Biography of Alvaro Obregón Salido

The Mexican Revolution's Military Genius

Alvaro Obregón. Public Domain Image

Alvaro Obregón Salido (1880-1928) was a Mexican farmer, warlord and general. He was one of the key players in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). His election as President in 1920 is considered by many as the ending point of the Revolution, although the violence continued afterward.

A brilliant and charismatic general, his rise to power can be attributed to his effectiveness and ruthlessness. But he was also aided by the fact that he was the only one of the Revolution's “Big Four” still standing after 1923, as Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and Venustiano Carranza all were assassinated.

Early Life

Obregón was born the last of eight children in the town of Huatabampo, Sonora. His father, Francisco Obregón, had lost much of the family wealth when he backed Emperor Maximilian over Benito Juárez in the 1860's. Francisco died when Alvaro was an infant, so he was raised by his mother, Cenobia Salido, and his older sisters. They had very little money but a strong home life, and most of Alvaro's siblings became schoolteachers.

Alvaro was a hard worker and very intelligent. Although he had to drop out of school, he taught himself many things, including photography and carpentry. As a young man, he saved enough to buy a failing chickpea farm and turned it into a very profitable endeavor. He also invented a chickpea harvester, which he began to manufacture and sell to other farmers. He had the reputation of being a local genius, and he had a near-photographic memory.

Early Years of the Revolution

Unlike most of the other important figures of the Mexican Revolution, Obregón did not have anything against Porfirio Díaz.

In fact, he had prospered enough under the old dictator to have been invited to Díaz' centennial parties in 1910. Obregón watched the early stages of the revolution from the sidelines in Sonora, a fact which was often held against him later when the Revolution triumphed, as he was often accused of being a Johnny-come-lately.

He became involved in 1912 on behalf of Francisco I. Madero, who was fighting the army of Pascual Orozco in the north. Obregón recruited a force of some 300 soldiers and joined the command of General Agustín Sangines. The General, impressed by the clever young Sonoran, quickly promoted him to Colonel. He defeated a force of Orozquistas at the battle of San Joaquín under General José Inés Salazar. Shortly thereafter Orozco himself was wounded in combat in Chihuahua and fled to the United States, leaving his forces in disarray and scattered. Obregón returned to his chick pea farm.

Obregón and Huerta

When Madero was deposed and executed by Victoriano Huerta in February of 1913, Obregón once again took up arms. He offered his services to the government of the State of Sonora, which quickly reinstated him. Obregón and his army captured towns from the federal soldiers all over Sonora, and his ranks swelled with recruits and deserting federal soldiers. He proved himself to be a very skilled general, and was usually able to make the enemy meet him on ground of his own choosing.

By the summer of 1913, Obregón was the most important military figure in Sonora. His force had swollen to some 6,000 men and he routed Huertista generals including Luis Medina Barrón and Pedro Ojeda in different engagements.

When Venustiano Carranza's battered army straggled into Sonora, Obregón welcomed them. For this, First Chief Carranza made Obregón supreme military commander of all revolutionary forces in the northwest in September, 1913. Obregón didn't know what to make of Carranza, that long-bearded patriarch who had basically appointed himself First Chief of the Revolution, but he knew that Carranza had skills and connections that he did not, and he decided to ally himself with “the bearded one.” This was a good move for both of them, as the Carranza-Obregón alliance defeated first Huerta, then Villa and Emiliano Zapata before disintegrating in 1920.

Obregón was a skilled negotiator and diplomat: he was even able to recruit rebellious Yaqui Indians, assuring them that he would work to give them back their land, and they became valuable troops for his army.

He proved his military skill countless times, devastating Huerta's forces wherever he found them. During the lull in the fighting in the winter of 1913-14, Obregón modernized his army, importing techniques from recent conflicts such as the Boer Wars (1880-81,1899-1902). He was a pioneer in the use of trenches, barbed wire and foxholes. Although these new techniques proved effective time and again, he often had trouble with closed-minded older officers and discipline was a problem in the Army of the Northwest.

In mid-1914 Obregón purchased airplanes from the United States and used them to attack federal forces and gunboats. This was one of the first uses of airplanes for warfare and it was very effective, although somewhat impractical at the time. On June 23, Villa's army annihilated Huerta's federal army at the Battle of Zacatecas. Out of some 12,000 federal troops in Zacatecas that morning, only about 300 staggered into neighboring Aguascalientes over the next couple of days. Desperately wanting to beat Villa to Mexico City, Obregón routed the federals at the battle of Orendain on July 6-7 and captured Guadalajara on July 8.

Surrounded, Huerta resigned on July 15, and Obregón beat Villa to the gates of Mexico City, which he took for Carranza on August 11.

