Pancho Villa, Zapata, And Madero: A Quick Recap Of The Mexican Revolution

The Mexican Revolution was one of the most violent periods in Mexican history. Here are the key events to understand this convulsed period.

The history of Mexico is as complex and diverse as it is unknown by many. It’s no surprise that many believe Mexico’s independence is the same as Cinco de Mayo, or even that popular and iconic characters like Pancho Villa participated in our Independence war. At the same time, one of the most common historical images related to Mexico is that of the Revolutionary ‘caudillos:’ bandoliers on their shoulders, incredible, wide sombreros, rifle in hand, and huge mustaches. They often appear accompanied by the equally badass ‘soldaderas,’ the women who fought in the Revolution. 

However, no matter how well-known this image is, the series of events that form the Revolutionary movement during the early 20th-century is as messy as it is unknown and confusing, but at the same time, extremely interesting especially because this event was widely followed internationally, since they saw it as a key piece to the development of events that led in the world, mainly with the outbreak of World War I. Here’s how this 10-year war developed.


Background: The Porfiriato

In 1876, Porfirio Díaz (hero of the Second French Intervention, including the famous Cinco de Mayo Battle) was elected president without knowing that he would stay in power for over thirty years. The Porfiriato is the three-decade period of modernization of the country under Díaz's dictatorial and repressive regime. So, while the country was “blossoming” in the eyes of the world, wealth was only distributed among the privileged, while the lower classes were starving and even working in something akin to slavery. 

Porfirio DíazWith the turn of the century, and as Díaz became older, several opposition groups started to emerge. These became even stronger when Díaz announced in an interview with an American newspaper that Mexico was ready for democracy and that he would encourage free elections and that he would finally step back. He didn’t mean it. By 1910, he ran once again, but this time people had had enough of decades of violence, repression, and exploitation, but more importantly, and thanks to Díaz’s obsession with making of Mexico a globalized country, Revolutionary ideas from abroad came. Not only that, for the first time in a while there was finally political opposition to Díaz.


Outbreak: 1910 Elections

From the moment Díaz announced free elections, Francisco I. Madero, a wealthy and newbie politician started an intense campaign against Díaz based on the motto “Sufragio efectivo, no reelección” (Free suffrage, no reelection). At first, Díaz, who thought he could rig the process once again, underestimated Madero's power. However, as elections drew closer, it was more than evident that people were eager to oust him, so he had Madero arrested under accusations of plotting an armed insurrection. Which he eventually did. 

From jail, Madero wrote his famous "San Luis Potosí Plan," where he called for a revolution that would start on November 20. He was bailed from jail by his father and fled to the US, but his call to insurrection was heard all over the country, where spontaneous uprisings took place. Anti-Díaz leaders from all over the country responded to his call, declaring Díaz's re-election illegal. 


Francisco I. Madero and his presidential StaffMeanwhile, Emiliano Zapata, proposing land reformation that would end the sort-of-feudal system that pervaded in the country, rose in the south. Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa, alongside Abraham González, mobilized in the north in Chihuahua, later on joined by Pascual Orozco (Madero joined them soon too). Finally, general Venustiano Carranza organized the armed insurrection in other states in the north like Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas. The Revolution had started.

In May 1911, the Federal Army (led by Díaz) started negotiating with Madero after suffering one defeat after the next. In what was named the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez, it was agreed that Díaz would resign and leave the country by the end of the month. Elections took place that November, with Madero as the victor, but it was all far from over.


Francisco I. Madero’s Presidency

Madero was an idealist, more than a practical politician. He wanted to form a democratic and free government different from Díaz's repressive regime, but he had agreed in the Treaty of Ciudad Juárez that the structural pillars of the government, including the Federal Army, would be kept in the new government, something that enraged many of the caudillos who saw this as a betrayal of their movement. 

Not only that, being an inexperienced leader, he failed to see that he had sparked an armed insurrection all over the country and that none of the leaders would stop until everything promised in the San Luis Potosí Plan was fulfilled. Soon, Madero yielded to one of the practices he fought to destroy, using the Federal Army to repress his former allies and now opponents. All this would be in all the newspapers thanks to the freedom of press he preached when he assumed the presidency.


Francisco I. MaderoQuite rapidly Zapata realized that the promises of land reform were voided and that Madero, coming from a family of landowners, wouldn’t really commit to the reform. He decided, then, to write up the Ayala Plan, which included Madero’s resignation. Orozco, who was more of an opportunistic character, was offended for not being named governor of Coahuila with the fall of Díaz, he formed his own army known as the Orozquistas or Colorados and rose in the North. By the end of 1912, the only ally Madero had was Villa, but he failed to see it that way.

