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Hell on Earth:

The 1893 Mexico City Earthquake


By Chris Oakley

Part 6





Summary: In the previous five 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 long campaign to crush Mexico’s post-quake bandit gangs; the transfer of Sonora and Chihuahua from Mexican to United States jurisdiction; the political gridlock afflicting Mexico’s federal government at the start of the 20th century; and the Guatemalan army’s occupation of Campeche in 1901. In this installment, we’ll examine the consequences of the Campeche invasion for Mexican society and the chain of events that led to the Mexican federal government’s collapse two years later.


The Guatemalan occupation of Campeche plunged Mexico into its gravest foreign policy crisis since the Franco-Mexican War of the 1860s.1 The Mexican government, so busy trying to keep a lid on internal discontents, had had little time or energy to prepare for the possibility of aggression being committed against its frontiers by a neighboring country. Now one of its southernmost provinces was under foreign control, and the powers that be in Mexico City had little if any idea how to get the occupiers out. There were rumors the takeover of Campeche might be just the first step in a wider plan by Guatemala to expand its borders all the way up to Oaxaca; even the most ambitious of the Guatemalan expansionists hadn’t considered going that far, but still the rumors were evidence of the fear that had been sparked among the Mexican people by the Campeche occupation.

The Mexican federal government petitioned the United States for help in securing Campeche’s liberation, but that help would be slow in coming: Washington had its own foreign troubles to cope with as American troops fought to terminate guerrilla rebellions in the Philippines and Cuba. In the short term, at least, Mexico would have to fight Guatemala alone.

And it would turn out to be an uphill fight; the Mexican army’s morale had taken a severe blow as a result of the shock of the surprise Guatemalan attack, and there were bitter disagreements between the general staff and the civilian administration in Mexico City over how to get rid of the Guatemalan occupiers. Meanwhile, the Guatemalan army was operating as a tightly knit force keenly focused on its objectives. By the time the Mexican army finally got around to organizing a new strategic offensive to drive the Guatemalan forces out of Campeche, the occupiers were well dug in and ready to resist any attempts the Mexicans might make to regain the captured province.

In the meantime, the occupation forces were ruthlessly crushing even the most token efforts by the Campecheans to organize an uprising against their new rulers. Random mass executions were a common tactic, as was the razing of houses belonging to people suspected of plotting to start an armed uprising. Some occupation troops were even known to resort to sexual assault against the wives of any men that might dare challenge Guatemalan rule over Campeche.2 And last but not least, there were agents of Guatemala’s secret police covertly moving through the local population assassinating anyone who showed the first vague hint of being able to galvanize armed rebellion against the occupiers.

It wasn’t until early July of 1901 that the Mexican regular army finally managed to attempt an offensive to liberate Campeche from Guatemalan control. Not surprisingly, given the political turmoil that had been gripping Mexico City since the initial invasion back in May, the Mexican assault was badly disorganized; the Guatemalan occupiers were able to fend it off with relative ease. One Mexican army infantry regiment suffered the indignity of being captured by (of all things)a field kitchen unit while they were still digging rows of trenches in preparation for a Guatemalan frontal assault that never materialized. Another Mexican army unit was literally wiped out to the last man by a machine gun fusillade that one of the Guatemalans’ own officers would later describe as "utterly barbaric".

When news of the disastrous failure of the first attempt to liberate Campeche from the Guatemalans reached Mexico City, it brought on a sheer blind terror the Mexican capital hadn’t known since the aftermath of the 1893 earthquake. Thousands of civilians fled the city in a panic, convinced the Guatemalan army was going to overrun it any minute. Pleas for calm from the federal government fell on deaf ears; even if lingering distrust of the powers that be in Mexico City hadn’t rendered some Mexican citizens highly cynical about their government, fear of being subjugated by the Guatemalans scoured their minds of all thoughts except those of getting away as fast as they possible could. Some of the refugees were former Sonorans and Chihuahans who had moved south after Sonora and Chihuahua were admitted to the United States in 1897, and they thought that their former homeland might offer shelter from they were convinced was an imminent Guatemalan takeover.

But not everyone gave in to the urge to run away; in fact, a substantial part of Mexico City’s civil population choose to go the opposite way and formed impromptu militia bands to fight the enemy if or when he tried to take the capital. If the Guatemalan army wanted the city, these would-be guerrilla fighters pledged, it would have to pay in an ocean of blood for every square inch. Seeking to squelch any impression that the federal government was about to abdicate, and also hoping to calm the fears of the civilian residents, the Mexican army general in charge of Mexico City’s defense sent regular troops to back up the volunteer militias.

As it turned out, the Guatemalans were more interested in hanging onto Campeche than in taking over Mexico City. But the absolute terror the Mexicans felt over the prospect of their capital city falling into enemy hands proved to be a useful psychological weapon for the federal government in keeping a lid on internal dissent; few people were brave enough or foolhardy enough to openly criticize the powers that be lest such criticism should leave them to charges of collaborating with the enemy to hand the Mexican capital over to the Guatemalan army. A left-wing newspaper that dared to publish an editorial opposing the war had its offices ransacked and its editor beaten up the next day; within a week, the offending newspaper had closed its doors for good.

