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The Last Days of
Venustiano Carranza

by Jim Truck

Venustiano Carranza was a stubborn man. Sometimes this quality served him well, but in the end it destroyed him. In 1913 he refused to accept the authority of General Victoriano Huerta, who had plotted the overthrow and assassination of the liberator Francisco Madero.
On this occasion, Carranza was right. Joined by such dedicated revolutionaries as Pancho Villa and Alvaro Obregon, he forced Huerta into exile and then joined forces with Obregon to break Villa's power and drive him back into the Chihuahua sierra. On March 11, 1917, Carranza was elected President with a daunting majority of 797,305 votes against 11,615 for his closest rival, General Pablo Gonzalez. Obregon, a gifted military commander who had won all of Carranza's major victories, was named secretary of war.
At this point, Carranza's stubbornness began to get him in trouble. Though personally honest, he surrounded himself with mediocrities who were as greedy as they were incompetent. The able Obregon resigned his post in disgust and went back to chick-pea farming in his native Sonora.
In 1919 constitutionally barred from succeeding himself Carranza made a disastrous error. Where logic dictated that he favor the capable Obregon as his successor, he incredibly gave the nod to Ignacio Bonillas, Mexico's ambassador in Washington. Bonillas had spent most of his life in the United States and, this may be exaggeration, opponents said he even had difficulty speaking the language of his ancestors. At a student skit in Puebla, this line is spoken to an actor playing the part of Bonillas: "Mr. Bonillas, meet Mr. Ibanez (Spanish writer Blasco Ibanez), whose books you have read in English. Maybe in a few months you'll be able to read them in Spanish, as we understand you are now studying that language."
In the meantime, Obregon had announced his candidacy. The railroad workers, who supported Obregon, caused Bonillas to miss a speaking engagement by shunting aside his campaign train. Obregon supporters then circulated the rumor that "Meester" Bonillas (as he was derisively known) had to cancel the speech because he was busy studying Spanish.
Carranza responded by launching a reign of terror against Obregonista campaign workers. Some were shot, while others were arrested and held incommunicado. The situation got so bad that on April 20, 1920, Obregon announced that he was leaving the political campaign and going into armed revolt.
Other generals were quick to follow suit. One was Pablo Gonzalez, who had placed a distant second to Carranza in the 1917 election. The corruption of Carranza's regime caused it to collapse like a structure of rotting timbers.
On May 7 Carranza decided to move the seat of government to Veracruz, a maneuver that he and Obregon had executed in 1914 when they were being hard pressed by the forces of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.
This time it was different. Instead of having the military genius of Obregon to sustain him, all Carranza had in 1920 was an "army" of 10,000 parasites. Their aim was not to resist but to loot the capital of as much as they could carry away. Alice Leone Moats, an American writer then living in Mexico City comments: "Carranza might have escaped if he hadn't been so greedy. His train stood waiting with steam up for two or three days, but there were always a few more things to be taken away. He even took the light fixtures from the National Palace."
This was unfair to Carranza who, as noted, was personally honest. But the description certainly applied to his hangers-on. On May 7, a presidential "Golden Train" led a procession of thirty others out of the capital. The eight miles of rolling stock included the entire National Treasury and mountains of valuables, belongings and household goods.Yet the evacuation was so poorly organized that nobody had given a thought to such items as medical supplies or water for the passengers and engines.
Disaster was inevitable. Rebels attacked the convoy and one-half the presidential party got derailed, never making it beyond the Mexico City suburbs. On May 9 Obregon triumphantly entered the capital. As the remaining trains struggled on, Carranza learned that the Veracruz commander, after pledging undying loyalty, had gone over to Obregon.
Under constant attack, Carranza left his train May 14. Accompanied by a small band of faithful followers including " Meester" Bonillas he rode into the Puebla sierra where he was met on May 20 by bandit-turned-general Rodolfo Herrero. Welcoming the party effusively, Herrero took them to a small village called San Antonio Tlaxcalantongo, where he suggested they spend the night. Pointing to a rude hut, he said: "From now on, this will be the National Palace."
That night the treacherous Herreros's men burst into the hut and shot Carranza to death in his sleep. Back in Mexico City, Obregon deplored the deed and had Herrero arrested. But the military prosecutor, General Benjamin Hill, died of apparent poisoning at a banquet and the judge who replaced him ordered Herrero freed though stripped of his military rank. Later reinstated as a general, Herrero was "busted" a second time by President Lazaro Cardenas. In retaliation, Herrero attempted to prove with forged documents that Cardenas had ordered Carranza's assassination.