Biography of Victoriano Huerta

Victoriano Huerta
Victoriano Huerta. INAH archive, Mexico

Victoriano Huerta (1850-1916) was a Mexican general who served as president from February 1913 to July of 1914. An important figure in the Mexican Revolution, he fought against Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, Félix Díaz and other rebels before and during his time in office. A brutal, ruthless fighter, the alcoholic Huerta was widely feared and despised by his foes and supporters alike. Eventually driven from Mexico by a loose coalition of revolutionaries, he spent a year and a half in exile before dying of cirrhosis in a Texas prison.

Huerta Before the Revolution

Born into a poor family in the State of Jalisco, Huerta joined the military while still in his teens. He distinguished himself and was sent to the military academy at Chapultepec. Proving to be an efficient leader of men and a ruthless fighter, he was a favorite of dictator Porfirio Díaz and rose quickly to the rank of general. Díaz tasked him with the suppression of Indian uprisings, including a bloody campaign against the Maya in the Yucatan in which Huerta razed villages and destroyed crops. He also fought the Yaquis in the north. Huerta was a heavy drinker who preferred brandy: according to Villa, Huerta would start drinking when he woke up and go all day.

The Revolution Begins

General Huerta was one of Díaz' most trusted military leaders when hostilities broke out after a farcical 1910 election. The opposition candidate, Francisco I. Madero, had been arrested and later fled into exile, proclaiming revolution from safety in the United States. Rebel leaders such as Pascual Orozco, Emiliano Zapata, and Pancho Villa heeded the call, capturing towns, destroying trains and attacking federal forces whenever and wherever they found them. Huerta was sent to reinforce the city of Cuernavaca, under attack by Zapata, but the old regime was under assault from all sides, and Díaz accepted Madero's offer to go into exile in May of 1911. Huerta escorted the old dictator to Veracruz, where a steamer was waiting to take Díaz into exile.

Huerta and Madero

Although Huerta was bitterly disappointed by the fall of Díaz, he signed up to serve under Madero. For a while in 1911-1912 things were relatively quiet as those around him took the measure of the new president. Things soon deteriorated, however, as Zapata and Orozco figured out that Madero was unlikely to keep certain promises he had made. Huerta was first sent south to deal with Zapata and then north to fight Orozco. Forced to work together against Orozco, Huerta and Pancho Villa found that they despised one another. To Villa, Huerta was a drunk and martinet with delusions of grandeur, and to Huerta, Villa was an illiterate, violent peasant who had no business leading an army.

The Decena Trágica

In late 1912 another player entered the scene: Félix Díaz, nephew of the deposed dictator, declared himself in Veracruz. He was quickly defeated and captured, but in secret, he entered into a conspiracy with Huerta and American ambassador Henry Lane Wilson to get rid of Madero. In February 1913 fighting broke out in Mexico City and Díaz was released from prison. This kicked off the Decena Trágica, or “tragic fortnight,” which saw horrible fighting in the streets of Mexico City as forces loyal to Díaz fought the federals. Madero holed up inside the national palace and foolishly accepted Huerta's “protection” even when presented with evidence that Huerta would betray him.

Huerta Rises to Power

Huerta, who had been in league with Díaz all along, arrested Madero on February 17. He made Madero sign a resignation which designated Huerta as his successor, and then Madero and Vice-President Pino Suarez were killed on February 21, supposedly while “attempting to escape.” No one believed it: Huerta had obviously given the order and hadn't even gone to much trouble with his excuse. Once in power, Huerta disowned his fellow conspirators and attempted to make himself dictator in the mold of his old mentor, Porfirio Díaz.

Carranza, Villa, Obregón and Zapata

Although Pascual Orozco quickly signed on, adding his forces to the federalists, the other revolutionary leaders were united in their hatred of Huerta. Two more revolutionaries appeared: Venustiano Carranza, governor of the State of Coahuila, and Alvaro Obregón, an engineer who would become one of the revolution's best field generals. Carranza, Obregón, Villa and Zapata could not agree on much, but they all despised Huerta. All of them opened fronts on the federalists: Zapata in Morelos, Carranza in Coahuila, Obregón in Sonora and Villa in Chihuahua. Although they did not work together in the sense of coordinated attacks, they were still loosely united in their heartfelt desire that anyone but Huerta should rule Mexico. Even the United States got in on the action: sensing that Huerta was unstable, President Woodrow Wilson sent forces to occupy the important port of Veracruz.

The Battle of Zacatecas

In June 1914, Pancho Villa moved his massive force of 20,000 soldiers to attack the strategic city of Zacatecas. The Federals dug in on two hills overlooking the city. In a day of intense fighting, Villa captured both hills and the federal forces were forced to flee. What they didn't know was that Villa had stationed part of his army along the escape route. The fleeing federals were massacred. When the smoke had cleared, Pancho Villa had scored the most impressive military victory of his career and 6,000 federal soldiers were dead.

Exile and Death

Huerta knew his days were numbered after the crushing defeat at Zacatecas. When word of the battle spread, federal troops defected in droves to the rebels. On July 15, Huerta resigned and left for exile, leaving Francisco Carbajal in charge until Carranza and Villa could decide how to proceed with the government of Mexico. Huerta moved around while in exile, living in Spain, England, and the United States. He never gave up hope for a return to rule in Mexico, and when Carranza, Villa, Obregón and Zapata turned their attention to one another, he thought he saw his chance. Reunited with Orozco in New Mexico in mid-1915, he began to plan his triumphant return to power. They were caught by US federal agents, however, and never even crossed the border. Orozco escaped only to be hunted down and shot by Texas rangers. Huerta was imprisoned for inciting rebellion. He died in prison in January 1916, of cirrhosis, although there were rumors that the Americans had poisoned him.​

Legacy of Victoriano Huerta

There is little to be said that is positive about Huerta. Even before the revolution, he was a widely despised figure for his ruthless repression of native populations all over Mexico. He consistently took the wrong side, defending the corrupt Porfirio Díaz regime before conspiring to bring down Madero, one of the few true visionaries of the revolution. He was an able commander, as his military victories prove, but his men did not like him and his enemies absolutely despised him.

He did manage one thing that no one else ever did: he made Zapata, Villa, Obregón and Carranza work together. These rebel commanders only ever agreed on one thing: Huerta should not be president. Once he was gone, they began fighting one another, leading to the worst years of the brutal revolution.

Even today, Huerta is hated by Mexicans. The bloodshed of the revolution has been largely forgotten and the different commanders have taken on legendary status, much of it undeserved: Zapata is the ideological purist, Villa is the Robin Hood bandit, Carranza a quixotic chance for peace. Huerta, however, is still considered (accurately) to be a violent, drunk sociopath who needlessly lengthened the period of the revolution for his own ambition and is responsible for the death of thousands.


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