The Convention of Aguascalientes

With Huerta gone, it was up to the victors to try and put Mexico back together. Obregón visited Pancho Villa on two occasions in August-September of 1914, but Villa caught the Sonoran scheming behind his back and held Obregón for a few days, threatening to execute him. He eventually let Obregón go, but the incident convinced Obregón that Villa was a loose cannon who needed to be eliminated. Obregón returned to Mexico City and renewed his alliance with Carranza.

On October 10, the victorious authors of the Revolution against Huerta met at the Convention of Aguascalientes. There were 57 generals and 95 officers in attendance. Villa, Carranza and Emiliano Zapata sent representatives, but Obregón came personally.

The convention lasted about a month and was very chaotic. Carranza's representatives insisted on nothing less that absolute power for the bearded one and refused to budge. Zapata's people insisted the convention accept the Plan of Ayala. Villa's delegation was comprised of men whose personal goals were often conflicting, and although they were willing to compromise for peace, they reported that Villa would never accept Carranza as President.

Obregón was the big winner at the convention. As the only one of the “big four” to show up, he had the chance to meet the officers of his rivals. Many of these officers were impressed by the clever, self-effacing Sonoran and retained their positive image of him even when they fought him later. Some joined him immediately, including several important unaligned independents with smaller militias.

The big loser was Carranza, as the Convention eventually voted to remove him as First Chief of the Revolution. In the absence of Huerta, Carranza had been the de facto president of Mexico. The convention elected Eulalio Gutiérrez as President, who told Carranza to resign. Carranza hemmed and hawed for a few days before declaring that he would not. Gutiérrez declared him a rebel and placed Pancho Villa in charge of putting him down, a duty Villa was only too happy to perform.

Obregón, who had gone to the Convention truly hoping for an end to the bloodshed and a compromise acceptable to everyone, was forced to choose between Carranza and Villa. He chose Carranza, and took many of the convention delegates with him.

Obregón vs. Villa

Carranza shrewdly sent Obregón after Villa. Obregón was not only his best general and the only one with any hope of taking down the powerful Villa, but also there was an outside chance that Obregón himself might fall to a stray bullet, which would remove one of Carranza's more formidable rivals for power.

In early 1915 Villa's forces, divided up under different generals, dominated the north. Felipe Angeles, Villa's best general, captured Monterrey in January, while Villa himself took the bulk of his forces to Guadalajara. In early April, Obregón, commanding the best of the federal forces, moved to meet Villa, digging in outside the town of Celaya.

Villa took the bait and attacked Obregón, who had dug trenches and placed machine guns. Villa responded with one of the old-fashioned cavalry charges which had won him so many battles early in the Revolution. Predictably, Obregón's machine guns, entrenched soldiers, and barbed wire halted Villa's horsemen. The battle raged for two days before Villa was driven back. He attacked again a week later, and the results were even more devastating. In the end, Obregón completely routed Villa at the Battle of Celaya.

Giving chase, Obregón caught up to Villa once again at Trinidad. The Battle of Trinidad lasted 38 days and claimed thousands of lives on both sides. One additional casualty was Obregón's right arm, which was severed above the elbow by an artillery shell: surgeons barely managed to save his life. Trinidad was another huge victory for Obregón.

Villa, his army in tatters, retreated to Sonora, where forces loyal to Carranza defeated him at the battle of Agua Prieta. By the end of 1915, Villa's once-proud Division of the North was in ruins. The soldiers had scattered, the generals had retired or defected, and Villa himself had gone back into the mountains with only a few hundred men.

Obregón and Carranza

With the threat of Villa all but gone, Obregón assumed the post of Minister of War in Carranza's cabinet. While outwardly loyal to Carranza, it was fairly obvious that Obregón was still very ambitious. As Minister of War, he attempted to modernize the army and took part in pacifying the same Yaqui Indians who had supported him early in the Revolution.

In early 1917, the new constitution was ratified and Carranza was elected President. Obregón retired once again to his chickpea ranch but kept a close eye on events in Mexico City. He stayed out of Carranza's way, but with the understanding that Obregón would be the next President of Mexico.

With the clever, hardworking Obregón back in charge, his ranch and businesses flourished. The chickpea ranch grew vastly larger and proved very lucrative. Obregón also branched out into ranching, mining and an import-export business. He employed more than 1,500 workers and was well-liked and respected in Sonora and elsewhere.

In June of 1919, Obregón announced that he would run for president in the 1920 elections. Carranza, who did not personally like or trust Obregón, immediately began working against him, claiming that he thought Mexico should have a civilian president, not a military one. In any event, Carranza had already picked his own successor, the little-known Mexican ambassador to the United States, Ignacio Bonillas.

Carranza had made a huge mistake by reneging on his informal deal with Obregón, who had kept his side of the bargain and stayed out of Carranza's way from 1917-19. Obregón's candidacy immediately drew support from important sectors of society: the military loved him, as did the middle class (who he represented) and the poor (who had been betrayed by Carranza). He was also popular with intellectuals like José Vasconcelos, who saw him as the one man with the clout and charisma to bring peace to Mexico.

