Escandon had been chosen simply to further the interests of the haciendas, the opposition nominated the son of a general who had fought for Juarez against the French, and was a powerbroker in the state. The provincial election in 1909 became an early test of strength for the Diaz political machine in preparation for the presidential election the following year, so it was a rough campaign, and a great deal of fiddling with the figures was required to present Escandon as a clear victor. Lacking his predecessor’s finely-tuned political antennae, Escandon overtly backed the haciendas against the villagers without even maintaining the pretense of being an honest broker between the two sides. As a result, the villagers became convinced that the state no longer guaranteed any protection against hacienda-owners that employed brutality against the villagers.

Several months after the election, the elders of Zapata’s village accepted that they were too old to lead during the tough times to come, so they resigned and were replaced by younger men, including Zapata, who became village chief. Given the blatant vote rigging for Escandon and the failure of delegations to Mexico City, his reputation as a tough guy, who would not sit by and let the villagers be pushed around, must have appealed. An extremely skilled horse rider and bullfighter, as well as an accomplished ladies’ man, he was responsible enough to be successful in business and sufficiently charismatic to persuade people to back him.

Determined to be effective, Zapata immersed himself in the village’s historical documents until he felt sufficiently confident in the village’s legal status to confront a hacienda that was aggressively pursuing the village’s land. The hacienda was uninterested in the village’s legal status, and appeals to first the governor and then Diaz had no effect. Facing the loss of the village’s economic autonomy, Zapata armed eighty villagers and evicted the hacienda’s laborers from the disputed fields. Aware that the villages of Molero strongly supported Madero, Diaz declined to intervene on behalf of the hacienda, at least for the moment, and the hacienda’s owner decided that it was not worth dealing with a crazy troublemaker, so the land was returned to the village. While the hacendado may have hoped to avoid unnecessary strife, Zapata became famous throughout the state. Although the villagers were jubilant, Zapata knew that the victory would disappear if Madero was defeated, so he sent Pablo Burgos to meet Madero in Texas to discuss an alliance.

Pancho Villa

Luis Terrazas

Luis Terrazas

In Northern Mexico, a savage war to the death between the federal Mexican government and the Yacqui and the Apache been going on for a generation. Luis Terrazas had become one of the richest men in Mexico, relying on his power as governor to seize abandoned haciendas for himself and his effectiveness in raising militias to ensure security, which attracted laborers for his estates. However, opposition to Diaz early in the dictator’s career meant that he would not become a governor again until 1903, by which time he had become the wealthiest man in Mexico. The increase in wealth had been due to two events in 1885: the capture of Apache chief Geronimo by the American army and the completion of a railway link between Chihuahua and the rest of Mexico.

Terrazas became so powerful that Diaz saw him as a threat but Terrazas had manipulated existing tensions in the state, letting angry villagers believe that he supported the Tomochi Revolt (1891-95), which discredited Governor Carillo by showing that he could not maintain stability in the state. Villagers had taken up arms because outsiders from the state, including Jose-Yves Limantour, a key member of Diaz’s cabinet, had gained a large federal grant of public land that was occupied by the military villagers, and then proceeded to evict the villagers from their land. Experienced Indian-fighters, operating on their home ground, they had easily beaten federal forces until the village of Tomochi was finally crushed by overwhelming force. Despite the defeat, the example of Tomochi would inspire later revolts.

Terraza’s withdrawal of support ensured that the revolt did not spread, and Diaz realized that it would be easier to co-opt regional strongmen like Terrazas, so Luis Terrazas was permitted to become governor in 1903. Villagers thought that Terrazas was still their patron and would protect them. They were wrong. Since the Apache were no longer a serious threat, the family did not need the help of the villages’ militias. As governor, Luis Terrazas was able to take away the villages’ traditional land rights while bringing in foreign investment to fund the construction of railways and mines. Strikes were forbidden and the tame press was not permitted to criticize his actions.

Terrazas wanted control but he also wanted to also maintain his image as a man sympathetic to the people, so he granted enough of the villagers’ petitions to preserve his image, while strengthening his hold on the state by removing rivals. Once control had been ensured, he resigned on the grounds of old age and allowed his son-in-law Enrique Creel to succeed him as governor in 1904. Happy to rule with an iron hand, Creel thought that his actions would benefit Mexico. Like many key decision-makers in Mexico, he believed that progress depended on the introduction of technology and economy of scale in production, while eliminating wasteful inefficiency, in particular the overly generous grazing and water rights that had been granted to the villagers. Admittedly, some people in the state profited from the new economic opportunities that came with the railway, but the majority did not, and opposition grew. Letters of petition to the governor were ignored or answered with advice to seek justice in the courts. Expensive lawyers were hired but the courts were corrupt, and the villagers’ appeals were rejected. Denied legal recourse, large numbers of tough, violent men all over the state were given two options: capitulate or start killing. Since the oligarchy in the state remained united, the villagers knew that revolt was futile, but a deep undercurrent of resentment bubbled in the region.

The economic depression of 1908 hit all of Mexico, but Chihuahua was struck especially hard, since the northern states were connected closely to the United States. Huge layoffs in mines and lumberyards threw thousands out of work, but the family farms that would have gotten them through the crisis had been taken away by the Terrazas-Creel faction. With so many people out of work, small-scale merchants went out of business, which broadened the social range of people dissatisfied with the government. The problem still remained regional and was unlikely to have exploded into a full-scale revolt but Madero’s campaign against Diaz created a national crisis.

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

Born around 1878, Pancho Villa was the eldest son of a peasant family, whose father had died young. He became an outlaw after violently repelling the advances made by the administrator of a powerful hacendia or the son of the owner, it is not clear, on his younger sister in September 1894. After being captured several months later, he escaped, killing a guard in the process, and changed his name from Doroteo Arango to Francisco Villa, which may have been the surname of his paternal grandfather. By 1896, Villa was riding with the state’s most successful outlaw, Ignacio Parra, who taught Villa the importance of sharing some of the profits with the local peasants to gain shelter from the authorities. Although eventually arrested and sentenced to a year in the army, he escaped and left Durango for Chihuahua, where he worked for a period of time as a butcher and as head of mule teams transporting supplies and silver for Americans.

Fearing a violent end, Villa had made a genuine effort to leave his criminal past behind him, but when his identity was discovered he returned to the reliable career of cattle rustling. Fortunately for Villa, the locals resented the dominating ways of the Terrazas clan and did not view rustling as a serious offence, especially since the Terrazas and other hacendados had taken away villagers’ customary rights to graze cattle on the open range. As a result, he had a semi-respectable life and stayed below the radar of the law. While his history during the period of his life before the revolution is still relatively unknown and his status as a Robin Hood-like outlaw is debatable, he was definitely exposed to the social injustices and lack of opportunities that were prevalent at the time. Highly intelligent and a natural leader, society under Diaz had offered no opportunities to use that intelligence, which fuelled a resentment that was always lurking under the surface, and would flare up whenever he thought that he was being condescended to by a member of the elite.

Unlike most bandits, Villa appears to have wanted a stable life or perhaps he took out insurance against arrest, so he contacted Abraham Gonzalez, Madero’s political agent in Chihuahua. Gonzalez’s honesty and respectful attitude towards a social junior made a deep impression on Villa, who claimed to view the Revolution as an opportunity to atone for his sins.


Having little contact with the rural areas, Madero and his advisers had concentrated their efforts in urban areas, but a few middle-class supporters were no match for the police. The initial risings on November 20 were sporadic and easily put down. After the first few revolutionaries were taken out and shot, Madero’s followers adopted a more patient attitude towards regime change.

Although a furious Diaz was convinced that Madero was receiving support from the United States, American corporate interests knew very well that they would not get a better deal under a new regime and had nothing to do with Madero. Diaz’s belief was largely based on a misunderstanding. He was a president and refused to let revolutionaries operate openly, so he presumed that President William Taft was the same, not realizing that Taft had legal limitations that prevented him from interfering with Madero’s activities during the time that he was based in the United States.

Pasqual Orozco

Pasqual Orozco

It appeared that the revolution had been stillborn, but an uprising suddenly exploded in Chihuahua. The areas settled by people who had fought the Apache for a generation were the first to revolt, and the revolt soon spread across the state, led by Castulo Herrera, Pascual Orozco and Pancho Villa. Orozco had prospered guiding convoys through dangerous mountain passes, and he joined Madero simply to attack a business rival, a local strongman and military commander, who was allied to the Terrazas. Although unhappy by the need to acknowledge Herrera, the head of the boilermakers’ union, as his commander, Villa accepted Gonzalez’s decision. Recruits poured in but it soon became clear that Herrera did not know how to deal with the rough semi-bandits, so Villa became the actual, if not official, commander.

The war did not always favor the rebels. Villa linked up with Orozco and they won several victories but when they fought a battle with a powerful force of federals, they were broken and forced to flee to the mountains. Believing that a decisive victory was needed to reassure foreign markets that he was still in charge of Mexico, Diaz sent 5,000 troops under General Juan Hernandez to Chihuahua, but the Terrazas-Creel faction was no longer dominated the state. Angered by the rapacious greed of the hacienda owners, the villagers who should have been serving in the militia and guiding the federals were either staying at home or riding with the rebels. Hoping to ride out the storm, the owners of the haciendas refused to become involved. Moreover, the rebels were fighting in their home area and believed in a cause, but the federal troops were inexperienced conscripts unwilling to fight for a repressive dictator. Convinced that the entire Mexican army would be required to impose peace on the state, Hernandez advised Diaz to cut ties with the hated Terrazas-Creel faction and pretend to give into the rebels. Once they had given up their weapons, they could be rounded up and executed. Tired of fighting, Diaz accepted Hernandez’s advice and sent in a new governor who made impressive sounding noises about compromise and negotiation, but it was too late.

Having become a leader in his own right, Villa started operating separately from Orozco. His army continued to grow, and he acquired supplies and fresh horses by raiding haciendas. Most important, Villa had the charisma, coolness under fire and love of risks needed to win the loyalty of men. After losing too many patrols in the mountains, the federals gave up any pretense of occupying the mountains, and retreated to the cities, followed by a wave of hacienda owners seeking safety. As Diaz’s grasp slipped, more and more groups were taking advantage of a weakened federal state to settle old scores, taking revenge against the owners of haciendas, plantation managers and local politicians. A more serious issue was widespread desertion among the army. Soldiers drafted into the army would desert and join the rebels once they left the cities.

Unknown to Diaz, the situation had exploded out of Madero’s hands. He had wanted to gain power through a coup with the backing of the army, but when he was finally forced out of the United States for violating American neutrality laws in February 1911, he had to enter Mexico through Chihuahua, not his home state where he could rely on a huge personal network. Dependence on Orozco and Villa cost him the support of the army, which hated the revolutionaries, while the guerrillas were disappointed to learn that Madero’s goals were far more modest than their own. Madero soon realized that the war in Chihuahua was essentially a local civil war, but he needed the rebels, and allowed them to use his name for legitimacy. In fact, Orozco clashed with Madero because Orozco had no interest in serving under anyone. Madero tried to win a victory on March 6 with forces loyal to him, but the attack was a disaster. The enthusiastic but untrained volunteers were no match for federals with machine guns, and the rebels fled, leaving many of their men dead or wounded on the ground. Madero’s courage won recruits and ensured that Orozco accepted him as civilian head of the revolution, although Orozco continued as military leader. Fortunately for Madero, Villa was loyal and began combining his guerrillas with Madero’s volunteers to forge a proper army. Madero happily used Villa as a counterbalance against Orozco, but enabled Orozco to save face by always ensuring that Orozco was given a higher rank than Villa.

By April, revolution had broken out in eighteen states, and Hernandez had told Diaz that Chihuahua was a write-off. Diaz took drastic steps, announcing that the president would not be re-elected and the the large estates would be divided among the peasants, while a number of unpopular officials and governors, including the vice-president, were removed. It seemed likely that a deal would be made since Limantour had returned from exile and met with Madero’s father. The architect of the reforms, Limantour was supported by much of the upper class and the hacendados, who knew that the revolution was destroying the economic system they benefited from, so they could accept some reforms in exchange for economic prosperity.

Limantour urged Diaz to give into Madero’s political demands and then destroy the real revolutionaries in other parts of Mexico, but the generals refused to concede that the rebels were a genuine military threat and pressed Diaz to stand strong. The army leadership feared that the revolutionaries would eliminate the army’s privileges. An experienced campaigner, Diaz knew better than to take seriously everything said by his generals, so he opened negotiations with Madero, who was himself worried that the revolution had exploded far beyond his control, especially the peasant revolt in Morelos that was led by Zapata.

Madero and his advisers

Madero and his advisers

Madero had accepted his family’s urgings and accepted a temporary, unofficial ceasefire. Unfortunately, the revolutionaries would no longer be satisfied with a simple change in government and token land reforms. A ceasefire, even an unofficial one, was not popular with the rebel army, so a meeting was held on April 30 and May 1 where the main leaders of the revolution debated whether or not to insist that peace depended on Diaz resigning. Madero felt it was unnecessary, but he was in the minority. By this time, Orozco, Villa and Jose de la Luz Blanco were the main commanders of the rebel army, and they were confident that they could defeat the federals. Madero bowed to the majority and since Diaz would not resign, the revolution continued.

Less hot-headed than Villa, Zapata had considered the situation seriously before entering the revolution, and he initially only took small actions, such as reclaiming land that had been seized by a local hacienda. He had already received the support of neighbouring villages, and the local government officials were intimidated by the large number of his followers. When the authorities chose to not arrest him, his reputation spread and he began arming villagers. Diaz was busy with bigger problems, but Zapata had also avoided major confrontations with the government. Furthermore, he had not been made part of Madero’s network, since Morelos was not considered a key area, so Zapata was not touched when the police arrested Madero’s entire network in the south. Torres Burgos returned in mid-February 1911 with a message from Madero that Zapata should serve under Burgos. When the revolt commenced in early March Burgos was officially in charge, but Zapata set the strategy, and he decided to train his growing army by leading them on small raids against easy targets.

Disgusted by the looting that accompanied the capture of towns, Burgos left the movement but was caught and executed by federal troops, while Zapata had been elected head of the rebels in the south. Recognizing that a guerrilla’s survival depends on constant movement, he adopted hit-and-run tactics, descending from the mountains to raid a village before returning to the safety of the hills, never spending more than a few hours in a village. Recruits were mostly farmers drawn by a hatred of poverty and Spaniards.

Appointed Madero’s official representative in Morelos, Zapata made an alliance with the most powerful family in the south, the Figueroas, who were the dominant power-brokers in nearby Guerrero, and had also joined Madero’s revolution. Meeting Ambrosio Figueroa on April 22, the two men agreed to respect each other’s territory. Doubtful that the Figueroas would keep the bargain when the fighting stopped and fearing that Madero would conclude a separate peace with Diaz, leaving the revolutionaries to fend for themselves, Zapata focused on capturing territory, in order to improve his bargaining position. Outwitting the federal forces sent to stop him, Zapata led his army around the state, taking smaller towns to gain supplies, ammunition and recruits. On May 13, he led 4,000 men against 400 elite soldiers defending the large town of Cuautla. The street-fighting was brutal but the surviving federal troops abandoned the city on May 19. Zapata became a national hero and Diaz realized that he could not stop the revolution.

Shocked by the severity of the revolution, Diaz had fired his cabinet and tried to trick Madero into backing down by warning that the United States would intervene to ensure stability. Fed up with Madero’s vacillating nature, Villa and Orozco launched attacks against the federals at Ciudad Juarez, although they took precautions to ensure that the shooting did not spread across the border. Americans in El Paso crowded to watch the battles, even though five members of the audience were killed by stray bullets. The battle was bloody but the rebels made use of their greater numbers to rotate the attackers in shifts and wear down the tired defenders. The strategy was effective, and the city fell on May 10 after several days of fighting. Although he had opposed the attack, the fall of Ciudad Juarez caused the U.S. government to take Madero seriously.

Despite the victory, a crisis developed the next day when Madero refused to let Villa and Orozco execute General Juan Navarro, the federal commander of Ciudad Juarez, who had executed captured rebels during a previous battle. This was the last straw for Orozco, and a meeting between Madero, Orozco and Villa ended in a literal stand-off. When Madero refused to execute Navarro and to guarantee Orozco the position of minister of war in the new government, Orzoco pointed a gun at Madero, one of Madero’s aides pointed a gun at Orzoco, and Villa called for troops. The exact events are not agreed upon and some versions state that Villa, not Orzoco, drew the gun, but Orzoco finally backed down. Navarro was permitted to continue to draw breath and the position of minister of war would go to Venustiano Carranza, a recent recruit to the revolution, but Madero ensured that the troops were finally paid. Villa made up with Madero but Orzoco never forgave Madero, even though he was made military commander of Chihuahua after Madero became president in November 1911.

Madero’s next offer to Diaz was that the army and its officer corps would not be changed, the government would not be affected and fourteen states in the north and center of the nation would have temporary governors chosen by him, which does sound like Madero was abandoning Zapata and the south. The treaty’s conditions were the resignation of both Diaz and his vice-president Ramon Corral. Foreign Minister Leon de la Barra would serve as interim president and organize new elections. Uneasy around guerrillas, Madero agreed to the regular army’s demand that the revolutionary armies be demobilized. Madero refused to make revolutionary demands because he was not a revolutionary, and he was terrified by the anarchy that he saw Zapata creating in the south, which is why he was abandoning Zapata. Madero’s allies were naturally unhappy with this timid approach.

President Francisco Madero (1911-1913)

Madero fails to reform the Porfirian system

After signing the Treaty of Ciudad Juarez on May 21, Diaz officially resigned on May 25, 1911, and left Mexico for France.
Madero spent four days travelling to Mexico City, reaching it on June 7, and crowds thronged each railway station in the hope of seeing him. People were ecstatic but not everyone understood who Madero was or what he wanted. Madero formed a new party, the Progressive Constitutional Party (PCP), in preparation for the coming elections, and his supporters busied themselves organizing branches in all of the states. Despite the need to build a new party organization, Madero believed that he would easily win the election in October, and the decision to leave Diaz’s government in place would reinforce his image as a democrat. This would be a dangerous error since provisional president De la Barra did not hide his opposition to Madero’s policies. In fact, Madero had left most of the government officials in their positions, which meant that the interim government was filled with enemies, and he had few positions to give his friends. The moral courage and refusal to be swayed by realistic arguments that had given him the strength to revolt against Diaz meant that he trusted everyone, despite the warnings of friends and family.

Madero never accepted the need for radical reform because he was related to many of the richest families in Mexico and they reminded him that these reforms would hurt them. This was not cynical maneuvering to preserve their luxurious lifestyles; the hacendados genuinely did not understand why the villagers thought that they had been mistreated. Morelos Governor Pablo Escandon’s reaction to Zapata’s successful revolt was fear of the rise of a ‘true Niggerdom’ in Mexico. Many hacendados and urban merchants thought that the Indians who populated the villages were lazy, and would not work hard unless forced. Most important, Madero had thought that Diaz, not his system, was the enemy. With Diaz gone, there would be no problems. Since most of the Porifian system remained untouched, many of Madero’s followers strongly opposed the deal. Carranza predicted that the revolution would have to be fought again. Angry that the treaty left the Terrazas-Creel families untouched, Villa resigned. Despite Villa’s loyalty, Madero clearly was uncomfortable with Villa since he immediately accepted the resignation.