Fear, however, can only work so long as an ideological weapon; when the Mexican-Guatemalan war finally ended with the signing of a British-brokered peace treaty in May of 1902 and the withdrawal of Guatemalan troops from most of Campeche four months later, the Mexican people decided they’d had enough of being pushed around by the federal government and started pushing back-- hard. A fresh round of protests began to rock Mexico’s major cities in reaction to the increasingly repressive political climate which had taken hold in the country since the Guatemalans first rolled into Campeche. Among the protestors were former Mexican army soldiers who, just a short time earlier, had been fighting in the government’s defense against Guatemala.


In November of 1902, eighteen months after the Mexican-Guatemalan war had broken out and six months after the signing of the treaty to end that war, the Guatemalan army began the process of ceding the rest of Campeche back to Mexico. This came as a great relief to the Mexican federal government; with the country once again facing the possibility of civil war, the last thing Mexico City needed was to get involved in another foreign crisis with its southern neighbor. That same month, a leading conservative Guadalajara newspaper denounced those calling for political change in Mexico as "dangerous subversives" and "thugs". The irony of that accusation was that most of those protesting the Mexico City government’s authoritarian tendencies at that time were doing so largely by peaceful means-- hardly the sort of thing thugs would do. In fact, some of the younger members of the protest movement grumbled their older colleagues were too cautious in dealing with the sitting government in Mexico City and that a more radical approach was called for in the fight to end the restrictions on political activity that had first been instituted during the Mexican-Guatemalan War and were still in place long after the war ended. Talk started to privately  circulate among the government’s opponents that an armed rebellion might be the only solution to their troubles.

By the first months of 1903, the dissatisfaction with the Mexican federal government’s restrictions on free speech had begun reaching into the halls of the government itself. A junior deputy to the Mexican federal interior minister wrote a worried letter to his superiors warning that if something weren’t done to end or at least relax the restrictions soon, Mexico might find itself dragged into a civil war at a time it could least afford one. His superiors’ response was to dismiss the letter out of hand and fire its author for what was officially described as "insubordinate behavior" but is more likely to have been irritation at the deputy for having exposed an embarrassing truth about official Mexican federal policy.

That firing didn’t do much of anything to quiet the voices of dissent; in fact, it only served to make them that much louder and more committed to bringing about change at the top. In early June of 1903 a liberal member of the Chamber of Deputies drafted a resolution  calling for the Mexican president to resign from office and permit a new government to be organized as soon as possible. The resolution was narrowly defeated, but the fact that it had even come to a vote spoke volumes about the growing dissatisfaction of the Mexican people toward their leaders.

One month after the resolution was voted down, thousands of civil servants employed by the Mexican federal government walked off the job to protest the government’s failure to ease the free speech restrictions it had imposed during the war with Guatemala. Given that these men could have all been fired-- or worse --it’s not hard to appreciate the courage that must have been needed to enable them to take such a drastic step. Students from Mexico City’s universities quickly joined in the walkout, and within a week after the strikes began the city’s Catholic bishops, whose relationship with the federal government had long been awkward at best anyway, were giving fiery sermons from the pulpit denouncing the repressive political climate that had been allowed to take root in Mexico in the panic over the original Guatemalan invasion of Campeche.

During the third week of the strikes, the June resolution calling for the resignation of Mexico’s president was re-introduced in the Chamber of Deputies; this time the vote ended in a stalemate. A few legislators who had previously opposed the resolution when it first came up for a vote had since their minds on that score. Whether it was out of simple fear of the demonstrators’ anger or a result of genuine disillusionment with the free speech clampdown is somewhat hard to determine, since many of the pertinent records from that era have been lost. But this much is certain: the stalemate on the second vote concerning the resolution marked a tipping point in the quest for the return of the political freedoms Mexico’s citizens had enjoyed in the years before the installation of Portofilo Diaz as president and the twin nightmares of the 1893 earthquake and the Guatemalan war.

Unwilling to run the risk that a third Chamber of Deputies vote on the resolution might result in its passage, the Mexican interior minister prepared to impose martial law in order to keep the dissidents from usurping his president’s authority.

But the Mexican army officers and soldiers who were supposed to enforce the martial law decree had had just about all they could stomach of the seemingly never-ending domestic turmoil their civilian bosses’ limitations on political speech had engendered. To them, the current situation blended the worst elements of the Diaz tyranny and the post-quake bandit gangs’ reign of terror. On August 5th, 1903, a dozen of the Mexican army’s top generals gathered at the headquarters of the national war ministry to organize a special troop detail to arrest the president and senior cabinet ministers. An hour later, the detail marched on the presidential palace and was confronted by troops still loyal to the existing government; a short firefight between the loyalists and the arrest squad ensued, ending with the loyalist forces breaking and running. The insurgent troops quickly stormed the palace and charged up to the president’s office to find him dead of a single gunshot wound to the skull; when his bodyguards fled, he had chosen to commit suicide rather be incarcerated like a common thief.

The late president’s critics thought that their country’s worst troubles might be over now that he was gone. As it turned out, though, those troubles were just beginning...


To Be Continued



[1] In 1861 French, Spanish, and British troops invaded Mexico after then Mexican-president Benito Juarez suspended interest payments to those countries. The invasion was an attempt to force the Juarez government to resume those payments; Spain and Britain abandoned the campaign in 1862, but France would continue to fight the Mexicans until 1867, when French troops withdrew following a series of catastrophic defeats the previous year. Emperor Maxmillian, the puppet ruler who the French army had installed in Mexico shortly after the invasion, was executed while trying to flee the country following the collapse of his regime.

[2] Modern social historians believe these assaults may have been a factor in the surge of illegitimate births and suicides in Campeche between 1902 and 1905.


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