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Hell on Earth:

The 1893 Mexico City Earthquake



By Chris Oakley


Part 2



Summary: In the first chapter of this series we recalled the devastating earthquake that struck Mexico City in April of 1893, the massive breakdown in law and order that ensued in the quake’s aftermath, and the terrible epidemics sweeping the city in the days after that disaster. In this segment we’ll look at American efforts to aid the Mexicans in the rebuilding of their nation’s capital; the political upheaval roiling Mexico in the aftermath of the quake; and the famine which rocked some of Mexico City’s suburbs in the summer of 1893.


Soon after the advance parties for the first American relief convoy reached Mexico City, it became clear that things had fallen apart to a degree even the most gloomy-minded pessimist wouldn’t have anticipated. The martial law administration that had been in control of the Mexican capital since the April 16th earthquake was weakening as soldiers and police personnel deserted the government to join the gangs that were taking over some of the harder-hit districts of the city; efforts to restore civil authority in the capital were stalling; the federal government was still seriously fragmented; disease was rampant everywhere; and food distribution had been so badly disrupted by the quake that the city and its outlying suburbs were being faced with a famine of almost Biblical proportions.

US Army General Patrick Shafter, head of the military phase of the American relief effort in Mexico City, was shocked by what he saw there when he arrived on May 5th to formally assume command of the 50,000-plus troops detailed to guard the relief convoys and assist the beleaguered Mexican army in restoring order to the capital. Nothing in even his most horrifying wartime experiences could have prepared him for the Hieronymous Bosch-like canvas of horrors that awaited him in the ruins of Mexico City.

Rape, murder, incest, bestiality, arson-- no crime, apparently, was too vile for the outlaw element in the Mexico City area to commit. There were even verified incidents of child molestation in some of the hardest-hit sections of the Mexican capital. As Shafter’s second-in-command debriefed him on the extent of the lawlessness that prevailed in Mexico City and its suburbs, the general became steadily angrier; by the time the debriefing was over, he was seething with intense fury that only the most supreme effort at self-control could prevent from  erupting into a violent outburst.

On May 7th, two days after taking up his command, General Shafter ordered two of his cavalry battalions to execute a search-and-destroy mission against the largest of the gang strongholds inside Mexico City. The objectives of this mission were to confiscate illegal weapons and to capture or kill as many gang members as the cavalrymen could find.

Thinking that Shafter’s cavalry troops would cave in just as swiftly and easily as the Mexican government forces had, the gangs fatally underestimated the cavalrymen’s willingness to fight when attacked. Thus when the cavalry troops made their first raid on a known gang stronghold late on the morning of May 8th, the gang targeted by the raid was wiped out nearly to the last man after its leader shot and killed the US officer in charge of the raid; the highest-ranked surviving officer in the cavalry detachment ordered the few surviving gang members hanged as a warning to the rest of the criminal element in the rest of Mexico City.

On May 12th, Shafter set to work reconstituting the Mexican police and army units that had disintegrated in the days prior to his arrival in Mexico. Although there were many skeptics who suggested Shafter was engaged in a fool’s errand given the state of total disarray which the army and police forces in Mexico City had fallen into, he was certain he could restore them to fighting trim. First, however, he had to find suitable recruits...


It would take General Shafter at least a year to reconstruct the army and police detachments which had formerly been keeping the peace in Mexico City in the early days after the 1893 earthquake. During that year, government forces in the Mexican hinterlands were finding themselves trying to figuratively keep their fingers in a very leaky dike as outlaw elements emboldened by the disarray the Mexican federal administration had been plunged into as a consequence of the disaster preyed on a terrified civil population. Forming mobs that in some ways could be considered forerunners of today’s street gangs, these outlaws made life miserable for decent people outside Mexico City-- and for a while they weren’t shy about striking at Mexico City itself either.1

As bad as the outlaw mobs were, an even worse danger lay ahead for the people in the suburbs of the Mexican capital. The collapse of food distribution systems in Mexico City proper had created a ripple effect that in turn severely disrupted the transport of food supplies to its suburban areas. This, combined with the predatory raids of the outlaw gangs operating in the Mexican countryside, would have tragic results for the residents of the Mexico City area; in early July of 1893, the worst famine to strike Mexico in nearly half a century would grip the capital’s southern and western suburbs, further escalating the already staggering death count from the April earthquake and the lawlessness and disease which had descended on the Mexico City area in the quake’s aftermath.

