(The MEXICAN REVOLUTION – continued)
Leaders of the rebel armies in Mexico City were unable or unwilling to conclude an agreement, and, in the coming months, war for power erupted between Carranza and Villa. In places, opportunistic gang leaders pretended to be revolutionaries and plundered and raped without fear of reprisal. And families with property banded together to protect themselves and their possessions.
On January 6, 1915, Carranza declared himself President of Mexico. He maintained his claim that he was a reformer by promising to dissolve great estates and to return lands that had been taken illegally from Indians and others. He competed with Villa and Zapata for the support of the poor who worked in agriculture, and in February he signed an agreement with labor leaders, promising a better deal for labor unions and industrial workers in exchange for their support – appeals and alliances ignored by Villa and Zapata.
By now Europe was at war, and the strength of defensive positions was obvious to one of Carranza's generals: Alvaro Obregon. In April 1915, Obregón and Villa had a showdown at Celaya – a conservative town 150 miles northwest of Mexico City. There were many irrigation trenches as obstacles against a charging cavalry. Obregón laid barbed wire. He taunted Villa with insults, and with 22,000 men, 86 machine guns and 13 pieces of artillery he waited for Villa's offensive. Villa, with 15,000 men, took up Obregón's challenge. Villa was over-confident, believing that Obregón was insufficiently masculine, and Villa believed that he could make up for a shortage of ammunition by capturing it from Obregón. Rather than focus on Obregón's lines of communication, where Obregón was most vulnerable, he launched numerous assaults against Obregón's position, which has been described as the bloodiest battle in Mexico's history. In three days of fighting, Obregón cut Villa's forces to pieces. Villa and what remained of his army retreated north, pulling up railroad tracks behind them as they went. At Agua Prieta, Obregón defeated Villa's forces again. Villa's army scattered. Villa retreated with some of his men into the hills of Chihuahua that he knew well from his youth. [comment]
Zapata, who had favored Villa, also suffered some defeats by Carranza's forces. On June 15, 1915, President Wilson, behind in assessing events in Mexico, called on the warring sides in Mexico to unify. Carranza resented Wilson's declaration, as did most Mexicans. Carranza had little reason to negotiate: he was winning. His military victory against Villa was swinging support to him across much of Mexico – as if people wanted to support the winner as long as the winner was an acceptable figure. And Carranza's forces were inflicting military defeats against Zapata's forces. Zapata withdrew his army to Morelos and neighboring states where he had support.
In mid-October, 1915, Woodrow Wilson recognized Carranza as Mexico's legitimate authority. In his camp in Chihuahua's hills, Villa saw this as a betrayal, Villa recalling that it was he who had remained a loyal friend of the United States. Villa announced that he intended to strike against "the gringos." It is rumored that he ordered all "gringos," Chinese and Arabs within reach should be slain. In January 1916, he and some followers held up a train at a station not far from Chihuahua. On the train were seventeen American mining engineers returning to their work, whom Villa's men shot and killed.
In the United States, fear arose of an invasion by Mexicans. And in the U.S., attacks against Mexican-Americans left about a hundred dead. In early March, Villa and his men made a night raid into Columbus, New Mexico. They burned the army barracks there, robbed stores, killed eighteen townspeople and shot up property belonging to Sam Rabel, a well known arms dealer whom Villa believed had swindled him and had caused the death of some of his men. Then Villa and his men escaped back across the border, in front of clouds of dust.
Over night, Villa's raid against the United States re-established his status in Mexico as a hero, but not enough to threaten Carranza. Emotions in the United States ran high. It was an election year, and President Wilson's cabinet pressed Wilson to decisively punish Villa. A feeble response, advisors claimed, would hand the Republicans abundant ammunition and would result in Wilson losing the election. Wilson yielded and on June 21 he sent an army of 12,000 men on horseback into Mexico after Villa. He claimed his move was justified by Carranza's inability to control Villa, and Carranza's military hierarchy, in turn, warned the U.S. troops that any movement other than turning back for home would be considered a hostile act. But the leader of the U.S. force, Pershing, ignored the warning.
Wilson's tough response regarding Mexico proved unproductive. The 12,000 U.S. men on horseback in Mexico failed to find Villa. The desert heat weighed on Pershing's troops. In the only fighting that resembled warfare, an outraged Mexican force attacked the Pershing expedition, killing several and capturing a few of the Americans. To keep the Pershing Expedition from arousing the passions of his fellow countrymen, Carranza pressured Mexico's newspapers to cease publishing stories about it. In the United States, the press turned against the expedition, some criticizing Wilson for meddling in Mexico's affairs, and some criticizing Pershing for failing to win any battles. Then, in early February 1917, the Pershing expedition returned to the U.S. empty handed.
