Ten Tragic Days
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The Ten Tragic Days ("La Decena Trágica") was a series of events that took place in Mexico City between February 9 and February 19, 1913, during the Mexican Revolution. They culminated in a coup d'état and the assassination of President Francisco I. Madero and his vice president, José María Pino Suárez. Much of what happened these days followed from the crumbling of Porfiriato's oppressive system giving way to chaos, but it also resulted from the blatant meddling of foreign powers. What came down upon the city's population was swift and raw. And as such, these days' events have been among the most influential of the Revolution's history. Madero's martyr's death galvanized a critical portion of the population, and the unwelcome foreign intervention prepared the way for the growing nationalism and anti-imperialism of the Revolution. In many ways, then, it set the tone for the Revolution's most violent and sorrowful moments, but it also prepared the way for an agenda of profound political and social change.
Beginning of the tragedy
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Within a few months, Madero began to lose support and come under criticism. Though Madero came from a conservative wealthy background, the conservatives never forgave him for driving Porfirio Díaz out of office. Madero’s supporters became disillusioned when he refused to implement their plans such as the breakup of the large estates. Madero, at the end of his first year in the presidency, was in a bad way. The country was to a considerable extent unsettled, the treasury was depleted, and Madero’s staff and supports were only slightly less audacious than the hated Científicos of the Porfirio Díaz’s rule. It was the prevailing wisdom that a popular revolution would occur soon.
During the first year of Madero’s term, four revolts had occurred. The Zapata revolt in Morelos, which began in November 1911, was being contained by Gen. Felipe Ángeles, but had not been suppressed. The Pascual Orozco revolt in Chihuahua, begun in March 1912, had been contained by Gen. Victoriano Huerta, but Orozco and his Colorados remained at large. Only the revolts of Gen. Bernardo Reyes in Nuevo León, in December 1912 and Gen. Félix Díaz in Veracruz, in November 1912, had been crushed, and those two generals were imprisoned in Mexico City.
Rumors of an overthrow of Madero were passed around almost openly in the capital, with only moderate enthusiasm. One vocal proponent of the removal of Madero was Gen. Manuel Mondragón, who had accumulated much money under the Porfirio Díaz regime as an artillery expert, and was under suspicion of graft and corruption. He had been entrusted with many purchases of arms, and had a scheme of putting his name on “inventions” and collecting royalties. Gathering the support of his officers and staff, he persuaded the cadets of the military academy to join him.
On the night of February 8, 1913, the cadets entered the city on trolley cars. In the early morning, they gathered before the civilian penitentiary, where they demanded the release of Gen. Félix Díaz. After a brief parley (the commander was killed), Díaz was freed. Then they proceeded to the Santiago Tlatelolco military prison, where they demanded and secured the release of General Reyes.
When released, Gen. Reyes mounted a horse and led part of the cadets and a column of mutineering soldiers to the National Palace, arriving there at 7:30 am in the morning. Reyes had full confidence that he would be welcomed and that the Palace would be delivered over to him. He rode up as if on parade. But he had miscalculated.
The assault on the Palace failed because Gen. Lauro Villar, the Commandant of the Palace Guard, walking in civilian clothes to his office in the early morning, observed a detachment of the cadets, dragging a machine gun with them, and thus was able to give the alarm and have his men in readiness.
Reyes was fired on, and fell mortally wounded from his horse; the men behind him were routed, and many spectators were killed in the confused shooting that followed. When the smoke cleared 400 lay dead, over 1,000 were injured, among them Gen. Villar, the military commander. A bullet had cut through his collarbone. The Mexican Secretary of War Pena was shot through the arm.
Pres. Madero received word in his residence at Chapultepec Castle, three miles away, at about 8 o’clock mounted a horse and, with a small escort including the Secretaries of Finance and Treasury, rode into the city. Arriving at the end of the broad Avenida Juárez and finding the narrower streets thronged, he dismounted and went into a photographer's studio opposite the unfinished Teatro Nacional (National Theater), to telephone for later news. There he was joined by a few citizens and army officers, among them Victoriano Huerta, then on inactive duty due to an eye condition. Huerta had been considered in disfavor and was known to be disappointed at not having been made Madero’s Minister of War. Madero, on his part, was disappointed with Huerta with his conduct of the Zapata revolt, and later with his conduct in the Orozco revolt.
Huerta offered his services to Madero, and, since Gen. Villar and Secretary of War Pena were injured, his services were accepted. Huerta was appointed Commander of the Army of the Capital. The commission was made formal on the following day. (Note that Huerta was appointed the commander of the Army of the Capital, not the supreme commander of the Armies of Mexico, as is often reported.)