Felix Diaz, appointed governor of Oaxaca just before the fall of Diaz, was the only member of the Diaz family to remain in Mexico, and he hoped to win an important position when elections were held. Although he initially pledged loyalty to Madero, Diaz hated him for overthrowing his uncle. Bernardo Reyes had also returned and was planning to run for president. Diaz had more modest ambitions and contented himself with campaigning for governor of Oaxaca. However, Madero had decided to back the previous governor, Benito Juarez Mara, the son of Benito Juarez, so Diaz lost by a suspiciously large margin. At least, he had been permitted to run. Reyes’ political organization had spread through Mexico, rivalling Madero’s organization in size, since Reyes campaigned on the image that he would be able to restore order and reign in the troublesome revolutionaries. When Reyes was attacked by thugs believed to be working for Madero’s brother Gustavo, he realized that it would not be safe to campaign for president, so he returned to exile.

Madero won the election with 98% of the vote, which seemed to indicate a solid grasp on the government, but he had angered his original supporters. Aside from Governor Gonzalez of Chihuahua, none of the Maderista governors had been part of the revolution since the beginning. Instead, they were all middle-aged, middle-class men more suited for compromise than implementing radical reforms, who shared Madero’s unease with revolutionary armies, while the badly educated leaders with regional outlooks were passed over. Watching their leaders being denied political office did not endear Madero to the rank-and-file soldiers who had done the fighting that had won the revolution.

It would have been pointless to expect Madero to implement widespread reforms, but it was complete folly to pass over the people who led the men with the guns in favor of middle-class leaders with no followings but who were polite and wore the right clothes. Following a generation where a tiny minority kept an iron-grip on government positions, it would have been impossible to immediately satisfy the pent-up demand among the middle-class for a role in government but Madero should have used his patronage more carefully. Worse, demobilization was carried out quickly and the revolutionary soldiers were given token payments, if they were paid anything at all. In fact, federal troops were sent into a number of states to force maderista revolutionary groups to stop reclaiming lands from haciendas.

Reyes launched a revolt in the fall of 1911 but failed to attract followers, even in his home base of Nuevo Leon, so he quickly surrendered to police. Diaz had chosen another avenue, becoming leader of the anti-cientifico party in the national legislature. He attracted a number of followers, holdovers from the Porfirian regime, although they were still a minority. Tiring of even token opposition, Madero’s government decided in May 1912 to hold new legislative elections that summer, aware that Diaz and his remaining allies had no hope of winning re-election. Concluding that there was no place for him in Madero’s government, Diaz resigned from the military in August, and led a revolt in Vera Cruz on October 16. However, he was not a dynamic leader, and it became clear that many prominent Porfirians were sitting on the fence, waiting to see if he could actually capture Vera Cruz before openly supporting him. Madero chose General Joaquin Beltran to put down the revolt. Confident that Beltran would join him, not fight him, Diaz did not bother to prepare defences. Beltran proved to be both loyal and efficient, and easily gained control of the city, capturing Diaz, on October 23. While it appeared that Madero had weathered the crises, the Porfirians still hated Madero, and had realized that better planning and cooperation between the reyistas and felicistas would be required.

Zapatista Revolt

Madero had won too quickly, so there had not been enough time to merge the hastily formed coalition of rebels in different regions with widely divergent goals and causes into an organized movement with common goals and an established decision-making process. Nowhere was this more true than in Morelos.

Instead of offering Zapata the governorship of Morelos, Madero ordered the haciendas to be left alone and announced that the land reforms in the Plan of San Luis Potosi would not be implemented in full. Zapata was at a loss. He knew that he was being betrayed but he would not oppose Madero, so he simply watched the hacendados reclaim their estates. Zapata met Madero in Mexico City on June 8, but the two men failed to come to an agreement. Madero wanted Zapata to disarm his army before there would be land reform, but Zapata had no faith that the reform would actually happen without an army. When Madero visited Morelos four days later, an impatient Zapata refused to make any effort to explain the poverty faced by the villagers, while both the Figueroas and the local notables were polite, friendly and cooperative, so Madero concluded that Zapata was a hot head, without trying to understand the reasons behind his anger. Given Madero’s desire for a nice, orderly revolution, it should come as no surprise that the two men did not come to terms. Furthermore, Zapata did not fully control many of the small bands of revolutionaries/bandits that had followed him during the fighting, and the notables of the state skillfully cooperated with the press in Mexico City to blame Zapata for every crime or looting carried out by them.

The local villagers refused to meekly submit, so the hacendados offered the position of governor to Zapata if he gave up land reform. Zapata refused and began to rearm his men. The situation escalated because De la Barra wanted to ensure that Zapata had been eliminated as a threat before the election. Federal forces under General Victoriano Huerta were sent to Morelos to arrest him and disarm his men, while Ambrosio Figueroa was appointed governor and military commander in Morelos, with the support of Madero, who viewed Zapata as a troublemaker.

Even if they did not have conflicting goals, it would have been difficult for Madero and Zapata to cooperate. Zapata mistrusted anyone from Mexico City and looked for betrayal in every proposal, while Madero was incapable of acknowledging the validity of any other viewpoint than his own. Zapata had grown up watching rich people exactly like Madero push villagers deeper and deeper into poverty. Most important, their viewpoints were diametrically opposed. Madero and his advisers thought that reforms must first be debated politely in the legislature, decreed officially and then implemented by the bureaucracy. Zapata’s fellow revolutionaries wanted to see changes happen where they lived without waiting for permission from the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy had always been their enemy, and the fact that there was a new president was unlikely to change the situation. Furthermore, it had seemed likely to Zapata, as well as many observers, that Madero would not last long in office, so the zapatistas continued to fight in the hope that the next government would be more receptive.

Despite Madero’s halfhearted efforts to calm the situation, De la Barra had sent Huerta orders to crush Zapata. Madero’s constant shifting and refusal to take a stand meant that Zapata thought that Huerta was following Madero’s orders, so he never trusted Madero again. De la Barra declared Zapata an outlaw on August 29, but an attempt to capture Zapata failed, and he escaped to raise an army. Huerta was uninterested in cooperation with the planters, and the Figueroas quickly realized that he would cause more trouble instead of restoring stability. Zapata’s guerrillas easily eluded Huerta’s regulars, and attracted recruits and supplies from villages as they marched through four states.

Madero won a free election in October but instead of accepting the popular mandate for reform, he returned to his spiritualist approach to politics, focusing on flowery concepts in place of realistic solutions to the practical problems facing Mexico. The problems would have been challenging to anyone, but Madero was incapable of choosing sides, so he achieved the impressive feat of disappointing everyone. However, his victory ended Huerta’s authority and thus the pursuit of Zapata, who finally had time to enjoy his honeymoon with his new bride. Since the marriage was intended to cement his social status, he would not be expected to end his affairs but a proper honeymoon was still required.

Madero managed to bungle the peace negotiations. He approved a stern, aggressive order for Zapata to surrender to please the hawks in Congress, and then sent a representative to deliver a much smoother oral message, but the military commander in Morelos refused to allow the representative to meet with Zapata. Furious at the betrayal, Zapata called out his men and returned to guerrilla life.

Otilio Mnatano

Otilio Mnatano

Realizing that he needed a cause to counter the charges that he was a bandit, Zapata issued the Plan of Ayala (written with Otilio Montano) on November 28, 1911, rejecting Madero and recognizing Orozco as the rightful head of the revolution, in an attempt to gain national support and allies. The inclusion of Orozco was farsighted since he had not even rebelled yet. Unsurprisingly, the plan focused on land reform with detailed proposals for returning lands illegally seized by haciendas to the villages, although the haciendas would keep their own land. Madero never realized the vital importance of land reform to Zapata and his followers, so his offers always concentrated on exile. Although Zapata had established a fixed organization to coordinate the operations of the junta of revolutionaries who had signed the Plan of Ayala, revolts broke out in several states, including Guerrero and Tlaxcala, and a number of powerful guerrillas, most notably Genovevo de la O, became nominal followers of Zapata. Even the leaders who had signed the plan did not all follow Zapata’s orders, while bandits were using the chaos as cover. Despite the lack of organization, the rebels controlled the state aside from the cities, but individual chieftains did not permit rival chieftains to operate on their territory. Moreover, Figueroa had resigned and returned to Guerrero. His replacement, Francisco Naranjo Jr., was genuinely well-intentioned, but his mild reforms were too late, and the guerrilla warfare intensified.

The tough and brutal General Juvencio Robles was assigned in early February to restore order to Morelos, but his harsh methods ended any hope of peace in the state. Having fought in the Indian wars in northern Mexico, he believed that extermination was the best solution, so people were shot on suspicion of being or even supporting the guerrillas. Following the principles used by the Spanish during the Cuban War of Independence and by the British during the Boer War, Robles herded villagers into camps and burned their farms to deny supplies to the guerrillas, which simply swelled the numbers of the guerrilla bands and eliminated any hope of negotiation. Zapata organized a coordinated series of attacks by guerrilla leaders that forced the federal forces to retreat to the major towns, but the guerrillas did not have enough ammunition and heavy weapons to achieve a decisive victory. By June, he had almost no ammunition, many guerrillas had returned home to plant the harvest and Orzoco’s rebellion was running out of steam. The only victory was that Madero re-assigned Robles to a different command, replacing him with General Felipe Angeles, whose offer of amnesty caused support for the guerrillas to decline.

This would have been an excellent opportunity to soothe the villagers with mild reforms, but once again defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. The pro-land reform opposition had gained control over the state legislature in the September elections, but they lacked the resolve to introduce radical reforms. Instead, they wanted the rebellion to end, so existing land reform bills that had been introduced by the previous, more radical legislature were cancelled. They were frightened by drastic change, and Patricio Leyva, the new governor, struck down a key land reform bill in December 1912, promising instead to organize a study of the land rights issue. Lacking patience to wait until the study was completed, villagers returned to supporting the guerrillas. Faced with a re-energized rebellion, Angeles started burning villages but he failed to regain control of the countryside.

Orozco’s Rebellion (March-Fall 1912)

Villa had taken his pension in May 1911 and bought four butcher shops, which he equipped with advanced fridges and freezers from the United States. He had also married Maria Luz Corral, a poor villager who had caught his eye, although it was one of his many marriages, since he had married many of his lovers to keep them happy. Men of that era in Mexico were unaccustomed to the idea of women’s rights and did what they pleased. Although Villa would ensure that he had the woman’s consent, as a violent guerrilla leader, most women chose to consent.

The revolutionary army in Chihuahua had been demobilized with little pay and less thanks. Even though pensions for the families of soldiers who had died fighting in the revolution had been part of the Treaty of Ciudad Juarez, the government did not take care of the families of dead soldiers, and the haciendas remained as powerful as ever. Busy with his butchering business, Villa was displeased to see that nothing had changed, even though a year had passed since the revolutionaries had won. Villa’s men often sought him out for help but Villa had no official authority. Governor Gonzalez sympathized with Villa, but was unable to oppose the Creel-Terrazas clique without the active support of Madero, who still naively continued to hope that the pro-Diaz elite could be persuaded to accept his reforms. Worse, he brought Gonzalez to Mexico City as Minister of the Interior but did not replace him in Chihuahua.

Orozco announces the revolution.

Orozco announces the revolution.

Dissatisfaction brewed until the garrison of ex-revolutionaries at Ciudad Juarez rose up and seized the town on February 27, 1912. It would have likely remained an isolated incident except that Orozco joined the rebels. Calling for a revolution on March 2, Orozco established the Plan de la Empacadora, which promised better wages for industrial workers and land reform, and demanded the resignation of Madero. People had been calling for Orozco to lead a revolt, and he had wisely ignored an invitation to join Bernardo Reyes’ rebellion, but he had waited until he had ensured that he had sufficient backing to face the federal government. When the Terrazas offered to provide the necessary backing, Orozco decided the time was right to revolt. It had been easy for the Terrazas to negotiate with Orozco because governor Abraham Gonzalez was in Mexico City.
Whether Orozco genuinely sympathized with the revolutionaries or simply hoped to use the Terrazas’ backing to make his way to the presidential chair is unknown, but he definitely had their support, since they raised a huge sum of money to fund his revolt. The Terrazas-Creel faction considered the middle-class led by Madero to be the greater threat, and they hoped to use Orozco and his troops to end that threat. Orozco’s motives are less clear, since he must have realized that the Terrazas would turn on him eventually. However, he had never been a true revolutionary, but had sought position and wealth. When Madero turned him down, he approached the Terrazas-Creel faction. The Terrazas provided financial support but avoided direct involvement, preferring to use their control of funds to ensure that the rebels did not harm the clan’s interests.

Governor Gonzales appointed Villa commander of the troops assigned to deal with Orozco. Fortunately for Gonzalez, no close bonds existed between Orozco and Villa, who remained loyal to Madero, rejecting a generous offer from Orozco to go to the US instead of supporting Madero. Most important, his acceptance of financial support from the hated Terrazas clan made an alliance with Orozco impossible. Unfortunately, the sizeable war chest provided by the Terrazas enabled Orozco to attract many disillusioned revolutionaries, so he had the larger army.

Tired of instability on the border, President Taft sent 34,000 men to the Rio Grande to warn Madero to get the situation under control. However, he refused to permit the sale of arms to a rebel against the legitimate government of Mexico.

Orozco routed a federal army of 6,000 men on March 23, taking them by surprise with a locomotive packed with dynamite that hit the federal vanguard, which gave Orozco control of Chihuahua. Jose de la Luz Soto, commander of the garrison of Parral, the last pro-Madero city in Chihuahua, had openly declared for Orozco. Cooperating with Madero loyalists, Villa gained control of Parral, but was forced to abandon the city to Orozco’s more powerful army after two days of heavy fighting.

Victoriano Huerta

Victoriano Huerta

Lacking local guides, Diaz’s armies had been constantly ambushed in the north, so Madero made Villa part of the army with a rank of colonel. However, he had to serve under the command of Huerta, commander of the Federal Division of the North, since the federal army insisted on remaining in charge of all revolutionary forces. Unaware of Huerta’s hatred of everyone outside of the army, Villa accepted the offer. Huerta was a hard, brutal man, who believed any problem could be solved with violence, especially executions without trial. Huerta was not Madero’s favourite general, but he had been given the command against Orozco by the minister of war, an old friend. A violent, intolerant alcoholic who was always angry, it was no surprise that Huerta did not get along well with the dynamic, teetolaller, hyper-emotional Villa. The surprise is that they did not immediately kill each other.

Deciding to wear the orozquistas (followers of Orozco) down through a campaign of attrition, Huerta denied Orozco any options other than attacking the federal army on ground that favored Huerta. The strategy worked, and when Orozco suffered a massive defeat in June, he no longer had a functioning army. Furthermore, numerous former revolutionaries broke with him, criticizing his lack of genuine support for reform, so he was forced to flee across the border. Huerta re-established government control over Chihuahua, becoming a national hero, and Madero, owing his survival to the army, had to double the army’s budget.

Orozco’s army may have been defeated but the Terrazas-Creel faction was as strong as ever, since they were forging links with Huerta, who shared their loathing of revolutionaries, Governor Gonzalez in particular. Bowing to the influence of the oligarchy, Madero agreed to give an amnesty to all of Orozco’s former supporters and permitted the head of the Terrazas clan to return to Chihuahua from the United States. Meanwhile, Huerta’s officers openly criticized Gonzalez and harassed the revolutionary militias that backed him.

With the fighting over, Villa concluded on June 3 that his unit was no longer part of the army. Huerta disagreed, and Villa found himself standing nervously in front of a firing squad until a friendly colonel stalled the execution long enough for the arrival of a telegram from Madero ordering Villa to be imprisoned. The ordeal was far from over, Huerta sent Villa to Mexico City to be tried for mutiny. Villa only reached Mexico City alive because two separate officers refused to follow Huerta’s orders to have Villa shot while trying to escape. Despite Governor Gonzalez’s firm support, Madero appears to have been unwilling to defy the army on behalf of a loyal general he did not like. The army’s trial of Villa was fair if slow, and it soon became clear that Huerta did not really have a case, especially since Villa’s lawyers pointed out that he was not officially part of the army. While in prison, Villa befriended two zapatistas, Zapata’s former secretary and his chief of staff, who explained the ideas behind the Plan of Ayala.

Tiring of Huerta and feeling more secure, Madero fired him in October. Again. Never one to make a quick decision, Madero was finally leaning towards pardoning Villa, when he learned that Villa had bribed a clerk at the prison and escaped on Christmas Day 1912, making his way to El Paso, Texas. Villa contacted Madero asking for an amnesty and position of military commander in Chihuahua. Madero was persuaded to grant the amnesty by Governor Gonzalez.

The Ten Tragic Days (February 9-19, 1913)

Having quashed rebellions led by Reyes, Felix Diaz and Orozco, Madero’s position should have been secure but the opposite was true. Madero had failed to build up revolutionary forces to balance the army, which was allied with the rich elite. Instead, he had demobilized the revolutionary armies that had brought him victory against the federal army, and he handled the demobilization in such a way that the soldiers felt that they had been badly treated. His lack of a clear political agenda and inability to actually do anything for the poor villagers meant that he did not win popular support or many votes for his party during the June 1912 election. The rich oligarchs should have been happy with him but they both despised him personally and did not trust that he had their interests at heart. Most important, they had feared men like Zapata, Orozco and Villa, so when Madero broke with the rebel leaders, he lost their protection.

Henry Lane Wilson

Henry Lane Wilson

American ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, a friend of Huerta, hated Madero with a surprising passion, and constantly lobbied Washington to intervene to defend American interests in Mexico. Taft had realized that Wilson was insane but wanted to avoid the embarrassment of recalling his own ambassador just before Woodrow Wilson took office, so he left Wilson in place until his successor could deal with it. Learning that he would soon be recalled, Wilson conspired with numerous generals to overthrow Madero.

Called the Tragic Ten Days, the coup started on February 9 when troops led by General Manuel Mondragon, a Diaz loyalist, who had been allowed to return from exile in Havana, seized the prison holding Reyes and Diaz. Mondragon and Cicilio Ocon, a close friend of Porfirio Diaz, had labored to bridge the gap between the reyistas and the felicistas, repeatedly reminding their fellow plotters that success depended on unity. Since Reyes and Diaz had both rebelled, they should have been executed, but Madero was too squeamish to permit the execution of gentlemen. Few officers would commit to the plot until concrete action had been taken, and Huerta was the most notable among those who refused, likely because he would not accept serving under either man. Although the conspiracy was not revealed, rumors spread of a conspiracy, which were fortunately ignored by Madero.

Reyes intended to announce his new regime at the National Palace, but Madero’s brother Gustavo had rallied the garrison, and ambushed the rebels. Reyes was killed, and the surviving rebel troops retreated with Diaz to a citadel within the city. With less than 2,000 men, Diaz’s chances for survival were slim. Since the general who had led the ambush of Reyes had been badly wounded, Huerta was given command of the loyalist troops. Madero had never fully trusted Huerta and planned to replace him as soon as possible, but General Felipe Angeles, his chosen replacement, lacked the backbone needed to face down Huerta, who was permitted to retain control of the loyalist forces. Huerta and Diaz had a stand-off for two days, while each side waited for decisive reinforcements. The fighting started again on February 11 and it proved bloody. The artillery duel between the two sides would kill hundreds of civilians. Diaz’s military track record did not inspire confidence, so Mondragon led the defence.

