Alone at the top: The achievement of Mexico’s Alvaro Obregon

articles History & People

Jim Tuck

Revolution is the ultimate test for survival of the fittest. In times of stormy social change, intense competition is generated among leaders of forces seeking that change and, inevitably, one man emerges alone at the top. Sometimes this process is peaceful but that is the exception rather than the rule.

By the time Napoleon assumed power, such earlier revolutionary leaders as Danton, Robespierre and St. Just had all died on the guillotine. The Russian Revolution was even more sanguinary, as Stalin’s ascent to the top was played out against the background of a widespread purge and vast man-made famine.

The Mexican Revolution was equally turbulent. Francisco Madero overthrew the old tyrant Porfirio Díaz — only to have his naiveté and trusting nature set him up for a putsch by another tyrant: Victoriano HuertaPancho VillaVenustiano CarranzaEmiliano Zapata and Alvaro Obregón combined to overthrow Huerta — only to be followed by civil strife between Villa-Zapata and Carranza-Obregón. With the triumph of the latter faction, the field was reduced to two. Carranza was overthrown in 1920 — ten years after the Revolution began — and only Obregón remained. Considering his personal qualities, and those of the other leaders, it seems almost inevitable that Obregón should have triumphed. He was astute where Madero was naive, prudent where Villa was reckless, flexible where Carranza was rigid and, unlike the insular Zapata, he had a vision that embraced all Mexico.

Alvaro Obregón was born on a farm near Alamos, Sonora, on February 17, 1880. There is an intriguing mystery about his ancestry. Some historians claim that he was of part-Irish background and that the family name was originally O’Brien. While his biographer, Linda Hall, makes no mention of this, she does record a rumor that his grandfather was the Irish foreman of a railroad company. Fair-skinned and sporting a walrus mustache most of his life, Obregón could easily pass for a turn-of-the-century Tammany politician. If wit is an Irish characteristic, Obregón had it in abundance. Though his speeches were bombastic, in private he was relaxed and given to making sharp quips, many at his own expense.

Obregón’s father died when he was young and the family went to live in Huatabampo, in a marshy coastal area populated mainly by Mayo Indians. The youth became fluent in their language and a strong defender of Indian rights. When he emerged as a military leader, some of his most devoted followers were warlike Mayos and Yaquis from Sonora.

Obregón’s formative years see him as a resourceful jack of all trades. Not born to wealth, he scratched out a living as a sugar mill mechanic, barber, painter, schoolteacher, salesman and organizer of a small orchestra. In 1906 he went into garbanzo (chick pea) farming. This proved to be his most successful venture, as he invented a garbanzo seeder and sold his product on the profitable export market.

Obregón’s entry into politics came in 1910, when he refused the request of a local political boss that he sign a statement supporting Porfirio Díaz. The following year, with Madero as president, he was elected municipal president (mayor) of Huatabampo.

In his autobiography, Obregón expressed shame that he did not play an active role in the Madero revolution against Díaz. Harshly self-critical, he described his rationalization at the time — that he had children to support — as “cunning” and “cowardly.”

But he more than made up for this lapse when Madero’s government faced its first armed challenge: Pascual Orozco’s rising in 1912. Commanding a battalion of irregulars from Sonora, many of them Mayos and Yaquis, he routed an orozquista cavalry detachment at San Joaquin in northern Sonora. It was during this action that Obregón displayed the qualities that would make him such an outstanding military leader: a good intelligence service, realistic assessment of his own resources, mastery of surprise maneuvers and a photographic memory. The latter quality had made him a formidable poker player. He could look at a deck of cards once and then recite their order from memory. In combat, Obregón was able to familiarize himself with every terrain detail of a site that he wanted to select as a battlefield.

Victory over Orozco did not bring tranquility to Mexico. General Huerta, the very man who led Madero’s forces against the orozquistas, staged a coup against his president in February 1913, the coup followed by Madero’s murder.

On March 5, 1913, the Sonoran Congress refused to recognize Huerta as Madero’s successor. Obregón was appointed head of military forces in Sonora and three weeks later Venustiano Carranza proclaimed the Plan of Guadalupe, calling for the forcible overthrow of Huerta. At the same time, Pancho Villa had crossed into Mexico from the U.S. on March 9 and was organizing his famed Division of the North which would play such a decisive role in the movement to oust Huerta.

Thus was born the triumvirate — Obregón, Carranza and Villa — that waged the successful 16-month campaign which drove Huerta into exile in July 1914. Obregón, at the head of the newly-created Army of the Northwest, won decisive victories at Culiacán, Sinaloa, and Guadalajara, Mexico’s second city. On August 15, 1914, his troops marched into Mexico City.

Still, there was no harmony in Mexico’s revolutionary family. From the very beginning, relations between Villa and Carranza were marked by mutual antagonism and hostility. Carranza, who had been a federal senator under Díaz, viewed Villa as an undisciplined bandit; Villa, suspicious of Carranza’s upper-class and establishment background, saw him as a “stand patter” who would sell out the revolution at the first opportunity.