The President stepped out on a balcony and made a speech to the crowd, Huerta standing by his side. He then went down, remounted his horse, and rode off, bowing to the cheering crowds, alone, far ahead of his escort, to the National Palace.
Gen. Felix Díaz had been more successful than General Reyes. As a result of the resistance at the Presidential Palace, Diaz had retreated to the city arsenal, the Ciudadela, a few blocks from the Presidential Palace. He took control of the armory without much opposition, and found himself in possession of a defensible fort, with the government’s reserve of arms and ammunition.
That evening, Madero went to Cuernavaca, capital of the neighboring state of Morelos, where he conferred with Gen. Felipe Ángeles, then engaged against the forces of Zapata. He returned that night with Gen. Ángeles and a train-load of arms, ammunition and some men, and with the understanding that General Ángeles would be placed in command of the capital army. By Monday morning, Madero had a force of one thousand men.
The Embassy Pact: Betrayal and murder
On Monday, February 10, neither side made any significant moves; Madero had complete confidence that this revolt would be defeated, as had been the previous army revolts. Madero telegraphed Gen. Aureliano Blanquet to move his 1,200 men from Toluca to the National Palace, a distance of roughly fifty miles. Gen. Blanquet acknowledged that he was on the way.
Madero conferred with the Army staff and brought forward his idea that Gen. Ángeles should command the Capital Army, but the staff objected, stating that technically, the recently promoted Ángeles was not yet a general, as Congress had not yet confirmed his appointment.
On February 11, at about 10 a.m., Huerta began the bombardment of the arsenal, which met with a vigorous response, and the city was heavily damaged. During the day, other government reinforcements arrived, along with a supply of ammunition, from Veracruz.
There was no movement of the mutineers from the arsenal, and no evidence of disaffection in the city at large. The American ambassador, Henry Lane Wilson, however, on this day told all visitors at the Embassy that the Madero government had practically fallen and telegraphed Pres. William Howard Taft, asking for powers to force the combatants to negotiations.
The mutual bombardment continued into the next day. Amb. Wilson conferred with the Spanish and German ministers and, as his report to the State Department that day states, "protested against the continuance of hostilities." The President, continues Amb. Wilson's report, "was visibly embarrassed and endeavored to fix the responsibility on General Félix Díaz."
Amb. Wilson now took the view that President Madero, by not surrendering instantly to the mutineers, was responsible for the bloodshed. This view was congenial to the Spanish Minister, and to it were won the British and German ministers. Ambassador Wilson said that he called into consultation, on this and subsequent occasions, only his British, Spanish and German colleagues because they represented the largest interest here, and "the others really did not matter." At another time, Mr. Wilson explained that it would have been difficult to contact them all, so he consulted with those representing the largest interests.
The Austrian and Japanese legations, with all the Latin American representatives, including those of Brazil, Chile, and Cuba, took the view that the constitutional government was justified in maintaining its authority, and that it was no business of foreign diplomats to interfere against the constitutional government in a domestic conflict.
Following the call on Madero during which Amb. Wilson, with the British minister Francis Stronge and the German minister Paul von Hintze told President Madero that they protested against his continuing hostilities, Amb. Wilson, accompanied by the British minister, went to the arsenal, called on Felix Díaz, and as Amb. Wilson reports to Secretary of State Philander Knox that day, 'urged that firing be confined to a particular zone."
On February 13, the battle continued, and the relative positions of the combatants remained unchanged. But distressing conditions increased in parts of the city within range of the fire. Amb. Wilson told Pedro Lascuráin, Madero's minister of foreign relations, that Madero ought to resign; as reported to Sec. Knox. Amb. Wilson's language became: "Public opinion, both Mexican and foreign, holds the Federal Government responsible for these conditions."
On February 15, Amb. Wilson requested the British, German and Spanish ministers to come to the embassy. He did not invite the other members of the diplomatic corps. He reports to Secretary Knox: "The opinion of my assembled colleagues was unanimous." The Spanish minister was designated to visit the National Palace and inform the President of this unanimous opinion—which was, that he should resign. President Madero replied to the Spanish Minister that he did not recognize the right of diplomatists accredited to a nation to interfere in its domestic affairs; he called attention to the fact, which he feared some of the diplomatists had somehow overlooked, that he was the constitutional President of Mexico, and declared that his resignation would plunge the country into political chaos. He added that he might be killed, but he would not resign.
