Huerta, Victoriano (1854–1916)

By: Martin Donell Kohout

Type: Biography

Published: November 1, 1995

Updated: July 18, 2015

Victoriano Huerta, Mexican general and usurper of the Mexican presidency, was born on March 23, 1854, in Colotlán, Jalisco, Mexico, the son of a mestizo father and a Huichol Indian mother. He was educated locally and in his early teens expressed interest in a military career. In May 1869, when Gen. Donato Guerra visited Colotlán and expressed his need for a personal secretary, the fifteen-year-old Huerta volunteered and was accepted. Guerra arranged Huerta's entry into the Colegio Militar de Chapultepec, with the assistance of Mexican president Benito Juárez, in 1872. Huerta distinguished himself during his five years as a cadet, despite his humble origins. Upon his graduation in 1877 he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers and assigned to head a team of engineers building and repairing fortifications in Vera Cruz and Puebla. In 1879 Porfirio Díaz accepted Huerta's plan for the organization of a proposed general staff and promoted him to captain. For the next nine years Huerta supervised the general staff's cartographic activities in Puebla and in Jalapa, Vera Cruz, where he met and married Emilia Águila; they eventually had eleven children. In 1890, having achieved the rank of colonel, Huerta was recalled to Mexico City and received a permanent appointment to the general staff. In October 1893 he commanded an infantry battalion in the campaign to suppress a rebellion in Guerrero. In November 1895 he was appointed commander of the government forces in Chilpancingo, but two years later was again recalled to Mexico City, where he was placed in charge of the general staff's topographical and astronomical departments. In December 1900 he was sent back into the field to help suppress a rebellion of Yaqui Indians in Sonora. In 1901 the state of Guerrero was again in rebellion, and in April Huerta's friend Bernardo Reyes, the minister of war, sent Huerta to treat with the rebels. Huerta had succeeded in quashing the revolt by July, and returned to Mexico City with a temporary brigadier generalship in September, but in less than a month was sent to the Yucatán to help put down an uprising among the Maya Indians. He was placed in full command in May 1902, after secretly communicating to Reyes his dismay at the conduct of the campaign. A few months later, having successfully concluded the campaign, Huerta returned to Mexico City and received a permanent appointment as a brigadier general, the Military Merit Decoration, and appointment to the Mexican Military Supreme Court. While in the Yucatán, however, he had developed cataracts, which continued to plague him for the rest of his life.

After the old-line Díaz supporters forced Reyes, whose political ambitions they distrusted, out of office, Huerta reportedly suggested that a military coup might be in order. Reyes, however, chose to return to the governorship of Nuevo León. In 1907 Huerta requested an indefinite leave of absence for health reasons and moved to Monterrey, Nuevo León. He worked as an engineer for the next 2½ years, during which Reyes steered several large street-paving contracts his way. In late 1909, after Díaz sent Reyes to Europe, Huerta returned to Mexico City, where he taught private classes in mathematics. On November 20, 1910, Francisco I. Madero issued his Plan de San Luis Potosí, which called for a general uprising against the Díaz government. Huerta applied for active duty and rejoined the army. In April 1911 he was named commander of the federal forces in Guerrero. After Díaz resigned on May 25, Huerta was chosen to command the convoy escorting the former dictator and his family to Vera Cruz. In August 1911 interim president Francisco León de la Barra ordered Huerta to Cuernavaca to enforce the demobilization of Emiliano Zapata's forces. The delicate situation threatened to escalate into full-scale war. Zapata demanded that the federal troops be withdrawn, and a party of Zapatistas ambushed one of Huerta's columns north of Cuernavaca. Madero negotiated a tenuous settlement with Zapata, but Huerta, with some 3,000 men, marched on the Zapatista strongholds of Yautepec and Cuautla, and by the end of August war had broken out between the federals and the Zapatistas. In Mexico City, a furious Madero apparently believed that Huerta was acting under secret orders from Reyes, who had returned from Europe and set himself up as a rival to Madero for the presidency. After Madero took office on November 6, 1911, he directed secretary of war José González Salas to remove Huerta from his command, and the general entered a state of semiretirement.