Between October 10 and November 18 of 1914 a convention was held at Aguascalientes. Although its avowed purpose was to bring together the feuding revolutionary factions, it only succeeded in hastening the final split. Neither Villa nor Carranza attended though Obregón, to do him credit, did all he could to ease factionalism.

His efforts were in vain. The Zapatistas and Villistas concluded an informal alliance and the convention — completely torn by the Villa-Carranza rivalry — ended by choosing a relative unknown named Eulalio Gutiérrez to be provisional president of Mexico. Carranza refused to recognize Gutiérrez and the conventioneers, possibly intimidated by the proximity of Villa’s forces, declared Carranza an outlaw and Villa commander of the convention’s military forces. From then on the rival factions were known as Constitutionalists (those who followed Carranza) and Conventionists (those who followed Villa and Zapata).

Though Obregón had his reservations about Carranza’s authoritarianism and inflexibility (to say nothing of his jealousy of Obregón’s military skills), he decided that between Villa and Carranza the latter was the lesser of two evils. Obregón had even less reason to like Villa than he did Carranza. In September 1914, while Obregón was on a mission to Villa’s headquarters, Villa had ordered him shot — but then mercurially changed his mind.

In late November Obregón led the Constitutionalist retreat from Mexico City to Veracruz. In December Villa and Zapata captured Mexico City and there they had their epic meeting. The Zapatistas, in a drive toward Veracruz, captured Puebla in mid-December, 1914, but Obregón re-took the city on January 5, 1915.

The real showdown came in April. At Celaya, in two sanguinary battles, Obregón pitted his grasp of strategy and defensive tactics against Villa’s suicidal recklessness — and won hands down. In May-June he again defeated Villa at León — an engagement in which he lost his right arm. Steadily pursuing Villa north, winning victory after victory, Obregón was unable to finish off his rival but at least reduced him to what he had been at the start of the Revolution, a bushwhacker in the Chihuahua sierra.

The United States extended de facto recognition to Carranza on October 19. Villa, formerly pro-American but now outraged by what he saw as gringo perfidy, mastermined a March 1916 raid across the border into Columbus, New Mexico, in which several Americans were killed.

This act resulted in the futile U.S. Punitive Expedition into Mexico, which, if anything, enhanced Villa’s prestige as he evaded eleven months of efforts to catch him. Obregón’s prestige was also enhanced. The presence of U.S. troops on Mexican soil was a great affront to Mexican public opinion and Obregón won high praise for the skill with which he negotiated their removal in talks with General Hugh Scott.

In late 1916-early 1917 a Constitutional Congress was held in Querétaro. Result was the Constitution of 1917, a radical document that restricted the power of the Church, spelled out the rights of labor and declared that Mexico had sovereign rights to such subsoil deposits as petroleum. Two factions emerged at this conclave — the relatively moderate “Renovators,” supported by Carranza, and the radical “Jacobins,” backed by Obregón. Carranza, seeing the radicals were dominant, adopted a strategy of “if you can’t whip ’em, join ’em” as he submitted leftist proposals of his own. But the convention only served to exacerbate growing tension between Carranza and Obregón.

Obregón had been serving as Secretary of War since March 1916. Carranza was elected president on March 11, 1917 and took office in May. At that time Obregón resigned his cabinet post and retired to private life. Though many were surprised that such an ambitious man would take this step, there were compelling reasons for Obregón’s decision. First, he was only 37, and it was to his advantage to build a secure political base in his native Sonora for an eventual return to politics. Second, his profitable garbanzo business did much to restore his finances. Third, Obregón also needed to restore his health, greatly undermined by the terrible wound he had suffered.

Back in Sonora, Obregón lost no time laying plans for his comeback. In late 1917 he made an extensive and highly successful trip to the United States. As far back as 1915 Colonel House, Wilson’s closest advisor, had described Obregón to Wilson as “the man of the hour in Mexico.” Wilson received Obregón cordially and he was praised in the press and by business and political leaders. He also scored a financial coup by selling most of the 1918 garbanzo crop to the U.S. Food Administration under Herbert Hoover for use in Europe.

Though he knew that Carranza viewed him with suspicion and hostility, Obregón’s strategy was to make himself so popular in the country that Carranza would have no alternative but to designate him as his successor in 1920. To that end, he strengthened ties with labor, liberals and agrarian groups. By June 1919 he felt strong enough to openly announce his candidacy in the coming election.

But Carranza remained as inflexible as ever. Though daily losing supporters, and though presiding over a corrupt and repressive regime, he was determined to ram his own candidate down the throats of the Mexican electorate. His handpicked successor, Ignacio Bonillas, was an MIT graduate who was then serving as Mexican ambassador in Washington. Bonillas had spent so much of his life in the United States that political enemies jeeringly referred to him as “Meester” Bonillas. Some even claimed that Bonillas had difficulty speaking Spanish. When a group of pro-Obregón railroad workers derailed Bonillas’ campaign train, carefully planted rumors went out that Bonillas had cancelled a meeting to take a Spanish lesson.