Later that same day, Ambassador Wilson went to the Palace, accompanied by the German Minister. Their objective, he says, was "to confer with Gen. Huerta." But, he goes on, "upon arrival, much to our regret, we were taken to see the President." Huerta was called in, however, and an armistice was agreed on. Returning to the embassy, the ambassador sent the American military attaché to the arsenal to obtain, as he did, Diaz's consent to an armistice, over Sunday.
On Sunday, February 16, Gen. Blanquet arrived with his regiment, having taken a week to come forty miles. It was soon apparent that he was not going into the fight.
Gen. Huerta had been in communications with Amb. Wilson, by means of the confidential messenger, and an understanding had been reached. During the Sunday armistice (ostensibly arranged for the burying of the dead bodies and the removal on non-combatants from the danger zone), the details of a treachery were arranged, and before the close of the day, Huerta sent word to Ambassador Wilson to that effect. Mr. Wilson's report to the State Department that Sunday night contained the euphemistic words: "Huerta has sent me a special messenger saying that he expected to take steps tonight towards terminating the situation."
The plot could not, for some reason be carried out that night, but the messenger came again on Monday morning. This time, Amb. Wilson took Secretary Knox a little more into his confidence: "Huerta has sent his messenger to say that I may expect some action which will remove Madero from power at any moment, and that plans were fully matured…..I asked no questions and made no comment beyond requesting that no lives be taken—except by due process of law."
On the night of Monday the 17th, the ambassador told at least one newspaper man that Madero would be arrested at noon on Tuesday. Reporters were at the National Palace at the hour indicated, but they were disappointed. Nothing occurred at the Palace at noon.
At the Gambrinus restaurant, however, that noon, the president's brother, Gustavo A. Madero, was arrested, after breakfasting with Huerta and other men, who, at the conclusion of the meal, seized him and held him prisoner. The plan of seizing the person of the president was delayed only an hour or so. On Tuesday at 2 PM, Amb. Wilson had the satisfaction of telegraphing the State Department: "My confidential messenger with Huerta has just communicated to me Madero's arrest."
On receipt of the messenger's report, that Tuesday afternoon, Amb. Wilson sent a message to Díaz at the arsenal, apprising him that Pres. Madero had been arrested and that Huerta desired to confer with the rebel chieftain. It was agreed to hold the conference at the American Embassy. At 9 PM Huerta arrived at the embassy.
Félix Díaz, the leader of the mutiny, Victoriano Huerta, the commander of Madero's forces, and the American ambassador, spent the next three hours in conference in the smoking room of the American embassy, framing up a plan for a new government to succeed that of the betrayed and imprisoned Pres. Madero. Díaz pressed his claims for the presidential office, on the grounds that he had fought the battle. But Huerta's claims were stronger, for in truth, if he had not turned, the revolt could not have succeeded. (At this time, also, Huerta had command of more troops than Díaz.) Three times they were on the verge of parting in anger, said Amb. Wilson, but his labors kept them together and they finally worked out what was represented as a compromise: Huerta would become the "Provisional President," but would call for an election in October and support Díaz for the permanent presidency. A cabinet was agreed on, Ambassador Wilson taking a leading part in this matter. The ambassador approved the appointment of Enrique Zepeda as Governor of the Federal District, and stipulated for the release of Madero's ministers. Amb. Wilson made no stipulation concerning the president and the vice president.
That night, within an hour of the adjournment of the conference at the embassy, Gustavo A. Madero, the president's brother, was driven into an empty lot just outside the arsenal, his body riddled with bullets, and thrown into a hole in the ground.
On the following day, Francisco I. Madero, in imprisonment and threatened with death, at the pleading of his wife and mother, and, as she said, to save their lives, not his own, signed his resignation. Vice Pres. Pino Suárez did the same.
The arrangement was that the resignations were to be placed in the hands of the Chilean and Cuban ministers for delivery only after the two 'retiring' officials and their families were safely out of the country. It seems however to have been necessary for the documents to receive the authentication of the head of the cabinet, the Minister of Foreign Relations, and, while they were passing through his hands, such pressure was brought to bear upon Pedro Lascuráin that he delivered the resignations directly and immediately into the hands of Madero's enemies.
Madero and Suárez, however, had been promised release and safe-conduct for themselves and their families, out of the country. Ambassador Wilson has said that he had been consulted by Huerta as to the best methods of dealing with Madero—in particular, as to whether it would be better to deport Madero, or put him into an insane asylum. "I declined to express a preference," says the Ambassador. "All I said was: 'General, do what you think is best for the welfare of Mexico.'" Huerta decided, or pretended to decide, on deportation.