In March 1912, however, Pascual Orozco announced his opposition to the Madero government. After an overwhelming victory at the battle of Rellano on March 23, Orozco's next objective seemed likely to be Mexico City, where panic prevailed. Under pressure from his cabinet, Madero agreed to bring Huerta back, and appointed him head of the federal forces on April 1. On May 22–23 Huerta crushed the rebels at the second battle of Rellano. This battle was the turning point in the campaign against Orozco, and made Huerta a national military hero. He continued pushing Orozco north, but the relationship between Huerta and Madero again grew tense. In June, Huerta ordered Francisco (Pancho) Villa to return a horse that his officers had stolen in Ciudad Jiménez; when Villa refused, Huerta had him arrested and ordered his execution. Madero's brothers intervened, however, and instead sent Villa to Mexico City, where he was imprisoned briefly. Huerta was furious at this interference in his control of the army; rumors flew that he was about to turn against Madero, and in late July the president recalled him to Mexico City for questioning. Huerta's answers apparently satisfied Madero, however, for a few weeks later the president authorized his promotion to division general. Huerta returned to the north, where the rumors persisted, but returned to Mexico City in mid-October for cataract surgery. While the general was recuperating, Madero announced that Huerta had resigned.

In the meantime Félix Díaz, the nephew of the old dictator, and Reyes, both imprisoned in Mexico City, had been planning a coup against Madero. Reyes suggested recruiting Huerta, but Huerta declined; though he certainly had no love for Madero, he apparently was concerned that the rebels might not give him a prominent position in the new government. When the coup began on February 9, 1913, the rebel officers freed Díaz and Reyes, but the latter was killed in the fighting. Huerta offered his services to Madero, who named him interim commander of the loyal troops. For the next week fighting raged in the capital; finally, probably on February 16, Huerta reached agreement with the Felicistas. On the following day the president's brother Gustavo Madero arrested Huerta and took him to the president for questioning. Once again, however, Huerta apparently succeeded in convincing Madero of his loyalty. Madero ordered Huerta's release and chastised his brother. On February 18 Madero himself was arrested, and flyers were distributed announcing that Huerta had assumed executive powers. This announcement caught Díaz by surprise, but eventually he and Huerta agreed that the general would serve as provisional president until elections could be held, at which time Díaz would assume office. Huerta, whose conduct had embroiled him in a storm of controversy, did little to help his own cause. He announced that he would place Madero on trial for political crimes, but on the night of February 22, while being transferred from the National Palace to the Federal District Penitentiary, Madero was assassinated. The official version of his death, that he had been killed accidentally during a gunfight with a group of Maderistas who had attempted to free him, found few believers. Though the evidence is circumstantial, Huerta's complicity in the murder is commonly accepted; at any rate, the Huertistas expressed little regret over Madero's death. The assassination ended any hope of early recognition of the Huerta government by the United States, and merely confirmed the opposition of those in Mexico who had not already sworn allegiance to Huerta. Among the latter was Venustiano Carranza, the governor of Coahuila, who on March 6 formally withdrew recognition of the Huerta government.

Huerta's bloody tactics (at least thirty-five political opponents were murdered during his seventeen months in office) soon led others to rally around Carranza, including Alvaro Obregón and Pancho Villa, who reportedly spurned an offer of 100,000 pesos to ally himself with the government. On March 26 Carranza issued the Plan de Guadalupe, charging Huerta with treason. With his opponents multiplying, Huerta tried to secure the support of Orozco and Zapata. Orozco announced his support of Huerta in late February, after Huerta agreed to certain demands for reform. Zapata, however, proved intractable. Huerta sent Pascual Orozco, Sr., to negotiate with Zapata, but Zapata arrested and later executed him. In the spring and summer of 1913 the rebels enjoyed a series of military successes against the federals, and Huerta became increasingly desperate. The long-promised election, finally held on October 26, was a farce. Huerta announced that the election was null and void since it had failed to meet constitutional requirements, but added that he had won anyway. He tried desperately to bolster the military, but the federal army was undisciplined, corrupt, and ineffective. Villa scored a series of successes in October and November, culminating in the capture of Juárez. Thoroughly demoralized, the federals evacuated Chihuahua on November 29 and retreated to Ojinaga. Even then, Huerta might have succeeded with the backing of the United States, but President Woodrow Wilson, who had taken office in March 1913, declared that "Mexico has no government." When Huerta sent a representative to Washington to negotiate a settlement to the Chamizal dispute, Wilson refused to recognize him as a diplomatic agent of the Mexican government. Huerta, in turn, withdrew recognition of the American ambassador to Mexico and broke off the Chamizal negotiations. Rebel forces attacked the port city of Tampico on April 5. They were repulsed twice by the federal defenders, but on April 9 a group of American sailors was detained temporarily by the federals. The commander of the American naval forces at Tampico demanded a formal apology, which Huerta refused to issue. The locus of the tensions between the two nations shifted south when the United States learned that a ship loaded with weapons for the federals was about to dock at Veracruz. The United States invaded the city on April 21. As Huerta had expected, the invasion of Veracruz led to an outpouring of patriotic sentiment in Mexico, and he hoped for a reconciliation with the revolutionaries to fight the common Yankee enemy. While decrying the invasion as an affront to Mexican sovereignty, however, Carranza accused Huerta of having provoked the American attack. The two nations agreed to a conference in late May, but the United States insisted that any solution must necessarily include Huerta's resignation. Huerta understandably disagreed, as did Carranza, again in objection to American intervention. Though the conference accomplished little, events in Mexico soon rendered such mediation superfluous.

