Hell on Earth:
The 1893 Mexico City Earthquake
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous six 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; the Guatemalan army’s occupation of Campeche in 1901; the occupation’s consequences for Mexican society; and the eventual collapse of the Mexican federal government in 1903. In this installment we’ll review the highly precarious state of affairs that existed in Mexico in the aftermath of the collapse.
The atmosphere in Mexico City in May of 1904 was, to say the least, apprehensive. Eleven years after natural disaster had laid waste to the Mexican capital, a man-made calamity was threatening to ravage it anew; the fledgling government that had taken power in Mexico City just nine months earlier was already being besieged by supporters of the previous regime who were busy planning a counter-revolution and left-wing radicals who sought to impose a socialist regime modeled on the principles being espoused at that time by Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin. For that matter, the government itself was riddled with dissension as the men who made up its cabinet tried to refine its domestic policies and maintain at least some semblance of credibility in the eyes of foreign capitals.
Not the least of the new administration’s problems was reassuring its giant northern neighbor that it was capable of maintaining security within its own borders-- the United States ambassador to Mexico had often enough expressed concerns about the possibility of the unrest spilling across the border into U.S. territory.
And then there was Mexico’s young oil industry to consider. Though production of crude oil had only started in 1901, petroleum had already become a major component of the Mexican national economy, and the leading men of that industry feared that if the government were to collapse it might take their businesses with it. Nor were such fears confined to Mexico’s borders-- John D. Rockefeller, the American big business mogul whose company Standard Oil had a number of lucrative contracts with Mexican petroleum companies, worried his firm’s profits might take a substantial hit should the political climate south of the border become too hostile.
Mexico City was one giant political and social minefield; there was seldom a day that went by when police didn’t have to intervene in at least one political argument-turned-barroom brawl....and often more than one. According to modern Mexico City police figures on the topic, nearly thirty percent of all arrests made by the department’s officers in May of 1904 involved assault & battery incidents which had started as political quarrels. The city’s universities were transforming into open-air debating arenas as critics of the existing federal government challenged the government’s defenders in what seemed like an endless dispute-- or series of disputes, depending on one’s viewpoint --over what shape Mexico’s national administration should take over the next ten to twenty years.
As May changed to June and summer heat began to bear down on Mexico City, another kind of heat also began to rise in the Mexican capital: the white-hot anger of dissidents who felt that the existing federal government had to go. They began staging protest rallies to demand that the Mexican president and his cabinet resign immediately from their positions and make way for a new administration which the demonstrators believed would be more responsive to the people’s needs. Supporters of the existing regime responded by holding counter-rallies criticizing the would-be revolutionaries and encouraging the incumbent leadership to take stern action against the dissidents....including, if necessary, the use of force.
Far from the turmoil on Mexico City’s streets, the citizens of the Mexican hinterlands were at first more concerned meeting their own immediate survival needs than with the abstract political ideals that were a matter of life and death for their urban brethren. But as time wore on they too gradually found themselves losing confidence in the existing federal government, and by late summer protests similar to the anti-government rallies in Mexico City were sprouting up on the streets of Mexico’s smaller towns and villages. And it wasn’t just the peasant classes who were raising Cain-- in some cases, disillusioned local government officials were beginning to criticize the very same federal administration they had been sworn to serve. One local judge in the Acapulco region actually resigned from the bench to show his displeasure with the indictment of a newspaper correspondent accused of sedition after publishing an article critical of the Mexico City regime.
Foreign diplomats stationed in Mexico anxiously cabled their governments back home requesting instructions as to what they should do if things got out of hand. The situation was particularly tense at the Guatemalan embassy; memories of the Mexico-Guatemala border war were still very fresh in the minds of many people on both sides of the frontier, and the embassy staff feared that if the situation in Mexico went on like this much longer some of the more angry demonstrators marching in the streets might decide to take out their frustrations on the diplomatic mission-- or more frightening still, the diplomats themselves. The embassy’s chief trade attaché was so paranoid about this danger that he took to carrying a loaded .38 revolver with him whenever he had to leave the embassy compound, which fewer and fewer of his colleagues were willing due as June rolled into July.
By early August of 1904 civil unrest in Mexico City and much of the surrounding countryside had reached a peak that at times recalled the worst of the violence gripping Mexico in the aftermath of the 1893 earthquake. On August 6th the U.S. embassy came under siege from right-
No sooner had the last ashes from that fire been swept up than another act of politically motivated arson happened that would shock even the sternest critics of the established federal government. On August 22nd, just over two weeks after the U.S. embassy siege, a gang of anti-Catholic fanatics attacked a parochial school near Guadalajara and set it ablaze, killing most of the students and faculty inside; it was one of the most horrendous such cases of mob violence Mexico had seen in at least a decade. The arson attack was vehemently condemned both within and outside Mexico; President Roosevelt blasted the attack as “the work of barbarians unfit to lay claim to even the pretense of being part of the human race”. Then-Archbishop of Canterbury Randall Davis called the arson raid “an unforgivable atrocity”. Even Russian Marxist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, who had committed-- and would commit --acts of incredible violence in the service of his quest to overthrow Czar Nicholas II, was moved to dub the attack “a lunatic act which can only injure the cause of socialism”.
Those injuries would prove to be highly severe indeed. Within less than four days of the Guadalajara arson attack, a gang of right- wing extremists stormed the headquarters of Mexico’s largest socialist political group and brutally beat the group’s most senior leaders in an orgy of violence rivaling anything the Mexican capital had seen in the chaos of the first months after the 1893 earthquake. The attackers were eventually chased off, but not before leaving two men unconscious and a third bleeding so badly he had to be hospitalized. When police arrived on the scene to investigate the attack they found what one of the investigating officers, in a masterpiece of understatement, called“a scene of great disorder and anarchy”.
The attack had a chilling effect on all left-wing political organizations throughout Mexico. Some of those who had been thinking of joining socialist or liberal parties decided against it, and many people were already members of such parties either scaled back their involvement in them or abandoned them entirely. Leftist newspapers and periodicals began engaging in self-censorship lest they too find themselves targets for attack. A rally by Mexico’s largest liberal faction which had been scheduled for early September in Oaxaca was called off out of fear that rightist fanatics might decide to stage a riot against the rally’s participants. At least two prominent left- wing members of the Mexican national legislature resigned their posts rather than risk becoming targets for lynching or assassination.
By early September the political climate in Mexico City had reached the point where a French diplomat posted to the Mexican capital wrote
To Be Continued