The Usurper: Victoriano Huerta

It was clear that Madero, known as the apostle of democracy, was just the right pawn appearing at the right time, but that he wasn’t fit enough to lift the country up. Revolts all over the country carried on and, in 1912, Madero decided to send his right-hand man, Victoriano Huerta, to the North to deal with Orozco’s revolt; Villa aided him, because, though he despised him, he was still loyal to Madero. Orozco was defeated and, forced to retreat, hid in the US. 


The victory positioned Huerta as one of the strongest characters of the moment in the eyes of the Conservatives, who weren’t precisely happy with Madero’s performance, and he knew that he could make a better leader than his boss. But there was someone who was attracting a lot of attention as well, and that was Villa, seen as a hero of the people. In June 1912, Huerta had Villa imprisoned on charges of insubordination and robbery and sentenced to death, but he managed to escape with the help of Madero’s brother who saw right away Huerta’s intentions. 

Victoriano HuertaBy February next year, things seemed even worse for Madero. Huerta, who he thought was someone he could rely on, had plotted with his dissidents including one of Villa’s nephews and US ambassador Henry Lane Wilson, to oust Madero from power. From February 9-19, Mexico City endured one of the most violent episodes of the entire Revolution, in what came to be known as the Ten Tragic Days. During these ten days, the city was the setting of a series of street shootings, bombardments, and constant riots in a coup to end with Madero’s presidency.


At noon on the 18th, Madero’s brother was arrested at a restaurant after having breakfast with Huerta. He was tortured, massacred, and left to die on the street. Two hours later, Madero and vice-president José María Pino Suárez were arrested at Palacio Nacional. Threatened that they would kill his family, Madero agreed to resign on the condition the new government would help him, Pino Suárez, and their respective families to leave the country.

On the 20th, Huerta assumed the presidency after a complex plot that positioned an interim president for 45 minutes. The next day, Madero and Pino Suárez were told they were going to be transferred to the penitentiary to be more comfortable. They were shot along the way. Of course, the official story claimed they were intercepted in an attempt to free them and that both were killed in the crossfire.


The Big Four: Venustiano Carranza, Álvaro Obregón, Pancho Villa, and Emiliano Zapata

Huerta imposed a kind of dictatorial regime. After all, he had seized power through a coup. Like his predecessors, he got rid of his opponents through persecution and murder, not to mention that, once again, he controlled the press and became obsessed with wiping off the map anyone who dared to question him.


However, he forgot he had played a crucial role in starting a revolution and his treacherous moves were something other leaders weren’t just going to accept. Venustiano Carranza immediately rejected Huerta’s presidency in a document called Plan of Guadalupe; he also rose up with an anti-Huerta force in the north. His plan called for a general mobilization of the rebel groups to oust Huerta in an attempt to restore a constitutionalized government.

When Huerta assumed the presidency, he promised he’d call for elections. Actually, Huerta swore in just a few days before US President Woodrow Wilson. Outgoing president Taft left the decision to recognize Huerta’s government to Wilson. The surprise was that he removed the former ambassador who had plotted against Madero and placed John Lind, who pretty much sympathized with the revolutionaries. But not only that, he told Huerta he had to call for elections and that he shouldn’t be running. He ignored the advice. 


Venustiano Carranza in the middleMeanwhile, elections took place in October 1913 in an absolute sham. Huerta dissolved Congress, but most of its members had been killed or were in jail anyway. But worst of all was that he banned public political activities, giving him an absolute victory because he had arranged it that way. To keep his dominance he mobilized the entire country with the Federal Army by forcing conscription. However, people weren’t having it, and thousands did everything to avoid being conscripted, and those who were, refused to fight and even organized mutinies and killed their officers. It was clear Huerta wasn’t welcome. 

By April 1914, the US occupied the port of Veracruz in an attempt to block the shipping of German weapons to Huerta’s army. Eventually, the American government left the port and gave it to the Carrancistas giving more control to the rebels who had united with Carranza in his anti-Huerta movement. The main leaders of this new coup were Pancho Villa, Zapata, and general Álvaro Obregón. 


Their power was so, that Huerta was forced to resign in July 1914, and with the aid of the German government (who saw Huerta as a great ally against the US during WWI), he went into exile in 1915. However, he was captured in an attempt to go back to Mexico. He died in January 1916.

Free-For-All: A New Stage Of The Revolution

Obregón, Carranza, Villa, and Zapata became "the Big Four," the most powerful men in the entire country. However, it was clear that their backgrounds, and more importantly, purposes were different. To try to reach a consensus and mainly to decide the next step, Carranza summoned the four and the other minor leaders of what was one the Constitutionalist Army. This meeting was called the Convention of Aguascalientes, held between October 10 and November 9, 1914.


Carranza wanted to seize power for himself as the one who had gathered them all and created the anti-Huerta army, but not everybody agreed with the idea. Villa, for instance, was already reluctant to work together with Carranza. During the entire war against Huerta, they had had several disagreements, but for Villa, the biggest offense was that Carranza and Obregón had entered Mexico City victorious without the rest of the leaders who achieved the victory. 