Worried that the coup might fail, Wilson took further steps to end Madero’s regime. He persuaded the foreign ministers of Britain, Spain and Germany to issue a joint call for Madero to step down in order to end the bloodshed. The ambassadors of other nations, including Austria, Japan, Cuba, Brazil and Chile, refused to support Wilson. When Madero pointed out that Wilson had far exceeded the role of a diplomat, Wilson publicly threatened that the United States would send troops to intervene and restore order, even though Taft had not given him the authority. Frightened by Wilson’s threat, a group of senators called for Madero to resign in favor of a provisional government.

Unknown to Madero, Diaz and Huerta were only pretending to fight, while Huerta sent loyal forces to be killed in futile charges against Diaz’s machine guns. Discovering that Huerta had allowed supplies to reach Diaz’s forces, Gustavo Madero figured out the arrangement and arrested Huerta, but once again Madero believed Huerta, accepting his promise that he would end the coup within 24 hours. Huerta kept his promise by arresting Madero, General Angeles, Gustavo Madero and the entire cabinet.
Huerta and Diaz both wanted to be president, so Ambassador Wilson presided over a meeting between the two rivals at the American embassy on February 18. Since Huerta had captured the government and had made it clear that he would not back down, he was allowed to have the presidency, while the felicistas were allowed to choose the members of the cabinet. A key part of the pact was that elections would be held soon, Diaz would be allowed to run, and he would be backed by Huerta. Wilson avoided a civil war by anointing Huerta president and threatening Diaz that the United States would invade if he opposed Huerta. Madero was persuaded to resign but Gustavo was released to be killed by a mob of drunken soldiers. Although officially ordered by the American state department to ensure that Madero safely reached exile, Wilson refused to warn Huerta not to harm Madero, who was killed while being transferred to another prison. Huerta denied involvement but it seems impossible to have happened without his orders. Ignoring warnings from friends to flee, Governor Gonzalez had allowed himself to be arrested by federal troops. Sent to Mexico City to stand trial, he was killed on the way, and his escort claimed that he had been trying to escape.

Disgusted by the events, one of Woodrow Wilson’s first acts was to recall Wilson. He also called on Huerta to resign as president and hold free elections. President Wilson’s criticism of his coup surprised Huerta since the United States had not batted an eye about the overthrow of Porfiro Diaz, and had had friendly relations with numerous Latin American dictators.

President Huerta (February 20, 1913-July 15, 1914)

Huerta Establishes Control

Although puzzled by the new American president’s comments, Huerta’s immediate task was to restore stability. The prognosis was initially favorable, since the recruitment of Orozco reduced the danger of guerrilla warfare in the troublesome north. Many zapatista and orocista leaders accepted Huerta’s offer of amnesty to any rebel leaders who laid down their arms, so the federal army absorbed numerous rebel bands that it had been hunting. The sudden peace was an illusion, since many guerrilla chieftains viewed these amnesties as temporary pauses, and would return to fighting if they saw an opportunity or felt that they had not been properly rewarded by the government. In addition, Zapata and key zapatistas like de la O refused to even consider the amnesty. The federal government still did not have firm control in large parts of Mexico, since the guerrilla bands that accepted the amnesty continued to raid and extort protection money from businesses, only now they had semi-official status as rurales. However, Huerta had not anticipated that Madero, an unpopular president, would prove to be an extremely popular martyr, who inspired uprisings all over Mexico.

While Huerta struggled to restore stability, Diaz was busy handing out rewards to his followers, and organizing the porifirians, except for the cientificos, in preparation for the election that would undoubtedly be held once Huerta had restored order. With Reyes dead, the reyistas naturally gravitated to Diaz, therefore he should have been well-positioned to win the election. However, Diaz still proved unable to take an active role in his political life, leaving the campaign in the hands of trusted advisers. Although his platform made no mention of workers’ rights or agrarian reform, he did pledge to limit himself to a single term.

Months later, Diaz and the Porfirians realized that Huerta had grown comfortable in the presidential palace and had no intention of moving out. The longer Huerta delayed elections, the weaker Diaz appeared, and his support steadily evaporated. Recognizing that Huerta was the man with the power, many Pofirians switched their allegiance to Huerta, who had been slowly moving his own people into positions within the government, replacing felicistas with huertistas. Every time Huerta removed a felicista and Diaz made no reaction, Huerta grew bolder until he arranged the ouster of a leading felicista, General Mondragon, as Minister of War. When Diaz accepted the position of envoy to Japan to preserve his life in late July, his candidacy became void.

Determined to impose his control over Mexico, Huerta filled the government with officials chosen for loyalty, not ability. Unwilling to accept even the outward appearance of a free government, Huerta required all civilian governors to serve as military commanders of their states. The amnesty did not apply to politicians, so Maderista governors who had acknowledged the new regime were soon removed from office, and their places were taken by Huerta loyalists. Although Maderista governors and mayors were often easily pressured into resigning, the eviction of each official weakened Huerta’s claim to be more interested in stability than revenge. While this approach appeared to deepen Huerta’s dominance, frustration was bubbling below the surface. Fearing conflict, the Maderista governors and mayors had worked to calm down potential rebels, but Huerta’s appointees frequently aggravated the situation.

Unlike Porfiro Diaz, who had been both a governor and a general before becoming president, Huerta’s life had been shaped by the army. Even as president, he spent his time surrounded by military men, inspecting troops and viewing parades during the day, and drinking with old soldiers at night. Viewing politicians as parasites, he treated them like junior officers who were expected to follow orders, therefore it should not come as a surprise that he attracted little if any political support, aside from the first few months of his regime, when people hoped for a return to Porfirian stability. He also militarized the nation, inflating the army to 200,000 men by seizing thousands of men as conscripts and women to work in the gunpowder factories. His press gangs were so relentless that young people dared not leave their homes after dark.

Huerta swiftly demolished the fragile political liberalism that had been established during the Madero regime, since liberal institutions like newspapers, legislatures and political parties were based in cities, where they were easy targets for the army. However, he was less successful with the rebellions that had sprung up all over the nation because they were based in the countryside. Urban liberals were much easier to intimidate than poor peasants spread out in difficult to reach areas and who were accustomed to hardship. Worse, unlike Diaz, who had survived so long due to a mix of stability and political repression, Huerta only offered blunt repression.

President Woodrow Wilson was pressured by large business interests in the United States to recognize Huerta’s regime, but he adopted a policy of “watchful waiting” that included neutrality in the growing civil war and an arms embargo on both Huerta and the rebels.

Carranza Enters the Revolution

Venustiano Carranza

Venustiano Carranza

Aside from the ongoing revolution of Zapata, Huerta faced the threat of Venustiano Carranza, governor of Coahuila. Madero had rewarded Carranza’s support during the revolution by backing his successful campaign for governor of Coahuila in the November 1911 election. Lacking strong political skills and fixated on the past, especially Benito Juarez, Carranza was ineffective when appointed minister of war, but he was a vocal critic of Madero’s compromise with Diaz loyalists, predicting that a revolution that made concessions was committing suicide. Carranza was not a true radical like Zapata, but he was willing to restrict the elite’s economic privileges to provide more economic opportunities for the majority of the population. A fervent nationalist, he renegotiated contracts with foreign firms to be more favorable to Coahuila, and he was particularly pro-active about foreign-owned mines that mistreated their workers.

Although Carranza initially pledged loyalty to Huerta’s regime, Huerta refused to make a deal that would allow Carranza to continue as governor. Carranza would be the only governor to refuse to recognize Huerta, which required courage, but he was ambitious and the blatant American involvement in the coup had offended his nationalism. Once the elites in Sonora and Coahuila realized that they could not do business with Huerta, they revolted. Allergic to bullets, the governor of Sonora had taken an extended vacation in the United States for his health, and Governor Gonzalez of Chihuahua had already been killed, so Carranza was the sole remaining political leader in the north. Furthermore, he had already forged ties with the governors of San Luis Potosi and Aguascalientes before Huerta had seized power, so he had access to a formidable organization when he started his revolution. Claiming that Huerta had violated the Mexican Constitution of 1857, Carranza formed the Constitutionalist movement, which would restore the 1857 Constitution, and hopefully make him president of Mexico.

The new revolution would be bloodier than the previous one because everyone had seen that Madero’s attempt at compromise in order to keep the basic structure of society intact had been a miserable failure. This revolution would be to the death. At the same time, Carranza had decided to emulate his hero Juarez by postponing social reform until after victory was won, therefore his Plan de Guadelupe did not mention any social reforms.

While he did not have an infectious charisma, Carranza’s ambition was matched only by his stubborn nature. Furthermore, Carranza’s large size (he was six-feet-four-inches tall), age and bearing gave him the appearance of a leader, and he continuously acted as if the other leaders had naturally recognized his authority. However, he proved to be a better politician than general, and three major defeats made it clear that he was not Huerta’s equal on the battlefield. Abandoning Coahuila, he fled to Sonora, which had a larger revolutionary army and was more secure since it did not have a direct rail link to Mexico City.

Sonora’s lack of accessibility meant that Diaz had never gained full control over the state, while its shared border with Arizona had led to large-scale investment in mining and ranching by American corporations. In fact, Sonora had more contact with the United States than with the rest of Mexico. Unlike Morelos, large foreign-owned mines were the problem, and Mexican miners formed unions to press for better wages, led by Benjamin Hill, Alvaro Obregon, Adolfo de la Huerta and Plutarco Elias Calles. Strikes were put down brutally, often with the support of American agents. Dissatisfied with Diaz’s reign, many Sonorans rose up in 1910, and Jose Maytorena was elected governor after Madero’s victory.

While Carranza stayed out of harm’s way in Sonora, Villa had rebelled against Huerta. Villa was living in El Paso when he learned of Madero’s murder, and he immediately resolved to avenge him. Only eight followers rode with him when he crossed the Rio Grande to return to Mexico on March 13, 1913, and although he quickly received recruits, the other guerrilla leaders did not initially accept his leadership. Aware that cavalry would not be enough to defeat Huerta, Villa persuaded a regular military officer to leave the army and train his guerrillas. Villa recognized that this war would be harder since he did not have Madero’s financing and Huerta would be aided by the Terrazas. Hoping to attract attention, Villa targeted the haciendas, where he would kill the owner and the manager, and open the granaries to the peons. The strategy proved effective and recruits swelled his army. Dependent on the United States for supplies, he protected American property, and even executed a guerrilla who had killed an American. The arms embargo was maintained but there was too much border and too many Americans who were willing to accept Villa’s money.

By the end of May, Villa had 700 disciplined troops while Orozco had inflicted a number of defeats on the other guerrilla bands, so they accepted Villa’s leadership, calling their army the Division of the North. Wary of the threat posed by the federal forces and Terraza militia, Villa planned a careful campaign until he felt ready for a direct attack against 3,000 federals and militia who were dug in at Torreon, the hub of the railway system. However, most of the federal forces were conscripts and the commander was easily frightened. When a night-time attack on October 1 gave Villa control of the federal artillery, the commander abandoned his post the next day, giving Villa a major victory, as well as the arms and ammunition needed to equip a proper army. Villa kept his men disciplined but ordered mass executions of prisoners, believing that it was a war to the death.

Huerta refused to worry, thinking that Villa could not keep his army together, and Villa’s attempt to take the well-fortified Ciudad Chihuahua failed because it was held by a tougher commander with better troops. Needing a victory, Villa filled a train with troops and bluffed his way to Ciudad Juarez on November 15 by claiming to be a federal commander who could not move south because the tracks had been destroyed by guerrillas. Allowed to roll into the city at night, he took the garrison by surprise and captured the city without a fight. This feat made him famous across the world, and control of Juarez enabled the direct supply of weapons and ammunition to Villa’s army. A powerful federal army was sent to retake the city but suffered a surprising defeat at Tierra Blanca, a railway junction 30 miles south of the city on November 25.

The victory spread fear through the state, and the Terraza-Creel faction fled across the border along with General Orozco, who abandoned Chihuahua City to the rebels on December 8. Four days later, Villa announced that the properties of the Terranza-Creel clan would be confiscated to provide for the widows and children of men who had died fighting for the revolution. Despite the impressive victory, Villa had not demonstrated strong tactical skills, but had won by luck and because he faced a weak opponent.

Alvaro Obregon

Alvaro Obregon

Instead of rejoicing in the victory, Carranza resented the success of Villa, who refused to recognize his authority. Villa was willing to recognize Carranza as head of the revolution but he would not accept interference in his region. Wanting his own general, Carranza selected Alvaro Obregon, who had first come to notice during the fight against Orozco in 1912.
Obregon grew up relatively well-off, and his sisters were schoolteachers for the local Mayo tribe, so he formed close bonds with the tribe. Possessing a quick mind and a near-perfect memory, he made a decent living but became very aware of the indignities of the laborers’ lives. Winning election as a mayor after Madero’s victory, he raised a battalion to defend Sonora from Orozco’s invasion. Unlike almost all of the key leaders of the revolution, he had only started his military career after Porfiro Diaz had been defeated.

Despite his lack of previous military training, Obregon was a natural leader and careful planner, so he was rapidly promoted. However, he was no radical and would always stand by the current government or whoever had the greatest legitimacy. Following Huerta’s coup, Governor Maytorena took a leave of absence in the US, but the interim governor refused to recognize Huerta’s regime, and Obregon was made commander of the state’s forces. When Maytorena returned from the US, his health improved by Sonoran military victories, Obregon backed him against the interim governor. Maytorena returned the favor by expanding Obregon’s authority to include the neighbouring state of Sinaloa.

A skilled commander, Obregon swiftly evicted Huerta’s forces from Sonora, and he had an army of 6,000 men by the summer of 1913. After two large federal armies were lured into meticulously planned traps and destroyed, Carranza appointed him commander of the rebel Army of the Northwest in September 1913. Obregon’s command theoretically included Villa’s army, although Villa disagreed strongly with that interpretation, while Maytorena was alarmed by the rapid rise of his protege. Although he cultivated a friendly, open-hearted, almost buffoonish attitude, Obregon was driven by a relentless ambition. Obregon proved to be an equally skilled political operator, discrediting Felipe Angeles, his only military rival, who had been appointed Minister of War by Carranza. Obregon and the other Sonoran generals resented Angeles as an ex-federal officer who had been slow to join the revolution, and the resentment would eventually drive Angeles to Villa.

Carranza established a government-in-waiting that resembled a medieval court since each minister had numerous aides and secretaries, while factions within the court schemed to gain more influence with Carranza. Although Carranza had realized that compromise was fatal, he shared Madero’s preference for well-dressed, well-educated young men, rather than the hard-bitten revolutionaries who were doing the actual fighting. While they both liked civilized men in tailored suits, Carranza gave few positions to former members of Madero’s government, as if he did not want to be tainted by their failure. In particular, the warmth of the welcome depended on how rapidly maderistas had recognized Carranza’s authority.

Eugenio Aguirre Benavides

Eugenio Aguirre Benavides

Tiring of the cool reception, many leading maderistas, including Angeles, Aquirre Benavides, and several members of Madero’s family, soon left Sonora and made their way to Villa’s camp in Chihuahua. They sought a counterweight to Carranza’s pomposity, and Villa needed them to administer his territory. While Vila was an authoritarian figure with little patience for dissent, part of him recognized that he lacked the ability to lead the nation, and he sought a replacement for Madero among the intellectuals who found safety with his army. Angeles would come closest to playing that role.

Most contemporary observers of Villa agreed that he possessed a truly terrify temper, he was also capable of an astonishing tenderness. He was usually compared to a wild animal with a feline grace, whose restless eyes revealed that he never lost the hunted feeling of bandit.

When congress passed a motion calling for an official investigation of the murder of a senator, Huerta simply arrested seventy-four members of the legislature in October 1913. He then blatantly rigged the election for a new congress and the presidential election, portraying himself as a write-in candidate, who had to serve as president since it was the will of the people, even though he was constitutionally banned from serving. Most of the parties simply boycotted the election, while all of the serious contenders, including de la Barra, had withdrawn their candidacies. Allowed to return for the election in October 1913, Felix Diaz discovered that the majority of the porfirians had switched to Huerta. Tired of the unrest that bubbled without pause across the nation, many Mexicans hoped that Huerta would be another ‘strong man’ like Diaz, able to restore the stability of the Porfirian era without permitting the cientificos to interfere in the economy. Fearing for his life, Diaz fled to Havana in late October, and began plotting his revenge. Although voter turnout was dismal, Huerta was able to swear in a pliable cabinet made up of relatives and cronies.

This blatant seizure of power ended President Wilson’s neutrality, even though the European powers continued to recognize Huerta. However, a meeting between Wilson’s envoy and Carranza in mid-November 1913 ended badly when Carranza refused to permit American troops to enter Mexico to guard the borders and blockade the ports to ensure a fair election. Offended by the disregard for Mexican sovereignty, Carranza replied that he would lead his own revolution and simply needed recognition and the right to buy arms. Angered by Carranza’s lack of cooperation, Wilson gave him neither.

Zapata knew that Huerta was a dangerous enemy, especially since Orozco, chosen by Zapata to lead the revolution, had submitted to Huerta. A number of envoys were sent by Huerta to Zapata, offering Zapata his own choice of governor, but Zapata knew that Huerta would never accept the land reforms of the Plan of Ayala, and continued to fight. Like Villa, Zapata declared war to the death against Huerta and executed all prisoners. Huerta’s response was to re-assign Robles to the pacification of Morelos in April, and the roads were soon lined with zapatistas hanging from trees and telegraph poles.

Huerta truly ruled with an iron hand. When the Morelos state assembly refused to accept Robles as both military commander and governor, the entire assembly was arrested and sent to Mexico City.

Manuel Palafox

Manuel Palafox

Unlike Villa, Zapata never had the resources to raise and equip large armies, so he had to work with small groups of guerrillas. Zapata’s organization had improved due to an astonishingly effective chief of staff, Manuel Palafox. As Zapata caused more and more damage, Huerta rejected the advice of his advisers that the key threats were Villa and Carranza. Instead, he sent Robles enough troops to terrify the state, torching villages and executing suspected zapatistas, while press-ganging men to serve in the army fighting Villa. Although Robles declared victory, most villagers had simply fled into the mountains, and the brutality had driven people to take sides, usually choosing Zapata. Worse, Robles had taken away all of the able-bodied men, so the planters faced ruin since there was no one left to work in the fields.

Zapata somehow kept the starving guerrilla bands organized and united instead of fighting over the limited supplies, which was a remarkable accomplishment given the vicious personality conflicts between guerrilla chiefs and the long-standing grudges between their villages. A ruthless leader, who would not tolerate open opposition from anyone, Zapata was not afraid to order the assassination of any guerrilla leader who openly refused to accept the central leadership. Huerta’s repression had driven many intellectuals from Mexico City to nearby Morelos, which caused the intellectuals within Zapata’s organization to become more radical, but they also transformed the mix of bands into a revolutionary army with officers and NCOs who had authority over members of other bands. As a result, his army began launching coordinated attacks against federal forces in different states at the same time. Realizing that Robles’ claim of victory was simply empty boasting, Huerta replaced him with a saner general, Adolfo Jimenez, who was told to simply keep Morelos under control, while Huerta focused on the north.

Seeing that it was time to strike, Zapata organized several simultaneous attacks to confuse Huerta and cover his main thrust against Chipancingo, the capital of Guerrero. The city fell sooner than expected and he soon gained control of all of Morelos, as well as sizable parts of neighbouring states. By this time, Zapata had created a rough form of civil government to keep order in the areas that he controlled and to regulate the right to operate mines, slaughter cattle and sell crops, in order to provide revenue to keep his army supplied.