After the invasion of Veracruz, Huerta, fearing that the Americans would attack Mexico City next, had called troops back from around the country to defend the capital. The rebels immediately stepped up their campaign against the government, and on June 23 Villa took the city of Zacatecas, a catastrophic loss for the government forces. Huerta formally submitted his letter of resignation to the Mexican Congress on July 15, 1914, and five days later left Puerto México for Jamaica on a German cruiser. From Kingston he sailed to Bristol on a chartered United Fruit Company steamer, and eventually went on to Barcelona, Spain, where he and his family moved into a small hotel.

By October 1914 Villa had broken with Carranza, and the two were fighting for control of Mexico. Some attributed the Plan of San Diego and subsequent raids to Huerta supporters. However, many historians later believed that the acts were carried out by Carranza supporters. With the continuing instability in Mexico, Huerta entertained hopes of making a comeback. He received offers of assistance from Germany, which was seeking an ally in the Western Hemisphere and hoping to keep the United States out of World War I. He was also approached by Mexican exiles planning a revolutionary movement to be led militarily by Orozco from the United States. Huerta arrived in New York City on the Spanish steamer López on April 12 and met with German diplomatic and secret-service personnel, who arranged the deposit of $895,000 in various bank accounts and promised to supply 10,000 rifles and ammunition to the rebels. He chose June 28, 1915, as the beginning of the new campaign, and left New York on June 24, telling reporters that he planned to visit San Francisco. On June 27, however, Huerta got off the train in Newman, New Mexico, where Orozco met him. The two had planned to cross back into Mexico at Bosque Bonito, near Sierra Blanca, Texas, but they were arrested by Justice Department officials and federal troops before they left the railroad station. They were charged in El Paso with conspiracy to violate United States neutrality laws. A huge crowd of supporters gathered outside the federal building in El Paso, and Mayor Thomas C. Lea, Jr., who had agreed to serve as Huerta's attorney, asked federal authorities to hold the prisoners at Fort Bliss. Huerta and Orozco were soon freed on bonds of $15,000 and $7,500 respectively, but were placed under house arrest in El Paso due to the proximity of the Mexican border. As a result of Orozco's escape on July 3, the authorities canceled Huerta's bond and rearrested him. After six days in the El Paso jail his bond was again set at $15,000, but he declined to meet it and agreed to remain a prisoner if he were transferred back to Fort Bliss. His trial was set for January 1916 in the federal district court in San Antonio. But Huerta became despondent after Orozco died on August 30. His drinking, always heavy, increased, and his health deteriorated. He was allowed to return home to El Paso on November 5 and remained with his family for about a month. Rumors of the impending revolt picked up again, however, and the federal marshal decided to move him back to Fort Bliss. Huerta's request to be allowed to die at home was granted a couple of weeks later. In late December he developed jaundice, and an operation to remove gallstones on January 1 revealed cirrhosis of the liver. He underwent a second operation on January 3, but nothing was done about the cirrhosis. Huerta finally died on January 13, 1916, and was buried in Evergreen Alameda Cemetery, El Paso, next to the grave of Pascual Orozco. With his death, the hopes of Mexican exiles for another revolt against the Constitutionalists all but collapsed. See also MEXICAN REVOLUTION.

Kenneth J. Grieb, The United States and Huerta (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969). John M. Hart, Revolutionary Mexico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 1986). Michael C. Meyer, Huerta: A Political Portrait (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972).

  • Peoples
  • Mexican Americans
  • Military
  • Mexican Revolution
  • Politics and Government
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Martin Donell Kohout, “Huerta, Victoriano,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

November 1, 1995
July 18, 2015

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