To make up for the deficiencies of his chosen candidate, Carranza launched a campaign of harassment and intimidation against Obregón’s supporters. Obregón wanted to win legally but daily this was becoming more difficult. As the situation deteriorated, Carranza sent troops into Obregón’s home state of Sonora. Obregón was then in Mexico City, testifying at the trial of a subordinate whom Carranza had accused of plotting rebellion. Positive that he was about to be arrested, Obregón escaped into the tropical wilderness south of Mexico City. In Sonora, the state government withdrew recognition of Carranza on April 10. On the 23rd obregonista leaders in Sonora announced the Plan of Agua Prieta, calling for Carranza’s overthrow.

His fall was accomplished with breathtaking speed. On May 7 he and his followers evacuated Mexico on the “Golden Train,” so named because it was laden down with loot. His destination was Veracruz, which he had used as a base against Villa and Zapata in 1915. Rebel attacks forced Carranza to leave the train. On May 20 he was treacherously assassinated on the orders of a local cacique who had promised to give him shelter.

Obregón was now truly alone at the top. Elected to the presidency on September 5, 1920, he took office in December of that year. During his four-year term, he showed himself to be more a pragmatic reformer than a wild-eyed destroyer of existing political structures. He favored labor but also encouraged foreign investment and domestic private enterprise. Though he distributed almost ten times as much land to campesinos (peasant farmers) as Carranza, he differed from radicals in his administration by arguing that land distribution should be accompanied by instruction in the techniques of farming. Obregón also showed restraint in dealings with the Church. Though personally anticlerical, he followed a policy of enforcing anti-Catholic laws laxly or not at all in areas where religious sentiment was strong.

Obregón’s boldest initiatives were in the field of education. His Education Minister, José Vasconcelos, was a brilliant scholar with many innovative ideas. Under his supervision, the ministry held festivals and sponsored hundreds of idealistic young teachers who gladly went into the most remote sections of the country. Vasconcelos also took a lively interest in the arts and his ministry provided initial impetus to such future artistic celebrities as Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and Gerardo Murillo ( “Dr. Atl”).

Obregón faced one serious revolt during his term. Adolfo de la Huerta, interim president between Carranza’s death and Obregón’s installation, went into rebellion in December and took more than half the officer corps with him. De la Huerta had previously served as treasury secretary and resented the fact that his successor, Alberto Pani, had blamed him for the poor state of the nation’s finances. (De la Huerta, who prided himself on personal honesty, was a relatively poor man.)

The rebellion was brief but bloody, Obregón winning mainly because he had widespread labor and agrarian support. When it was over, he demonstrated that he could be ruthless if the occasion demanded. Recalling that Madero’s fall was partly caused by failure to purge the old regime’s officer corps, Obregón ordered every rebellious officer over the rank of major to be executed. One rebel, an attorney, protested that he was a civilian and could not be tried by court martial. Obregón’s Secretary of War immediately commissioned him a general — and shot him the next day.

Obregón was succeeded by another Sonoran, Plutarco Elias Calles. Where Obregón had been a pragmatic anticlerical, Calles was an anti-Catholic fanatic whose persecution of the Church sparked the terrible 1926-29 religious war known as the Cristero (“Christer”) Rebellion. Centered in west-central Mexico, it tied up the federal army for almost three years and in the end was only settled through negotiations. Although “no reelection” was a cardinal principle of Mexican politics, Obregón altered the meaning to “no consecutive reelection” as he decided to run again in 1928. Announcing in June 1927 that he would run, he got supporters in Congress to ram through an amendment to the Constitution that a president could be reelected to office after the interval of one term and that the term be extended from four years to six.

To nobody’s surprise, Obregón was elected in early July. On the 17th he and some deputies from Guanajuato were seated in an open air restaurant in San Angel called La Bombilla. Sidewalk artists are a common phenomenon in Mexico and nobody thought it unusual when a young man approached Obregón’s table and extended his sketch pad. As Obregón reached for it, the artist pulled a pistol out of his pocket and fired five shots into his face. He died instantly.

The Cristero Rebellion was still in progress and the youth was a Catholic fanatic named José de León Toral. Swayed by a manipulative nun named Mother Conchita, Toral had come to the conclusion that Obregón was the Anti-Christ and should be eliminated in any way possible.

Alvaro Obregón was only 48 when he was assassinated. Considering what he accomplished in that relatively short span, it is interesting to speculate on how much more he could have contributed to his country and to the world.


Alvaro Obregon : Power and Revolution in Mexico, 1911-1920 By: Linda Biesele Hall
Available through Amazon Books – Hardcover

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Published or Updated on: August 1, 1999 by Jim Tuck © 1999


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