Villa, meanwhile, failed to recognize that he was finished as a leader of revolution. In the coming months, he continued to make raids from the Chihuahua hills, seizing towns, but then losing them again, while Carranza was subduing the many little rebellions led by dreamers and crackpot militia leaders trying to copy Villa and Zapata.
Carranza was having only minor success against Zapata. Zapata's forces had dwindled from 20,000 to 5,000, and Zapata was resorting to guerrilla tactics. Carranza's general, Pablo Gonzales, over-reacted, resorting to extreme measures against the Zapatistas. He forcibly moved populations from their villages and towns and burned villages to the ground. Gonzales confiscated food and animals, leaving people to complain that they were being left to starve. Zapata responded as he had before, urging restraint, but his brother and some of his lieutenants pursued the harsher and murderous measures commonly practiced by desperate guerrilla movements.
Meanwhile, as the provisional leader of Mexico's new government, Carranza was cultivating ties with other Latin American governments and with Germany. And in February 1917, Mexico's Constituent Congress published Mexico's new constitution. The drafters of the new constitution took aim against those Mexicans living in luxury abroad while their estates in Mexico went to seed, the new Constitution describing the ownership of land as a service to society's needs. And the Constitution gave Mexico's congress and state legislatures the power to issue laws to break up large estates, to force large landowners to sell their lands and to make purchases of their lands easy through installments. Outright confiscation of land was to take place only if an owner refused to comply.
The Constitution provided labor with an eight-hour working day, a minimum wage, an annual vacation of at least fifteen days, compensation with dismissals, a right to strike, and it abolished child labor. It limited the right of foreigners to own agricultural property. The Constitution excluded foreigners from owning property on the frontier between the U.S. and Mexico and at seacoast zones. And the Constitution took primary schooling away from the Catholic Church, making primary education in secular schools compulsory.
The Constitution called for elections every four years, and Carranza won the first of these elections and was inaugurated president on May 1, 1917. The widespread acceptance of democratic methods for achieving change that is necessary for a stable democracy had not been achieved in Mexico. But, for the time being, the Carranza regime maintained enough public support and a strong enough army to remain in power.
In 1919, still at war with Zapata, a unit of President Carranza's army pretended to defect to Zapata's army. The unit staged a rout against other federal troops. Dozens of soldiers were sacrificed and the show apparently persuaded Zapata. On 10 April 1919, Zapata went to confer with the pretending defectors. He rode into a hacienda with just a handful of his men and was promptly assassinated while still on his horse.
By 1920, President Carranza decided he wanted as a successor someone who was not a general. A former general and ally, Alvaro Obregon, to the left of Carranza politically wanted to be Carranza's successor. Obregón became involved in a coup against Carranza. On 21 May, Carranza was killed. In December, Obregon became Mexico's 39th President.
Following the death of President Carranza, the federal government settled with "Poncho" Villa, who was given a 25,000 acre hacienda, near Hidalgo del Parral in the state of Chihuahua. On 20 July 1923, Villa was assassinated by a team of gunmen waiting for him while he was driving his Dodge roadster home from the bank. The conspiracy to kill Villa is said to have included President Obregon's old associate and his Head of the Interior Ministry, the former general Plutarco Calles. The motive among those involved appears to have been long held grudges and revenge. Villa was forty-five. Common people in northern Mexico continued to view him as a hero.
Obregon oversaw educational reform, moderate land reform and new labor laws sponsored by organized labor. Obregón announced that Plutarco Calles was to be his successor. This displeased his finance minister, Adolfo de la Huerta, who launched a rebellion against him, in 1923. Obregon took to the battlefield, and Adolfo de la Huerta fled to Los Angeles, California, in March, 1924. Obregón is reported to have ordered the execution of every rebel officer with a rank higher than major.
Plutarco Calles was Mexico's 40th president to 1928, and Obregon was to be his successor that year, but Obregón was assassinated on July 17 by a Catholic partisan in the Cristero War – a war that lasted into 1929.
The Minister of the Interior under Calles, Emilio Portes Gil, was to serve as provisional president for fourteen months until February 1930, when new elections were to be held.
The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, by Friedrich Katz, 1998
The Course of Mexican History, pages 439-560, by Michael C. Meyer, William L. Sherman and Susan M. Deeds, 2010
The Storm that Swept Mexico, PBS documentary, 2009
Latin America: the Development of its Civilization, Third Edition, Chapter 18, by Helen Miller Bailey and Abraham P Nasatir, 1973
Viva Zapata, movie, directed by Elia Kazan, starring Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn.
Copyright © 2004-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.