A train stood ready at the Mexican railway station, to take Madero and Suárez with their families down to Veracruz, where they were to go aboard the Cuban gun-boat Cuba and be conveyed to a foreign shore. By 9 PM the families hurriedly prepared for departure, were gathered, waiting, on the platform. The Chilean and Cuban Ministers, who had spent the day with Madero, had announced their intention of accompanying the party down to the port, and they appeared at the station, announcing that the president and vice president would soon follow. They did not come. About midnight the Chilean Minister left the distressed women, hurried to the Palace, and asked to see General Huerta. The General send out word that he was very tired after a hard day's work and was resting; he would see the minister later. The minister waited until 2 AM and was still refused admittance to Huerta. He could do nothing but return to the station and advise the party to return to their homes.
In the morning it was explained that the delay was caused because the military commander of the port of Veracruz had received telegrams from Mrs. Madero, which had led him to reply unsatisfactory to Gen. Huerta's instructions. The commander is reported to have said, "By whose authority? I recognize only the authority of the constitutional President of México." It is the belief of the Maderistas, however, that it was the decision of the Chilean and Cuban ministers to accompany the party that forbade the departure of the train, the plan having been to blow it up on the way to Veracruz.
The wife and mother of Madero, and the relatives of Pino Suárez, relieved to learn that the men were still alive but fearing the worst, now appealed to the American ambassador to grant the threatened men asylum in the embassy. He had opened it for a meeting-place of the plotting traitors, but the Ambassador could not see his way to open it for their victims. Instead, he recommended that they be transferred to more comfortable quarters—from the Palace to the penitentiary.
Gen. Huerta assumed the presidency on Thursday, the 20th of February, carefully observing formalities which are held to establish the legality of his rule. The president and vice president having resigned, Madero's Minister of Foreign Relations, Pedro Lascuráin, was recognized as President for the few minutes necessary for him to appoint Victoriano Huerta Minister of the Interior (Gobernación), and then resign, leaving Huerta to succeed, according to the Constitution, to the presidency.
On the evening of February 20 an artillery barrage was directed against the Ciudadela barracks where Félix Díaz had established his base of operations. Three hundred rurales (mounted police) of the 18th Corps then rode down Balderas Street to attack the Ciudadela but were met by machine gun fire and scattered after losing sixty-seven dead and wounded. It remains unclear whether the destruction of the 18th Corps was the result of a tactical blunder or a measure deliberately engineered by Huerta to weaken the forces loyal to Madero.
At 9 PM the next day, the warden of the penitentiary, was visited by Col. Luis Vallesteres with an order directing that the warden turn over the command of the prison to him. The retiring warden went to his home in the automobile that had brought his successor. Close to the hour of midnight Francisco I. Madero and José María Pino Suárez were killed. Ambassador Wilson reported to Washington the following morning that, as nearly as he could ascertain, they were killed as a result of an attempt at rescue as they were being transferred from the National Palace to the penitentiary. "I had recommended their transfer to more comfortable quarters," he explained. The story of the attempted rescue was abandoned, almost as soon as it was put out. Resort to 'ley fuga,' with its legend against the names of victims "killed while attempting to escape," has been a favorite method for centuries in Spanish countries, but it has never been pretended as more than a convenient fiction.
As a matter of fact, Madero and Pino Suárez were put into two automobiles, one in each, at the Palace at about 11:45 pm, and were driven in the direction of the penitentiary, escorted by a dozen men, under the command of Maj. Francisco Cárdenas. The party did not go to the door of the penitentiary, but passed the street leading to it and went on to a vacant space back of the building. Here the automobile stopped. What occurred next will probably never be known exactly.
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For several days following the assassination, Huerta and his Minister of Foreign Relations talked much of an investigation. No investigation was ever made. Maj. Cárdenas was put under arrest, but was soon released, and promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was then placed in command of rurales in Michoacán.
Later, Cárdenas fled to Guatemala when the Huerta government was overthrown. While there, he provided more details of his involvement.
Amb. Wilson never made any demand for an investigation. He never exhibited any appreciation of the nature of the deed done the night of February 22, after the entire group of men responsible for it had been guests at his house, no suspicion that any responsibility rested upon himself, who, in a sober view of the past, might be said to have delivered the men to their deaths. Instead, Amb. Wilson bitterly vituperated Madero and his family. He exhibited pride in the fact that he had consistently predicted Madero’s fall. In reply to questions whether he thought he was in a proper diplomatic attitude in presiding at a conference of two revolting generals and in helping arrange the details of a new presidency, when the constitutional president, to whom he was accredited, was held prisoner, the Ambassador replied that it was necessary for the good of Mexico that Madero be eliminated. To the question as to the responsibility for the death of Madero and Suárez, Amb. Wilson said he took the ground that they were private citizens when they died, and that it would be an impertinence for a foreign power to demand an investigation into a purely domestic matter. He has gone on to say that Madero had killed hundreds illegally, and it was no concern of his how the man died. “In fact, the person really responsible for Madero’s death was his wife. She was the one to blame. Madero had to be eliminated. By her telegram to the commander at Veracruz, she made it impossible to allow him to leave the capital.”
