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Hell on Earth:

The 1893 Mexico City Earthquake


By Chris Oakley

Part 3



Summary: In the first two chapters of this series we looked back on the catastrophic earthquake which hit Mexico City in April of 1893; the breakdown in law and order that ensued in the quake’s aftermath; the terrible post-quake epidemics which swept the city and its suburbs; the intervention of the United States to aid the rebuilding efforts in the Mexican capital; the difficulties faced by the post-quake Mexican provisional government; the famine that hit Mexico City’s suburbs in the summer of 1893; and US Army Gen. Patrick Shafter’s efforts to reestablish law and order in Mexico City. In this installment we’ll review the beginning of Shafter’s no-quarter campaign against the bandit gangs ravaging the Mexican countryside.


From the moment that Portofilo Diaz and most of his cabinet perished in the April 1893 Mexico City earthquake, the outlaw elements in the Mexican countryside had feasted on the helpless like sharks devouring guppies. Mexico’s army and police agencies, scattered in a thousand directions by the Mexico City quake and the post-quake spate of diseases and famine, were ill-equipped to cope with the bandit gangs plaguing the Mexican interior. Even the vast American military contingent sent to help restore order in the earthquake’s aftermath found the gangs something of a challenge.

But Patrick Shafter, the commanding general of the US Army relief contingent in Mexico, was not inclined to let the bandits have free reign. Once his program to reconstruct the police and military detachments which had guarded Mexico City prior to the quake was  complete, he marshaled his forces to strike at the outlaw bands where those bands lived. In May of 1894, a full year after he arrived to take charge of the military forces attached to the American relief effort in Mexico, Shafter led a combined force of US Army cavalry and Mexican regulars into the desert in the first phase of an aggressive campaign to crush the bandit gangs.

The first bandit gang to take on Shafter’s troops made a critical mistake right off the bat and tried to attack those troops head-on. A number of the men in that gang paid for the mistake with their lives; those who weren’t shot and killed during the attack were hanged after the fight was over. The survivors fled the scene as fast as their legs or horses could carry them, either disappearing into the emptiness of the Mexican interior or slipping across Mexico’s southern border into Guatemala1. This, however, did not deter the American cavalrymen or Mexican regular soldiers from continuing to hunt down the bandits. In some cases it actually spurred the soldiers to work that much harder to catch the stragglers.

To aid Shafter in his fight against the bandit gangs, the U.S. War Department deployed two additional cavalry regiments to Mexico. Over the next two and a half years those regiments and other US Army troops, along with soldiers of the reconstituted Mexican army, would wage a ferocious war against the outlaw bands plaguing Mexico City and its suburbs...


....and in so doing would lay the foundations for a political shift that would transform both Mexico and the United States. In the first chapter of this series, you might recall that we alluded to two of Mexico’s outer provinces, Sonora and Chihuahua, accepting an invitation to join the United States in 1897; that invitation came as the result of a movement sparked by loss of faith among residents of those two provinces in the Mexican government’s ability to protect their safety after the 1893 earthquake.

In February of 1894, ten months after the quake, two dozen men who’d become disillusioned with the provisional administration down in Mexico City held a meeting at the Sonoran provincial capital of Hermosillo to discuss what if anything could be done to save Sonora from descending into anarchy. While those attended the meeting were of wildly divergent minds on specifics, they agreed unanimously on one crucial overall point: the Mexican federal government could not be counted on to render any significant amount of help. About three hours into the meeting, one of the men proposed what at first blush must have seemed like a rather radical solution: that Sonora should secede from Mexico and join the United States.

Some of his listeners started at him in amazement; others, though, applauded the idea. After having seen the generosity of individual American citizens in providing post-quake relief and the determination with which the US Army contingent in Mexico was waging its anti-bandit campaign, they were increasingly willing to trade the green, white, and red of the Mexican flag for the red, white, and blue of the American one. And they wouldn’t be alone in their sentiments for too long-- within three months of that first meeting in Hermosillo, the movement to secede Sonora from Mexico and become part of the United States would have followers in every corner of the Sonoran countryside. And little by little, support for a movement to switch allegiances from Mexico to America would also gradually gain a foothold in Sonora’s neighbor Chihuahua.