No one in the Mexico City area was spared the effects of this famine, not even the wealthy elites who normally seemed to float through crisis untouched. General Shafter sent a dispatch to the War Department in Washington urging an immediate increase in the amount of food relief supplies being sent to Mexico; in that same dispatch he mentioned that his own troops were starting to experience problems with their own food inventory.

In spite of the generous amount of outside food assistance which was furnished to the citizens of Mexico City, the famine dragged on well into October of 1893. The outlaw mobs were a major factor in that crisis, as was the rather harsh weather that normally typifies summer in the Mexico City area; U.S. War Department bureaucratic snafus also played a part in exacerbating the famine. Last but not least, there was the simple fact that many of the roads leading into and out of the Mexican capital were still in various states of disrepair; inevitably this hampered food distribution.

There were many in Mexico, which has long been a predominantly Catholic nation, who feared both the famine and the earthquake which had preceded it were punishments from God for letting Portofilo Diaz take control of the Mexican government. That fear would in later years inspire a stem-to-stern overhaul of Mexico’s constitution which sought to place serious restrictions on the power of the executive branch.

Then again, some would say the executive branch’s power had been quite restricted already given that Mexico’s central government had in effect been cut off at the knees when Diaz and his cabinet perished in the original Mexico City earthquake. The post-earthquake provisional Mexican federal government was like a jet airliner pilot attempting to fly his plane with three engines dead and the fourth engine on fire; a casual observer looking at the dire state of affairs in Mexico in the first year after the Mexico City quake would have soon pessimistically concluded that the country was destined to become either a hotbed of dangerous anarchy or an impoverished ward of the United States. And to be fair, the new Mexican government was for a long time dependent on the presence of General Shafter’s troops to maintain its fragile grip on authority.

But gradually a new Mexican army would take shape and position itself into a role as a valuable auxiliary to Shafter’s regiments in Mexico. Its first tasks: repairing those roads in Mexico City which were still out of commission in the aftermath of the quake and aiding the city’s reconstructed police force in making the Mexican capital’s streets safe for its surviving citizens to walk again. The new Mexican army would also play a substantial role in the effort to restore the city’s medical services; surgeons from the new army’s field hospital units would step in to fill the gaps left by the death or departure of many of the city’s civilian doctors.


In November of 1893 a new American army began coming into Mexico; this time, it was an army of civil engineers and construction workers recruited to expedite the reconstruction of Mexico City. Word of the job opportunities to be had with the rebuilding effort in the Mexican capital had lately been filtering up north, and with the United States having seen some hard times of its own in the Panic of 18932, these men appreciated any opportunity to make a living even if they had to go to another country to find it.

While this reconstruction was taking place, General Shafter kept up the pace in his effort to rebuild the Mexican army and police units that had been shattered by the April earthquake. While there was still a bit of a way to go before those units were back up to full strength, they were certainly a quantum improvement over the ragtag provisional forces that had tried to hold the crumbling city together in the first days after the quake. These new units, equipped with the latest rifles and artillery from US arms manufacturers, would turn out to be highly formidable foes for the bandit gangs.

To facilitate better communication between these units, and among his own troops, Shafter had new telegraph lines set up in Mexico City and existing telegraph facilities upgraded. He also made arrangements with the Bell Telephone Company to have telephones installed in every police station and military outpost in the Mexico City area; before long, this phone network was being expanded to include private homes in and around the Mexican capital. The idea behind the expansion was to give private citizens in Mexico City a means of quickly reaching the authorities in the event of an emergency-- some historians have even cited the phone complex Bell installed in Mexico City as a kind of distant ancestor of the modern 911 service.

By May of 1894 Shafter’s reconstruction of the police and army detachments assigned to guard Mexico City was largely complete and trained cadets were being sent out to reinforce army units in the rest of Mexico. It was at this point that the American general made up his mind that the time had arrived for his men to take the war with the bandit gangs plaguing Mexico’s countryside right into the bandits’ own backyard....


To Be Continued



[1] At least not until General Shafter assaulted their hideouts, an operation we’ll cover at length in Part 3.

[2] An economic crisis which occurred in the US shortly after Mexico City’s July 1893 famine.


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