By RICARDO CASTILLO
At the private club called the House of Coahuila, located in the lovely southern Mexico City’s Coyoacán municipality in Churubusco, right across the street from the Interventions Museum, every May 21, we commemorate the death by way of assassination in 1920 of Coahuila-born Mexican President Venustiano Carranza.
Actually, many enthusiasts even organize trips into the Puebla mountains to the township of Tlaxcalaltongo, where Carranza was murdered by rebel forces headed by presidential hopeful General Álvaro Obregón, who ironically, led the revolutionary armies to victories over Carranza’s enemies, the peak of which was the historical Battle of Celaya in state of Guanajuato in 1915, where the regular Army mowed down Pancho Villa’s revolutionary group, thus ending the last armed phase of the Mexican Revolution.
This year at the House of Coahuila, there were plans to reminisce the late Constitutionalist in a big memorial since it is the centennial of the coup that toppled him from power. The intents of the House of Coahuila members – of which this writer is one – have been smelted by the covid-19 pandemic, and about the only ceremony there will be the placing of a wreath of honor at the Carranza bust ornamenting the club’s patio.
But here, in brief, is the story of revolutionary Venustiano Carranza, of which, as in every major historical event, there are two sides.
The negative side was the fact that the assassination was plotted by the two men who would be presidents after Carranza, Alvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles, killing the man who had been legally elected president of Mexico.
The positive side is that the political proposition both Obregón and Calles made was to stabilize national politics. It worked, and as a result of this stability, Mexicans commemorate too that there has not been a coup d’état in the country for the last 100 years.
May 21, 1920, also marked the end of the Mexican Revolution movement that started in 1908, led by Francisco I. Madero, who wanted free democratic elections, but was impeded by the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship, which by then had been in power for 30 years.
Part of the frustration Madero and his then-large following was that in 1904 Díaz had issued an executive order extending the presidential term from four to six years. And elections that should have been held in 1908 were then programmed for July 1910.
When the 1910 election came around, Madero won- but Díaz refused to step down. Madero then programmed the beginning of an armed revolutionary struggle, which began on Nov. 20, 1910. He was not taken seriously, but Madero was dead serious, and Nov. 20 is still remembered today as the first day of the Mexican Revolution.
Díaz was forced to step down in May 1911, but instead of passing the presidential command to Madero, he left the position to his vice president, Francisco León de la Barra. This was not satisfactory for Madero, who maintained his armed struggle until León de la Barra had to hand over the presidency to him, and his vice president and top ideologue Francisco Pino Suárez.
In February 1913 Madero was the victim of a coup d’état concocted at the U.S. Embassy by then-Ambassador Henry Lane Wilson and Defense Minister Victoriano Huerta, and he was shot along with his vice president, Pino Suárez.
Carranza, at the time governor of Coahuila and a dear friend and paisano of Madero, immediately joined a rebellion with other northern Mexico governors. particularly the one from Sonora.
The divide brought about the real Mexican revolution. in which small groups began warrying against the Victoriano Huerta dictatorship. One of them was Pascual Orozco, who, after gaining control of the state of Chihuahua, moved on to Sonora, where he was defeated twice by an unknown but emerging military genius, Álvaro Obregón.
Obregón was a fervent follower of Carranza, who managed to become president in 1914 and even went to war with the U.S. Navy, sent by President Woodrow Wilson, at the port of Veracruz.
Once the dust settled after 1916, Carranza started working to revamp the 1857 Constitution and on Feb. 5, 1917, all revolutionary forces convened in the city of Querétaro to sign the document, which, even with over 600 amendments, continues to be the law of the land in Mexico today.
Carranza was rightfully elected in competition with other candidates in March 31. 1917, accepting to serve only for three years since the next presidential election was slated for 1920. He was sworn in on May 1, 1917.
Carranza managed to govern in peace – more or less, as there were minor uprisings – and all went well until 1919, when the time to begin the proceedings of the 1920 election began.
It was then that Carranza proposed to nominate his envoy to Washington, Ignacio Bonillas, as the next president.
Stiff opposition came fromObregón, who claimed he would be the rightful candidate choice given his military record and the battles he’d won for Carranza and the Revolution. Carranza nixed Obregón on the grounds that he wanted a civilian – and an experienced diplomat at that – such as Bonillas to be the next president.
On April 23, Obregón and his partner Plutarco Elías Calles gathered with military adherents in Agua Prieta, Sonora, where they issued a manifesto that stated that “the executive power of Citizen Venustiano Carranza must cease,” naming Sonora Governor Adolfo de la Huerta as interim president. On May 5, Carranza responded condemning the “subversive propaganda” of the Sonorans, a document that had little response.
It was then that Carranza felt abandoned by the military that had backed his presidency — so much so that the military refused to celebrate the traditional Cinco de Mayo parade.
Moreover, many military officials by then turned their back on Carranza and swore allegiance to Obregón, who moved forces to topple the president.
Carranza decided on May 6 to move the presidential powers to the state of Veracruz, where his son-in-law was governor, and loaded a train with documents and the national treasure to move to the port city.
The movements of the train were slow. Carranza was accompanied by a few faithful generals and military college cadets as his personal guards.
The convoy – nicknamed the Golden Train — was stalled by many incidents, such as the launching of runaway trains against it, and direct attacks by Obregón’s soldiers.
The train’s slow advance was painful, and Carranza finally had to get off the train already up in the Puebla high sierra and follow on horseback since there was news that the railroad had been dynamited a few kilometers ahead.
On May 20, the president and a small guard arrived at Tlaxcalaltongo, where his top general. Rodolfo Herrero, ushered him into a thatched hut, joking with him, saying “this will, for now, be your National Palace.” Carranza went to sleep confident that at dawn they would ride again.
But at 4 a.m., May 21, dozens of soldiers surrounded the guardsmen protecting the president, and they were told to step aside since the only person they wanted to kill was Carranza. The guards surrendered and stepped aside. The Obregón soldiers surrounded the hut, and gunned it down, killing the president.
According to Mexican history, it was Plutarco Elías Calles, who was immediately appointed Interior Secretary, who gave the order to kill the Carranza. But in reality, everyone knows that it was Obregón who gave the orders and who immediately imposed Sonora Governor Adolfo de la Huerta as interim president.
Elections were held in July as programmed and Alvaro Obregón got elected president. He was sworn in on Dec. 1, 1920.
To finish this commemorative article, let’s say that Mexicans historians have not forgiven Álvaro Obregón for the coup and murder of Carranza.
On the inauguration of the Monument to the Mexican Revolution in 1942 as a memorial pantheon for the heroes that really made the Revolution, only the remains of Venustiano Carranza were placed in an urn inside one of the columns. The remains of Francisco I. Madero followed suit 20 years later, and then those of Plutarco Elías Calles. Finally, Pancho Villa was also interred there.
Obregón, even 100 years later, is not revered enough to be placed at the Monument to the Mexican Revolution, even though he is deemed to have been the finest general of his time, winning the most memorable battles that made Mexico’s pacification possible.
At Casa de Coahuila, however, a wreath of admiration goes for the Constitutionalist, Venustiano Carranza.