"Madero freed the slaves only to make them again draw the carriage of tyranny.”
The Ten Tragic Days of February 1913 marked a pivotal moment in the Mexican Revolution.
Amid the chaos and betrayal, the democratic promise of Francisco Madero's presidency was destroyed, and Mexico descended into dictatorship and civil war once more.
This post recounts the key events of those fateful days and analyzes their historical significance through the lens of the betrayed revolution. Providing context on the warring factions, the intense violence that engulfed Mexico City, the cynical machinations of General Victoriano Huerta, and the assassinations of Madero and Pino Suárez.
Expanding details in the measured voice of historical assessment, it illustrates how the Ten Tragic Days represented a tragic setback in Mexico's political development after the brief flowering of democracy under Madero.
The legacy was both physical ruin in the capital and ideological loss—the death knell of reformist hopes as military despotism returned.
For Mexico, the Ten Days marked a bitter turning point when the Mexican Revolution's high ideals sank into a ruthless struggle for power.
The uprising against the democratically-elected President Francisco Madero began on February 9th, 1913, when one of his political rivals, General Bernardo Reyes, launched a rebellion in Mexico City aimed at ousting Madero from power.
General Reyes was a former Minister of War and governor of Nuevo León who had previously run against Madero in the 1910 presidential elections.
After Madero's victory, Reyes self-imposed exile in Europe. He returned in 1913 at the age of 73, criticizing Madero and calling for his resignation.
On February 9th, Reyes and his followers attacked the National Palace in Mexico City but were repelled by troops loyal to Madero.
Fierce fighting erupted in the capital over control of the Ciudadela armory.
During the street battles near the Alameda Central park, Reyes was shot in the head and killed, his rebellion over before it could gain momentum.
The death of General Reyes, an iconic figure from the Porfiriato, sent shockwaves across Mexico. It was a sign of the deep political divisions between revolutionary factions and the violence to come.
His failed uprising set in motion the fateful chain of events that would lead to further rebellion from disgruntled military leaders, the Ten Tragic Days, and the assassination of President Madero just over a week later.
The uprising on February 18th, 1913 was launched by General Victoriano Huerta, who commanded the sizable federal military garrison in Mexico City. Huerta had been appointed commander of the garrison by President Madero himself just a few weeks earlier.
However, Huerta secretly conspired with other anti-Madero factions including rebels from the previous uprising by General Reyes. Huerta pretended to be loyal to Madero while planning to overthrow him violently.
In the pre-dawn hours of February 18th, Huerta ordered the military units under his command to revolt.
Troops from the Tizapán barracks and military academy assaulted the National Palace and other federal buildings.
This took President Madero by surprise.
Fierce fighting erupted across Mexico City between the rebellious federal troops and the smaller number of loyalist forces. Artillery shells and sniper fire from the rebels rained down on the National Palace over the next several days.
The rebellion marked the definitive betrayal of Madero by General Huerta and by the federal army that Madero had tried to rebuild.
It set in motion the bloody street fighting of the Ten Tragic Days that pitted military forces against irregular civilian militias in a chaotic urban battleground.
The uprising launched by Huerta on February 18th sparked ten days of horrific street fighting across the capital between rebel forces and loyalists who battled desperately for control of the city.
Impromptu barricades and fortifications went up as loyalist volunteers and workers' militias tried to defend the National Palace and other areas against the artillery and machine guns of the advancing rebel troops.
Snipers lurked on rooftops, picking off fighters on the streets below.
Unlucky civilians were caught in the crossfire as bullets and shells ripped through buildings indiscriminately. Bodies piled up in the streets, sometimes mutilated beyond recognition.
Makeshift morgues overflowed with the dead. Mass graves were dug to bury the accumulating corpses. Food rotted in markets and water ran short as the infrastructure collapsed. Fires broke out across the city, leaving blocks of it in smoldering ruins.
As the rebels slowly gained ground, the loyalist resistance fought ferociously for every street and alleyway.
Hundreds were killed in close-quarter combat using rifles, pistols, machetes and bayonets. Unarmed prisoners were often executed or tortured brutally.
By the time Huerta and the rebels finally seized control on February 19th, parts of Mexico City had been reduced to a nightmarish wasteland of the dead and dying—the toll of human lives lost to the violence numbered in the hundreds.
The National Palace, seat of the presidency, was hammered by rebel artillery shells and involved in intense close-quarters fighting as desperate loyalists tried to defend it. Priceless murals were damaged by shrapnel blasts and bullets. The grand ceremonial halls were left gutted, floors strewn with debris and blood.
The magnificent Metropolitan Cathedral dating back to the Spanish colonial era also came under fire as its high central dome provided a prime elevated position for snipers. The ancient stone walls were pockmarked by bullets and fragments of shells. Stained glass windows that had stood for centuries were shattered.
Nearby, the National Theater was a burned-out shell after a blaze caused by the relentless shelling engulfed it.
The baroque-style Postal Palace was similarly damaged by flames, its ornately carved stone façade blackened by smoke as the interior was destroyed.