Villa was at the height of his power. His charisma had attracted the best men and he had trained them into disciplined, effective cavalry. A highly emotional man, he emphasized loyalty above all and never forgave a grudge. A natural warrior, he had no patience with politicians and would not listen to complex solutions but always insisted on finding the key problem, even if there was none. However, he left logistics and transportation to professionals, thus ensuring that his army was fed, armed and moved quickly. In fact, Villa had a modern medical corps of sixty doctors, astonishing cavalry, and a mastery of the use of rail networks. Unlike most rebel leaders, enemy conscripts were spared if they volunteered for his army.

Once the federal forces were evicted from Chihuahua, he took over as temporary governor for four weeks from December 1913 to January 1914, and proved to be an effective administrator, maintaining order and using his troops to rebuild the state’s damaged infrastructure. Unlike Madero, Villa realized the danger of leaving Herta’s officials in place, so they were driven out of office. Realizing that nothing would change without education, he built more than 100 schools. Although he ruthlessly seized the haciendas and businesses of the rich, he carefully respected the property of foreigners in order to avoid American intervention. However, Villa was not a socialist, so land reform was never a key issue for him. Most important, he never followed any ideology other than himself. Villa believed in Villa, and most of actions were done in order to benefit his troops, who were personally loyal to him. Villa’s rough approach had restored order but price-fixing and unrestrained printing of money led to inflation, which he blamed on economic sabotage, not his economic mismanagement. To be fair, there was almost no corruption, and the middle-class were all too aware that the situation was much, much worse in other states, since Carranza’s proconsuls had a limitless greed.

Manuel Chao

Manuel Chao

Villa handed over the position of governor to former guerrilla Manual Chao because he needed to prepare his large army for another campaign. Since its unity depended on personal relationships to him, it took his personal attention to keep it together. Villa commanded the loyalty of his commanders but the army was actually a mix of individual units, whose leaders followed Villa.

Villa’s judgement of subordinates was not always accurate. One of his top generals was Tomas Urbina, a bandit using the rank of general as a cover for looting and murder. Unable or unwilling to control his men, his troops would descend on a town and leave it a burning wreckage after a frenzy of looting, rape and murder. When Urbina let his troops loose on Durango, news of the destruction spread through Mexico and eliminated much of the sympathy for the rebels, who appeared to be little different from Huerta. Urbina had relentlessly stolen and extorted money until he had enough money to retire in July.

However, most of the guerrilla leaders were faithful to Villa and kept their men in good order. Villa kept a killer to do his killing, Rodolfo Fierro, a cold, heartless man who seemed to enjoy killing and who Villa loved like a son.

A crisis developed when Fierro shot William Benton, a British citizen and owner of a hacienda, who treated his workers harshly and refused to pay taxes to the rebels. The exact circumstances of the shooting are unclear but the British government was furious, especially since it had ceased its support of Huerta only after President Wilson had promised that the revolutionaries would respect foreign property. At a loss when dealing with foreign diplomats, Villa asked Carranza to handle the situation, failing to understand that he had publicly acknowledged Carranza as his superior. A master of polite delay, Carranza realized that Britain had more pressing European concerns, so he stalled until the situation blew over. However, the process had strengthened his image overseas as the leader of the revolutionaries.

Felipe Angeles

Felipe Angeles

Having failed to get along with Carranza, Felipe Angeles had accepted Villa’s request to command his artillery division, and Villa greatly admired Angeles, who was both soldier and scholar. Villa also relied on the civilian administration of men like Silvestre Terrazas, Manual Chao, Maclovio Herrera and Eugenio Aguirre Benavides, but none had independent authority, so there was constant in-fighting, and the lack of clear lines of authority weakened the army. Also, a policy or regulation could be changed in an instant at Villa’s whim. Most important, everything revolved around the army, and the army revolved around Villa. While it made sense to transfer the allegiance of individual guerrilla bands to a single commander-in-chief, it led to one man being the center of the army, and Villa used his impressive charisma to cultivate a cult of personality, so people believed that he would personally solve all problems.

Villa somehow found time to father numerous children with mistresses. While many women were willing, seduced by his power and charisma, far too many were forced by threats to their family, and consoled by brief marriage ceremonies that they were not being raped and still had their honor.

Although Huerta had been well-supplied with weapons by Britain, Germany, France and Spain, he was bankrupting the country with his rapid expansion of the army. The conscripts were useless, rebels lured into serving Huerta were unwilling to fight against Villa or Zapata, and the rich refused to pay for militia units to support the army. Part of the problem was that the generation of oligarchs who had fought for their fortunes had been replaced by rich city-dwellers fond of easy living, who saw no reason why they should risk life and fortune to prop up a bankrupt regime. Huerta’s inability to impose stability meant that the nation’s infrastructure was in ruins, and the economy was rapidly declining. As the situation worsened, the government was unable to raise money through loans to service the national debt, so his decision to stop payments destroyed Mexico’s international reputation, driving away foreign investors. Huerta’s reaction was to raise taxes even higher.

American Occupation of Vera Cruz

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Frustrated by the instability in the United States’ southern neighbor, Wilson seized a minor diplomatic squabble as an excuse to intervene in Mexico and remove Huerta. Tampico, Tamaulipas was a vital port for the oil industry in Mexico, and a large number of American citizens lived there because of American investment in local oil firms. Since an army loyal to Carranza was advancing on the port, a fleet of American warships commanded by Rear Admiral Henry Mayo was stationed nearby to ensure the protection of United States citizens and property. A nervous Mexican officer had briefly arrested a boat with American sailors who had mistakenly entered a forbidden part of the port on April 9, 1914. The garrison commander immediately released the sailors, punished the officer and formally apologized, but Admiral Mayo demanded a 21-gun salute, which Huerta refused as an affront to Mexican dignity.

Winning the support of congress and the senate despite the opposition of senior Republicans, who felt that there was insufficient cause for an intervention, Wilson ordered Admiral Frank Fletcher on April 18 to occupy Veracruz and to seize the customs house to prevent the delivery of a shipment of German weapons to Huerta. The deal had been arranged by the German government in exchange for a guarantee that Mexico would not sell oil to the British if war broke out. Doubting that there would be serious resistance, Fletcher decided to proceed without waiting for Mayo, who had a larger fleet. The Mexican garrison of 1,000 men was commanded by General Gustavo Maass, who was determined to fight. As a result, the 800 American sailors and marines were attacked soon after they landed on April 21, and were only able to capture the waterfront. The cargo of weapons was seized but it turned out that they were American Remington rifles that had been routed through Germany to avoid the embargo. Although the casualties for the first day were light, 4 dead and twenty wounded, Wilson was shocked when he received the news.

American flag being raised over Vera Cruz

American flag being raised over Vera Cruz

The main fleet arrived during the night, and 3,000 more marines and sailors were landed the next morning. Fletcher had only planned to take the waterfront area, but the enlarged landing force had to go deeper in the city to root out snipers house by house, blowing holes in the walls to avoid being a target on the street. Despite unexpected resistance, cannon-fire from American warships proved decisive and the city was in American hands by April 22. Casualties on the second day brought the total to 17 dead and 63 wounded. Mexican dead were more than 100. Deciding that they would stay longer, Wilson approved sending 5,000 soldiers under Brigadier-General Frederick Funston, the youngest brigadier in the army, to occupy the city.

Wilson’s original goals had been unclear but the intervention proved extremely unpopular in the United States, despite the efforts of the Hearst press to whip up support for a war. The intervention was bitterly resented throughout the Latin American republics. Huerta naturally ended diplomatic relations with the United States, but he failed to convince the rebel leaders to join an anti-American campaign. Zapata and Carranza were furious with the occupation but still refused to have anything to do with Huerta. Villa adopted a more conciliatory approach, apologizing for Carranza’s rash condemnation of the occupation, and stating that he did not oppose an occupation that helped end Huerta’s rule, which impressed Wilson and ensured that the United States continued to sell Villa weapons. Most important, the intervention had failed in its primary goal, namely the toppling of Huerta’s regime. Wilson had also hoped that mediation between the US and Mexico organized by Argentina, Brazil and Chile would produce results, but both Huerta and Carranza declined to participate.

American fleet occupies Vera Cruz

American fleet occupies Vera Cruz

Meanwhile, Funston was increasingly unhappy with his orders to simply occupy Vera Cruz, since he had expected to march on Mexico City. Left with nothing to do, he ordered his troops to clean the city which had become famous in Mexico for disease caused by a lack of hygiene. This anti-dirt campaign was not motivated by a desire to meddle but a realistic fear of the approaching Yellow Fever season, which had claimed the lives of many American soldiers who had occupied the city during the Mexican-American War.

The End of Huerta

Moreover, Wilson had presumed that Huerta would be replaced by a united Constitutionalist movement. The rebel leaders were not entirely united, partially due to Villa’s resentment of Carranza’s relentless condescension, and Carranza’s increasing inability to accept Villa’s autonomy. Carranza wanted Villa to acknowledge him as the head of the revolutionary army but Villa viewed his Division of the North as an independent force that was allied to Carranza’s Constitutionalists. However, Villa, not Carranza, had the largest army, and after driving the last federal holdouts out of the border region, he moved south with 16,000 men in mid-March 1914. Admittedly, it was an impressive army, but it faced an equally impressive federal army of 10,000 men entrenched at Torreon, the key railway junction in northern Mexico. In fact, Huerta and his generals were confident that Villa’s army would receive a bloody nose, since he had never taken a fortified city by storm. Although the federals had more artillery, Villa shrewdly alternated daytime artillery shelling with night-time attacks to whittle down the defenders and deprive them of rest. When the exhausted federal garrison pulled out on April 2, Villa had proved that his earlier victories were not due to luck, while the federals no longer had an army in the north.

Villa had also reinforced his control over the north, reminding Governor Manuel Chao, a Carranza choice, in no uncertain terms that Villa was the true power in Chihuahua, and forcing other rebel leaders in the north to acknowledge his authority or face execution. Realizing the need for security, he built a huge fortress-like home in Chihuahua City for his family and his bodyguards when he was in town.

Carranza and Villa had cooperated because they were not close enough to clash, but the distance buffer disappeared when Carranza moved his headquarters to Ciudad Juarez in March 1914. Given their completely opposite personalities, it would be impossible for them to get along, but Carranza’s refusal to accept Villa’s independence did not help. Furthermore, he worried that Villa’s support of agrarian reform would anger the elite. Unwilling to permit Villa to have the honor of liberating Mexico City, Carranza ordered Obregon to get there first. Possessing a remarkable grasp of strategy, Obregon moved quickly down the west coast, avoiding heavy fighting by leaving well-garrisoned ports to be watched by smaller forces, especially since the main federal army had already been smashed by Villa.

Instead of lavishing Villa with praise, or even expressing any form of gratitude, Carranza delayed Villa by ordering him to capture towns that were far out of his way. When Villa took Santillo with surprising ease, Carranza formed another army under General Panfilo Natera, who was told to move on Mexico City instead of Villa. Natera’s army proved notably ineffective, so Carranza ordered Villa to transfer 5,000 of his men to the new army. There was an exchange of increasingly angry telegrams that resulted in Villa resigning his position. Aware of Villa’s value, most of Villa’s generals refused to accept the resignation, defying Carranza, who was forced to confirm Villa as a division general, able to conduct his own campaign, while Carranza would limit himself to civil and diplomatic matters.

Villa took 20,000 men to break through the federal position at Zacatecas, the main Huerta stronghold before Mexico City, which was defended by 12,000 experienced federals. After a well-planned strategy evicted the garrison in a single day, the retreating federals walked into an ambush and were slaughtered. This bloody defeat, combined with the American seizure of Vera Cruz caused mass desertions among the rest of Huerta’s army, while the rich and middle-class simply wanted the fighting to end as soon as possible, which meant evicting Huerta. Argentina, Brazil and Chile offered to broker a peace, but Carranza knew victory was inevitable and did not bother to open negotiations. Since a direct confrontation had produced an embarrassing defeat, Carranza tried a more subtle approach, using his control of the coal mines in Coahuila to cease coal shipments to Villa, thus stopping his trains in their tracks.

Huerta resigned on July 15 and fled to exile in Barcelona, Spain. Hoping to divide the revolutionary factions, an emissary from the military offered to surrender to Villa in exchange for entering his army, but he refused, knowing he could not reach Mexico City before Obregon, and he was not willing to fight fellow revolutionaries to accept a surrender. Zapata was already at the suburbs of the city but refused to make a deal. Carranza also refused to accept anything other than unconditional surrender. Turned down by Villa, the army surrendered unconditionally to Obregon, who entered the city on August 15.


Carranza’s entrance into the city on August 20 was seen by 300,000 people. One of Carranza’s first acts was to abolish the federal army, replacing it with the carrancista army. Federal officers were prohibited from enlisting in the new army, so many senior officers left the country, further swelling the ranks of exiles scheming to return to power. In fact, thousands of rich Mexicans, Spaniards and Catholic clergy made their way to Vera Cruz and exile. Their fears of being led to a guillotine like during the French Revolution proved to have no basis, but many rich people were mistreated by rough soldiers, forced to give loans or their possessions to support the revolution.

Dismissing Zapata as a peasant, Carranza made little effort to form an alliance with him. Zapata would not negotiate unless Carranza promised free elections and confirmation of the Plan Ayala. Actually, Zapata was not rushing to make any deal because he suspected anyone from Mexico City. Meetings between Carranza’s envoys and Zapata did not go well, and Carranza announced on September 5 that he would not accept his terms. Three days later, Zapata began to implement his rural reforms unilaterally. All land in the countryside would be appropriated for the villages, and land would be shared in common.

Although Huerta had been defeated, a power struggle had developed in Sonora between Maytorena and Obregon’s subordinate Plutarco Elias Calles. Villa had backed governor Maytorena against Carranza but Obregon desperately needed to control the governor, since most of his army came from that state, therefore he wanted Calles to replace Maytorena as governor. If Maytorena remained governor, Obregon would be dependent on Carranza. Seeking Villa’s support, Obregon took the risk of travelling to Villa’s HQ with only a few guards on August 24. Despite earlier pledges of support, Villa happily sacrificed Maytorena when Obregon offered to abandon Carranza and place his generals in Sonora under Villa’s command. However, the deal lasted less than a day, since both Maytorena and Calles rejected the agreement.

Aware that Villa would not react favorably to the news that he had failed to deliver his part of the bargain, Obregon rashly returned to Chihuahua, hoping to persuade Villa to sacrifice Maytorena anyway and to lure away a few of Villa’s generals. This risky strategy produced predictable results. Villa threatened to put him in front of a firing squad, but Obregon displayed a genuine death wish, and a stunned Villa cancelled the execution. Villa’s saner advisers, Raul Madero and Angeles, pressed for Obregon to be spared, otherwise the revolution would become even more complex and bloody. Obregon left for Mexico City but Carranza had no interest in another rival and ordered the railroad tracks to be tore up. Obregon thought that the matter of his execution had been settled, but Villa had concluded that short-term strife was worth the long-term problems that would be caused by Obregon seeking the presidency, so he decided to have him executed. However, generals Eugenio Benavides and Jose Isabel Robles agreed with Madero and Angeles that it was dangerous, and they arranged for Obregon to swiftly exit Villa’s territory. Instead of being grateful, Obregon believed that he had won over many of Villa’s generals to his side. Furthermore, any hopes of smooth cooperation between Villa and Obregon in the future had disappeared, since Obregon would never forget that Villa had attempted to have him executed.

The Convention of Aguascalientes

Lucio Blanco

Lucio Blanco

The open break between Carranza and Villa did not immediately lead to war because everyone else was weary of fighting. Uninterested in assemblies and convinced that only he, not a squabbling assembly of debaters, had the responsibility to govern the nation, Carranza held a convention in Mexico City on October 1 that was attended only by his most loyal supporters, but everyone, except for Carranza, knew that it was meaningless unless other factions attended. Led by Lucio Blanco, one of Obregon’s top generals, 49 of Carranza’s generals contacted Villa’s division to suggest negotiations to resolve the differences between the factions. A furious Carranza was powerless to prevent the organization of a convention at Aguascalientes where the only delegates were military men and the number of delegates was determined by the size of each army. While the decision to only invite military leaders does not sound very democratic, it was a very realistic admission that stability depended on reconciling the various independent armies. Also, the military leaders did not want a repeat of Madero’s triumph, where the civilian leaders had enjoyed the fruits of victory and the generals were told to go home. Since those civilian leaders had mostly bent the knee to Huerta, the generals understandably felt that the civilian leaders no longer had any claim to power. Even so, many generals sent newly commissioned civilian advisers as their representatives.

The convention started on October 10, and was attended by 57 generals, and 95 senior officers. Villa sent 39 delegates led by Roque Gonzalez Garza and Angeles. Villa had few ideological demands, and mainly wanted autonomy in the north. Villa’s supporters were genuinely willing to compromise to avoid war, and would even accept a Carranza supporter as president, just not Carranza himself. Carranza’s delegates were much fewer, but many had been appointed governor by Carranza, so they were loyal to him and reluctant to see widespread change that would take away their newfound privileges. Following Carranza’s policy, they also had few ideological demands but did not offer compromise, just a demand that everyone submit to Carranza’s authority. The remaining delegates were not allied to either Villa or Carranza, but they held the balance of power.

General Lucio Blanco had spent much time persuading Zapata to attend the convention, and Felipe Angeles travelled to Morelos to extend a personal invitation. Since Angeles had been trying to kill Zapata the last time he was in Morelos, he must have been relieved that Zapata welcomed him with open arms, not a firing squad. Zapata sent 26 delegates but they would not be able to vote until the convention recognized the Plan of Ayala. Aside from Zapata, his delegates were not the guerrilla chieftains but secretaries and intellectuals attached to the movement who were given temporary ranks of colonel to satisfy the requirements of the convention. It is unknown why the guerrilla chieftains surrendered their role to secretaries, but they may have simply felt that they were better-suited for fighting than debating and the issues were too important. Villa’s envoys wooed Zapata’s envoys but since neither of the great men had actually attended the convention, aside from a brief visit by Villa at the start, the star was naturally Obregon, who appeared at the convention full of confidence and charm. The support of Villa’s envoys ensured that most of Zapata’s Plan Ayala was accepted, while the assembly voted 112 to 21 to remove Carranza. However, Obregon had gained the most by ensuring the election of his candidate Eulalio Gutierrez, a minor regional leader, as provisional president on November 2.

Efforts by Obregon and Gutierrez to negotiate a compromise proved ruitless, and Carranza refused to recognize the result of the convention and surrender authority to Gutierrez, so he was declared a rebel on November 10. Instead, he abandoned Mexico City for Vera Cruz, since the Americans had agreed to pull out, and had started leaving on November 23. Vera Cruz offered Carranza an excellent base with revenue and a port, so he would continue to be a threat.

Delegates from different factions began organizing their followers for war, but Villa became impatient and sent 30,000 men to camp next to the convention. The brutal display of power drove most of the independents, including Obregon, who was understandably suspicious of Villa, to support Carranza. Obregon had little choice since he had nothing in common with Villa, suspected that Villa would still prefer to see him six feet underground, and most of his generals would have never agreed to join Villa. Worse, many of the independents and even a few Villa supporters, now followed Obregon, who had come to realize the need to build his own power base. However, Carranza feared exactly that Obregon would build his own power base, so he refused to make Obregon Minister of War, keeping him as just another general.

