Biography of Victoriano Huerta, President of Mexico

Victoriano Huerta

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Victoriano Huerta (December 22, 1850–January 13, 1916) was a Mexican general who served as president and dictator of Mexico from February 1913 to July 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.

Fast Facts: Victoriano Huerta

  • Known For: President and dictator of Mexico, February 1913–July 1914
  • Born: December 22, 1850 in barrio of Agua Gorda within the municipality of Colotlán, Jalisco
  • Parents: Jesús Huerta Córdoba and María Lázara del Refugio Márquez
  • Died: January 13, 1916 in El Paso, Texas
  • Education: Military College of Chapultepec
  • Spouse: Emilia Águila Moya (m. November 21, 1880)
  • Children: Nine

A brutal, ruthless fighter, during his reign 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.

Early Life

Victoriano Huerta was born José Victoriano Huerta Márquez on December 22, 1850, the only son and eldest of five children of peasant farmer Jesús Huerta Córdoba and and his wife María Lázara del Refugio Márquez. They lived in the barrio of Agua Gorda within the municipality of Colotlán, Jalisco. His parents were of Huichol (Wixáritari) ethnicity, and although Jesús Huerta was said to be partly of European descent (mestizo), Victoriano considered himself indigenous.

Victoriano Huerta was taught to read and write by the village priest, and he was said to have been a good student. By the time he was a teenager, Huerta earned money as a bookkeeper in Colotlán. He wanted to join the military, and sought admission to the Military College of Chapultepec. In 1871, General Donato Guerra, leader of the Mexican army at the time, led a garrison of troops into Colotlán. Needing secretarial help, Guerra was introduced to Huerta who impressed him greatly. When Guerra left the city, he took Huerta with him, and at the age of 17, Huerta entered the military academy in January of 1872. There he took classes to become an artillery officer, specializing in mathematics, mountain gunnery, topography, and astronomy. He was an outstanding student, and made second lieutenant by December 1875.

Early Military Career

Huerra first saw military action while at the academy, when he participated in the Battle of Tecoac fought on November 16, 1876 between then-president Sebastián Lerdo de Tejada and Porfirio Diaz. As a member of the army, he fought for the president and was thus on the losing side, but the battle brought Porforio Diaz to power, the man who would he would serve for the next 35 years.

When he graduated from the academy in 1877, Huerta was one of three men chosen to continuing his education in Germany, but his father died and he elected to stay in Mexico. He joined the engineering branch of the army and was given assignments for repairing military institutions in Veracruz and Puebla. By 1879 he was promoted to Captain, and acted as engineer and quartermaster. At the end of 1880, he was promoted to Major.

While in Veracruz, Huerta had met Emilia Águila Moya, and they married on November 21, 1880: they would eventually have nine children. In January 1881,Porfirio Díaz assigned Huerta special duty on the Geographic Survey Commission, headquartered in Jalapa, Veracruz. Huerta spent the next decade working with that commission, traveling all over the country on engineering assignments. In particular he was assigned to astronomical work, and one of the projects under his direct supervision was the observation of the Transit of Venus in December 1882. Huerta also supervised surveying work for the Mexican National Railway.

A Military Force

Huerta's technological and intellectual uses in the army took on a more aggressive stance in the mid-1890s. In 1895, he was sent to Guerrero, where the military had risen against the governor. Diaz sent troops in, and among them was Victoriano Huerta, who there gained a reputation as an able field officer: but also as a man who gave no quarter, who continued to slaughter rebels after they had surrendered.

Proving to be an effective leader of men and a ruthless fighter, he became a favorite of Porfirio Díaz. By the turn of the century, he rose 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. In 1901, he also fought the Yaquis in Sonora. Huerta was a heavy drinker who preferred brandy: according to Pancho 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 the 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 in Europe.

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 fighting with Madero, abruptly changed sides and arrested Madero on February 17. He made Madero and his vice president resign: the Mexican Constitution listed the Secretary of Foreign Relations as the next in succession. That man, Pedro Lasurain, took the reins, named Huerta as Minister of the Interior and then resigned, making Huerta Secretary of Foreign Relations. 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 at El Paso, Texas, on January 13, 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.

Sources

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  • Marley, David F. "Huerta Marquez, Jose Victoriano (1850–1916)." Mexico at War: From the Struggle for Independence to the 21st-Century Drug Wars. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2014. 174–176.
  • McLynn, Frank. "Villa and Zapata: A History of the Mexican Revolution." New York: Basic Books, 2002. 
  • Meyer, Michael C. "Huerta: A Political Portrait." Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press 1972.
  • Rausch, George J. "The Early Career of Victoriano Huerta." The Americas 21.2 (1964): 136-45. Print..
  • Richmond, Douglas W. "Victoriano Huerta" in Encyclopedia of Mexico. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997. 655–658.