The above account of affairs in Mexico is made from the position that the movement against Madero was a conspiracy and not a popular revolution—a military coup, the plot of a few and not the uprising of an outraged people; and that the betrayal of the president by his generals was mercenary treachery and was not in the slightest degree a response to the sentiments of a nation, or even of the city.
Subsequently, Amb. Wilson, talked freely and with every appearance of candor of his part in the drama, and gave evidence in every sentence that he believes it to have been the only part humanity and patriotism allowed him to play. He stated that he was surprised and deeply disappointed that it is not so recognized by all. He was plainly puzzled that the country at large repudiated the coup d’état, which he holds was undertaken and carried through for the good of the country; and deeply chagrined that it did not bring about peace.
It is hardly a matter of conjecture—it is a conclusion to which all facts point—that without the countenance of the American ambassador given to Huerta’s proposal to betray the President, the revolt would have failed. On Monday the 17th, the last day of the fighting, Madero was in undisputed possession of the entire city, except the arsenal and three or four houses near it still held as outposts. The mutineers had ventured on no sorties, and nothing whatever in sympathy with them had appeared in any part of the city. The people had refused to rise. No sympathetic uprisings had occurred in the country. The Zapatista rebels, in possession of the nearby state of Morelos, had not come in, though Amb. Wilson had daily telegraphed to Washington that they were coming. Instead, Zapata had sent word to Madero that they would suspend operations against the Federal Government until it had disposed of Felix Díaz. In brief, it has now been definitely ascertained that the Madero government had to deal with a small group of a few hundred men, surrounded and confined in a fort, the reduction of which was only a matter of time.
There was not a moment during the “Decena Trágica” when it would not have been possible to “end the distressing situation”, “put a stop to this unnecessary bloodshed” by stern warning from the American Embassy to the traitorous army officers that the United States would countenance no methods but peaceful constitutional ones and recognize no government set up by force. President Madero was not betrayed and arrested by his officers until it had been ascertained that the American ambassador had no objections to the performance. The plan for the immediate setting of a military dictatorship would never have been formed except in the American embassy, under the patronage of the American Ambassador, and with his promise of his government’s prompt recognition. Madero would never have been assassinated had the American Ambassador made it thoroughly understood that the plot must stop short of murder.
It cannot but be a course of grief that what is probably the most dramatic story in which an American diplomatic officer has ever been involved, should be a story of sympathy with treason, perfidy and assassination in an assault on constitutional government.
Trifling, perhaps, in the sum of miseries that have flowed from it, yet not without importance, is the fact that the Mexican public believes that the Ambassador acted on instruction from Washington and look upon the Ambassador’s retention under the new American president as a mark of approval and blame the United States Government for the chaos into which the country subsequently fell.
- Hidalgo, Dennis R. (2007). "The Evolution of History and the Informal Empire: La Decena Trágica In the British Press". Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 32 (2): 317–354.
- Heribert von Feilitzsch, In Plain Sight: Felix A. Sommerfeld, Spymaster in Mexico, 1908 to 1914, Henselstone Verlag LLC, Virginia, 2012, ISBN 9780985031701, p. 234
- Heribert von Feilitzsch, In Plain Sight: Felix A. Sommerfeld, Spymaster in Mexico, 1908 to 1914, Henselstone Verlag LLC, Virginia, 2012, ISBN 9780985031701, p. 235
- Stanley Ross, Francisco I. Madero, Apostle of Democracy, Columbia University Press, New York 1955, p. 284
- Confidential report to Pres. Woodrow Wilson by William Bayard Hale published in the book Blood Below the Border, edited by Gene Hanrahan 1982
- Paul J. Vanderwood, "Disorder and Progress - Bandits, Police, and Mexican Development", pages 165-166, ISBN 0-8420-2439-5
- Album, Mexican Revolution This is an album of the Mexican Revolution by Manuel Ramos (1874-1945), which contains forty-three photographic prints illustrating damage in Mexico City during the February 1913 uprising against President Francisco I. Madero (1873-1913) also called La Decena Tragica.