Once Carranza and his men had left, Zapata’s people came in, poor and awestruck by the city. Zapata hated the city, symbol of bosses and government authority, but knew that he had to stay long enough to enforce rural reform. Although often called anarchists, Zapata’s followers wanted only their simple rural life, traditional worship and freedom from overseers and bosses, where the villages ruled themselves. An experienced revolutionary leader by that time, Zapata was aware that his ideas were not universally accepted in the rest of Mexico, and an alliance with Villa would be valuable but difficult to arrange. He did not even fully control the implementation of his policies in his own territory, since local leaders often used the cover of revolution to settle old scores. Bandits calling themselves followers of Zapata did not help the zapatista brand image. Moreover, Zapata was suspicious of pro-capitalist revolutionaries like Obregon, since he knew that they were merely allies of convenience, who wanted to organize the peasants’ land so that farming could be modernized. Zapata realized that cash crops were needed to raise revenue to care for the sick, build schools and fund armies for self-defence, but the needs of the local peasants, not distant owners, must always be dominant.

Villa and Zapata march their armies through Mexico City

Villa and Zapata march their armies through Mexico City

Although Villa and Zapata appeared to be natural allies on the surface, Villa had attracted more intellectuals, who focused on political and educational reforms, rather than a revolutionary re-distribution of land that threatened to destroy the economy. Villa and Zapata also had conflicting political approaches. Zapata had established his political goals early and never deviated, while Villa had learned to adapt to changing political circumstances. In particular, Villa’s need for a modern army meant that he required a functioning economy to pay for it, while Zapata’s peasant army was constantly underfunded. In addition, Villa and his generals enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle, and would occupy captured haciendas, while the top zapatista leaders continued to live humbly. Zapata knew that Villa did not share his economic rigor, while Villa did not have a high opinion of the professional quality of Zapata’s army.

Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata

Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata

When the two men finally met on December 4, the contrast between the two groups was immediately clear. Villa’s men looked like the professional soldiers that they were, while Zapata’s men were badly armed peasants. It took some time to break the ice but they eventually discovered that they shared a mutual hatred of politicians, Carranza in particular. They agreed that the government would have to give them autonomy in their respective fiefs, and that they would not interfere in how the government handled foreign policy and other states where they had no influence. It was a relatively brief meeting and the two men avoided specifics on land reform, probably realizing that it would simply lead to trouble. Refusing to acknowledge Villa as the overall leader of the revolution, Zapata would only agree that Villa would operate in the north and Zapata would operate in the south. Angeles had urged Villa to pursue Carranza and prevent him from raising an army, but Villa refused since Vera Cruz was in Zapata’s territory. Two days later, the two men led 35,000 Villistas and 20,000 Zapatistas in a parade through the city. Although Gutierrez was the nominal president, Villa decided to sit in the presidential chair and convinced a visibly uncomfortable Zapata to sit next to him while posing for a picture. When the picture was printed in foreign newspapers, people naturally believed that Villa was the head of Mexico.

However, Villa made no effort to schedule another meeting with Zapata, who promptly left the city, which he loathed, to return home. The loathing was mutual, since the residents of Mexico City never understood Zapata’s love of the land and fixation on preserving villages against the more efficient haciendas, which produced goods that were consumed in Mexico City and earned money that was spent in Mexico City.

Pancho Villa, Eulalio Gutierrez and Emiliano Zapata

Pancho Villa, Eulalio Gutierrez and Emiliano Zapata

The moment when the two men led their armies throughout Mexico City was the height of their respective power since the two of them were unwilling to make the commitment to take part in the governing of the nation, or even agree on a specific power-sharing agreement, other than to stay out of each other’s territory. They simply wanted to be left alone but did not realize that a national government actually needed to rule over the entire nation, not just parts of it. They would probably have been unstoppable if they had worked together. Villa had a powerful, professional army but no objectives, while Zapata had a plan but a peasant army. After Mexico City, the two armies maintained very loose ties.

Unlike the zapatistas and the villistas, the carrancistas had one key advantage, they were not tied to any one single region, so units could be sent to other regions, which made it a truly national army. Furthermore, Carranza controlled areas like oil-producing Tampico, henequen-producing Yucatan and coffee-producing Chiapas. These areas had not been damaged by the fighting, and their products could be exported through Vera Cruz. In addition, the American occupation force had left Carranza a huge supply of weapons and ammunition when it left Vera Cruz. Annoyed that none of the factions in Mexico met his lofty standards, President Wilson did not want any faction to dominate the others.

Left alone in Mexico City, Villa’s army demonstrated that it was not as professional as it appeared. Hundreds of people were killed as Villa’s men looted and settled old scores, while thousands of women were raped. Some of the executed were military or civilian followers of Huerta, but many were members of other revolutionary factions, including Zapata’s. The chaos cost Villa the support of the middle-class, foreigners and the Catholic Church, as well as revealed that many of the former bandits in his army had only remained under control when there was a clear enemy. Urbina’s men, with the tacit approval of Villa, kidnapped rich men and threatened to execute them unless ransoms were paid. Squeezing the rich was standard operating procedure for revolutionaries, including Obregon, but it was usually done in an official manner where a general would force the rich to grant generous loans for the revolution, and the money would be used to feed and arm troops. In addition, the villistas had failed to win the support of the working class in the city, since they were used to dealing with poor farmers in the countryside with simple, clear demands or miners and merchants who wanted stability.

The rampant lawlessness had ended the facade of Gutierrez as an independent ruler of Mexico, since he could not even govern in Mexico City. Moreover, Villa lacked the subtlety to rule as the power behind the throne, and repeatedly mocked President Gutierrez in public, while not bothering to consult with him on any issues, even though Gutierrez felt that he had actually been elected president and intended to rule as president. In return, Gutierrez began to conspire against Villa with independent members of the convention who had joined Carranza and Obregon. When he had sufficient evidence, Villa ordered Gutierrez’s execution, but he told General Jose Robles, Minister of War in the new government, who gave Gutierrez enough warning that he was able to rally 10,000 supporters and escape the city. Gutierrez believed that he could actually create a third force separate from Villa and Carranza but the generals who had joined Carranza knew that Gutierrez lacked the power to fight either of them, so they remained with Carranza. When forces loyal to Gutierrez made a stand against Urbina, their brutal defeat made it clear why people feared Villa. General Lucio Blanco realized the only third option was exile, and he made his way across the American border. Acknowledging that he lacked the power to oppose Villa on his own, Gutierrez submitted to Carranza’s leadership.

Roque Gonzalez Garza

Roque Gonzalez Garza

With Gutierrez gone, the national government needed a new president, and Villa ensured that the convention selected Roque Gonzalez Garza, a villista, to sit in the chair. Gonzalez thanked Villa by making Villa head of the national army. However, the sorry episode of the president fleeing the capital had ended the fiction that Villa served the national government. Furthermore, Garza found that the zapatistas refused to acknowledge any central authority, so Garza’s attempts to act as a president irritated an already strained relationship between the zapatistas and the villistas, especially after Villa’s reign of terror in Mexico City. The advisers who could have restrained Villa were spread out around the country. The carrancistas used modern propaganda methods and the reign of terror in Mexico City to label Villa a bandit across the nation, and even published critical articles in the United States, further weakening his support.

Villa vs Carranza (January-October 1915)

The revolution so far had involved fighting between loosely connected rebels and a federal government with a recognized leader, first Diaz, then Madero and finally Huerta. After January 1915, there was no federal government, so the fight was between two rebel factions: the Villistas and the Carrancistas. Since neither Villa nor Carranza had a clear ideology or any real authority, much of Mexico chose to stay out of their civil war. Some of the local power brokers joined one side simply because local rivals backed the other side. In addition, Gutierrez’s flight from the city and decision to join Carranza boosted Carranza’s legitimacy, if not his military force. Admittedly, Villa and Carranza genuinely disagreed on several issues. Carranza wanted a strong central government, was very anti-United States, and stridently opposed land reform. Villa wanted provincial autonomy, was favorable towards the United States and was partially in favor of land reform.

Carranza and Obregon were driven into alliance by a shared fear of Villa, but neither trusted the other. Furthermore, Obregon did not have the full loyalty of his own generals, who believed that they would have more opportunities for career advancement with Carranza as president.

Sent to Coahuila to ensure coal supplies for Villa’s trains, Angeles had repeatedly urged him to attack Carranza at Veracruz while he was still vulnerable. Instead of moving south to deal with Obregon, Villa pulled out of Mexico City and returned north. It is unknown exactly why Villa made this decision but he may have been reluctant to fight outside of his usual stomping grounds. It is true that he had few allies near Vera Cruz, and he may have expected that Zapata would have been more active in keeping Carranza bottled up. Most important, Villa recognized Zapata’s territorial attitude and realized that Zapata would not welcome a foreign army, even a supposed ally, in his area. Unlike Villa, Obregon recognized the value of the capital and occupied it as soon as Villa was safely gone. Genuinely sympathetic to the working class, he won the support of the laborers, while Carranza had been hostile whenever he had dealt with the demands of labor leaders.

Zapata had spent the fall of 1914 recruiting more troops for the revolution, even attracting ex-federal officers to train his army. Several of the more senior federal officers feared that Villa would seek revenge from previous fights, and hoped that Zapata would protect them from Villa’s wrath. With the aid of experienced ex-federal officers and their artillery, Zapata led 20,000 men to capture Puebla on December 16. This victory indicated that Carranza and the Constitutionalists were on the verge of defeat, since that all remained was to drive Carranza out of Vera Cruz, his last major stronghold. However, Zapata lingered at Puebla, concerned by Villa’s failure to send artillery as promised and the execution of a number of zapatistas in Mexico City. Moreover, many of Zapata’s men saw no reason to risk their lives so far from home. Disgusted by Villa’s reign of terror, Zapata abandoned Puebla and returned to Morelos with his most loyal forces, signalling the end of the Villa-Zapata alliance. The men who remained at Puebla were former orozquistas, who were beaten by Obregon during a two-day battle on January 4-5.

Outside observers, especially in the United States, believed that Villa would win easily, since he theoretically controlled most of Mexico, had already notched up an impressive number of victories, and was overflowing with charisma, unlike the lifeless Carranza. However, Villa was beginning to believe his own publicity and listened increasingly less to his advisers. Whether lack of interest in any part of Mexico outside of the provinces of Durango and Chihuahua was the cause, his army was noticeably less effective outside of his home territory, especially against Obregon, whose army was even more professional and not limited by an attachment to a specific region. Moreover, Obregon had realized that the urban workers were an invaluable source of recruits, since the national upheaval of the past few years had damaged the economy, throwing many people out of work. Having no specific ideology made it difficult for Villa to win people’s support, and his attempts at propaganda were outmanoeuvred by Carranza.

Villa’s access to weapons from the United States proved less effective when American arms manufacturers found that they could earn much more money selling weapons to the European nations busy slaughtering each other in WWI. As material support from the United States declined, Villa discovered that while Wilson’s rhetoric sounded nice, it had little impact on how America treated Mexico, and more important, him. He began to believe that the United States really did want to turn Mexico into a colony. At the same time, Carranza controlled the nation’s two main ports, Tampico and Vera Cruz, which were the outlets for most of Mexico’s exports, and the war in Europe had greatly boosted prices for Mexico’s oil.

Even so, the war initially favored Villa, and villista general Angeles had captured Monterrey, the third-largest city in Mexico, by January 8, 1915. Villa won a victory at Guadalajara with a daring cavalry charge in mid-February but he alienated the populations of both cities by demanding huge loans, even though their residents had already been suffering because of the war. With the north-east under his control, Villa turned his attention to the vital port of Tampico, but his generals Chao and Urbina lacked the military ability needed to force their way past well-positioned defenses.

Worried that Villa would eventually capture Tampico, Obregon decided to set a trap at Celaya, and lure Villa into directing his main army into a less important area, rather than reinforcing the offensive in Tampico. Observing that Villa had already weakened himself by spreading his forces thin and was far too dependent on cavalry charges, Obregon adopted the defensive techniques used on the Western Front in Europe. Celaya had been picked because of its flat terrain and many canals, and Obregon filled it with men, machine guns and barbed wire. Villa’s ego would not allow him to ignore the trap and tempt Obregon into his territory as advised by Angeles, so he swallowed the bait on April 6, launching ten separate cavalry charges that simply produced growing piles of bleeding, moaning men and horses. Rather than wait for artillery to pulverize Obregon’s defences, Villa somehow managed to persuade his cavalry to carry out more charges the next morning. Although they almost penetrated the lines several times, the cavalry was too exhausted to solidify any gains. Realizing that the enemy was dangerously weak and low on ammunition, Obregon launched his own cavalry charge against the unprepared villistas, causing a rout.

Instead of retreating to a more favorable position, Villa’s pride took over, and he made another attempt at Celaya on April 13 with 20,000 men. Obregon simply waited patiently while Villa burnt through his troops in futile charges. A cavalry charge took Villa’s men completely by surprise at dawn on April 15 and sent the proud division of the north fleeing in panic. Villa had finally fought a good general with solid defences, making it clear that he was a disciplined, charismatic cavalry leader, but not a real general. Focused on his own region, Villa had paid no attention to the dramatic advances in tactics produced by WWI. The defeat was partially due to the breakdown in the alliance between the villistas and the zapatistas, since the zapatistas had made no effort to cut Obregon’s supply lines.

Benjamin Hill

Benjamin Hill

Obregon pursued Villa, who made a stand at Trinidad, and the two armies ended up facing each other from opposing trenches. Villa seemed to have accepted that frontal cavalry charges did not win every battle but he did not employ his superior mobility to send troops around Obregon’s main force and cut the railroad that was his lifeline to Vera Cruz. After a month of both sides trying and failing to find holes in the opposing defences, Villa lost patience and threw 35,000 men at Obregon’s lines. Despite heavy fighting, Obregon’s lines remained unbroken but his commanders became tired of staying on the defensive and had convinced Obregon to agree to go on the offensive when Villa launched another attack. A shell ripped off Obregon’s right arm, and he would have shot himself to end the pain but his aide had cleaned the pistol and forgot to replace the bullets. Surgeons saved Obregon’s life by amputating the arm, while Benjamin Hill, his second-in-command, carried out a devastating counterattack on June 5, forcing Villa to retreat again.

Lacking the patience to lure Obregon away from his supply lines, Villa made another major attack at Aguascalientes on July 8 and wasted more men in pointless cavalry charges. Obregon once again waited calmly and counterattacked two days later, inflicting yet another rout on Villa’s army. The survivors made their way to Chihuahua, and the big man in Mexico was no longer named Villa, but Obregon. The defeat was more than military because Villa’s personal currency had been based simply on people’s faith in his eventual victory. Several major defeats later, Villa’s currency was worthless and he was forced to levy fines and taxes on merchants to keep his army operating, so he lost the support of the business class. At the same time, he was losing control over his army, which had always been more of a coalition of armed units come together to fight Huerta than a real army. Numerous units simply switched sides, while the less-ideologically pure units reverted to their original trade of banditry, despite Villa’s increasing use of firing squads to maintain discipline.

Villa planned to cut the railway link to Chihuahua and then shift into Sonora, where he would be safe from attack for some time, since it had no railway. Unable to produce a long-term plan, he was abandoned by his more stable followers, including the Madero brothers, Jose Isabel Robles and even Angeles, his best general, all of whom made their way across the American border. Villista leaders in other states like Maytorena in Sonora also saw the writing on the wall and fled to the United States rather than submit to Carranza. Urbina, one of Villa’s senior generals and one of the eight men who had ridden across the Rio Grande with him to fight Huerta, had fallen out of favor, not for unrestrained looting and military failure, but for retiring from the revolution without permission, which resulted in his execution following a shootout between troops led by Villa’s pet executioner Fierro and Urbina’s men.

Defections and infighting continued until Villa’s army of 50,000 men had shrunk to 12,000 when he entered Sonora. The trek across the mountains was deadly and Fierro found himself trapped in quicksand while the rest of the army watched happily as the terrified butcher slowly sank to his death. Left with only his most loyal men, Villa returned to guerrilla warfare, but the numerous intellectuals who had attached themselves to Villa’s movement, finding places as clerks and advisers, had no patience for the hard existence of life on the run, and deserted on mass, making their way across the border, since Carranza’s offer of amnesty applied only to soldiers.

President Carranza (October 1915-

Villa Returns to Guerrilla Warfare

Wilson had tried repeatedly to arrange a reconciliation between Villa and Carranza, so that the Mexican Revolution would follow the course that Wilson felt was best for Mexico, failing to recognize that a national revolution would follow its own course. However, Wilson had accepted that a more reasonable third candidate would never appear, and since Villa’s recent military setbacks combined with his rough manner made it difficult for him to match Wilson’s idea of a president, Carranza was recognized as the legitimate president of Mexico on October 19, 1915. Wilson had been strongly encouraged by his new Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, who had replaced William Jennings Bryan, and wanted peace in Mexico so that the United States could focus on the situation in Europe. Also, Villa’s increasing lack of control over his forces was gradually destabilizing the border region. Aside from recognition, the Wilson administration took the concrete step of closing the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez customs exchange, preventing Villa from exporting goods to the United States or purchasing American weapons.

Villa’s exhausted troops reached Sonora to find that it was already under Carranza’s control. Frustrated and out of options, Villa decided to attack Agua Prieta, but it had been turned into a daunting fortress by Plutarco Calles, so the assault proved to be a repetition of the disaster at Celaya. An angry Villa learned that the officially neutral United States had permitted Carranza’s troops to cross American territory in order to reinforce the garrison at Agua Prieta. Worse, when Villa’s men made a night-time attack on the trenches, crawling over the ground to make their way through the barbed wire fences, powerful searchlights supplied by the Americans suddenly lit the sky, transforming the villistas into defenceless targets as they futilely wriggled to escape the fierce machine gun fire. The blatant American interference convinced Villa that the United States wanted to make Mexico into a protectorate. This accusation is evidence of Villa’s increasing paranoia. While Wilson did hope to exert influence over Mexico’s political process, Carranza was a die-hard Mexican patriot and had only accepted American aid to destroy a dangerous enemy.

When Villa met with his surviving generals on December 22 to plan another campaign, they bluntly refused to participate, so he had to content himself with killing anyone suspected of disloyalty. Instead of admitting that he had been outfought, Villa blamed his repeated failures on betrayal, which was reinforced by the mass defection of most of his generals and army. Obregon had wisely offered amnesty and a demobilization payment to Villa’s army, which was accepted by 40 generals, 5,046 officers and 11,128 soldiers. Many went a step further and joined Carranza’s army. Other senior officers carved out small domains where they ruled as strongmen and bandits. Villa himself rode into the mountains with 200 devoted followers, and everyone else believed that his career was over. To be fair, if Villa had been a typical strongman, he could have fled to a comfortable retirement in the United States or Cuba. Instead he decided to fight and die in his home.

When Obregon finally pulled out of the city on March 11, Zapata’s forces moved in, enabling President Gonzalez Garza to return to the city. Tired of Garza interfering in Morelos, Zapata soon agreed to Villa’s request that the government move to Chihuahua where it would be protected by his forces. Garza and Zapata had clashed over Garza’s decision to remove Palafox from his cabinet, which did not help cooperation between the villistas and the zapatistas. Actually, Palafox had irritated many zapatistas and while the violent natures of his chieftains were an obvious source of friction with the villistas, the aggressive personalities and deep desire to completely redo society clashed with the more liberal attitude of Villa’s intellectuals, who were concerned with improving the economic situation, not overthrowing society.

