On This Date in Latin America – February 9, 1913: The Decena Trágica

One hundred years ago today, in the midst of the Mexican Revolution, the Decena Trágica, or “Tragic 10 Days,” began in Mexico City. By its end, over 5000 Mexicans were dead in urban violence, and, with support from the US, General Victoriano Huerta had overthrown the first president of the Revolution, Francisco Madero, who Huerta had assassinated on February 22, 1913.

Mexican soldiers fighting in urban war in Mexico City during the Decena Trágica of February 9-19, 1913.

Mexican soldiers fighting in urban war in Mexico City during the Decena Trágica of February 9-19, 1913.

The Decena Trágica marked the first time that Mexico City itself confronted significant urban violence during the Mexican Revolution. Up to that point, the violence of the revolution, which began in 1910 when peasants, middle-class politicians, urban laborers, and others rose up against Porfírio Díaz (who had governed in one form or another since 1876), had been limited to the northern part of the country and to individual states like Morelos. By 1911, Díaz was in exile, and Francisco Madero, a ranch owner from a wealthy family, had assumed the presidency. While Madero had become the face of the revolution in the election of 1910, social forces proved to be far beyond his control. Peasant calls for land reform, symbolized by the efforts of Emiliano Zapata, were too extreme to Madero’s liking; likewise, his slowness to move on urban labor reform alienated the working classes in industrial centers. While Madero enjoyed some middle-class support, by 1912, Mexican politics and society were increasingly divided, as different forces jostled for power within the government or plotted to take over themselves. Up until early 1913, the population living outside of the capital had felt most of this violence. But in February 1913, the unrest and turmoil finally arrived in Mexico City itself.

Francisco Madero, the first president of the Mexican Revolution. He would be overthrown (and, shortly thereafter, assassinated) during the Decena Trágica of February 9-19, 1913.

Francisco Madero, the first president of the Mexican Revolution. He would be overthrown (and, shortly thereafter, assassinated) during the Decena Trágica of February 9-19, 1913.

Angry at his uncle’s removal, Félix Díaz, assembled an army in Veracruz. Counterrevolutionary in nature, Díaz was able to quickly gain the allegiance and moral support from those who did not want to see Porfírio Díaz go. Díaz joined forces with General Bernardo Reyes, who had run against Madero for the vacant presidency in 1911 and lost, and launched an assault on the capital on February 9, 1913. The assault failed to take the presidential palace, however, and Reyes died in the fighting. Failing to immediately overthrow Madero, Díaz relocated his troops to a well fortified arsenal in another part of the city. Needing a strong military leader to counter the rebels, Madero, against the advice of many of his confidants, appointed Victoriano Huerta to head the army.

Victoriano Huerta, whom Madero fatefully  (and futilely) appointed to lead the army against rebels.

Victoriano Huerta, whom Madero fatefully (and futilely) appointed to lead the army against rebels.

For ten days, Madero’s supporters and Díaz’s supporters exchanged artillery fire. The damage to the city was catastrophic, as it set fires, destroyed buildings, and killed thousands of civilians. Businesses shut down, and consumer goods became scarce, leading to increasing panic among the public. As a result, people resorted to looting. At the same time, the urban warfare severed electric wires, which dangled loosely throughout the city and left many without power. The situation was so violent and chaotic that, in one instance, a barrage of artillery actually blew a hole in the walls of the  Belén prison; seeing how dangerous and anarchic conditions outside were, some of the prisoners opted to remain in jail, where they felt it was safer.

Destruction from the fighting during the Decena Trágica.

Destruction from the fighting during the Decena Trágica.

As time progressed, Madero grew increasingly frustrated with  Huerta, asking his general what had been taking so long. Huerta assured his president that it would all be over soon. Unbeknownst to Madero, Huerta was tragically correct. Ever since the Revolution had begun US Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson had meddled in Mexico’s internal affairs in order to protect American economic interests, even demanding Madero resign at one point. With Díaz’s failed coup attempt, Wilson brought together Díaz and Huerta to try to find an alternative to the Madero government. Seeing Díaz as weak and easily-manipulable, Huerta decided to work with Wilson and Díaz, and entered what came to be known as the Pact of the Embassy. In meetings at the US embassy, Huerta agreed to switch sides and help Díaz overthrow Madero. Thus, on February 19, Huerta had Madero arrested. Three days later, Huerta had Madero and his vice president, José María Pino Suárez, assassinated, bringing an end to what many scholars consider the first phase of the Mexican Revolution. In the meantime, well over 5000 people had died in the urban fighting and violence.

Scene from the Decena Trágica, during which thousands died and parts of Mexico City were torn apart by artillery and gunfire.

Scene from the Decena Trágica, during which thousands died and parts of Mexico City were torn apart by artillery and gunfire.

Of course, Huerta himself was not long for office. Henry Lane Wilson had acted in the last days of the Taft administration; a month later, Woodrow Wilson [no relation to Taft’s ambassador] was in office, and was opposed to Huerta’s regime. Using the arrest of lost US sailors as a pretext, president Wilson would order the United States to occupy the harbor city of Veracruz in 1914; the move weakened Huerta’s government, even as Constitutionalist forces led by Venustiano Carranza and the armies of Emiliano Zapata and Francisco “Pancho” Villa challenged Huerta’s government from within. By the end of 1914, Huerta himself was out of office, and for the next six years, the revolution was marked by civil wars at the national and regional levels as various groups and interests jostled for power. Indeed, although traditional political narratives view 1920 as the “end” of the Mexican Revolution, much of the political and social unrest and issues it unleashed continued into the 1920s. Nonetheless, February 9, 1913 marked an important moment in the Revolution, as it unleashed the processes that ultimately led to Madero’s overthrow and changed the dynamics of revolutionary politics and violence in Mexico. The Decena Trágica marked one of the first times Mexico City directly experienced the turmoil and violence of the Revolution, but it would not be the last.

A Mexican citizen dead on the streets of Mexico City during the Decena Trágica.

A Mexican citizen dead on the streets of Mexico City during the Decena Trágica.

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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