Carranza then made a second tactical error: he decided to fight the swelling tide of pro-Obregón sentiment. He stripped Obregón of his military rank, which was accurately seen by the people of Mexico as petty, ungrateful and completely political. The situation got tense and ugly, and reminded some observers of the Mexico of 1910: an old, stolid politician refusing to allow a fair election, challenged by a younger man with new ideas. In June of 1920, Carranza decided that he could never beat Obregón in a fair election and he ordered the army to attack. Obregón quickly raised an army in Sonora even as other generals around the nation defected to his cause.

Carranza, desperate to get to Veracruz where he could rally his support, departed Mexico City in a train loaded down with gold, friends, advisors and sycophants. Before long, however, forces loyal to Obregón attacked the train and destroyed the rails, forcing the party to go overland as they fled. Carranza and a handful of survivors of the so-called “Golden Train” accepted sanctuary at the town of Tlaxcalantongo from local warlord Rodolfo Herrera in May of 1920. On the night of May 21, Herrera betrayed Carranza, opening fire on him and his closest advisers as they slept in a tent. Carranza was killed almost immediately. Herrera, who had switched alliances to Obregón, was put on trial but acquitted.

With Carranza gone, Adolfo de la Huerta became provisional president and brokered a peace deal with the resurgent Villa. When the deal was formalized (over Obregón's objections) the Mexican Revolution was officially over. Obregón was easily elected in September of 1920 to the post of President.

First Presidency

Obregón proved to be an able President. He continued making peace with those who had fought against him in the Revolution and instituted land reform and education. He also cultivated ties with the United States and did much to restore Mexico's shattered economy, including rebuilding the oil industry. He still feared Villa, however, newly retired in the north. Villa was the one man who could still raise an army large enough to defeat the federales, so Obregón had him assassinated in 1923.

The peace of the first part of Obregón's presidency was shattered in 1923, however. Adolfo de la Huerta, an important revolutionary figure, former interim President of Mexico and Obregón's Minister of the Interior, decided to run for President in 1924. Obregón favored Plutarco Elías Calles. The two factions went to war, and Obregón and Calles crushed de la Huerta's faction. They were beaten militarily and many officers and leaders were executed, including several important former friends and allies of Obregón. De la Huerta himself was forced into exile in the United States. All opposition crushed, Calles easily won the Presidency. Obregón once more retired to his ranch.

Second Presidency

In 1927, Obregón decided he wanted to be president once again. Congress cleared the way for him to do so legally and he began to campaign. Although the military still supported him, he had lost the support of the common man as well as the intellectuals, who thought him a monster. The Catholic Church also opposed him, as Obregón was violently anticlerical and had limited the rights of the Catholic Church many times during his presidency.

Obregón would not be denied, however. His two opponents were General Arnulfo Gómez and an old personal friend and brother-in-arms, Francisco Serrano. When they plotted to have him arrested, he ordered their capture and sent them both the firing squad. The nation's leaders were thoroughly intimidated by Obregón, who many thought had gone mad.

Death

Although he was declared President for the period between 1928 and 1932 in July of 1928, his second rule was to be very short indeed. On July 17, 1928, a Catholic fanatic named José de León Toral managed to sneak a pistol past security at a banquet in Obregón's honor at “La Bombilla” restaurant just outside of Mexico City. Toral made a pencil sketch of Obregón and then took it to him. The sketch was good and it pleased Obregón, who allowed the young man to finish it at the table. Instead, Toral pulled his gun and shot Obregón five times in the face, killing him instantly. Toral was executed a few days later.

Legacy

Obregón may have arrived late to the Mexican Revolution, but by the time it ended he had clawed his way to the top, becoming the most powerful man in Mexico once Carranza was out of the way. As a Revolutionary warlord, he was neither the cruelest nor the most humane. He was simply the most clever and effective.

Obregón should be remembered for the important decisions he took while in the field, as these decisions had a vital effect on the fate of the nation. Had he sided with Villa instead of Carranza after the Convention of Aguascalientes, today's Mexico could well be quite different.

His presidency itself was remarkable in that he used the time to bring some much-needed peace to Mexico, but he himself shattered the same peace he had created with his tyrannical obsession to get his own successor elected and then later to return to power personally. It is a pity that his vision did not match his military skills: Mexico desperately needed some clear-headed leadership, which it would not get until 10 years later with the administration of President Lázaro Cárdenas.

Today, Mexicans think of Obregón as simply the man who came out on top after the Revolution because he survived the longest. This is a bit unfair, as he did a great deal to see to it that he came out still standing. He is not beloved like Villa, idolized like Zapata, or despised like Huerta. He is simply there, the victorious general who outlasted the others.

Source:

McLynn, Frank. . New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000.