Francisco Villa and Emiliano ZapataLong story short, tensions between Villa and Carranza reached another level during the convention to the point that it’s said Villa told him they both should kill themselves to make things even. The power of the Big Four was broken. Villa summoned Zapata in an alliance and Obregón remained loyal to Carranza. Most of the other leaders chose Carranza’s side. This changed entirely the purpose and path of the revolution. This time they weren’t fighting against a tyrannical government, it was a free-for-all situation.


The Constitutionalist Government

With most of the backup, Carranza became chief of the Constitutional government and decided to move to Mexico to organize free elections. Realizing that his biggest competitor was Obregon, who next to Villa won the most important battle against Huerta, he decided to send him north to deal with the now rebel. His plan was that both Villa and Obregón would finish each other so he could, later on, deal with Zapata, who, by this time, realized Villa wasn’t going to really back him up with his Plan of Ayala and decided to go solo.

Promulgation of the ConstitutionObregón’s army was much more prepared and modern than Villa’s, who was mostly formed by peasants and bandits. Besides that, they had fought together, so he knew his tactics and strategies. Villa was forced to retreat and go back to his bandit years. For the rest of his life, he fought on the sidelines with no relevant victories except the episode that turned him into the most wanted man in the US and a legend. This happened when he raided Columbus, the first foreign invasion the country had seen in more than a hundred years, and to everybody’s surprise, he got away with it and was never caught by the American government, but that’s another story. 


With Villa out, Carranza started focusing on the government he wanted. In 1916, he called for a Constitutionalist convention in Querétaro, where he wanted to discuss the foundations of a set of reforms and modifications to the Constitution of 1857. On February 5, 1917, the official Constitution (and the one still active) was released and with no strong opposition, Venustiano Carranza became the Constitutionalist President of Mexico.


There Go The Big Four

Though Carranza was legally and constitutionally-speaking the rightful president of Mexico, the situation was far from being stable, as it hadn’t been in the past decade. There were many rebels still against his rule, Zapata being the most significant one. While Carranza and Obregón were still occupied trying to defeat Villa, Zapata focused on implementing his reforms in the South, mainly in the state of Morelos.


1915 was a year of peace and stability in Morelos after Zapata gave back the lands to the peasants. By doing so, he encouraged the locals to live from their crops and recommended local trading. The people of Morelos weren’t the wealthiest, but amongst the peasants of the country, they were the most stable and better nourished, which helped improve Zapata's image in the country.

Emiliano ZapataBut that stability didn’t last long. When Villa was defeated, Zapata was next, and he knew it quite well. Before the Constitutionalist Army, now called the Mexican National Army, could reach him, he set out to control the entire southern territory, which he was achieving successfully. However, in the winter of 1918, the population of Morelos was decimated by the Spanish flu that had caused thousands and thousands of deaths around the world. The state lost a quarter of its population and an important number of Zapata’s army.


To that, it must be added that after eight years of fighting, the troops were tired, and from within the Zapatistas there emerged a movement that wanted their leader to reach an agreement with the government to stop the fight, a plea he didn’t listen to. In early 1919, Zapata was tricked by one of Carranza’s men, Jesús Guajardo, who would help him organize a mutiny among Carranza’s army. On April 10, Guajardo invited Zapata to a meeting, Guajardo’s men riddled him with their bullets, Zapata was dead, and his body displayed all over Cuautla as a trophy. 

Trouble in Paradise

1920 was approaching and, with it, Carranza’s promise of free elections. He knew he could not run for president under his own reforms, but he wanted to stay in power. He decided to ally with Ignacio Bonillas, a random civilian he knew he could puppet around as Díaz had done before actually re-electing himself. Of course, this angered his most trusted allies, mainly Obregón, who he had been promised would take the presidential seat after Carranza.


Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles (who would become president later on) started an open rebellion against Carranza. One of Carranza’s biggest mistakes was that he underestimated the power of Obregón amongst the military. By May, Obregon’s army reached Mexico City forcing Carranza to flee. He was assassinated on the 21st and Obregón was elected president with a vast majority being the first one after since the Revolution started to fulfill a-four-year period.

Álvaro ObregónHistorians often consider Obregón’s election as the end of the Revolution mainly because he was the first one to actually finish his period. However, stability didn’t come to the country until a decade later. He was succeeded by Elías Calles and when his term ended, Obregón ran once again for president, but he was assassinated months before taking the seat. Calles had started a conflict with the church known as the Cristero War, and Obregón was killed by a Catholic who opposed his secular policies. All in all, messy and convulsed as it was, the Revolution brought a huge change to the country that encouraged reforms in many areas that had been neglected for centuries.


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