A popular leftist myth on both sides of the Rio Grande  has long asserted that expansionists in the US Congress secretly cut a deal with certain corrupt Mexican politicians to pull off the transfer of Sonora and Chihuahua to United States jurisdiction because the Mexicans involved wanted to fob off the responsibility for thousands of peasants and the US Congressmen involved hoped to further expand America’s already considerable borders. But in truth Congressional sentiment in favor of admitting Sonora and Chihuahua to the Union wasn’t always as passionate as mainstream history books might lead you to believe; in fact, some Congressmen greeted the idea with screams of protest when it was first broached.

Some of the loudest protests, not surprisingly, came from members of the Texas Congressional delegation; they weren’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm about having thousands of Mexicans as back fence neighbors. It would take time, patience, and a considerable bit  of lobbying to overcome resistance to the idea of Chihuahua and Sonora becoming part of the Union...


Today Acapulco is best-known as a seaside resort city; in 1895, however, it was the scene of a critical battle in General Shafter’s campaign to rid the Mexican countryside of the bandit gangs which had been plaguing Mexico for more than two years. In a rare deviation from the gangs’ usual practice of headquartering in the hinterlands, one bandit group-- nicknamed los Perros Locos("the Crazy Dogs") by a Mexico City newspaper --had established its base of operations in what had previously been a warehouse. Within the neighborhoods immediately surrounding its headquarters, the gang operated what was essentially its own private empire...an empire it was hoping to expand.

Shafter, of course, had other ideas. He had secretly recruited spies from within some of the very neighborhoods under Perros Locos control, and working with those spies he’d drawn up plans for a predawn attack on the Locos’ headquarters. In their arrogant belief that they were untouchable, the Locos had failed to pay much heed to the necessity of maintaining adequate defenses around their hideout-- and Shafter’s troops would make them pay dearly for that mistake. At 5:30 AM on August 27th, 1895 Shafter’s advance troops assaulted the Locos’ stronghold from all directions, brandishing sabers and firing carbines so lethally accurate that most of the stronghold’s few sentries were killed before they could even pick up their own guns.

By the time the Locos realized what was happening, the US cavalrymen were picking the bandits off like flies and the citizens of the surrounding neighborhoods, tired of being prisoners in their own homes, were rising up en masse to take vengeance on those who’d oppressed them for so long. The few Locos members who survived the attack had to be led away under armed escort to prevent them from being lynched before their crimes could be duly prosecuted in a court of law.

The last of the Locos surrendered to U.S. cavalrymen just after 9:00 AM. The prisoners were subsequently incarcerated at a detention camp south of Mexico City to await trial on literally hundreds of criminal counts ranging from disturbing the peace to 1st-degree murder. Though close to a year of hard fighting still lay ahead in General Shafter’s campaign to rid the Mexican countryside of the bandit gangs that remained, he could now distinctly see the end of the tunnel. With the Locos crushed, Shafter’s job of dealing with the surviving gangs was considerably simplified.


Things were somewhat less rosy where the prospects of the post-quake Mexican federal government were concerned. More than three years after the seismic calamity that shattered Mexico City, the Mexican national economy was still fairly fragile and the federal government’s ability to exercise authority in some of Mexico’s outer provinces was, at best, tenuous. The federal administration was having a particularly hard time maintaining any semblance of control over the province of Campeche-- a fact not lost on Mexico’s southern neighbor Guatemala. As General Shafter’s troops were busy clearing the countryside of bandits and the post-quake Mexican army was trying to preserve political ties between Campeche and Mexico’s other thirty states, the powers-that-be in Guatemala City were already beginning the expansionist process that would conclude in 1901 with the Guatemalan army’s sudden and illegal occupation of Campeche...


To Be Continued


[1] Often as not, those bandits who chose to flee to Guatemala ended up in Guatemalan prisons; ironically, many of these prisoners would be released to serve in the Guatemalan army when it forcibly annexed Mexico’s Campeche province in 1901.