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Hell on Earth:

The 1893 Mexico City Earthquake



By Chris Oakley

Part 5




Summary: In the previous four chapters of this series we recalled the 1893 Mexico City earthquake and its aftermath; the United States government’s post-quake efforts to help the Mexicans rebuild their capital; the ruthless war waged by General Patrick Shafter against the bandit gangs plaguing Mexico in the early days of the post-quake era; the beginning of Guatemala’s efforts to seize control of the Mexican border province of Campeche; General Patrick Shafter’s victory in his campaign to crush Mexico’s post-quake bandit gangs; and the transition of Sonora and Chihuahua from Mexican to United States jurisdiction. In this installment we’ll examine the fresh wave of political troubles that plagued Mexico’s federal government  in the early 20th century and the Guatemalan Army’s occupation of Campeche in 1901.


When the last members of General Patrick Shafter’s contingent to Mexico left Mexico City in the spring of 1899, just over six years had passed since the horrific earthquake which had leveled the Mexican capital. But in those six years Mexico had changed almost beyond all recognition. Although American financial aid had done much to improve the country’s fortunes in the early post-quake years, some parts of it were still plagued by poverty and disease. The legal and social bonds which had previously tied the country together had been badly frayed by the quake and its aftermath, and despite the best efforts of the new Mexican federal government they hadn’t yet been completely mended.

For one Mexican state, in fact, those ties were about to be snapped altogether. Campeche, located among Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala, had been targeted for seizure by expansionist factions in the Guatemalan government; these factions secretly recruited bandit gangs to raid Campechan territory and destabilize it to a point where regular Guatemalan army troops would have a suitable pretext to cross the Mexico-Guatemala frontier and occupy the province. It certainly didn’t help the Mexican federal government’s position any that there had already been a great deal of turmoil in the region even before the Guatemalan expansionists started playing with geopolitical fire there. Things had deteriorated to the point where the provincial governor had twice tried to commit suicide...


...and when the Guatemalan bandit gangs started raiding Campeche in the early autumn of 1899, the situation would proceed to grow worse still. The first of these attacks destroyed a number of farms whose crops were crucial to the post-quake Mexican government’s efforts to maintain an adequate food supply for its people. Emboldened by the Mexican regular army’s failure to capture or punish any of those men who had participated in the attack, the bandits made more and bolder raids into Mexican territory; on some occasions the bandit gangs even saw fit to target Mexican army border outposts, knowing they could get hold of some excellent quality arms and ammunition there.

Understandably frustrated by the Mexican federal government’s inability to stop the raids, some citizens of Campeche decided to take matters into their own hands. They formed volunteer militias to make counterattacks into Guatemalan territory and reclaim the property the bandits had stolen. More often than not, these militias couldn’t even make it across the Guatemalan border-- and when they did manage to get across, they often got cut to ribbons by Guatemalan regular troops who viewed the militias’ sorties as a violation of Guatemala’s national sovereignty. And to complicate things further, some of these troops’ officers were secretly taking payoffs from the bandit gangs in order to intercept the militias and keep them preoccupied while the bandits grabbed more plunder.

The expansionist factions in the Guatemalan government welcomed the militias’ incursions, since those incursions gave them yet another handy pretext for sending troops into Campeche. Not that they’d say so publicly, mind you; open acknowledgment of such attitudes on the part of the expansionists might have provoked their opponents both at home and elsewhere to take action to thwart their agenda. As it was, they were just barely managing to conceal the evidence of their complicity with the bandit raids into Campeche.

By August of 1900 close to 30,000 Mexicans had been killed in the bandit raids and the expansionists in Bogota were sensing that the time was almost ripe for them to implement in the final step in their plans for seizing control of Campeche. Ironically, Mexico’s own federal government would inadvertently help make it possible for that final step to be taken....


The federal government that had assumed power in Mexico City just before the last U.S. troops withdrew from Mexico in 1899 was a rather fragile one to put it mildly. For all his suspicious attitudes and authoritarian tendencies, Portofilo Diaz had kept the quarreling factions of the Mexican administration in line; his death in the 1893 earthquake had ripped a cornerstone out from the country’s political foundations. In the halls of power in Mexico City on the eve of the 20th century, loyalties were being traded like bubble gum cards and the national interest often took a back seat to personal agendas. It was a miasma of corruption worthy of Niccolo Machiavelli’s Venice or Richard J. Daley’s Chicago.

And the growing ideological divide between left-wingers and right-wingers in the Mexican government’s legislative branch wasn’t helping matters any. Gridlock was an all-too-common feature of daily events in the Mexican Senate and its junior partner, the Chamber of Deputies. So were fights between legislators, and those fights weren’t limited to mere verbal showdowns; there are documented instances of leftist legislators engaging in knock-down drag-out brawls with their right wing counterparts on the Senate floor, and once there was even a duel where one senator shot another in the arm. For a country facing a potential land grab along its southern frontier, the timing of this political chaos couldn’t have been worse-- it not only hampered the daily operations of the Mexican federal government’s executive branch, it also fostered an image of national weakness that played right into the hands of the Guatemalan government’s expansionist factions.

In fact, to this day there are still some rumors that secret agents acting on the expansionists’ behalf deliberately encouraged this discord. There is little hard evidence to support that claim, and most of what evidence does exist is at best circumstantial, but at the same time it can’t be denied the expansionists were willing, even eager, to take full advantage of the situation. Throughout the rest of 1900 and the first months of 1901, they bided their time and lined up their forces in advance of the moment when Campeche could finally be taken from Mexico once and for all.

That time came earlier than expected-- in mid-April of 1901 riots broke out in the Campechean state capital after the government failed yet again to take decisive action to stop the bandit raids. No sooner had those riots been contained than a clique of dissident Mexican army officers mounted a coup attempt against the sitting administration in Mexico City; the insurrection was put down after less than 12 hours, but it combined with the riots gave the expansionists in Bogota the perfect excuse to send troops across the border to annex Campeche to Guatemala.

On May 1st, the advance columns for the Guatemalans’ Campeche occupation force crossed the Mexican border just before dawn. The Mexican troops assigned to defend Mexico’s border with Guatemala scarcely knew what hit them; some didn’t even have time to put on their uniforms before the invader overran their barracks. And in a bitter irony that could not have been lost on those who remembered the chaos and violence that engulfed Mexico City in the immediate aftermath of the 1893 earthquake, the invasion force included in its ranks squads of Mexican bandits who’d fled to Guatemala after their gangs were destroyed by U.S. patrols.1

Within 48 hours of the initial invasion, most of Campeche was in Guatemalan hands; by May 5th the invaders had reached the state capital, San Francisco de Campeche. By the time the Mexican army managed to organize enough troops to mount a counteroffensive, all but a few isolated villages were in Guatemalan hands. And when the Mexican army finally did launch its counterattack, it was seriously disorganized and beaten back with heavy casualties. Flush with the ease of their triumph the expansionists in the Guatemalan government used their clout to push a resolution through the Congress of the Republic, Guatemala’s national legislature, officially annexing the newly conquered Campeche as Guatemala’s 23rd departamento, or province. It was yet another bitter blow to a country which had already suffered more than eight years’ worth of them...


To Be Continued



[1] See Part 3 for further details.


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