The Punitive Expedition (March 14, 1916-February 7, 1917)

Columbus after the raid

Columbus after the raid

Filled with bitterness by Wilson’s decision to recognize Carranza’s government, Villa swore to kill every American that he found. Troops nominally under his command executed seventeen American employees of a mining company on January 17, 1916, although Villa initially claimed that it had been a misunderstanding. In early March, Villa led 400 men across the border towards Columbus, New Mexico, killing several American ranchers and cowboys on the way. The commander of Columbus’ garrison had been warned of a villista raid, but rumors and warnings were common on the border, while no one really expected that Villa would dare attack an American army post. The garrison was taken by surprise on the morning of March 9, but still drove off the villistas. Eighteen Americans (eight soldiers and ten civilians) and possibly a hundred villistas died. The large number of villista dead may be due to an unwillingness of the American soldiers to treat wounded villistas. Convinced that Mexican residents and visitors to the town had provided Villa with information for the raid, any Mexican not vouched for by an American resident was ordered to leave the town or be killed. The seven villistas who lived to be captured were tried, convicted and hung within a month.

Huerta and Orozco

Huerta and Orozco

There is a debate among historians over whether German agents had bribed Villa to launch the raid to provoke an intervention that would keep the United States too occupied to enter WWI, especially since German agents had tried to use Huerta to start a revolt. Huerta had been persuaded to return to Mexico by a German operative, Captain Franz von Rintelen, Imperial German Navy, who had also convinced Felix Diaz to start a revolt in the south of Mexico. Travelling from Spain to the United States in the spring of 1915, Huerta reached El Paso, where he planned an uprising with Orozco that attracted support from right-wing generals, politicians and rich landowners. Dependent on German backing, the conspiracy received the attention of the American government, which arrested Huerta on June 27, 1915 for violating U.S. neutrality laws. Texas Rangers found and killed Orozco after a two-month hunt. Huerta died from cirrhosis of the liver after spending five months in detention at Fort Bliss, and it was rumored that poison was the real cause, although a lifetime of heavy drinking should have been enough.

There is evidence that elements of the German government, including the German foreign secretary, had been informed of the possibility of manipulating Villa, but there is no concrete evidence of a direct exchange of money and weapons in exchange for a promise of a raid. Moreover, Villa was already motivated by a genuine feeling of betrayal, an unforgivable sin in his eyes, by the United States. Furthermore, an intervention would provoke conflict between the U.S. and Carranza, which could only work to his advantage.

An invasion by a Mexican guerrilla, even if it had just been a failed border raid, sent off shockwaves in the United States. The border region had been stressful for months, and Wilson decided the next day that he would have to send troops into Mexico. Facing re-election in the fall, Wilson was duty-bound to be seen doing something. An additional factor was that Wilson knew that Germans had supplied revolutionary groups in Mexico with weapons and ammunition, and he probably wondered if they had encouraged Villa to raid Columbus. At the same time, Wilson did not want to get dragged into Mexico’s civil war, so he contacted Carranza and told him that the punitive expedition’s sole objective would be to capture Villa. After a lengthy exchange of diplomatic messages, an impotent and furious Carranza knew that he could not stop the Americans, so he finally agreed, provided that the expedition would respect Mexican sovereignty. Wilson had thought that Carranza would cooperate to help capture a mutual enemy, but had badly misjudged Carranza’s deep love of Mexican sovereignty.

Carranza’s generals Trevino and Murguia were already hunting Villa’s men but had had little success. With an army of more than 16,000 men, finding Villa should have been easy for Trevino, but many of his soldiers were former villistas who did not look very hard, numerous generals were simply local strongmen who did not follow orders, and he was plagued by supply problems.
Having overseen the American occupation of Vera Cruz two years earlier, Major General Frederick Funston would have been the logical choice to command the expedition. However, Brigadier General Pershing was chosen to command the expedition by General Hugh Scott, chief of staff of the American Army, even though he was junior to Funston, because Scott knew that diplomatic skills would be as important as fighting ability, and Pershing was a better diplomat than Funston.

The expedition entered Mexico with 5,000 men on March 15. Although the American Army had 108,000 men, the majority were in the Philippines, Hawaii and the Panama Canal Zone, leaving only 24,000 in the United States. Convinced that warfare would still break out, Wilson and his advisers prepared contingency plans for a full-scale war, including the occupation of numerous key towns.

The terrain of Chihuahua did not favor the Americans, since the state was filled with arid desert, rocky mountains, and hundreds of caves and canyons but little water, except during rainstorms, when canyons became death traps. The conditions proved horrible, but Pershing persevered, leading his men 350 miles deep into Mexico. Carranza did not stop the expedition but he did not permit American soldiers to use Mexican trains, so Pershing was limited to trucks, mules and horses to transport and supply his army. The supplies were frequently far behind the troops, so officers would buy food from locals with their own money. Villa may not have been able to recruit an army, but many residents of Chihuahua refused to sell the Americans any food or give any form of assistance.

Punitive Expedition

Punitive Expedition

American detachments spread out looking for Villa, but generally found dust and discomfort, so much dust that the troops were soon half-blind. Most of the troops were not used to such harsh conditions and began dropping equipment like sabers, bacon (which was melting in the hot sun so that the grease dripped out of their knapsacks), rain slickers and blankets, but they would miss much of the equipment later in the expedition. It would be boiling hot during the day and freezing at night, so troops adapted by digging trenches for fires, letting the fire burn out, raking out the coals and sleeping on the warm earth with their saddles on top of them. Since the horses were big breeds more suited for the plains than the rocky hills of northern Mexico, their health rapidly declined despite the best efforts of their riders, and they gradually died of exhaustion. A Dodge touring car was Pershing’s sole luxury. Otherwise, he slept on the hard ground and used the light from his car as a lamp.

General Pershing sitting

General Pershing sitting

Hoping to cover more ground, Pershing divided the men into a number of columns. Planes had been assigned to the expedition, and had proven invaluable for delivering messages between columns, but they had all broken down or had been grounded within a month. Aware of the physical needs of his men, Pershing did not crack down on dice games and even permitted a sanctioned whorehouse at the expedition HQ where the men and the prostitutes were inspected regularly for venereal disease.
Sometimes they came across Villistas, sometimes they traded fire with Carranza’s troops, who were increasingly hostile. Carranza had ordered his generals to not start a war, but would not press them to cooperate with the Americans. Fearing that a war was inevitable, he had appointed Obregon Minister of War to prepare the army to fight a more powerful enemy.

Villa was wounded during a skirmish on March 27 and had to hide in a remote cave for two months while the rest of his force was scattered in small detachments. When Villa emerged after two months, he found that most of the detachments had been beaten, their officers either killed, captured or simply deserted.

By the end of April, the villista threat was clearly over, even though Villa had not been captured, but Wilson resisted calls from the cabinet, especially Lansing and Newton Baker, to bring the expedition home. Worried that the Americans would never leave and realizing that many Mexicans viewed him as an American puppet, Carranza stopped cooperating with the Americans, and began stirring up anti-American feelings. Meanwhile, Pershing was becoming increasingly fed up with having to walk a diplomatic tightrope while chasing an experienced guerrilla, and made plans for how he would take control of Chihuahua if given permission. He even sent Funston telegrams that briefly outlined plans for the takeover of Mexico. In May, a recovered Villa organized a second raid on the United States. When more American forces crossed the border, Carranza responded by formally warning Pershing to return home or fight federal troops. Wilson’s reaction was to call up the National Guard for service in Mexico on May 8, but it would take time to organize the movement of National Guard units from all over the nation to the southern border. Pershing’s force had grown to over 10,000 men, while a total of 130,000 troops would be posted along the border to prevent another raid.

Given the rise in tension, war seemed unavoidable after a battle between American and Mexican forces broke out at the small town of Carrizal. When a particularly rash American officer, Captain Charles Boyd, led 86 men into Carrizal on June 21, 1916, despite orders from the Mexican federal commander to stay out of the town, Mexican machine guns killed twenty-three Americans, including Boyd, and another twenty-four were taken prisoner. Ordered to avoid trouble with federal Mexican troops by not entering towns with federal garrisons, Boyd had insisted on marching through the town, ignoring the advice of several of his officers and the American foreman of a local ranch to go around it. Pershing initially hoped that it would become a cause for war, but soon learned from the survivors that Boyd had disobeyed orders and provoked the Mexicans.

Despite an excuse to start a war, neither Wilson nor Carranza wanted a war, so both leaders kept their armies under control, and Carranza ordered the release of the prisoners. To prevent further escalation, Pershing was told to stop the patrols and to place his army of ten thousand men in two solid, well-defended base camps, while the diplomats settled things. Six thousand men were stationed near the Mormon settlement at Colonia Dublan, and the other four thousand men were at El Valle, sixty-five miles away. Chinese merchants quickly appeared at Dublan to operate laundry and sweets stands. Trucks brought in supplies, and the troops built shelters from adobe bricks with tents stretched over the top, while baseball and football games were organized. Alcohol was not permitted in the camp, so cantinas and brothels set up just outside the perimeter. Both camps had red light districts that met Pershing’s standards. The brothel at Dublan had forty one-room cabins for the prostitutes. Aware that disease was an ever-present danger, the officers ensured that the camps were kept clean and the soldiers were inspected regularly to ensure good hygiene. Most important, the men were drilled constantly to keep them in good shape. The troops would spend seven months there, but the intensive training proved to be good preparation for America’s entry into WWI.

Although he did not want a war, Wilson kept Pershing’s army in Mexico as leverage to persuade Carranza to make concessions regarding American-owned property in Mexico and to tone down the nationalism of the revolution. However, Carranza was equally stubborn and had guessed correctly that Wilson would not go to war. Wilson gave up in January 1917, claiming that a Constitutionalist victory over Villistas at Torreon meant that federal Mexican troops had regained control over the border area. Meanwhile, Pershing had been understandably frustrated that he was not permitted to resume the hunt for Villa when he re-appeared and resumed attacking Carranza’s men in early September, which was a profound embarrassment to both the men in the expedition and the federal Mexicans, who had thought that Villa had been killed, the only accomplishment of the expedition in ten months. Wilson told Pershing on January 12 to start moving back across the border and the men were back at Columbus by February 5, thus ending the Punitive Expedition without having captured Villa.

Carranza Establishes Control over Mexico

Although Carranza had maintained his hold on the presidency, Villa had become popular again due to his fierce anti-American stance. Carranza had confirmed his nationalist reputation but his refusal to cooperate had not warmed Wilson’s heart towards him, so the United States imposed an arms embargo and limited cross-border trade.

After six years of warfare, large parts of Mexico were filled with starving peasants, crippled veterans turned beggars and abandoned factories and mines. In particular, Mexico’s laboriously constructed railway infrastructure was in ruins, therefore it was impossible to transport crops from the functioning parts of Mexico to the starving areas, which spread famine. Despite this daunting situation, Carranza persisted on imposing his will on the tattered remnants of Mexico, censoring the newspapers, filling the civil service with his own loyalists, and ruthlessly stamping out any form of opposition. Promotion in Carranza’s civil service and army depended solely on loyalty, and he proved to be a more determined autocrat than either Diaz or Huerta. This emphasis on loyalty naturally led to an atmosphere of terror since an accusation of disloyalty would lead to a loss of position or even prison. However, his defense of Mexico’s sovereignty was both genuine and well-received. Most important, unlike Villa and Zapata, Carranza always thought about Mexico as a whole, not just a single region.

Carranza’s inability to tolerate any form of regional autonomy made reconciliation with other factions impossible. If an opponent would pledge loyalty, he would be accepted but no other centers of authority were tolerated, while the law was obeyed only to suit his purposes. Carranza was so determined to avoid giving power to regional strongmen that he imposed governors on provinces who were from other regions, which naturally fuelled discontent among local revolutionaries who had fought Huerta, to ensure the creation of a national political order with Carranza sitting serenely by himself at the top. The refusal to reward or even acknowledge local power-brokers meant that Carranza’s control of turbulent areas was often superficial. Governors were often also in command of the armies in their provinces, and they used their control of those armies to enrich themselves. Those armies were usually manned by northerners, which deepened the locals’ feeling of occupation. As outsiders, this did not benefit any local faction, while Carranza was unable to restrain their excesses regardless of the huge number of protests. Carranza’s insistence on a central authority but inability to impose a central authority caused the fighting to continue. The local power-brokers did not always meekly accept a northern carpetbagger, and several rebellions flared up in the south. Carranza’s brother Jesus had been sent to pacify Oaxaca but was captured and executed in July 1915.

Worse, Carranza and many of his loyalists genuinely felt that northerners were better suited to govern than native southerners, who were considered to be natural reactionaries and thus had to be forcibly educated in the revolution. Several of the men appointed governors of southern states were dynamic, self-made men, so they had little interest in the rich traditional life of local villages, and the villagers’ deep-rooted love of the land. While the many southern leaders were politically conservative and local landlords did exploit loyalty to the state for their own interests, they did enjoy genuine popular support from a populace that felt that their states were being mistreated by a distant central government. A more conciliatory approach might have manipulated local factions into accepting central control in exchange for a a degree of local autonomy and privilege for the leaders, but Carranza did not do conciliatory approaches. Carranza’s main advantage was that the rebellions were truly local, so rebel leaders in Oaxaca or Tabasco did not forge close links with Villa, since he was a northerner. Moreover, the defeat of Villa freed up enough troops in the north to impose control in the south.

Furthermore, Carranza believed the agrarian reform that benefited small-scale farmers would hold back the national economy, so he decided to return many of the haciendas that had been confiscated by Villa and his generals to their original owners, hoping that taxes on their large farms would provide his government with the funds needed to repair Mexico’s damaged infrastructure. Hoping to minimize the potential conflict, he limited the returns to hacendados in areas where there was no fierce fighting. Having already looted the haciendas of everything that could be moved, the generals were content to return the haciendas, realizing that they could make more money for less work by simply using their control of the railroads to charge hacendados high fees to transport their crops.

A fervent nationalist, Carranza refused to finance his army through foreign loans, so his generals were ordered to impose forced loans on opponents. Since the generals were also told to ensure that merchants kept their prices low, there was a huge potential for extortion and bribery. If an area had been brought under federal control, generals had the authority to compel locals to give loans to the military, and since there was no civil authority collecting taxes, the potential for corruption must have been overwhelming. Wealthy citizens were given receipts proving that they had paid their share and would not be harmed, while banks were routinely compelled to pay large sums. Since only the rich were targeted, they naturally tried to forge connections with the generals to ensure their safety and the smooth operation of their businesses. However, much of the money went to the generals, not the government.

At the same time, the lack of stability and wide access to printing presses made it almost impossible to crack down on counterfeiting. To be fair, the banks had been loosely regulated during the Porfiriato, and had been forced by Huerta to devalue the currency to fund his army, so Carranza understandably wanted to tighten up money control, which he did by appropriating the cash reserves of the major banks and using them to form a state-controlled national bank. Army units were sent into banks to inspect their safes and records to ensure compliance. French and British-controlled banks were forced to close in May 1916. Running banks proved to be too much effort, and Carranza abandoned his dream of a national bank in 1919. However, he had succeeded in introducing more regulation to the banking industry.

Determined to reduce foreign control of Mexican farms, mines and oil fields, Carranza levied steep export taxes on mines on March 1, 1915. This was a significant matter since Mexico produced one-third of the world’s silver. When mine owners, both foreign and domestic, ceased operations rather than pay the taxes, he simply threatened in September 1916 to seize the mines, which encouraged payment of the tax. Since paper money was easily counterfeited, federal control of mining areas not only ensured revenue through customs duties, but also provided the material for large-scale production of gold and silver currency. Given the huge needs of fuel caused by WWI, Mexico was in a good bargaining position and won agreement, which greatly increased its oil revenues. All of these decrees had been fiercely protested by American Secretary of State Robert Lansing, and the constant anti-Americanism had been a key factor in decision to organize the Punitive Expedition.

Carranza instituted numerous reforms, and many did benefit struggling laborers and farmers, at least when they were enforced, but he was no democrat. Refusing to cooperate with other parties in the legislature, he never bothered to create his own party, preferring paternalistic authoritarianism instead. Believing that he represented the national will, he expected legislators to follow his instructions without question. This patriarchal approach was popular in some areas, especially those that had enjoyed more stability, but it was naturally resented by national leaders with their own followings. In fact, Carranza frequently ordered his generals to interfere in local elections to ensure a result that matched his expectations. This interference was often quite blatant and violent, and while it provided short-term stability, it did not help matters in the long run. While Carranza lacked the charisma of Villa or Zapata, he knew how to purchase loyalty, and he funded a number of newspapers that could be relied on to praise his policies.

Carranza and Obregon had clashed over Carranza’s favorable attitude towards hacendados and former Huertistas, as well as Carranza’s increasingly obvious reluctance to actually enforce land reform. This disagreement deepened the divide between Carranza’s followers and the revolutionaries who backed Obregon, and fuelled the conflict during the Constitutional Convention in late 1916. Actually, Obregon’s repeated victories over Villa been his downfall. Emboldened by the neutralization of Villa, Carranza further limited the power of Obregon and his fellow Sonoran generals, especially after receiving de facto American recognition in October 1915. Obregon only regained his previous authority when Carranza made him Minister of War after Villa attacked Columbus. As minister of war, Obregon worked to professionalize the army and reduce the autonomy of regional warlords as much as possible. Meanwhile, Carranza had begun cracking down on organized labor in the summer of 1916, arresting labor leaders who were organizing strikes. Several would have been executed except for Obregon’s interference, which further strengthened the relationship between Obregon and labor. Through his victories and political activism, Obregon had become a national figure in Mexico, which was not welcomed by Carranza. Obregon’s dependable, cheerful, accessible nature contrasted with the aristocratic and aloof Carranza, and the charismatic but dangerously unpredictable Villa.

The Constitutional Congress of Queretaro in November 1916 brought the simmering conflict between Carranza and Obregon into the open. The convention was divided into two factions: the radicals, who worked with Obregon, and the renovators, supporters of Carranza. Carranza’s initial draft ignored labor, subsoil rights (a key issue given foreign-owned mines) and made only token efforts at land reform. Many of Carranza’s followers were members of congress who had remained in the capital following Huerta’s coup. Carranza had known them since Madero first revolted but the radicals hated them as traitors and followers of a dictator. Obregon plotted with other radicals to limit Carranza’s power during the Constitutional Conference, but neither side won a complete victory. Carranza gained more powers for the presidency and a much weakened legislature, but the radicals obtained an eight-hour work day, abolition of child labor, the introduction of arbitration for strikes and compensation when workers were fired. Obregon’s close cooperation with the radicals meant that he became linked in the public mind with the reforms.