The celebrated Alameda Central park became an urban war zone as rebels and loyalists battled from tree to tree amidst exploded shells and mangled bodies.
Historic mansions and municipal buildings all across the city center suffered damage as well from wayward bullets and shells.
When the fighting finally ended, parts of Mexico's historic capital were left in ruins, a number of its cultural treasures damaged or demolished.
After nearly a week of intense urban warfare across Mexico City, the rebel forces led by General Victoriano Huerta finally gained the upper hand over the dwindling loyalists.
On the night of February 18th, 1913, Huerta cunningly arranged a meeting with President Madero and Vice President José María Pino Suárez, pretending to discuss an armistice. This was likely done at the American Embassy.
When Madero and Pino Suárez arrived, they were immediately arrested by officers loyal to Huerta.
This shocking betrayal of the president by a man he had trusted as the military commander was a turning point marking the end of unified resistance.
The arrests effectively signaled Huerta's victory over the legitimate government, even as pockets of loyalists continued fighting.
With the president and vice president detained as prisoners, Huerta now assumed control as the new strongman ruler of Mexico.
Madero, who had championed democracy after the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, was betrayed by Huerta in an act of crude ambition.
The ideals of the recent Mexican Revolution were cast aside in favor of counter-revolutionary military force.
Pino Suárez pleaded vainly to the American ambassador Henry Lane Wilson to intervene, saying Huerta was usurping power illegally, but the ambassador did nothing—evidence of possible U.S. complicity.
The arrest of Madero precipitated the tragic events that followed.
After being arrested, Madero and his vice president were illegally transported from the National Palace late at night on February 22nd.
En route to Lecumberri prison, they were murdered in cold blood on Huerta's orders.
Their bullet-ridden bodies were found dumped on the side of the road.
It was a barbaric end for the leaders who had brought ideals of democracy to Mexico just a few years earlier.
Though the exact details are obscured, their assassination was undoubtedly horrific and speaks to the savage brutality that prevailed during those tragic days.
The calculated killing of Madero and Pino Suárez further stained Huerta's hands with blood, exposing his regime as one born from violence and betrayal.
Their deaths left a void in the leadership of Mexico that ushered in years of subsequent turmoil and revolution.
There are reports that in the aftermath, Huerta's agents subjected the corpses to horrific mutilations and the use of acid before burying them secretly at night. These acts demonstrated a final posthumous insult to the democratic leaders on the part of their betrayer.
If true, the brutal treatment of the bodies was likely intended to send a ruthless message—that even in death, Huerta would show no mercy to those he saw as enemies.
He likely wanted to make identification of the corpses impossible and thereby avoid any shrine to the slain leaders.
The clandestine and ignominious burial was a final indignity for Madero and Pino Suárez, who had given their lives towards a vision of reforming Mexico.
In death they were further dishonored by a regime that had risen violently in place of democracy.
Their unmarked graves symbolized the darkness and decadence into which Mexico descended after the promise of the Revolution was betrayed.
Huerta tried to make the martyred leaders disappear, but history would remember them even as it condemned their tormentor.
After the assassination of President Madero on February 22nd, 1913, General Victoriano Huerta moved swiftly to consolidate his position as the new dictator of Mexico.
With Madero dead, Huerta claimed the presidency on flimsy legal grounds, arguing that as military commander he was entitled to assume executive authority.
This of course was just a thin veneer of legitimacy over what was essentially a coup d'état.
Huerta quickly negotiated ceasefires with the various rebel forces that had fought against Madero in Mexico City and other parts of the country. He offered them amnesty and bribes of cash or senior military posts.
Within a couple of days, Huerta had ended the main fighting from the Ten Tragic Days in the capital and suppressed most remaining pockets of loyalist resistance across Mexico.
His peace deals secured him in power.
By early March 1913, Huerta's authoritarian regime was firmly in control, backed by the military. Congress and governors acquiesced to Huerta, frightened by the violence they had witnessed.
Huerta had shrewdly manipulated the web of rival factions to maneuver himself into the presidency.
But for all his cunning, his rule rested on brutal, unconstitutional means that betrayed the reformist promise of the Mexican Revolution.
The assassination of President Madero was denounced by many as a betrayal of the democratic ideals and reforms that Madero had championed during the Mexican Revolution that ousted Porfirio Díaz.
Madero's supporters saw his presidency as a major step towards democracy, free elections, freedom of the press, and the end of dictatorship in Mexico. His murder undid that progress and returned Mexico to military rule under General Huerta.
Unlike Madero, Huerta had no interest in democracy, viewing it as weak and unsuited to Mexico.
He dissolved Congress and the state legislatures, rigged elections, censored the press, and jailed or killed political opponents.
Huerta relied on intimidation, violence and military force to assert authoritarian control.
His regime was criticized both at home and abroad as backward and tyrannical—a return to the repression Mexico had known under Díaz.
The democratic promise Madero represented was replaced by despotism.
For those who had risked their lives in the Revolution to end one-man rule in Mexico, Huerta's dictatorship was an intolerable betrayal of Madero's legacy.
It sparked new resistance and unrest that would eventually lead to civil war.