Mexican Dictator leaves office feet first

by Bartee Hailie

After five years as the tyrannical ruler of the chaotic country south of the border, Venustiano Carranza left office on May 21, 1920 like other presidents before him – feet first. When Gen. Victoriano Huerta moved into the presidential palace over the dead body of Francisco Madero in February 1913, a premature sigh of relief was heard in many quarters. The church, aristocrats and foreign investors all lined up behind Huerta, a sadistic drunk, in the hope his iron hand might restore order. But the north was solidly against the coup, and the first influential figure to come out against Huerta was the governor of Coahuila, Venustiano Carranza. At 53 the white-haired landowner did not look the part of a revolutionary and, in fact, sought nothing more than democratic reforms. But unlike Madero, Carranza knew how to get along with the radicals in order to use them as his shock troops. Gov. Carranza declared a state of rebellion in Coahuila and called for Huerta’s resignation. Quick to join the uprising were his neighbors in Chihuahua and Sonora, where an ex-teacher named Alvaro Obregon rose to prominence as the military genius of the carranista crusade. By the fall of 1913, Chihuahua was under the control of a saddleback swashbuckler, one-time bandit Pancho Villa. A temperamental thorn in Carranza’s side, it was only a matter of time until the two went to war. Meanwhile, Woodrow Wilson entered the already complicated picture. In the romantic belief that the Mexican masses would welcome American assistance in deposing a dictator, the scholar turned president put the Huerta regime on notice that diplomatic recognition would be delayed as long as Huerta himself remained a part of the regime. When the American ambassador threatened to back the Carranza faction unless the general cleaned up his act, Huerta half-heartedly consented to elections in October 1913. But he brazenly broke his promise, dissolved the congress, threw 100 deputies in prison and ignored the results of the vote. The usually reserved Wilson blew his stack and publicly denounced the despot. The harsh attack struck an anti-American nerve causing the Mexican people to rally around Huerta. Incensed that Wilson’s clumsy interference was working to the advantage of his adversary, Carranza had no choice but to add his voice to the national chorus. President Wilson finally figured out in early 1914 what was really happening and approved arms sales to the carranistas while maintaining an embargo against the other side. By August it was all over for Huerta, who fled the country aboard a German battle cruiser as Obregon led the victorious Carranza forces into Mexico City. Outraged that Carranza had kept him from taking the capital by cutting off the coal for his locomotives, Pancho Villa joined forces with peasant messiah Emiliano Zapata. But five weeks of fruitless talks proved neither one could run the country, and Carranza filled the void by declaring himself president. Obregon was well prepared for Villa’s inevitable offensive. With modern weapons and superior tactics, the carranistas cut his famous cavalry to pieces and drove the demoralized survivors back into the mountains. Carranza then turned on his second rival and set a trap that even by Mexican standards was unthinkably treacherous. A clever colonel faked defection and under the pretext of negotiations lured the trusting Zapata to his firing-squad death. Carranza might have lived to a ripe old age had he respected the gentleman’s agreement that designated Obregon his successor. But at the last moment he tried to pull a fast one by putting a puppet in his place causing an instant revolt. When the army went over to Obregon, Carranza knew his days were numbered. Looting the national treasury of all the gold he and his cronies could carry, the fugitive president hopped a fast train for the port of Veracruz. Tipped off that hostile soldiers were waiting for him at the coast, he tried to escape on horseback. A double-crossing follower offered the weary travelers food and shelter and secretly sent for the army as soon as they bedded down for the night. In the all too familiar tradition of the Mexican Revolution, Venustiano Carranza and his entire entourage were shot to death in their sleep. The nation was spared the grisly news and told instead the president had taken his own life. Few Mexicans bought this cover story and even fewer cared. Nearly a century later, tragically little has changed in Mexico. Sixty thousand perished between 2006 and 2012 in a bloodbath blamed on the drug cartels, and just lastSeptember 43 students were abducted and murdered in a mass execution. As for American visitors, U.S. citizenship no longer provides the protection it once did. In 2011 alone, 113 tourists met a violent end in Mexico. Something to keep in mind when planning a trip to the other side of the Rio Grande.

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