Biography of Alvaro Obregón Salido, Mexican General and President

Alvaro Obregón

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Alvaro Obregón Salido (February 19, 1880–July 17, 1928) was a Mexican farmer, general, president, and one of the key players in the Mexican Revolution. He rose to power because of his military brilliance and because he was the last of the Revolution's “Big Four” still alive after 1923: Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Venustiano Carranza had all been assassinated. Many historians consider his election as president in 1920 to be the end point of the Revolution, although the violence continued afterward.

Fast Facts: Alvaro Obregón Salido

  • Known For: Farmer, general in the Mexican Revolution, president of Mexico
  • Also Known As: Alvaro Obregón
  • Born: February 19, 1880 in Huatabampo, Sonora, Mexico
  • Parents: Francisco Obregón and Cenobia Salido
  • Died: July 17, 1928, just outside Mexico City, Mexico
  • Education: Elementary education
  • Spouse: Refugio Urrea, María Claudia Tapia Monteverde
  • Children: 6

Early Life

Alvaro Obregón was born in Huatabampo, Sonora, Mexico. His father, Francisco Obregón, had lost much of the family wealth when he backed Emperor Maximilian over Benito Juárez during the French Intervention in Mexico in the 1860s. Francisco died when Alvaro was an infant, so Alvaro was raised by his mother, Cenobia Salido. The family had very little money but shared a supportive home life and most of Alvaro's siblings became schoolteachers.

Alvaro was a hard worker and had the reputation of being a local genius. Although he had to drop out of school, he taught himself many skills, 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. Alvaro next invented a chickpea harvester, which he began to manufacture and sell to other farmers.

Latecomer to the Revolution

Unlike most of the other important figures of the Mexican Revolution, Obregón did not oppose dictator Porfirio Díaz early on. Obregón watched the early stages of the Revolution from the sidelines in Sonora and, once he had joined, Revolutionaries often accused him of being an opportunistic latecomer.

By the time Obregón became a Revolutionary, Díaz had been ousted, the Revolution's chief instigator Francisco I. Madero was president, and the Revolutionary warlords and factions were already beginning to turn on one another. The violence among the Revolutionary factions was to last more than ten years, in what was to be a constant succession of temporary alliances and betrayals.

Early Military Success

Obregón became involved in 1912, two years into the Revolution, on behalf of President Francisco I. Madero, who was fighting the army of Madero's former Revolutionary ally 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.

Obregón defeated a force of Orozquistas at the Battle of San Joaquín under General José Inés Salazar. Shortly thereafter Orozco fled to the United States, leaving his forces in disarray. Obregón returned to his chickpea farm.

Obregón Against Huerta

When Madero was deposed and executed by Victoriano Huerta in February of 1913, Obregón once again took up arms, this time against the new dictator and his federal forces. Obregón offered his services to the government of the State of Sonora.

Obregón proved himself to be a very skilled general and his army captured towns from the federal forces all over Sonora. His ranks swelled with recruits and deserting federal soldiers and by the summer of 1913, Obregón was the most important military figure in Sonora.

Obregón Joins With Carranza

When Revolutionary leader 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, a long-bearded patriarch who had boldly appointed himself First Chief of the Revolution. Obregón saw, however, that Carranza had skills and connections that he did not possess, and he decided to ally himself with “the bearded one.” This was a savvy move for both of them, as the Carranza-Obregón alliance defeated first Huerta, then Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata before disintegrating in 1920.

Obregón's Skills and Ingenuity

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. 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 1913–1914, Obregón modernized his army, importing techniques from recent conflicts such as the Boer Wars. He was a pioneer in the use of trenches, barbed wire, and foxholes. 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.

Victory Over Huerta's Federal Army

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 competing Revolutionary Pancho Villa to Mexico City, Obregón routed the federal troops at the Battle of Orendain 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.

Obregón Meets With Pancho Villa

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 and 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.

The Convention of Aguascalientes

In October, 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 than absolute power for the bearded one and refused to budge. Zapata's people insisted that the convention accept the radical land reform of 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 Wins and Carranza Loses

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. These officers retained their positive image of him even when some of them fought him later. Some joined him immediately.

The big loser was Carranza because the Convention eventually voted to remove him as First Chief of the Revolution. The convention elected Eulalio Gutiérrez as president, who told Carranza to resign. Carranza refused and Gutiérrez declared him a rebel. Gutiérrez placed Pancho Villa in charge of defeating him—a duty Villa was eager to perform.