Obregon remained minister of war until the March 1917 presidential and congressional election. Initially considering running against Carranza in the election, his poor health and unwillingness to threaten the precarious stability by an open break with Carranza led him to abandon the bid. After recuperating, Obregon continued to build his power base and made a lengthy visit to the United States in late 1917 to ensure that he would be acceptable as president to the Americans. Meanwhile, his supporters continued to work on his behalf in the capital. Carranza had never been interested in the opinions of others but once he was elected president the number of advisers shrunk rapidly and he worked hard to prevent any other power bases. While he already viewed Obregon as a rival, he paid less and less attention to the congress, and he did not even fill most cabinet posts, appointing chief officers instead of ministers. However, Carranza’s power was slipping, since the pro-Carranza party was the weakest in congress, while the pro-Obregon party was the largest. Although Carranza’s policies were not always smoothly executed, and corruption was a major problem, his constant efforts to win better terms for Mexico did produce results, since exports more than doubled between 1916 and 1920.

Zapata Stands Alone (January 1915-January 1917)

Turning his back on the struggle between Villa and Obregon, Zapata remained in Morelos, overseeing land reform and communal ownership. Morelos was at peace for the first time since the start of the revolution. Zapata was the supreme chief of the Revolution, Palafox had become the federal secretary of agriculture and former guerrilla Genovevo de la O was the governor of Morelos, having been chosen by the zapatista chieftains. Land reform proved complicated since villages often had conflicting claims. Landmarks like “the large fig tree” made settling boundaries a frustrating task, and villagers were sometimes reluctant to accept the judgements made by the agricultural commissions, which were mainly composed of young engineers from the cities. However, the engineers had a genuine desire to help, and gradually won over many villagers. Palafox was a socialist who wanted to expropriate all land, which made him unpopular with the moderate planters. Despite the obstacles, Zapata struggled to balance the needs of the farmers and the hacienda owners who were willing to cooperate, realizing that cash crops were needed to earn money to buy better tools, repair damaged mills and reboot the economy. However, land reform had progressed enough that the haciendas had disappeared from Morelos by the summer of 1915, and the state resembled the mythical world of small peasant communities that Zapata and his followers believed was the natural order.

Fixated on Morelos, Zapata surrounded himself with friends and followers who shared his focus on the traditional life of the farmer, so he paid little attention to events outside of the state, even though they would have a fatal impact on the state. Unknown to Zapata, Villa’s continued defeats meant that Zapata no longer held the balance of power, since Obregon and Carranza had become too powerful for Zapata to face on his own. This change in military fortune was partially Zapata’s own fault since he had not only ended the pressure on Vera Cruz but had refused to cut Obregon’s supply line to Mexico City, despite the appeals of Villa and Gonzalez Garza.

Pablo Gonzalez

Pablo Gonzalez

Carrancista troops under Pablo Gonzalez occupied Mexico City on July 11, driving out Zapata’s troops, and forcing the national government to flee to Morelos. Zapata attempted to regain control of the capital but Gonzalez had re-established firm control of the city by August 2, so Zapata returned to Morelos and land reform. Deprived of access to the capital, Zapata no longer had a stable source of ammunition or the large-scale printing press needed to print enough money to pay his troops and the state government staff. Morale plummeted since troops had gotten used to be being paid semi-regularly, and did not want to return to depending on handouts from villages.

When Zapata reacted by raiding numerous towns, he discovered that Gonzalez now had enough troops to both defend the main cities and hunt down Zapata’s guerrillas while continuing Robles’ policy of mass destruction combined with the mass execution and deportation of civilians, so an increasing number of Zapata’s allies came to terms with Carranza. Presuming that Carranza’s coalition would fall apart just like Huerta’s had, Zapata continued his guerrilla raids, but many of his commanders saw the changing wind and submitted to Carranza, which eroded the bonds of trust needed to keep a widespread guerrilla movement functioning. With Villa licking his wounds, Carranza sensed that the time had come to eliminate Zapata as a threat, so he poured troops into the south, which was met by a four-pronged offensive by Zapata in December 1915. However, it only delayed the inevitable. Freed of the distraction of the Villa campaign, Carranza sent 20,000 men to join the 10,000 troops already in Morelos, driving even more Zapatista chieftains to sue for peace. Some wanted to keep their villages safe while others were ambitious and sought position under Carranza. After heavy fighting in the spring, Gonzalez had captured Zapata’s headquarters by mid-June 1916, and Zapata had retreated to the mountains as a guerrilla.

Determined to win total victory, Gonzalez resolved to deny Zapata the supplies needed to feed his guerrillas. What they could not loot, Gonzalez’s men burned, systematically transforming the state into a wasteland. However, Zapata was not beaten so easily. Dividing his army into bands of roughly 200 men, he spread them out over the state to make them harder to find and easier to supply. Smaller federal garrisons were destroyed and the larger ones had to fight off powerful attacks, so he maintained a relentless pressure against the federals. Zapata had also learned the value of destroying property like railways, factories and mills to show foreign investors that Carranza did not control Mexico. A less intelligent but equally brutal version of Huerta, Gonzalez responded with mass executions. In return, Zapata began blowing up trains, killing both civilians and troops. The strain of keeping an army hunting Villa, an army monitoring Pershing and yet another to deal with a recent rebellion by Felix Diaz meant that Carranza could not reinforce Gonzalez. Gonzalez’s refusal to pay attention to his troops’ health left them vulnerable to malaria and dysentery, and 7,000 soldiers had died by December 1916. Zapata saw his chance and launched another offensive, driving Gonzalez out of Morelos by January 1, 1917. Resisting the urge to march on Mexico City, Zapata concentrated on restarting his agrarian program but realized that he would have to face another federal army sooner or later.

The Zimmerman Telegram (January 1917)

Tired of his anti-Americanism, American oil companies began forging links with Carranza’s conservative opponents. Since Carranza’s hold on Mexico was still weak, he could either make a deal with internal opponents or find foreign friends. He chose to look overseas for friends, hoping to use Germany to counterbalance the United States. Mexican-German cooperation had grown after the Punitive Expedition ended because Carranza needed allies and Germany had made few protests against his decrees on mining and exports. In fact, German investors were actively sought for projects with the government’s support. Germany was permitted to subsidize Mexican newspapers that advocated a pro-German line during WWI. German espionage was clearly tolerated, although Carranza’s official knowledge is unclear.

However, the German government overreached itself when Arthur Zimmerman, the German Foreign Minister, sent a coded telegram to the German ambassador in Mexico on January 16, 1917 instructing the ambassador to offer the Mexican government military support if it invaded the United States to retake Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Hoping to strangle Britain, Germany planned to start unrestricted submarine warfare in February, which was expected to drive neutral America to enter the war on the Allied side. Unfortunately, the telegram was intercepted and deciphered by the British on February 19 and sent to President Wilson. Its publication on March 1 helped swing American opinion against Germany.

Despite Carranza’s clear support for Germany, he ignored the offer and remained officially neutral because he realized that Mexico simply could not bear the instability caused by a real American invasion. Furthermore, Germany’s offer of financial support to purchase weapons was meaningless since the only large-scale arms manufacturer in the region was the United States, and the Royal Navy’s blockade of Germany prevented the Germans from supplying Mexico directly.

Felix Diaz’s Revolt (February 1916-April 1919)

Huerta’s death on January 13, 1916 left Diaz the unchallenged leader of the Porfirians. Many of the felicistas were based in New Orleans, so plotting was easier because the American secret service concentrated its efforts along the Texas border, the traditional jumping-off point for Mexican revolutions. After a great deal of planning, Diaz decided to start the revolt in Vera Cruz, once he had secured the allegiance of Manuel Pelaez, who had used the chaos caused by the revolution to earn money protecting American-owned oil companies in the area of Tampico. Palaez had started his rebellion against Carranza’s constitutionalists in 1914, and he had gained control of the Tampico region by 1916-1917, so the oil companies were happy to pay him in exchange for stable operating conditions. Diaz left New Orleans in February 1916, and although his expedition encountered numerous problems, including shipwreck off the Mexican coast, he had attracted numerous recruits in the south, including many guerrillas who had been allied to Zapata only out of convenience and did not share his politics. Diaz’s renewed popularity was partially due to his new Plan de Tierra, which promised the restoration of land that had been illegally seized during the Porfiriato.

Since Villa and Zapata had been contained, Diaz became the sole remaining challenger to Carranza by default. Rejecting the radicalism of Villa and Zapata, Diaz attracted the conservative groups who saw their powers being eroded by Carranza. Also, he offered an alternative to those who opposed Carranza but did not trust Villa and Zapata. Moreover, Diaz’s support for the Allies and his willingness to protect foreign capitalists from bandits in return for taxes ensured that he received substantial financial support. In fact, the British supplied him with weapons, hoping that he would overthrow Carranza, whose government was openly pro-German and hampered British investment in Mexico’s oil fields. At his peak in 1917 and early 1918, Diaz had roughly 20,000 men and controlled most of Vera Cruz, aside from the major cities, and was active in Oaxaca, Chiapas and Tabasco.

Lacking a dynamic nature or military talent, Diaz’s main contribution to the revolution in the south was to give existing rebel groups a legitimate cover, as well as provide links between otherwise unconnected rebel movements. In many ways, Diaz resembled Carranza, except that Carranza was a more effective politician and Carranza had the support of Obregon, the leading general of the revolution. More important, unlike Carranza, Diaz never built a nation-wide movement, his army did not win decisive victories, and his policies did not attract major support. Basically, he could not impose control over distant regions and he failed to forge alliances with local powerbrokers in those regions, therefore he never progressed from regional strongman to serious contender for the presidential chair.

While Villa was no longer a major threat to Carranza’s regime, he kept enough troops busy that the federal army was unable to crush Felix Diaz’s rebellion, which was a genuine danger. The situation changed in Carranza’s favor after a skilled federal general, Aguilar, took charge in November 1918, and constructed a line of blockhouses spaced every four miles to guard the vital railway line between Mexico City and the port. Aguilar reined in the more vicious generals to ensure better treatment of locals, who responded by volunteering to assist with the campaign. The felicista cause was considerably damaged when Pelaez decided that Diaz would never win, and ended the alliance. The death of Diaz’s second-in-command and leading Porfirian, Aureliano Blanquet, during a battle in April 1919 further weakened Diaz, and enabled Aguilar to put the felicistas on the run.

The Fall of Zapata (1917-1919)

Despite the deadly threat posed by Carranza, especially after Pershing’s army returned to the United States, Zapata refused to ally with Diaz. Instead, he focused on rebuilding the farms in Morelos and defending the state against federal armies. Morelos remained independent, and was the only state in Mexico to not take part in the March 1917 elections for Congress and the presidency. Zapata worked with intellectual supporters to build an organizational structure between the villages and within his own army, to better balance conflicts between villages and between local chieftains. However, many of his commanders hovered on the line between guerrilla and bandit, further weakening villagers’ support for his plans, while an increasing number of his chieftains were simply fed up with the endless fighting. Carranza had won a national election to become president, so his regime seemed secure. While there were on-going revolts in several states, including Chihuahua, Oaxaca, and San Luis Petosi, the only real threat to Carranza’s regime was Diaz’s revolt. If Zapata would not make a deal with Diaz or Carranza, there was no hope that the fighting would ever end, so several key commanders accepted Carranza’s offer of anmesty. The increase in paranoia led to in-fighting between his key intellectual supporters, with Palafox triumphing over Montano, who was executed on May 18. When Zapata’s troublesome brother Eufemio was killed by Sidronio “Loco” Camacho, a zapatista commander, after beating the man’s father senseless, many zapatistas rejoiced but Zapata himself became even more paranoid.

A new adviser, Gildardo Magana, convinced Zapata to reach out to other regional strongmen and dissatisfied Constitutionalists, in particular Villa, Diaz and Obregon, who had resigned as minister of war after the constitution was settled. Officially, Zapata declared Diaz a reactionary enemy, but he still permitted his advisers to maintain lines of communication with Diaz. In theory, Obregon and Zapata should have made natural allies since neither man had personal issues with the other, but their backgrounds were mutually exclusive. Obregon was based in the city and had a strong following among organized labor but Zapata despised both the city and any form of bureaucracy.

Fearing that the United States would intervene in Mexico once WWI ended, Zapata began emphasizing national unity, not the Plan of Ayala, in order to make it easier to cooperate with the felicistas. However, although his agents carried letters to rebels all over Mexico, his efforts to create a popular front never bore fruit. In fact, Zapata was increasingly viewed as irrelevant, so Diaz became the dominant rebel in the south. Zapata was emphasizing compromise but Palafax remained as radical as ever, so Zapata finally tired of Palafox, who had offended many zapatistas, and he sought refuge with Carranza in 1918.

The 1918 global Spanish flu epidemic reached Mexico and found the war-torn, starving land a fertile breeding ground. Morelos was hit especially hard, losing perhaps 25% of its population, depriving Zapata of much of his manpower, so that he was too weak to resist Gonzalez when he appeared later that year with 11,000 troops. Advisers recommended that he go into hiding and wait until Carranza fell from power but it was not in Zapata’s nature to run away, while he worried that he would not be able to maintain control over the various chiefs from hiding.

Desperate to gain a total victory over Zapata in order to improve his chances as a presidential candidate in the 1920 election, Gonzalez gave cavalry officer Colonel Jesus Guajardo permission to do whatever it took to win Zapata’s trust, and pretended to discipline him unfairly in order to create a cover for the officer, who appeared to have a grudge against Gonzalez. After launching a fake attack on a federal garrison that unexpectedly claimed the lives of several soldiers, Guajardo arrested 59 followers of a former zapatista who had joined Carranza, killing some himself and giving the rest to Zapata for execution. Zapata agreed to a meeting on April 9, and he was lured into a hacienda, even though he suspected a trap. By this time, his situation had become so weak that he may have felt that he had to take a chance. Zapata rode into the gate, the troops presented arms for a salute and then shot him dead. Gonzalez put Zapata’s body on display in Cuatla, where it was seen by thousands, but many people in Morelos refused to believe that he was dead, and continued to use his name as a rallying cry: Viva Zapata! However, most people were tired of fighting and simply wanted peace. Magana was elected head of the movement in early September but he did not have the full support of powerful leaders like de la O, so the zapatistas never regained their former power, and Morelos once again knew peace, of a sort.

Villa continues to fight (June 1916-November 1919)

Villa had managed to recruit many of his former followers in June 1916 because Carranza’s governor had failed to find any form of employment for Villa’s troops, so they rejoined him in the hope of making a living. As more and more men arrived, he launched raids all over the state. He even made a surprise attack on Chihuahua City, despite its much larger garrison, on September 15, 1916, and freed many former followers of Orozco, who promptly joined his army. Momentum was on his side, and he captured a number of towns during the fall, which naturally encouraged federal troops to switch sides. Chihuahua City fell on November 27 after four days of heavy fighting. Aware that a relief force was on the way, Villa looted the city of supplies, weapons and ammunition before leaving.

Despite the victories, Villa’s popularity began to fade. He was levying heavy taxes on the middle-class, since the hacienda owners had long since been driven away, and he allowed ninety women accused of collaboration to be executed in one city. Moreover, Carranza had sent Francisco Murguia, a brutal yet cautious general, to defeat Villa. Murguia was one of Carranza’s better generals, and he was not afraid to leave the cities to venture into the countryside in pursuit of Villa. However, he hated Chihuahua and did not hide it, which made it difficult to win much support in the province. Unfortunately, his brutality was increasingly matched by Villa’s.

After a surprise victory at Torreon, Villa became over-confident. It soon became clear that Villa had still not learned how to adapt his guerrilla tactics and cavalry charges to face an entrenched enemy, so he was beaten badly by Murguia at Estacion Reforma. Retreating and recruiting more troops, Villa caught Murguia off-guard at Rosario in early March 1917. Before Villa could capitalize on the situation, Murguia learned the location of Villa’s main arms depot, and captured it. Desiring revenge for the loss of his arms depot, Villa permitted the gang-rape of all of the female residents of an entire village whose inhabitants were suspected of revealing the location of another arms depot, but this atrocity simply stopped the flow of information from villages. As a result, Murguia was able to launch a surprise attack on Villa’s HQ without locals giving warning. Hundreds of villistas were killed and Villa barely escaped.

When Pershing finally left Mexico, Villa lost one of his rallying cries, so more villages submitted to Carranza. By the spring of 1917, he was simply a guerrilla leading several hundred men. Tired of being hunted, Villa even inquired about surrender terms, but learned that there would never be amnesty for him. Worse, the state was filled with armed militias, who would prevent Villa’s forces from entering their villages, so he could no longer roam at will.

The situation changed in December 1918, when Felipe Angeles returned to Mexico from exile in the United States. A skilled political leader, Angeles transformed the situation by convincing Villa to stop executing prisoners. This new policy encouraged garrisons to surrender with their valuable supplies of ammunition, and the federal army found once again that it could not count on the support of the local population. Angeles even persuaded Villa to abandon guerrilla warfare for regular campaigns. However, an attack on Ciudad Juarez on June 15, 1919 made Angeles realize that the Americans would never support a movement that included Villa. The villistas had gained control of the city but American troops crossed the border and forced the villistas to retreat, claiming a need to ensure the safety of El Paso. Villa was naturally furious that he had been driven out of the city by American troops. This was a key issue since Angeles had fiercely criticized Villa’s anti-American attitude. When Villa announced that he would return to a more vicious war, Angeles knew there was no hope and went to the United State. Angeles lingered too long and was captured by Carranza, who wanted dearly to execute his greatest threat, but feared more international criticism, especially after the assassination of Zapata. Opting to court-martial Angeles, the trial attracted huge crowds, Angeles made such moving speeches that the trial was rushed and he was executed thirty minutes after receiving a sentence of death on the morning of November 26.

Meanwhile, Villa’s army was rapidly shrinking, again.

Civil war between Obregon and Carranza (April-May 1920)

In June 1919, Obregon declared his candidacy for the presidential election scheduled for 1920. He believed that there had been an unwritten agreement that he would succeed Carranza as president, but Carranza felt that Obregon did not possess the necessary nationalism to defend Mexico’s sovereignty, and felt that militarism was a curse for Mexico, so he wanted a civilian to succeed him. Genuinely disliking Obregon, Carranza tried to play off Pablo Gonzalez against him, but Gonzalez lacked Obregon’s political ability and genuine support. An attempt to promote Ignacio Bonillas, the Mexican ambassador to the United States, as Carranza’s successor failed because Bonillas had lived outside of Mexico for so long that he was no longer viewed as a Mexican. Obregon put together an impressive coalition of supporters, including politicians, guerrillas, generals, labor leaders and intellectuals, while relying on his well-earned reputation as military hero of the revolution to win the support of the people.

While Carranza had achieved his goal of becoming president, his seal of approval was not a major asset. The policy of granting impounded haciendas to key supporters, instead of local farmers, who were clamoring for land, had provoked a great deal of resentment. If the estates had been divided among rank-and-file carrancistas, it would have strengthened his control over his faction. Instead, the haciendas were given to a small group of key supporters, who simply replaced the former members of the oligarchy, and often treated the local villagers worse. In fact, Carranza had further inflamed passions by returning estates to their former owners, including Huerta supporters, claiming that it was more important to ensure food production through the efficient management of large estates, than to divide land among the peasants.

