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By Brooke Gazer

From The eye Huatulco, Nov. 2013

The Mexican Revolution began as a revolt against the established order and morphed into a multi-sided civil war fought with passion and laced with intrigue. The death toll is estimated between 7-13% of the entire population; compared to about 2.5% during the American Civil war. This was a revolution of simple men rising up to against tyranny to assert their fundamental rights, and became one of the most important socio-political events in the last century.


The prelude to the revolution began when Porfirio Díaz won the election of 1876. His goal was to bring Mexico into the modern age and to hold the country together. Mexico had been ravaged by war and lawlessness for decades and it was still bankrupt as a result. As a means of accomplishing his goals Diaz became a dictator.

By attracting foreign investment he was able modernize Mexico. During his thirty-five years in power he developed mega-plantations, industry, mines and railroads, minimized banditry and began paying down the debt. This was the “Golden Age of Mexican Economics”. Financially Mexico was compared to countries like France, Great Britain, and Germany.

This economic boom came at a stiff price. Díaz maintained power by rewarding his friends and eliminating his enemies. Personal and political freedoms were sacrificed, the press was severely restricted and anyone who opposed him was incarcerated or worse. State officials were all friends and supporters of Díaz. He kept the army under tight control and they kept the nation in line. Despite the modernization, Mexico remained a predominantly poor rural country deeply stratified by class.

The social economic gap became wider than before Juarez. In the name of modernization he seized property and rewarded his friends with thousands of acres of rich farm lands. Forced to work the “haciendas” more that half of all rural Mexicans were treated no better than slaves. Life for miners, factory workers and other laborers was not much different and this disparity was one of the causes leading up to the revolution.

After thirty-five years, some were becoming disillusioned with Díaz’s monopoly of power. To pacify his critics he promised to hold a free election but he had not counted on any serious rivals. Francisco Madero was a man with some charisma and high political ambitions. When it became apparent that Madero would win Díaz did what he had always done to any opposition, he incarcerated him. Although Díaz maintained the title of president his power had begun to wane.

Upon release from jail, Madero fled to Texas where he declared the election null and void and called for armed revolution. While some insurrection occurred before November 20, this was the date set by Madero for the revolution to begin and today it is still celebrated as the official starting date. By May of 1911 Profirio Díaz was defeated and forced into exile. The revolution should have ended there but once this Pandora’s Box was opened it became a powder keg.

The Major Players

Francisco Madero came from the privileged class of Mexico. The family had broad economic interests but unlike many of their peers, they treated employees fairly. Well educated both in Mexico and abroad, Madero would have been the last person one expected to lead a revolution. Viewed as somewhat effeminate, he was a small man with a high-pitched voice; being a vegetarian and teetotaler did little to improve his standing among the boisterous revolutionaries. Early on however, he distinguished himself in battle and won the respect of mercenaries like Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco. Madero was a moderate politician who believed in democracy and his most important principle was that presidents should only run for one term.

Pascual Orozco came from a middle class family in the state of Chihuahua. Prior to the Revolution he was a storekeeper and muleteer. By the time Madero returned from exile, Orozco commanded a force of several thousand men. He was an opportunist rather than an idealist and might be seen more of as a warlord than a general. He and his men fought valiantly against the corrupt regime but they also raided homes and villages for their own gain. He had a cruel ruthless streak; he once sent the uniforms of dead federal soldiers back to Díaz with a note: “Here are the wrappers: send more tamales!”

Pancho Villa was born Doroteo Arango and as the son of a sharecropper in Durango he understood the harshness and cruelty of peasant life. The legend of young Pancho Villa begins at age 16; apparently Doroteo shot the hacienda owner when he caught him raping his sister. Doroteo escaped, joined a gang of bandits and took the pseudonym “Pancho Villa”. Although he could be a ruthless killer, many saw him as a modern-day Robin Hood because he shared some of the booty with the poor. He was a simple man without an ideology but became one of the most powerful men in the north commanding an army to be reckoned with. He was loyal to Madero and the cause but eventually his bandit way of life took its toll.

Emiliano Zapata was an idealist from rural Morelia who became a revolutionary. As a youth he was incarcerated for participating in a peasant protest when their lands were being appropriated. After his release further rabble-rousing got him conscripted into the Mexican army where he learned about military procedure. Zapata was wary of the politician from a privileged background but he made an alliance with Madero in order to promote land reform. The Zapatistas exceeded 5,000 fighting men and were as powerful in the south as the armies of Orozco and Villa in the north. He was not interested in politics; the only issue he cared about was land reform. Zapata’s slogan “Tierra y Libertad” (land and liberty) became the rallying cry of the revolution. Among all the players, Zapata was the most selfless and most dedicated to his cause.

Victoriano Huerta entered the cause rather late in the game. As a leader in the federal army he was one of Porferio Diaz´s most brutal generals. After the defeat of Díaz in 1911, he signed an allegiance to Madero and continued to serve in the new Federal army but he was no revolutionary. He was not a good fit with Madero’s revolutionary generals; to men like Villa, Huerta was a drunken puppet with delusions of grandeur, and to Huerta, they were illiterate, violent peasants. Even today Huerta is vilified and often referred to as “The Usurper”.