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

Obregón Against Villa

Carranza shrewdly sent Obregón after Villa. Obregón was his best general and the only one capable of beating the powerful Villa. Moreover, Carranza cunningly knew that there was a possibility that Obregón himself could fall in the battle, 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. In April, Obregón, now commanding the best of the federal forces, moved to meet Villa, digging in outside the town of Celaya.

The Battle 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. Obregón's modern 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.

The Battles of Trinidad and Agua Prieta

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 major 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 he was outwardly loyal to Carranza, Obregón was still very ambitious. As minister of war, he attempted to modernize the army and took part in defeating the same rebellious Yaqui Indians who had supported him earlier 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.

Prosperity and a Return to Politics

With the clever, hard-working Obregón back in charge, his ranch and businesses flourished. Obregón branched out into 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 nor trust Obregón, immediately began working against him. Carranza claimed that he thought Mexico should have a civilian president, not a military one. He had in fact already picked his own successor, Ignacio Bonillas.

Obregón Against Carranza

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 1917–1919. Obregón's candidacy immediately drew support from important sectors of society. The military loved Obregón, as did the middle class (whom 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 and stripped Obregón of his military rank. The majority of people in Mexico saw this act as petty, ungrateful, and purely political.

The situation got increasingly tense and reminded some observers of the pre-Revolution Mexico of 1910. An old, stolid politician was refusing to allow a fair election, challenged by a younger man with new ideas. Carranza decided that he could never beat Obregón in an 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.

The Revolution Ends

Carranza, desperate to get to Veracruz where he could rally his support, departed Mexico City in a train loaded with gold, advisors, and sycophants. Quickly, forces loyal to Obregón attacked the train, forcing the party to flee overland.

Carranza and a handful of survivors of the so-called “Golden Train” accepted sanctuary in May 1920 at the town of Tlaxcalantongo from local warlord Rodolfo Herrera. Herrera betrayed Carranza, shooting and killing him and his closest advisers as they slept in a tent. 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 president in September of 1920.

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 and education reforms. He also cultivated ties with the United States and did much to restore Mexico's shattered economy, including rebuilding the oil industry.

Obregón still feared Villa, however, who was newly retired in the north. Villa was the one man who could still raise an army large enough to defeat Obregón's federales. Obregón had him assassinated in 1923.

More Conflict

The peace of the first part of Obregón's presidency was shattered in 1923, however, when Adolfo de la Huerta decided to run for president in 1924. Obregón favored Plutarco Elías Calles. The two factions went to war, and Obregón and Calles destroyed 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 was forced into exile. 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 saw him as a ruthless monster. The Catholic Church also opposed him, since Obregón was violently anti-clerical.

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 to the firing squad. The nation's leaders were thoroughly intimidated by Obregón; many thought he had gone mad.

Death

In July of 1928, Obregón was declared president for a four-year term. But his second presidency was to be very short indeed. On July 17, 1928, a Catholic fanatic named José de León Toral assassinated Obregón just outside of Mexico City. Toral was executed a few days later.

Legacy

Obregón may have arrived late to the Mexican Revolution, but by its end he had made his way to the top, becoming the most powerful man in Mexico. As a Revolutionary warlord, historians deem him to be neither the most cruel nor the most humane. He was, most agree, clearly the most clever and effective. Obregón created lasting impacts on Mexican history with the important decisions he made while in the field. Had he sided with Villa instead of Carranza after the Convention of Aguascalientes, today's Mexico could well be quite different.

Obregón's presidency was remarkably split. He at first used the time to bring some much-needed peace and reform to Mexico. Then he himself shattered the same peace he had created with his tyrannical obsession to get his own successor elected and, finally, to return to power personally. His governing ability did not match his military skills. Mexico would not get the clear-headed leadership that it desperately needed until 10 years later, with the administration of President Lázaro Cárdenas.

In Mexican lore, Obregón is not beloved like Villa, nor idolized like Zapata, nor despised like Huerta. Today, most Mexicans understand Obregón as the man who came out on top after the Revolution simply because he outlasted the others. This assessment overlooks how much skill, cunning, and brutality he used to assure that he survived. The rise to power of this brilliant and charismatic general can be attributed to both his ruthlessness and his unmatched effectiveness.

Sources

  • Buchenau, Jürgen. The Last Caudillo: Alvaro Obregón and the Mexican Revolution. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
  • McLynn, Frank. Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution. Carroll and Graf, 2000.