Despite all of the carnage caused by the revolution, the military had returned to the privileged position that it had occupied during the Porfiriato. While Diaz had instilled fear in his generals, Carranza had bought the loyalty of his generals by allowing them to use their positions to enrich themselves. Generals Obregon, Hill, Murguia, and Gonzalez had become extremely wealthy, but they were simply the most noteworthy. This approach kept him in power but prevented the creation of a stable civilian government. Moreover, fourteen generals were also state governors by 1918, and election results were manipulated to ensure that loyal officers won congressional office. At the same time, the generals began to believe that they represented the national will, and they viewed radical labor or agrarian organizations as threats to their position. Unable to win the personal loyalty of his generals without bribing them, he kept their loyalty only for as long as the money flowed, while his failure to introduce wide-ranging reforms meant that he did not have genuine popular support. One of Carranza’s main assets had been his deep and genuine nationalism, but when the Allies defeated Germany in WWI, the United States was the only remaining market for Mexican exports, since Britain and France had been bankrupted by the war. When Carranza accepted stronger commercial relations with the United States, he lost the support of many nationalists.

Never one to tolerate different viewpoints, Carranza reacted to Obregon’s presidential campaign by first taking away Obregon’s rank, and then ordering his arrest. However, Obregon easily escaped and led a rebellion on April 20, 1920, choosing Adolfo de la Huerta, governor of Sonora, as provisional president. Winning the support of most of the army, Obregon even attracted zapatistas and felicistas, although Obregon refused to damage his reputation with a formal alliance with Diaz. It soon became clear that Carranza had made a fatal misjudgement, and he fled Mexico City for Vera Cruz in May, after filling sixty railway cars with cronies and the entire national treasury. Rebels blocked his route and after several brutal fights at railway stations, he abandoned the train with 100 loyal followers and tried to make his way by land to Vera Cruz. Betrayed by a local chieftain on May 21, he either died during a nighttime attack or killed himself once he realized that there was no escape.

With Carranza dead, de la Huerta negotiated with the remaining factions to try to finally end the fighting. Realizing that Obregon was a much more dangerous opponent than Carranza, Diaz surrendered on October 4, 1920, and he returned to exile a week later. His departure indicated the end of the Porfirians as a force in Mexico, although a few diehard bands of felicistas continued the struggle until they were eliminated by Obregon. Even though he had not had any direct involvement in Zapata’s death, Obregon benefited since Zapata’s ordained successor, Gildardo Magana, had conspired with Obregon to overthrow Carranza, and even sent troops to march in the victory parade in Mexico City.

De la Huerta was willing to grant Villa a pardon, but Obregon simply increased the bounty on his head, and refused to permit negotiations with Villa. Resolving to show the consequences of ignoring his offer of peace, Villa led his remaining followers through a nightmarish crossing of the Bolson de Mapimi, a 700-mile-wide desert, between Chihuahua and Coahuila, in order to threaten the peace of this rich state, flush with foreign investment. A furious Obregon concluded that the personal satisfaction of seeing Villa standing in front of a firing squad was not worth the danger of American investors panicking and pulling their money out of Coahuila, so he finally guaranteed that as president he would not renew the hunt for Villa. When Villa and his 759 men officially surrendered their weapons, it signalled the end of the revolution, while Obregon’s landslide victory in the September 1920 presidential election marked a new era.

The death toll during the ten years of the revolution is estimated to be between 350,000 and 1,000,000, in addition to the 300,000 killed by the 1918 flu pandemic.

President Obregon

The remaining zapatista forces were too few to force Obregon to carry out land reform, but they were permitted to re-enter the political process, gaining control of the key government positions in Morelos and the federal Department of Agriculture. Although the federal government’s new land decrees fell far short of those introduced when Zapata had firm control of the state, they were far better than anything introduced during the regimes of Diaz, Madero, Huerta and Carranza. Villages were re-established or expanded at the cost of the haciendas, and the hacendados would lose half of their land in by 1927, while independent small farmers now owned roughly 75% of the farmland.

Obregon was busy restoring order to Mexico. The rebellion had been swift, so it had caused relatively little damage, while Obregon’s firm grip on the army enabled his government to continue rebuilding Mexico’s infrastructure. Less antagonistic towards the United States, Obregon cancelled Carranza’s oil decrees and promised to follow international law. His offer of generous amnesty terms to rebels ensured that would-be rivals lacked the men for an army. A powerful believer in business, Obregon awarded American oil and mining companies such generous terms that he was criticized for selling out to the Americans. However, Obregon concentrated simply on balancing the diverse elements of society, so he frequently adopted an anti-American attitude when necessary. His hatred of the Catholic Church remained strong as ever, and he invested heavily in education to weaken the church’s hold on Mexico. Political rivals were not tolerated. Gonzalez was arrested for treason, and spared execution provided that he seek refuge in the United States. When minister of war Benjamin Hill began to form a party, he died on December 14, 1920, officially due to food-poisoning.

Contrary to anyone’s expectations, Villa and Obregon developed a friendship through letters. As Villa aged, it had become clear that he was interested only in caring for the needs of men who were personally loyal to him, and had no interest in land reform for anyone else. When Mexican intellectuals began discussing the merits of Bolshevism in the early 1920s, Villa publicly attacked the idea of equality for everyone, regardless of social class.

The assassination of Pancho Villa (July 1923)

Immediately after laying down his weapons, Villa had said that he had four goals: keep the peace with Obregon; transform the hacienda into a successful military colony; bring order to his personal life; and stay alive. The numerous children from his collection of mistresses and wives were gathered at the hacienda, but only two wives and the head mistress were allowed in the hacienda, and only as long as they did not squabble when he was present.

Although Obregon had promised to leave Villa alone, Villa had many enemies. Permitted only fifty official bodyguards, Villa’s security depended on the numerous former villistas who had settled on either his hacienda or nearby estates, while the hacienda was turned into a fortress, where the number of visitors was regulated and closely watched.

After serving as president for four years, Obregon was willing to step down but he wanted his preferred candidate, Minister of the Interior Plutarcho Calles, to win the 1924 election. As a courtesy, Obregon asked Villa to announce publicly that he would not enter the election. Grown bold after four years of peace, Villa announced that he would might run for governor of Durango, and openly supported Minister of Finance de la Huerta, who was backed by conservatives, including much of the army, for president. Worse, he boasted that he could raise 40,000 men in forty minutes. This was not simple grandstanding, since Villa genuinely disliked Calles, viewing him as a Bolshevik due to his radical politics and support of labor leaders, unions and peasant organizations. Terrified by this rash behavior, de la Huerta urged Villa to support Calles. A defiant Villa simply switched his support to Raul Madero. Villa’s opposition would not have been a major problem if Calles was not extremely unpopular, and trailed far behind de la Huerta and Madero.

Furious by the open defiance and genuine threat posed by the prospect of Villa’s return to politics, Obregon resolved that Villa must be assassinated, even though it would be difficult since he never slept in the same place, never allowed anyone to stand next to him, and was always surrounded by fifty loyal guards. Obregon was patient and an opportunity presented itself when an over-confident and cost-conscious Villa traveled to be a godfather at a christening at a nearby village with only two guards. A guerrilla who had avoided countless traps and ambushes was finally killed while sitting in a car on July 20. A three-day-long standoff ensued between Villa’s men and federal forces at the hacienda until Villa’s brother Hipolito arrived to defuse the situation by pledging allegiance to Obregon. Hipolito inherited the hacienda and turned out the wives and mistresses. There was little doubt that Villa had been assassinated by someone high in the government, since the entire garrison of the town had been sent out on a patrol, the telegraph line had been cut and the killers had leisurely made their way out of town. Furthermore, it was not a secret that Villa had been buying weapons and ammunition as if he was preparing for another uprising.

The assassination had been arranged by Meliton Lozoya, the administrator of Villa’s hacienda before he took possession. Villa had discovered that Lozoya had embezzled large amounts of money and had prevented Lozoya’s uncle from becoming governor of Durango, while making clear his contempt for the entire clan, so Lozoya had resolved to kill Villa. Chihuahua Governor Castro, another enemy of Villa, had ensured the cooperation of the garrison commander and led the conspirators to believe they would not be prosecuted. Rumors of a plot had circulated for weeks but had been dismissed by a cocksure Villa. Jesus Salas Barraza voluntarily confessed to organizing the plot, even though he had never been harmed by or had even dealt with Villa before. Given a sentence of twenty years, Barraza was released and given the rank of colonel in the Mexican army within a period of six months, which unsurprisingly led to rumors that Barraza had operated on behalf of Calles, and was simply taking the blame to spare the government. Obregon’s degree of involvement is still debatable, but he was not unhappy to see Villa dead, and he made little effort to launch a serious investigation into the assassination. In addition, it seems unlikely that Governor Castro would have proceeded without first obtaining Obregon’s permission. Since the Mexican government was about to sign a treaty with the United States that granted oil companies favorable treatment in exchange for American recognition, the chances of Villa and de La Huerta leading a nationalistic revolt were quite large. Rumors later circulated in Mexico that Villa’s death had been the price of the treaty.
De la Huerta opposed Calles in the presidential election, and when Obregon’s intimidation became unbearable, he travelled to Vera Cruz to start a rebellion on December 4, 1923. Although the former zapatistas remained loyal to Obregon, the army was split down the middle, but Obregon won a decisive victory during the spring of 1924, which led to the execution of scores of officers, including officers who had saved his life during the revolution. Calles became president but fought a violent pacification campaign against the Yaquis, and also found himself facing a Catholic revolt by the Cristeros in several states, that caused the deaths of more than 70,000 people.

Obregon entered the presidential race in 1927 despite rampant opposition. Learning that his two opponents were about to combine and arrest him, he had them executed and launched a witch-hunt against their followers. Unrestrained violence caused the nation to spiral downwards until he was finally assassinated on July 17, 1928 by a Cristero fanatic.

Related Movies:

kinopoisk.ruViva Villa! (1934)

Directed by Jack Conway, starring Wallace Beery and Fay Wray
Outlaw Pancho Villa joins Francisco Madero’s revolution against Mexican dictator Porfiro Diaz and becomes a famous general. (full review)

Viva Zapata!Viva Zapata! (1952)

Directed by Elia Kazan, starring Marlon Brando and Jean Peters
Poor peasant Emiliano Zapata leads a revolution against Mexican dictator Porfiro Diaz and struggles to win lands rights for his fellow peasants. (full review)

BandidoBandido (1956)

Directed by Richard Fleischer, starring Ursula Thiess and Robert Mitchum
An American mercenary schemes to steal an arms dealer’s weapons for a rebel faction during the 1916 Mexican Revolution. (full review)

They Came to CorduraThey Came to Cordura (1959)

Directed by Robert Rossen, starring Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth
An unheroic awards officer recommends five soldiers for the Medal of Honor during the 1916 expedition against Pancho Villa and is assigned to take them to Cordura so they can be used in a recruitment campaign. However, it becomes clear during the journey that the men are not as heroic as he thought. (full review)

The ProfessionalsThe Professionals (1966)

Directed by Richard Brooks, starring Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster
A wealthy Texan hires four men, experts in their fields, to cross into Mexico and rescue his wife, who was kidnapped by a Mexican revolutionary. (full review)

Villa RidesVilla Rides (1968)

Directed by Buzz Killik, starring Yul Brynner and Robert Mitchum
An American soldier of fortune finds himself mixed up in Pancho Villa’s revolution. (full review)

100 Rifles100 Rifles (1969)

Directed by Tom Gries, staring Jim Brown and Raquel Welch
An American marshal tracks down a bank robber in Mexico and finds himself drawn into the Mexican Revolution. (full review)

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Directed by Sam Peckinpah, starring William Holden and Ernest Borgnine
After a bank robbery ends in bloody failure, an aging group of outlaws rides into Mexico to find their fortune in the Mexican Revolution.

Duck You Sucker (1971)

Directed by Sergio Leone, starring Rod Steiger and James Coburn
An IRA explosives expert with a bounty on his head encounters the head of a family of Mexican bandits, who needs help robbing a bank, during the Mexican Revolution.

Pancho Villa (1972)

Directed by Eugenio Martin, starring Telly Savalas and Clint Walker
When Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Villa is betrayed during an arms deal, he decides to take revenge by attacking an American fort.

Old GringoOld Gringo (1989)

Directed by Luis Puenzo, starring Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck
An American school teacher is kidnapped by a rebel general and becomes involved in the Mexican Revolution. (full review)

Further Reading:

Villa and Zapata: A Biography of the Mexican Revolution-Frank McLynn, Pimilco: London, 2001.

It is pretty much the only book on the revolution as a whole, aside from Knight’s two-volume work, but it is simply an excellent book.

The Mexican Revolution: Volumes I & II-Alan Knight, Cambridge University Press: New York, 1986.

Knight has performed a remarkable amount of research, and his two-volume history of the Mexican Revolution is undoubtedly the most in-depth look at a lengthy, complex and bloody revolution. However, he is not the most entertaining writer and he follows an academic approach to the organization of the material, which limits the book to the serious student of the Mexican Revolution, not the general reader.

Mexico: Biography of Power, A History of Modern Mexico, 1810-1996-Enrique Krauze, translated by Hank Heifetz, New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

Krauze has produced an invaluable examination of the history of Mexico since it freed itself from Spanish rule, focusing on the role played by caudillos (leaders). The author shows that Mexico has long been in the grip of powerful men, who would fall, only to be replaced by another powerful, charismatic leader. Unlike the traditional “Great Man” approach to history, the book presents the various national movements that propelled each caudillo to power. An essential guide to Mexico’s turbulent history, and a perfect starting place for anyone interested in Mexico.

The Life and Times of Pancho Villa-Friedrich Katz, Stanford University Press: Stanford, California, 1998.

Villa left a much smaller archive than other leaders, such as Zapata, Carranza and Obregon, which made the task of separating the man from the legend much more difficult. This is a big book, with more than 800 pages, so there is an abundance of information. While Villa was one of the most critical participants in the Mexican Revolution, it is almost too much information, especially since Katz maintains a strict focus on Villa throughout the book, providing only brief discussions of related actors, such as Zapata and Carranza, while the Punitive Expedition is given a handful of pages. The dedicated student of the Mexican Revolution will find this an invaluable resource, but it is not the most enjoyable reading experience, and Villa the man is sometimes submerged in the facts, rather than brought to life.

Centaur of the North: Francisco Villa, the Mexican Revolution, and Northern Mexico-Manuel A. Machado, Jr., Eakin Press: Austin, Texas, 1988.

It is a good, well-researched presentation of the fascinating man who rose to the height of Mexican politics during the turmoil of the revolution through sheer charisma and drive, but lacked the patience and vision to forge the solid alliances with other leaders needed to build a national government. Instead, he relied on personal loyalty, which was not enough when faced with better politicians like Carranza and Obregon. The author shows how Villa’s personal machismo was both his greatest strength and his fatal weakness, but the book only examines other players in the Revolution, especially Zapata, when they interact with Villa, so it does not give an in-depth explanation of the bloody and complex revolution.

The General and the Jaguar: Pershing’s Hunt for Pancho Villa, A True Story of Revolution and Revenge-Eileen Welsome, Little, Brown and Company: New York, 2006.

Welsome has written a good book about Villa’s raid on Columbus and its consequences. The story is told mainly from the American perspective, focusing on the residents of Columbus prior to and during the raid; the decision to organize the expedition; and the expedition itself. Relying on the victims’ accounts from their claims for compensation, she presents a surprisingly detailed reconstruction of the raid, and briefly relates the later lives of the participants. The surviving members of Villa’s force that carried out the raid were never gathered to discuss their actions, aside from the few who lived to be captured right after the raid, which explains the weak Mexican perspective in the book.

Border Conflict: Villistas, Carrancistas and the Punitive Expedition 1915-1920-Joseph A. Stout, Jr., Texas Christian University Press, 1999.

Stout has clearly performed in-depth research, and he provides a good examination of the events leading up to the expedition, the expedition itself and the consequences. However, 198 pages is too brief for a proper presentation of the expedition, especially since he seems fixated on listing every single skirmish between Pershing’s men and the villistas, and between the carrancistas and the villistas. The organization of the United States National Guard to guard the border receives a mere paragraph. Still, he succeeds in one of his main goals, namely to show that Carranza’s army genuinely did try to destroy the villistas during the expedition, instead of aiding Villa as a form of resistance against American intruders.

Intervention! The United States and the Mexican Revolution 1913-1917-John S.D. Eisenhower, W. W. Norton & Company: New York, 1993.

Eisenhower has produced a solid examination of American involvement in the Mexican Revolution, explaining that President Woodrow Wilson was motivated largely by a belief that he naturally knew what was best for Mexico and should approve of its leader, while Americans were accustomed to interfering in Mexico. The author also shows the growing instability along the border region that inflamed the situation before Villa’s raid on Colombus. While he gives an accurate portrayal of Villa’s role in the revolution and the feud between Villa and Carranza, Eisenhower basically ignores Zapata, since he was based in the south and had little interaction with the Americans.

Emiliano Zapata: Revolution and Betrayal in Mexico-Samuel Brunk, University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque, 1995.

Unlike Villa, who lived longer and embraced the power of publicity, Zapata avoided the national spotlight and left few written records. Most of the firsthand observations about him were produced after his death by his secretaries and intellectual advisers, who were naturally trying to build him up as a symbol of the movement for agrarian reform, so they had little interest in the actual man. Brunk has produced an excellent, well-researched book on Zapata that spends little time on his personal life but focuses on both his place within the zapatista movement and within the Mexican Revolution itself.

Zapata and the Mexican Revolution-John Womack, Jr., Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1970.

It is a very good book about Zapata and the zapatistas’ place in the revolution. As the title says, it is about Zapata and the revolution, not Zapata the man, so there almost no discussion about his personal life. One of the more perceptive books on the revolution, it is a bit out of date but definitely required reading for any serious student of the Mexican Revolution. Womack provides an epilogue showing how Zapata’s home village fared in the decades after the revolution.

Porfirio Diaz-Paul Garner, Longman: London, 2001.

It is a solid introduction to the dictator, but it is only 280 pages, therefore it lacks the depth needed to provide an in-depth examination of the man whose thirty-four-year-long regime was such a pivotal period in Mexican history.

Venustaino Carranza’s Nationalist Struggle, 1893-1920-Douglas W. Richmond, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1983.

The author has a low opinion of Villa, giving most of the credit for Huerta’s defeat to Carranza’s generals, portraying Villa as ambitious and lacking in loyalty to Carranza, even though Carranza had never been elected head of the revolution, while ignoring Carranza’s own ambition and jealousy which resulted in a dangerous interference in Villa’s campaign against Huerta. Richmond believes that he is related to Carranza and is definitely not impartial. His description of Angeles as a dangerous schemer is surprising, since Angeles’ greatest weakness had been a refusal to conspire or put himself forward as a candidate for president. Richmond acknowledges that Zapata and Carranza failed to form an alliance but lays all of the blame on Zapata, who is described as leading a campaign of undisciplined destruction inspired by anarchist thinkers. The author states that Carranza defeated Villa and Zapata because he attracted the support of the middle class, even though Obregon’s brilliant campaign combined with Villa’s fatal errors were the key factors.

Felix Diaz, the Porfirians, and the Mexican Revolution-Peter V. N. Henderson, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, 1981.

While Diaz never achieved the influence of Villa, Zapata or Carranza, he was a key player during the Mexican Revolution. There are few books on Felix Diaz, therefore Henderson has produced an invaluable look at a important supporting actor in the revolution.

Alvaro Obregon: Power and Revolution in Mexico, 1911-1920-Linda B. Hall, Texas A & M Press: College Station, 1981.

Villa, Zapata and Carranza have received more attention from biographers, especially Villa and Zapata, since they have become revolutionary icons, but Obregon was the decisive individual in the Mexican Revolution. Hall’s book is a solid presentation of one of the dominant figures of the revolution, who probably had the greatest influence on its final direction.