Venustantio Carranza was the Governor of Coahuila with high political ambitions. Although he had a brilliant intellect, his dour personality and lack of charisma prevented him from becoming a great leader. His relationship with Madero was tenuous since he was not a committed to reform and he felt that a firmer hand (preferably his own) was needed to rule Mexico.

Alvaro Obregón was from a poor family in Sonora. He had some education and through his own wits and hard work became moderately successful. Unlike others in the Revolution, he had nothing against Díaz and entered only after his defeat. He began his military career by bringing 300 men to fight with Huerta against the defected army of Orozco and rose rapidly in the ranks due to his aptitude for developing military strategy. He became a skilled leader winning many campaigns by introducing modern fighting techniques to the archaic battle field. Later on Obregón proved to be a skilled negotiator and diplomat.

Post Game Celebration

November 6, 1911, Francisco Madero was elected president of Mexico. After the bitter fighting the nation was in chaos. Those revolutionaries who had pulled together to defeat a common enemy were not united in a common cause and another storm was brewing.

Madero was a moderate rather than a revolutionary. By reassuring the privileged class that he was would not dismantle the current power structure, he alienated Zapata. Frustrated that land reform was not part of the new agenda, Zapata resumed his fight. Farther north, Orozco was furious at not receiving the rewards and political appointments he expected, so his soldiers continued their attacks. Eventually the outlaw Orozco was driven out of Mexico but when he finally took office Madero’s only friend was Pancho Villa.

Madero had difficulty uniting his democratic ideals with old-guard politics and in the background Huerta was plotting against him. Huerta solicited the support of the American ambassador and a coup was organized against Madero. In February 1913 Madero and his vice-president Pino Suarez were arrested. They were later shot and Victoriano Huerta appointed himself president.

A war that wouldn’t end

Revolutionary violence exploded the moment the drunken tyrant took power. Pancho Villa, Alvaro Obregón, and Venustiano Carranza organized rebellions in the north and the Zapatistas continued their assaults in the south. In the summer of 1914, as all four major forces converged on Mexico City Huerta was defeated.

One would think that by now everyone had had enough but the carnage continued. Villa had no political ambitions but he vehemently protested when Carranza declared himself president. While the armies of Villa and Carranza were embroiled in battle the Zapatistas took Mexico City. Chaos and bloodshed ruled and in an attempt to restore peace, Villa, Zapata and Obregon agreed to install an interim president until an election could be held. This failed to restore order and Obregon changed his alliance to help Carranza reclaim the presidency.

A period of near anarchy continued as the power struggle teetered back and forth. Villa persisted with opposition in the north, but was being out-maneuvered by Obregón. As his resources began to dwindle, Villa was not acting rationally. He detested Woodrow Wilson for recognizing Carranza and for providing him with arms. March 1916, Villa and his men entered, New Mexico planning to steal weapons and rob a bank. The mission went badly; 18 US citizens were dead and the bandits had nothing to show for their effort. In retaliation the US sent 5000 troops into Mexico to hunt the bandit down. This fiasco caused an altercation between Mexico’s federal forces and the Americans. Only though diplomacy was another war averted and the US troops retreated with Villa still at large.

A new beginning

Carranza drafted a new Constitution in 1917 as a means of restoring peace to the nation. Though modifications have been made this is the same Constitution that governs Mexico today. This landmark document enabled the state to confiscate and redistribute land from wealthy landowners. It drastically reduced the power of the Church and it guaranteed worker’s right. Unfortunately the rebels did not trust Carranza.

Although the Constitution did not end the hostilities the revolutionaries were beginning to weaken. Pancho Villa was a on the run from Obregón’s troops and Zapata’s forces were in decline. A frustrated Carranza was anxious to end the war and Zapata was his strongest opposition. In 1919 Carranza arranged for Zapata to be lured into an ambush where he was assassinated. Without its leader the rebels were lost and the fighting began to wind down.

Paradoxically, as the rebel forces began to weaken so did Carranza’s presidency. Zapata was considered an honest man as well as a genuine hero and Carranza was disparaged for the deceitful murder. Those expecting changes were impatient for more reform. Although skirmishes were still common, the real enemy had become famine and disease. By 1920 Carranza was in fear for his life and as he was attempting to flee Mexico he was gunned down. In November of that year an official election finally declared Alvaro Obregon President, bringing the Mexican Revolution to a close.


President Obregón continued making peace with the remaining revolutionaries. He instituted education, labor and land reform and began to rebuild an economy devastated by war.

His government sponsored the “Mexican Muralist Movement” with painters including Rivera, Siqueiros and Clemente expressing the spirit of the Revolution as a means of reuniting the Nation.

Pancho Villa retired with to his ranch. Viewing him as a “loose cannon” Obregón continued to fear him and had the former bandit assassinated in 1923. Ironically Alvaro Obrégon himself was assassinated in1928 before he could assume his second term as President.


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